Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ponce City Market, A Tour

By Evan Robertson, Project Associate. 

I stand breathless in front of Atlanta’s former City Hall East – the now rebranded Ponce City Market. While the building gloomily occupies an entire city block along Ponce de Leon Avenue (colloquially referred to as “Ponce”) and is indeed a sight to behold, I am winded. After a last minute decision, I decided to leave the office (5:25 pm) to make it to a tour of Ponce City Market (5:30 pm) sponsored by the Young Planners Group here in Atlanta. I thought it would be about a ten minute walk and I’d miss introductions, but it turns out my judge of distance is not that good – a half mile stroll turned into a 1.3 mile walk/sprint. Luckily, I catch the tour just as they are leaving. But first, a little background. 

To me, Atlanta’s former City Hall East has always seemed lifeless. Every time I’d drive down Ponce, the building looked derelict. In truth, it has a storied history. Originally, the building served as a multipurpose facility for Sears, Roebuck, and Company up until the late 1970s. The remnants of its multipurpose use are readily apparent on the tour – more on that later. The building was then purchased by the City of Atlanta who used the space between 1990 and 2010, housing police and fire functions. Significant flooding problems and an aging building, however, limited the City’s potential use without incurring extraordinary renovation costs. In 2011, the City of Atlanta sold the property to Jamestown Development – an Atlanta headquartered real estate investment firm responsible for redevelopment projects such as New York’s Chelsea Market – and its partner Green Street Properties. The redevelopment effort is now being billed as Atlanta’s Chelsea Market. 

All told, the Ponce City Market redevelopment will transform 1.1 million square feet of mixed use space. The revitalized structure will include 300,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 450,000 square feet of office space, and 260 residential units. 

The tour starts towards the back of the building on the ground floor. From this angle, you can begin to see the project’s enormity. If I could describe the takeaway of the tour in two words it would be: sustainability, connectivity. 

Often times, Jamestown’s sustainability efforts masquerade as historic preservation. It would have, arguably, been easier to demolish the entire building and start from scratch, or gut it, utilizing new, updated building material. However, the building’s developers and planners demonstrated deep respect for the property, its historic nature, and the treasures they uncovered while deconstructing the building. Yes, deconstructing. Instead of ripping out Ponce Market’s inner material, the redevelopment effort focused on removing and preserving many of its historic materials. For example, after removing the concrete floor laid by the City of Atlanta, they uncovered Sears’ original maple wood floors. Pictured above is the ground floor of Ponce City Market, it will serve as the major retail center for the development. The first-story ceiling is being removed in the center (left of the picture but out of frame) to create an “open-air” style mall. 

Also preserved are the building’s original steel window frames. In total, over 56,000 panes of window glass will be replaced with single pane windows, but, thanks to a highly efficient HVAC system, thick walls, and building-wide window shades, the Market is on track to be certified LEED Silver. 

The success of New York’s Chelsea Market is that it integrates into the overall street network, connecting 10th and 9th Avenues to foot traffic. Ponce City Market maintains this same spirit of connectivity, albeit more inclusive of a variety of transportation modes. For the car, the development’s internal street network will provide connectivity between North Avenue and Ponce de Leon as well as improving the shopping center intersection located to its north as you can see in this author’s crudely drawn Google Map. Glen Iris will also be routed into the internal street network. In terms of active transportation, Ponce City Market will directly connect to Atlanta’s Beltline allowing joggers, walkers, and bicyclists’ direct access to the development, the connection will terminate in Ponce Market’s second-floor open-air plaza. To make it easier on cyclists, the development will include plenty of bike parking with the possibility of a bike valet. 

The highlight of the tour is subtle, and is the realization that Ponce City Market is largely returning the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. building into its historic use, and in some parts it is transforming it. The top floors of the building will be dedicated to office space: Sears once held their regional office in the same space. In many portions of the building, you can see dark narrow strips of untouched flooring which was preserved by retail shelving which was used in Sears’ department store. The Market will also keep the rail spur which shoots directly into the building – this is where trains used to unload their cargo in Sears’ warehouse. The warehousing portion is being converted into a bar/open-air restaurant, utilizing a historic use to create something new. 

As a resident of Metro Atlanta, twenty-five years and counting, it took a six-month stint in Washington, D.C. to fully appreciate the merits of livable activity centers – this is even after I started my master’s in city and regional planning. Genuine, livable activity centers have to be experienced – it is a lesson you can only learn firsthand 

For some, Ponce City Market will serve as a first impression. Ponce City Market could have a small part to play in building a coherent, connected identity for the entire region. Throughout our facilitation of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy, the need for a regional identity was brought up time and time again by a diverse group of stakeholders. Ponce City Market, together with other livability efforts throughout the region, could edge us (rural, suburban, and urban residents alike) ever closer to realizing our interdependence by strengthening Metro Atlanta’s sense of place. It only takes a spark.