How Ponce City Market is Building a Future From the Past
Atlanta must have grown accustomed to rebuilding—or maybe the city’s rapid evolution made it less attuned to the value of longevity. Whatever the reason, Atlanta has long formed a habit of demolishing historic structures only to build apartment complexes, shopping plazas and big-box stores in their stead.
After achieving the size and cultural significance of a global city, today’s Atlanta is ready to preserve the history spilling from its longstanding rooftops, beams and bricks. And these buildings aren’t just being preserved, they’re also being creatively reimagined.
At one time the largest redevelopment project in the nation, Ponce City Market is the most unabashed example of Atlanta’s newfound penchant for preservation.
This mammoth building encompasses an unimaginable 2.1 million square feet, earning it the title of largest brick structure in the Southeast. Sears, Roebuck & Co. built the first phase in 1926 as an expansive warehouse and retail store serving the Southeast region. Every nifty houseware and garment ordered from the ubiquitous Sears catalogue was stored in and shipped out of this facility.
The company’s rapidly growing operations were cause for expansions in 1928, 1929 and 1946, with a final expansion in the 1960s that gave the structure its current footprint. In 1987, Sears closed the building, which sat vacant until the City of Atlanta purchased it in 1990 to establish City Hall East. The city’s operations used only 10 percent of the total footprint, and by 2011, a seemingly endless onslaught of repairs motivated officials to sell the building.
The $27-million purchase by Atlanta-based Jamestown Properties gave a second life to this brick-and-mortar mammoth, by then all too accustomed to sitting in limbo. Up for the challenge, Jamestown is a seasoned development company with an illustrious portfolio including Chelsea Market in New York City, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and the White Provisions building in Atlanta’s Westside.
But this gargantuan project was one of the company’s most ambitious. From the project’s inception, Jamestown’s design included over 1 million square feet of retail stores, residences, offices and communal entertainment (like a rooftop slide). The plans also had to adhere to strict preservation guidelines for historic landmarks. And, as is the company’s modus operandi, the plans also called for reengineering much of the building to one day earn LEED certification. Together, these tasks formed a Herculean checklist—a checklist that, five years later, is almost entirely marked off.
Ponce City Market today is a marvel. The building embraces its 16 acres with bold pops of orange, modern walkways and elevated greenspaces. Contemporary retail stores, like West Elm, Goorin Bros. Hat Shop and The Frye Company, now greet you behind renovated brick and new glass. This new-old place sits at the counterintuitive crux of nostalgia and innovation, leaving its visitors feeling a unique sense of wonder.
The Atlanta BeltLine is another shining example of community-focused revitalization. The 22-mile ring of abandoned railroad tracks-turned-pedestrian paths runs alongside the market. In order to tap into the high-traffic biking, walking, blading and running trail, Jamestown built a connecting path that feeds directly into the building—ending at a bike valet, to be exact.
Where a Sears retail store once stood, now stands the food hall, a microcosm of Atlanta’s dining culture. Here, a smorgasbord of gourmet stalls, fast-casual concepts and full-service restaurants is being spearheaded by some of the city’s best chefs, many of them James Beard Award winners.
Within feet of each other sit Linton Hopkins’ Hop’s Chicken, Anne Quatrano’s Dub’s Fish Camp, Hugh Acheson’s Spiller Park Coffee and Sean Brock’s Minero. Intermingling with these are juice bars, snack stalls and a slew of acclaimed dining options that alone make for a worthwhile visit to Ponce City Market. Add to the food hall a roster of shops diverse in product, style and price point, and it’s clear to see Jamestown’s ambitious vision becoming a reality.
And what a reality it has become. The 259 loft apartments of The Flats at Ponce City Market occupy the highest floors of the building’s east and west wings.
In 2014, Athenahealth was the first corporate tenant to set up shop with 60,000 square feet for over 200 employees. Soon thereafter, Cardlytics, Mailchimp and Jamestown Properties established new headquarters in the facility, each company creating its ultramodern offices from 90-year-old spaces.
There is even a school onsite: Renowned private preschool The Suzuki School opened its first Midtown campus in a stand-alone structure that was once a Sears maintenance garage.
Even the building’s roof is receiving enhancements. By way of Sears’ original freight elevator, visitors are transported to the nearly six-acre roof engulfed by sweeping views. This carnival-inspired rooftop is a fair-weather dream with amenities like a full-service restaurant, bar, mini-golf and old-time boardwalk games.
Surely, Sears employees in the 1920s could never have imagined the kind of transformation their workplace would one day undergo. But this transformation is only in function. Maintaining the structure’s well-established character has been a high priority for both the project’s developers and the watchful community surrounding it.
Ponce City Market’s success and national recognition are clear signs that Atlanta’s demo days are past. With luck, that success has inspired other developers to give Atlanta’s abandoned structures new purpose.