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Inside the Mind of ATL Developers: Portman & Partner Weigh In

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Last week's Field Note Fridays installment explored the everyday roles of workers in the architectural industry. But while architects may design every aspect of each building we inhabit, many projects would never come into existence without developers. This week, we've tapped a familiar name to weigh in on the development side of Atlanta's built environment. Jarel Portman, son of Atlanta architectural patriarch John Portman, has 15 years of development experience working for Portman Holdings in Korea, China, India and the United Arab Emirates. He joined forces with Bruce Fernald — who has a background in real estate, urban design and historic preservation — and founded the development company JPX Works in 2011. With big ideas and two recently unveiled high-profile projects in the Atlanta market, the JPX duo weighs in today on development and architecture in Atlanta.

Curbed Atlanta: Often on Curbed we criticize the banality of much of the developer-driven architecture in the city. However, JPX Works has focused on creating buildings that aren't just the "typical" concrete and glass high-rise or mixed-use development we see elsewhere. How do you feel Atlanta is doing architecturally, and what motivates your selection of designs?

Jarel Portman: Atlanta is about to enter a golden age of architecture. It's been coming in increments for some time — since circa 2008 with The Sovereign, Terminus and others, which had striking design and success from a development standpoint. It's a fact that exceptional design comes at a cost premium. I think most developers would love to create more impactful architecture, yet invariably the cost of such designs has a profound effect on the financial viability and returns needed to secure financing. Fortunately we are just entering a time where great design creates great returns.

This is happening now because our citizens are heavily invested in making their neighborhoods the most exciting and vibrant areas to reside. As a result, we see more thought and care given to how a development will impact those around it. This is a great evolution, in my opinion. We at JPX Works feel very strongly about those citizens, and it's essential to engage with as many of them as possible. We can learn so much about what neighborhoods need and what's unique to a site by listening instead of talking.

We're very motivated by trying to approach our projects from a different angle than others, but not just for the sake of being different. We feel that is what looking towards the future demands. It motivates us to evaluate a site and know we can add value from an aesthetic standpoint, and improve the functionality of the area as a whole. We want people to be inspired by how our projects make them feel, as well as improve the quality of their lives. This can only happen if we've taken the time to get to know those whom we serve.

Bruce Fernald: Jarel [and] I share an immutable and foundational belief that good design is good business in real estate development. Inman Quarter, our debut project, proved out our thesis by every quantifiable measure.

CURBED: How can Atlantans (or the city) advocate for good design and accountability among developers?

JP: Atlantans can advocate by getting involved any way possible, even if it's just commenting on a Curbed article! I recently decided to engage with Curbed Atlanta readers on a post about our development at 2520 Peachtree — a 44‐unit condo tower — and it was an incredible experience. I learned so much, and was also able to explain our thoughts. We were still learning and getting amazing feedback from really informed and astute readers. I so enjoyed the process that I waded into the Curbed comments when our Peachtree & 3rd project was unveiled, and it was equally fun and informative. This type of engagement isn't the norm, but I would urge developers to try this truly amazing way to improve what they deliver to customers and the city.

Most frequently, standards and accountability should reflect the communities' expectations and needs through neighborhood associations, the design review committees or even community improvement districts. Our first project, Inman Quarter (IQ) in Inman Park, is a real-life example of how Atlantans had an impact on design and accountability. We learned a great deal from everyone in Inman Park through our 26 public meetings and six architectural charrettes, and their fingerprints are all over IQ. The Inman Park Neighborhood Association (IPNA) under the leadership of Regina Brewer was particularly very clear as to their expectations of the quality of design and uses inside Inman Quarter. Regina laid down the gauntlet from day one — she expected us to win an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Award for Excellence. Our team, JPX Works, South City Partners, ELV Associates and Smith Dalia Architects, took her challenge seriously, and in no small part due to the IPNA & Regina's expectations, we worked transparently, to honor their trust in us. Fortunately, we won the ULI Award for Development Excellence recently!

Our mayor is also a strong advocate for better design from both the private and public sectors, which, of course, makes a developer's job harder and riskier. Yet, we've found involving the community in our process creates strong partners around our developments, and the neighbors can become projects' greatest ambassadors.

BF: Citizen advocacy vests in at least two arenas. First is activism in neighborhood and civic associations where development programs are shaped and civic support is sought early in a project's life by the development community. By way of example, the fingerprints of the Inman Park Neighborhood Association are all over the design of IQ, a fact that generates enormous pride all around.

The second opportunity relates to voting with an individual's or a business's pocketbook. There's nothing as powerful as leasing success to influence commercial development behavior — witness a new precedent set by accelerated construction-period office leasing at Ponce City Market. Several non-traditional office developments have subsequently been announced — most notably Hines' wood frame office project at Atlantic Station.

CURBED: There's great importance in creating more than just a building in isolation, but instead a building that's a good neighbor and helps foster vibrancy at the street. How do you feel buildings impact the greater urban fabric and what is the responsibility of the developer and architect to be good stewards for design?

JP:It's incumbent on the developer to do his or her homework to arrive at a clear perspective on the vision of the building(s), how it needs to engage with the street and the community and which architect can deliver that objective. Market research, community outreach and communication with the city determine the highest and best use of a project site, and what it will look like. A site may "speak to you" about what it wants to be. That voice is an important one to not ignore. If the site sits where everything is working healthily, we wouldn't pursue a design that seems as if it's from Mars, just because we want to be different (and meanwhile disrespect all that is good and organically right with the area). If, on the other hand, the area needs a new life force and revitalization, it would make sense to stretch the boundaries to create a renewed sense of vitality through design. As the project relates to the streetscape and economic impact via retail, it's important to not cannibalize what already exists and is functioning around the site. We always want to augment what's working so that the new element is accretive and adds vibrancy, which at the end of the day replenishes that market area.

BF: The fact is that buildings comprise a large portion of every city's urban fabric. Visual stimulation at the street level, together with layered and ever-changing skyline views is a continuous source of nourishment to city dwellers. Atlanta's commercial core is perhaps best appreciated from a distance. By way of example, walking the Eastside Trail offers both a memorable Downtown/Midtown skyline view and interestingly, a latitudinal measure of Peachtree Street's longitudinal axis. From the heart of Piedmont Park, the westerly Midtown view is Woody Allen-movie-worthy day or night.

My experience of Atlanta as an avid cyclist is extraordinary. Our vast quilt of distinctive neighborhoods and village districts provides, even after living here over 20 years, a constant source of delight and discovery. Jarel and I concur that Atlanta is at another dynamic flex point driven by accelerating urbanization. Hats off to over 20 years of visionary work by the Midtown Alliance, which demonstrates that civic design and architecture is good business. The immense success of Midtown is irrefutable and has both consciously and unconsciously been integrated into the thinking of commercial developers and public officials throughout the metro region.

CURBED: Obviously, developing in Inman Park is very different than developing in Buckhead or Midtown. How do you approach each project and what factors do you consider when coming into a new neighborhood?

JP: We can't deny that demographics, income levels, traffic impact, and, believe it or not, different social mores exist within each subject area of the same city. All things considered, we seek out unique opportunities set in communities that are open to working with us.

(We) find it essential to become involved with the community around our developments. It takes a lot of work on the front end to delve as deeply as possible within each area (Midtown, Buckhead) as we did in Inman Park. Yet we benefit so significantly from those who actually live in the area it seems only natural to do so. Frankly, it would be arrogant and shortsighted to not learn from those who live in the area and glean vital information not apparent to us developers who don't reside in the area.

In Buckhead, where we are planning a condominium tower with 44 units, the design is clearly unlike anything in the area. Knowing this, we created a transparent dialogue with all the homeowners next door, as well as those who would see the tower from a distance, which was incredibly positive and informative. Had we not taken that approach, I don't think we would've received a unanimous vote in favor of our project from the NPU.

Because of the dramatic design direction, we knew we were taking a huge risk as the NPU B zoning committee went to vote on our project. They would love the design or hate it — there really was no middle ground. I'm so thankful that our new partners were not only okay with this kind of risk, but cited it as a reason for working with JPX Works. I'm also grateful that the vote passed unanimously, and the renderings were received with excitement.

BF: As investors, we focus on sites with special attributes and supply-constrained micro market dynamics. We are research-driven relative to getting our bearings on risk/reward considerations. We consistently seek out neighborhood stakeholders, listen to their observations and concerns and integrate these responses into our development programming. People engage with the JPX Works team when they come to believe they are being taken seriously, and a key result is design that feels exciting yet contextually "right."

CURBED: From an urban perspective, how do you feel that Atlanta is doing, what are its strong points, and should developers be more responsible for the infrastructural upgrades around their projects to help facilitate the creation of "complete streets" and healthier neighborhoods?

JP: Atlanta is on fire. We're seeing amazing job growth and Fortune 500 companies relocating to the city. I'm excited about Peachtree beginning to fill in from Buckhead to Midtown and Downtown, as well as what's going on with Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, Ponce City Market, Edgewood, the streetcar, Auburn Avenue, Krog Street Market and Tech Square. I may be biased, but I am excited about the new project on Tech Square being developed by Portman Holdings and designed by John Portman & Associates, and obviously there are more examples.

Regarding infrastructure: yes. We built a vault measuring 12 feet tall, 20 feet wide and about 335 feet long running the length of the linear park at Inman Quarter to reinforce the sewer line and add 72,000 cubic feet of retention. It was quite expensive, but our project wouldn't have been viable without it. While it wasn't transit infrastructure, I think it's a great example of private funds paying to rebuild public infrastructure that will be necessary for all cities in the United States, where local governments are routinely cash-strapped.

Every situation is unique, but it would be great if more infrastructure and street safety issues could be solved with a partnership of public and private funds, though it's tricky. I hope we can find ways to rebuild from strength, as opposed to expecting too much from either side.

BF: We're making real strides in urban Atlanta, and I'd like to comment on two areas.

First, as a board member of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, I'm excited about the progress we're making towards the goal of breaking into the Top 10 ranks of bike-friendly US cities, one of Mayor Kasim Reed's goals. Although progress can sometimes be difficult, the velocity of change in this arena is palpable. The opening of Atlanta's bike-share program is approaching within a year, and I predict that it will be a game-changer.

Secondly, a combination of private, civic and public sector constituents are beginning to make headway over a shared goal of linking development-generated city impact fee revenue to immediate neighborhoods in which developments are situated. Somehow the logically short-pull relationship between impact fees and related infrastructure improvements was lost, and given the intensity of Atlanta's urbanization, it's time that this relationship be restored.

CURBED: Currently on some of your Atlanta projects you are using non-Atlanta architects. Is there a reason for that, and are there architects in the city you would like to work with?

JP: The first JPX Works project was designed by Smith Dalia, which is based in Atlanta. I am a fan of architecture, and there are many architects around the world who I would love to work with, including in Atlanta.

When we were seeking an architect for 2520 Peachtree and Peachtree & 3rd I had Bjarke Ingels Group in mind. I had become aware of Eran Chen of ODA through an article titled "Starchitect Builds to a Budget" which, of course, piqued my interest. I scheduled a meeting with ODA during the same trip to New York when we would meet with BIG. When we determined Bjarke's schedule and ours couldn't sync up, I was disappointed, but soon after, ODA blew us away with their talent and desire to design in Atlanta. They have been inspired by our city's natural beauty and our amazing "city in the trees." ODA has been everything and more to work with.

To some extent, we are working with Atlanta-based architects, since ODA isn't registered in Georgia, our architects of record are based in Atlanta. We're working with MSTSD and RGA for Peachtree & 3rd, and we are still negotiating with two local firms for 2520 Peachtree. Their role is vital to each project.

There are many firms in Atlanta that we would be honored to work with, in fact too many to list. We know we will get the opportunity when the project and the timing are right. I would at some point love to work with John Portman & Associates for reasons that I'm sure are quite obvious. That would be a career highlight for me.

CURBED: Jarel, obviously your father's impact on the city is hard to overstate. How do you feel that has shaped your work in the city, and how do you feel the legacy of his works shape how the city develops today?

JP: Being exposed to his work throughout my entire life has helped shape the type of man I wanted to be, taught me how to be honest and transparent in life and business, and most importantly, it taught me to dare to dream. Having worked for my father overseas had a huge influence on me. I earned a PhD in development from amazing mentors and senior executives. I learned to understand how contractors work, to appreciate and respect the tension between developers and the architects and ultimately how that all translates into building the best version of a project while on budget and on time.

His legacy has significant impact on my work in the city of Atlanta. I have certainly benefited from the respect he has from industry colleagues in this city. Our city leaders and everyone at City Hall have such a hard job and many people become frustrated by the process. The daily workload is mind-boggling, and the obvious urgency that comes with those submissions, especially in this boom time, is astounding. We prefer to be patient and respectful to those whom we work with at the city. The last thing we at JPX want to do is disrespect anyone. It is truly important to our team at JPX Works that in every aspect of our business we act with integrity, respect and transparency. This is a part of what earned my father respect, and I'm proud of the fact that JPX Works has earned our own respect by doing what we say we are going to do.

I find it interesting to consider how his legacy shapes development in Atlanta today. He created a new "genre" of hotel with the Hyatt Regency. The magic of that building was so bold and frankly outside of any known box that it was really a look into the future (completed in 1967!). This exemplifies his "dare to dream" edict, which a generation of developers experienced from a young age. When he was developing Peachtree Center, we would-be developers had the ability to see what a true mixed-­use project looked like, and how effective and successful they could be if designed, developed and constructed with the proper programming and master planning.

If his work has influenced how developers today build in Atlanta, I hope they are inspired by his use of design, the aspects of nature that are vital to all of us that he uses in his designs to this day, and his ability to build for people. At the end of the day, it's all about people. Do they respond to their surroundings? Are they inspired by what's around them? Does the project make their lives easier to do what their profession demands of them? Does it create value for them, and ownership?

CURBED: What are some of your favorite architectural and/or urban spaces in the city?

JP: Obviously I love the Hyatt Regency and the Polaris! Having grown up and knowing it so intimately, and the fact that my father designed it make it so special to me. It was a wonderland to me as a child — the extruded elevators, the glass ceiling, the sounds of water and birds, the ivy falling inside like the tower of Babylon — I could go on and on. As an adult I admire the daring design (I mean really: a hotel with a hole in the middle of it where rooms could be!) The Polaris and its moving floor will always be cool. For what it's worth, I think The Johnson Group did a great job with its renovation.

I'm a huge fan of the Beltline — who isn't, right? — and all of the adaptive-reuse that's taken place on or near it. Ponce City Market was such a massive undertaking, and now we are seeing that the results are just outstanding. Krog Street Market is superb. I love Inman Park and the chance they took on our project, so I have to mention Inman Quarter. Now that all the restaurants are opening, and the linear park has matured, it's just a cool urban place to be, and I'm very proud of it.

I always loved SunTrust Plaza and the Garden Offices. I love the Goat Farm and its authenticity. The Westside Provisions District is a favorite of mine. I'm also fond of The Sovereign, the Ritz-Carlton Residences, the King & Spalding building, The High Museum, the Swan Coach House, The Fox Theatre and Terminus.

BF: I love the relationship of Ansley Park to the Midtown business and cultural district to the west and to Piedmont Park to the east. This section of the city represents a high point in Atlanta's modern and historical building fabric, greenspace and urban civility.

The combination of a leafy historic district with well-loved Victorian residences, the dynamic North Highland urban corridor and the Beltline's Eastside Trail make Inman Park a durable favorite of mine. As the months pass since the completion of Inman Quarter, and as IQ's restaurants and retailers open for business, I am excited to see how the project's complimentary design elements generate a satisfying "right" feeling.

The east-west length of Edgewood Avenue offers an authentically urban Atlanta experience.

· Field Note Friday coverage [Curbed Atlanta]
· JPX Works coverage [Curbed Atlanta]