S9Architecture, the design team behind Ponce City Market and the recently unveiled Murder Kroger redevelopment, is a New York City-based firm built on an affinity for Atlanta. Much of the love stems from the fact that John Clifford, a Georgia Tech engineering grad who spent 25 years living in Atlanta, is a founding principal of S9.
Back when PCM was getting started, the firm was in its infancy, the vision of Clifford and his business partner, architect Navid Maqami. But since the design of Ponce City Market, the firm has enjoyed a string of successes, growing rapidly into an eminent force on the New York design scene.
We caught up with Clifford while he was in town for the day scoping out new opportunities in Atlanta.
CURBED ATLANTA: When you practiced in Atlanta earlier in your career, how would you describe the overall climate for design in the city? Lately, many have voiced concern that there is a lack of emphasis on good design in Atlanta — would you agree that comparatively we have a lackluster record for design, and, if so, can you see a pattern that explains the phenomenon?
JOHN CLIFFORD: Historically, Atlanta has been a boom/bust development city with [a] very low barrier to entry on both entitlements and market conditions. Because of this, speed is often the driving force for development. I believe, therefore, many copies of "successful" projects were quickly rolled out. With little to no entitlement input into design, developers opted out of spending the time and money on "good design."
Additionally, until recently, the market did not demand design that would stand out from the average. The number of almost exact copies of condominium developments across the city is a testament to this. I think now that higher design projects have made their mark in Atlanta, the market and end users are demanding better design.
There is a new acquired taste, a new niche in the market, and overall, higher design expectations from the general public. Savvy developers are using good design as a marketing tool; to ensure that their investments have sustainable returns into the future and do not become dated before they open.
CURBED: And now that you are doing work in the city again with S9, would you say Atlanta has changed design-wise in the intervening years?
CLIFFORD: The appreciation for good design, its impact on the urban fabric and on the overall health of a community is now becoming important in Atlanta, which I am very happy to see. There is still a long way to go, but clearly the general public is wanting more thoughtful design on urban projects. There are higher aesthetic expectations from the end users; a demand for a more tailored design experience on their end. Good design does not necessarily mean more expensive buildings. It means thought and consideration put into building design so they enhance their neighborhoods and strengthen the city.
CURBED: In four short years, S9 has grown from an idea into a major force in the design community. Tell us a little about S9, the work the firm is doing, and the guiding principles that drive design approach.
CLIFFORD: Since its very beginning, S9 has focused on working on urban projects that can help solidify neighborhood contexts and strengthen cities as a whole. Our goal is to help improve the quality of living in cities through architecture both for their users and its impact on the urban realm.
We are currently working on projects across the U.S. and Canada, including large masterplan redevelopments of urban sites, adaptive-reuse projects, mixed-use developments, residential projects, office[s], and hotel[s]. We consider ourselves "modern contextualists" in that we design buildings attending to aesthetic criteria that enhances and strengthens the communities they are in, while simultaneously meeting our clients' goals and vision.
CURBED: The first major project S9 did in Atlanta was Ponce City Market. The building has gained instant notoriety and has become an icon for the city. What was doing work on that project like and what were some of the biggest challenges in working on such a large, complex project?
CLIFFORD: We were fortunate to have the ability to work on Ponce City Market for many reasons. We were extremely fortunate to have a client, Jamestown, led by Michael Phillips and Matt Bronfman, that had a very transformative vision, and was willing to make a huge capital investment in Atlanta at a time when others were hesitant to do so.
Clearly, working on an existing building has challenges, especially one as large as Ponce City Market where the original structure and elements like the rail-line trestle were buried under years of bad additions. Because of these archaeological discoveries, we were doing a lot of design as we uncovered the building. Additionally, the programs were being tested and changed (remember the economy was awful during design and construction) so there were many design fire drills.
The building had so many design opportunities, sometimes we just had to prioritize on which would have a more significant impact especially given the scale of some of the spaces and the building.
CURBED: Now that Ponce City Market has opened, have you had the chance to visit and evaluate how some of your design decisions have played out in reality? What are some of your favorite aspects of the project, and are there any things you might have approach differently?
CLIFFORD: I’ve visited several times; tried to visit at different times of the day and night, weekdays and weekends, to see it work with people using it, how they approach it via car, foot, bike, the Beltline. How they use and explore the program and the spaces.
My favorite aspect is how the plan of the project truly knits together four incredible neighborhoods: Midtown, Virginia Highland, Poncey-Highland, and Old Fourth Ward. The old Sears building was a major impediment to those neighborhoods even touching each other. We tried to make the superblock have no "back side" (in fact, North Avenue is almost more of a front than Ponce now) and allow the entire block to be porous and approachable from all sides including the Beltline. We wanted a hub for the neighborhoods instead of a wall or knot.
So far I am very happy with the way everything has turned out. Over time, I’m sure I will find things that can be improved as the neighborhood matures. I think all good cities and urban environments require tinkering and improvements to change with the environment and how the inhabitants uses spaces.
CURBED: You are now working on the Murder Kroger redevelopment. How has the site influenced the design of that project, and what are the challenges of designing along the Beltline corridor, next to an already-so-successful project?
CLIFFORD: You mean Beltline Kroger. We look at each development site as an opportunity to enhance the neighborhood and overall city through the design of the buildings and places that are constructed. Beltline Kroger was no exception.
Every site has challenges; it's up to us to find ways to turn them into opportunities. Like most urban sites, we were faced with challenges: multiple land owners on the block, how to respectfully develop next to two historic buildings and the Beltline, incorporating a new urban Kroger into the plan, and creating a new urban space to knit it all together.
We are happy with the building design, but think that our integration into the Beltline and a new public space is an equal component for the success of the project. We believe that the sum total of all parts, 725 Ponce, Ponce City Market, Ford Factory, Kroger, and the Beltline make for a much stronger urban node neighborhood that will spur other well-designed projects nearby.
CURBED: What opportunities do you see in the future for S9 in Atlanta?
CLIFFORD: We are excited about Atlanta. It’s going through an incredible urbanization now. Good design is being appreciated by both the business community and citizenry. We have built a practice on very difficult urban projects that make the neighborhoods and city better places to live.
CURBED: After living and working in Atlanta for a number of years, you decamped to New York. How would you characterize your current relationship with Atlanta, and what do you find that you miss the most about the city?
CLIFFORD: I have nothing but good memories of my 30 years in Atlanta; I still have close friends and am happy that work gives me the excuse to visit the city quite often. The striking thing about Atlanta I miss is its perpetual optimism and drive to improve as a city on the world stage. This coupled with the relatively fast speed that things can change and be effected in the city. It is still truly a Sunbelt city: young, growing, looking forward with optimism and big aspirations.
CURBED: Finally, what places in Atlanta do you love the most?
CLIFFORD: Very difficult to answer. Atlanta’s neighborhoods and places are so diverse, I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Peachtree Street in Midtown is so different from Ansley Park yet they are only a few hundred feet away. Cabbagetown as an old mill town in a modern gleaming city. Areas like Decatur, East Atlanta and Virginia-Highland feel like small towns. The grit and energy of Westside, parts of downtown. I think I liked the variety of types of neighborhoods and urban fabric.
Clarification: As with any project of considerable size, many firms were involved in the design of Ponce City Market. Clifford indicates that "S9 did the master plan and design of food hall, storefronts, Glen Iris passage, trestle tunnel, the bridge to Beltline, common restrooms in the food hall, courtyard storefronts and new courtyard building, pavilion on the lawn, service building renovation, and the stair entry from the Beltline to food hall." Additionally, the firm "did the concept design for the rooftop, laid out retail, parking and parking access, and common area passages through the ground, first, and second floor." Firms who worked on the project in other capacities include Surber, Barber, Choate & Hertlein Architects as Executive Architect, Gensler for office interiors, Stevens & Wilkinson for the Flats, Lee Weintraub Associates for landscape, and Eberly & Associates for contract documents.