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‘Urban reclamation’ meets Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward

The Southeast’s largest adaptive-reuse project was supposed to be a cornerstone of Atlanta’s most dynamic neighborhood. Has Ponce City Market delivered?

Back in 2009, following a minor traffic accident, Atlanta police directed me to a place called City Hall East in the city’s Old Fourth Ward to retrieve the paperwork my insurance company required. Like most Atlantans, I’d had no reason to visit the hulking brick structure. Approaching the ground-floor police department, I walked past a tattered guard shack, through a dirty chasm of parking lots, and found a miserable sort of waiting room. A man became so irate, he slapped a chair and shouted obscenities at the receptionists before storming out. I questioned my personal safety—in the police station—and quickly scrammed.

Today, City Hall East has been reborn. Now known as Ponce City Market (PCM for short), the mixed-use goliath’s trove of accolades includes a Travel + Leisure mention as one of the “World’s Coolest New Tourist Attractions,” and the Urban Land Institute’s Global Award for Excellence in 2016 for redefining how Atlanta’s core populace “lives, dines, shops, learns, works, and commutes.” On a floor above the old police station, you can wash down a $14 Cuban sandwich with an $18 mezcal cocktail and regret the $32 candle you just bought because it promised an aroma of malbec. A valet will park your car for the afternoon ($15, before tip). And for $10 more, you can board a refurbished freight elevator to the Roof, where you’ll find an array of stylish bars, a vintage-style amusement park with miniature golf, and sweeping views of the city’s scattered skylines.

A star in the portfolio of Jamestown Properties, an Atlanta-based company with projects across the country, PCM began to open in 2014. Connected to the Atlanta Beltline, it’s part of a trifecta of urban-reclamation developments—within a few yards of each other—that are largely responsible for transforming this once-hardscrabble neighborhood, Old Fourth Ward, at breakneck pace.

Most would describe the new PCM as an improvement over the soul-sucking husk it was. But in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of Section 8 housing in the Southeast—and a cradle of civil rights where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, pastored, and is buried beside his wife—one can’t help but wonder: Who’s it all for? Who comes here?

“You have to respect [Jamestown’s] efforts to create public space that’s accessible and free for everybody,” says Kit Sutherland, a former Fourth Ward Alliance neighborhood association president who’s lived across the street for 17 years. “They’re trying, but the reality of a building that cost almost $300 million to build out is that they’re not going to be selling tube socks.

“For lower-income people of color in the neighborhood,” she continues, “it’s an interesting oddity to walk through, but they’re certainly not going to pay, for example, to go to the rooftop amenity or some of the restaurants.”

Recent visits suggest Sutherland is right—the demographic skews young—but PCM patronage is far from homogenous. Typically, I visit on weekends when guests are in town—and when it’s one big open-container fiesta. But on a Wednesday afternoon, for instance, PCM is like a diverse, albeit younger, cross section of intown Atlanta: millennials with backpacks and badges for employers on upper floors, including tech marketing firm MailChimp, Google, and Twitter’s “southernplayalistic outpost”; young families pushing strollers; hipsters with tat sleeves; an older guy in a Patagonia cap hassling people for money; and no shortage of gawking tourist groups speaking various languages.

It’s the same vibe as another Jamestown project, Manhattan’s Chelsea Market—only twice the size. And it still smells industrial, like a not-unpleasant mix of old wood, smoked meats, and the inside of a piggy bank.

As the former senior vice president of Jamestown, Jim Irwin led the PCM redevelopment from the start in 2011 to its opening, and he says frequent community meetings and tours through the years with regular neighborhood folks helped forge a bond that endures. After all, despite ballooning housing costs and an influx of millennial tech workers, about one in five Old Fourth Ward residents is still older than age 55, and just as many receive food stamps or other government assistance.

“I think, from the beginning, the project involved the community in not just helping them understand what was coming but making them feel a part of the process,” says Irwin.

Longtime neighborhood residents, however, talk of a disconnect. Yet hundreds of them have directly benefited from investments like PCM. So, it’s not simply a gentrification crisis exacerbated by a developer’s pocketbooks. In Old Fourth Ward, it’s more complicated than that.

As the address on Ponce de Leon Avenue implies, Ponce City Market stands atop natural springs, once thought to be therapeutic. An amusement park and “country spa” attracted Atlantans here en masse in the early 1900s, before the concepts sputtered. Scouting the outskirts of American cities for places to build, a Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive soon recognized the site’s potential and pounced.

Standing nine stories and punctuated by a neoclassical tower, the building’s initial section was finished in 1926, and for more than a half-century it grew and thrived as a rail-connected distribution center and store for Sears, one of America’s preeminent retailers. The Atlanta Sears Building shuttered for good in 1989, hampered by the relocation of its customer base to the suburbs. With 2.1 million square feet, the great brick structure became “a sleeping hulk” that nonetheless “displayed a particularly noble character” amid a neighborhood corroded by blight, writes Robert M. Craig, an architectural historian and Georgia Tech professor emeritus, in Ponce City Market: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Atlanta’s Largest Building.

At the time, as much as 71 percent of Old Fourth Ward’s population was living in overcrowded, substandard housing, according to U.S. census data. In the decade prior to 1990, Old Fourth Ward’s population had withered by 17 percent to just 3,745 people. By contrast, the population of metro Atlanta had exploded by more than 31 percent.

In 1991, the City of Atlanta bought the landmark—at $12 million, it was described by a former mayor as the “deal of the century”—and used a small fraction for public works offices, the police department, and storage. By 2010, in the depths of recession, City Hall East was again being cleared out; municipal workers moved to newer buildings and left behind a “Kafkaesque maze of empty office suites,” as one journalist put it, all cluttered with derelict computers, abandoned desks, flotsam from the Centennial Olympics, and a crumbling gallery of wall murals with no patrons. A tomb in every sense.

Jamestown bought the building from the city for $27 million in 2011, predicting the country’s “largest historic restoration project” would trigger a “renaissance” in the beleaguered Ponce corridor. The following year, the Atlanta Beltline—a project that’s slowly encircling the city with 22 miles of multi-use trails and, likely, transit—opened its most popular segment at PCM’s doorstep. And across the street, a blighted 17 acres of weedy parking lots, dumped tires, and the ruins of a trucking facility (Sutherland recalls it as an “an environmental wasteland” and “good place to find a body”) was reborn as the lush Historic Fourth Ward Park. Irwin, the developer, describes the neighboring redevelopments of that era as an “amazing circumstance” that “led to this sort of catalytic explosion of demand and interest in this part of town.”

As a strategic way to boost PCM’s visibility, Irwin notes, the building’s main entrance was essentially reversed to North Avenue, thereby facing the heart of Old Fourth Ward and welcoming visitors with multistory flanks like open arms.

The promise of PCM lured pastor Barry Odom, a 58-year-old leader of Church51, who was looking to move his small suburban ministry into Atlanta’s core at the time. Before any retailers were open, Odom waited in line and became the first resident of PCM’s 259 industrial-chic apartments. He qualified for a restricted income program and paid about $900 monthly for a 1,000-square-foot flat, from which he would host open-door religious sessions with locals, discussing civil rights, LGBTQ issues, and poverty.

“We thought, ‘Wow, this Ponce City Market is going to be right at the convergence of all those cultures,’” Odom says now. “That’s where culture will be created, where these things collide.”

Around Old Fourth Ward, the Great Recession had created a sort of plugged volcano of stalled residential projects. But as the triple play of PCM, the park, and the Beltline began stoking demand, the first of roughly 3,000 new apartments and townhomes—to date—sprung up, few of them earmarked as affordable housing. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s population has nearly quadrupled since its early 1990s nadir.

Since 2014, when PCM started to open, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood has ballooned by almost 39 percent ($1,969, as of August), compared to a citywide increase of 26.6 percent over the same time period, according to Brian Carberry, a managing editor with Apartment Guide and In April, Carberry’s data indicated Old Fourth Ward was the most expensive neighborhood in Atlanta for renting a single-bedroom flat, based on an analysis of 33 large multifamily properties. (It should be noted those numbers are subject to seasonal fluctuations and other variables, and by August, Old Fourth Ward had slipped to eighth most expensive overall.)

Meanwhile, median sale prices for homes and condos in Old Fourth Ward’s ZIP code have climbed by 44 percent since 2014—11 percent higher than more established neighborhoods next door, such as Inman Park, per an ATTOM Data Solutions analysis performed at Curbed Atlanta’s request. Boxy modern houses are routinely fetching in the $900,000s—comparable to estates in tony Buckhead of similar size. The market, as Sutherland sees it, is “hyperinflated.”

Odom, the pastor, moved out of PCM when his rent climbed to around $1,600, he says. And he knew his dreams of creating a community-bolstering ministry from his apartment were faltering when celebrities—Gabrielle Union, Winona Ryder, Tom Hanks—started moving in while filming in town.

“I felt like the value system there was profit, profit, profit,” says Odom. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not evil. But we realized they really were attracting people from outside the city to come in and spend their dollars. It wasn’t the locals.”

He isn’t the only one to feel the pinch.

The population of Old Fourth Ward and its historical sibling, Sweet Auburn—which once boasted the “richest Negro street in the world,” as political leader John Wesley Dobbs put it in the early 20th century—climbed by 17 percent between 2000 and 2015, per the most recent City of Atlanta demographic data. In that timespan, however, the black population has tumbled by more than 26 percent. That’s despite the best efforts of people like Donell Woodson, a board member with the Historic District Development Corporation, a group that’s been preparing to soften the impact of gentrification’s wallop on Old Fourth Ward for decades—with undeniable, if unsung, success.

Co-founded in 1980 by Coretta Scott King, the nonprofit HDDC has amassed a portfolio of houses, apartment complexes, and commercial property across the neighborhood, especially in the Sweet Auburn section. Its largest commercial holding is a former cotton warehouse just down the Beltline from PCM called Studioplex, which was purchased as a blighted, trash-filled eyesore in the late 1990s for $18.5 million. At the time, many decried the deal as a colossal blunder.

Filled with a growing array of tenants, the Studioplex campus today, according to Woodson, is worth more than $100 million. HDDC recently sold a piece as part of a hotel deal for $5.5 million, and it’s selling air rights above its own Beltline-fronting retail strip for the construction of million-dollar townhomes. That income has allowed HDDC to buy, restore, and build more than 500 residences—from shotgun houses and no-frills, affordable apartments to trendy townhomes—for people who’d otherwise be unable to afford a now-desirable Old Fourth Ward address.

“When I tell people where I live, they’re amazed,” says Economy Jackson, who purchased her circa-1890 house with HDDC assistance in 2004. “I’m blessed.”

Still, Jackson says, the advent of amenities like the Beltline and PCM, in conjunction with a surging economy, has spelled financial hardships for others on her street, where property taxes have doubled in some cases, she says, in the past year alone.

“One particular neighbor of mine, she was a homeowner, but she’s had to move out of the neighborhood,” says Jackson. “She’s struggled to find a place within the neighborhood so she can keep her daughter in the same school.”

The flipside, as Sutherland stresses, is that almost all derelict parcels in Old Fourth Ward have been converted to tax-generating, job-creating, active uses, and the resulting vibrancy means she doesn’t hesitate to walk down most streets at night now. From a development perspective, she says, the three-run homer of PCM, the Beltline, and the marquee park has been more “wildly successful” than early planners ever dreamed.

But building bridges between that success and the people who called Old Fourth Ward home long before PCM tenants like Williams-Sonoma and West Elm, Woodson says, is an unresolved challenge.

“Most people who’ve lived here 10-plus years, they’ve seen Ponce City Market as an attraction for transplants, for people visiting, not as an amenity for them,” he says. “Getting them to see things like Ponce City Market as an asset, instead of a big monster—that’s hard.”

For a wise and unflinching perspective on the neighborhood’s changes, Woodson and others pointed me toward a tidy yellow bungalow with a sign tacked to the porch that reads “Posted: Keep Out.” It’s the residence of Helene Mills, an advocate for seniors, former civil rights champion, and all-around fireball who’s lived each of her 90 years in Old Fourth Ward.

Speaking over the whir of nearby MARTA trains, Mills recalled a “trashy” and undesirable version of her neighborhood that’s been replaced by traffic and “great big houses.” Asked which is better, she bristled; the streets are “cleaned up,” but, she wonders, where are the neighbors who’d drop everything to help each other, or the “cheap market for a loaf of bread, where I can send a child off to?”

And when it comes to the neighborhood’s most famous building, which she’s known since girlhood, Mills is equally ambivalent.

“I’ve seen that particular building go through a lot of change,” she says of Ponce City Market. “I was there two weeks ago, for a wedding, and I didn’t think it was fabulous, not out of this world. I just thought it’s what it was years ago—a brick building, where a lot of activities went on. It’s still performing, but the activities are all different.”


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