You need only set foot inside Ponce City Market to know you are in a special place. The structure is massive and solid. The rustic brick façade, rich hardwoods, imposing concrete columns and original crank windows are painstakingly and beautifully restored, and the phrase “They just don’t make ’em like this anymore” rattles around in your brain.
Because of its central location and accessibility, Sears, Roebuck and Co. chose the Old Fourth Ward site to build a regional warehouse and distribution center for its burgeoning mail-order business and eventual retail store in 1926. Additions in 1929, 1947 and 1966 made the building more than 2 million square feet.
The Atlanta BeltLine provides access where the old Atlanta & Richmond Air Line Railway tracks (commonly called the Southern Railway line), laid in the 1870s, brought merchandise into the expansive warehouse.
Times changed for Sears, and the building was sold to the city of Atlanta in 1990. But it wasn’t until Jamestown purchased it in 2011 that new life was breathed into the iconic structure. An adaptive reuse development comparable to Jamestown’s successful Chelsea Market in New York, Ponce City Market (poncecitymarket.com) officially celebrated its opening with Party at Ponce on Saturday, Oct. 10.
In addition to office space, the market houses up to 260 apartments and a carefully curated mix of retail shops, boutiques and food purveyors, including the Central Food Hall. A sense of community is fostered at the market, and events are frequent and encouraged.
I sat down with Jamestown’s CEO, Matt Bronfman, and its vice president of sustainability, development and construction, Jodi Lox Mansbach, to discuss the renovation and evolution of the market. Bronfman has served on the boards of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Epstein School and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and is a member of The Temple and Shearith Israel. Mansbach is a past executive board member of Federation, is Wexner Program alumni chair, is a member of Shearith Israel and is a co-founder of Limmud Atlanta + Southeast.
AJT: How did Ponce City Market come to be, and how was Jamestown able to acquire the building?
Bronfman: In 2009, Mayor (Kasim) Reed smartly realized a few things. One was getting this building into private hands so that it could be on the tax books. … Second, this building was nothing but a cost to the city of Atlanta because they were paying every month to maintain it. … Third, the BeltLine is one of his signature projects and … is succeeding in residential, but there’s not much in the way of retail and office. … The mayor wanted to put this into the hands of somebody who would really redevelop it and create a hub on the BeltLine.
AJT: Where did the idea originate? Who at Jamestown said, “We want to do this”?
Bronfman: It probably started with me. I’ve wanted this building for a long time. You know, like everybody else, I drove by … and this building reminded me of Chelsea Market, and I … felt it could really be something. (Bronfman did the original Chelsea Market acquisition for Jamestown in the early 2000s.) Honestly, we didn’t know exactly what it was going to be when it grew up, but we believed that this building had incredible potential … and that the BeltLine was going to be transformative for the city of Atlanta.
Mansbach: And I would say that, I’ll speak for myself, the BeltLine has exceeded our expectations. We thought it was going to be transformative, but the use it’s getting, the way it changes the way people view Atlanta, is even more impactful than I could ever have imagined — that people want to get out of their cars, that they want to walk on the BeltLine and have this kind of urban experience. … This building is sitting among the Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Cabbagetown, Grant Park, Candler Park, and then you’ve got Druid Hills, Morningside, Virginia-Highlands, Midtown. It’s in the center, and all these neighborhoods are spokes, which is fascinating.
Bronfman: Something else about this building that I think is important. Often if you buy a brand-new building, sort of like buying a brand-new house, it looks its best the day it’s completed. … The beauty of a building like this is, and I really mean this, is it’s going to evolve and get better over the next 20 years. We know that from Chelsea. … This building has a great future. … We’re just getting started here.
AJT: And you also have so much room to work with.
Bronfman: We have a big canvas.
Mansbach: We have a very big canvas! But what we do with it is important. At the end of the day you have your basic building blocks. … You start doing fun stuff around the edges, almost literally. And for us that comes in the form of events, so that’s the way you really bring a building to life and keep it changing.
AJT: Is there still retail space available?
Bronfman: It’s predominantly leased, and what’s available we’re in no hurry to lease.
Mansbach: Yes, for the same reason it’s good to live in a house before you decorate it. We’ve got all the big spaces full, and now it’s a matter of seeing what will complement.
AJT: How much of an emphasis is on office leasing?
Bronfman: Everybody sees this as a retail project because of the Market Hall, because of Anthropologie, Frye Boots, etc., but the office component’s the biggest portion here. We have a little over 500,000 square feet of office space.
AJT: What does that compare to?
Bronfman: If you look at our total square footage here, retail, office and residential, this building is comparable to the Bank of America building … one of the biggest buildings in Atlanta.
Mansbach: So you’ve got it this way (horizontal), whereas Bank of America’s like this (vertical). But there’s an important distinction there when it comes to office environment, when you talk about floor plate, in terms of what people can do here.
Bronfman: We have huge floor plates, which I think is also very appealing because it allows for more collaboration. … These floor plates are over 100,000 square feet in total per floor. … If you look at a traditional (horizontal) office building, it’s probably 30,000 square feet.
Mansbach: So you end up with an office on multiple floors. A law firm will occupy 10 floors. Here everybody can be on one floor, and Matt was talking about how that changes the office environment.
Bronfman: It changes the dynamic.
AJT: It’s actually more contemporary, with horizontal organizational structures.
Mansbach: Right. Exactly.
Bronfman: Much better. And it works so much better for collaboration if you’re all on the same floor and not going up and down elevator banks or stairs — more efficient use of space.
AJT: So how are you doing as far as office leasing?
Bronfman: I thought office leasing would be harder than it’s been, and retail leasing would be easier than it’s been. It was the reverse. Retail was hard because … the east side of town was unproven from a fashion perspective, and so bringing the Anthropologies, J. Crew, Frye Boots, etc., to this side of town was more challenging. … On the other hand, I always believed our office would be successful here, but I thought it would take longer to succeed. Atlantans are so used to their glass towers; I thought it might take years for the office to catch fire. The exact opposite happened. We immediately started signing up big tenants. … Tenants would come and look at this space and say, … “This is the only interesting thing. This is the only innovative project in Atlanta. This is the only place we want to be.”
Mansbach: And it speaks to their employees also. We ride the elevator every day with a bunch of millennials in jeans and T-shirts. … And skateboards. A lot of skateboards. … They live nearby, and they are walking to work, and they are biking to work.
Bronfman: You know we have a bike valet. Do you know about that? We have a bike valet that will check your bike off the BeltLine. And last weekend we took in, I understand, over a hundred bikes.
Mansbach: I like to call the BeltLine our front door. … I am optimistic that there will be a day that North Avenue will no longer be our front door, and the BeltLine will truly be the front door to the property, and that’s where the vast majority of the people will come in. That’s my hope and dream.
AJT: So that would be a green aspect. Coming into this, I would have said, “How green can you make a building this old?”
Mansbach: Very. The answer is very. It’s a green lifestyle. … A lot of the people that work here don’t own cars, and that’s unheard of in other parts of Atlanta. On top of that, the building is incredibly sustainable. … We are in the process of getting LEED certified. This type of work is called adaptive reuse, and it can be hard to make work with the LEED system, but it’s not impossible. A lot of the features of the building from the get-go are more energy-efficient than a newer building would be.
AJT: Efficient because of the thickness of the walls, for example, as insulation?
Mansbach: Yes. … But we did put in all new systems. So once you take the structure that’s this solid and you add the new systems to it, you’re at an incredibly efficient building.
Bronfman: It’s an incredibly green experience. And just that we’re reusing. … The hardwood floors are original to the building.
Mansbach: We’re reusing the building!
AJT: How much were you able to preserve from the original structure?
Bronfman: We kept almost everything. We’ve been really good at reusing things.
Mansbach: Yes. The hardwood floors appear on the floor, and then in some places when we had to pick them up, we put them on the wall. … We’ve used them as decoration. We kept a lot of stuff that most people would have junked way early in the process. I call them the ARTifacts of the building. … Some of those you can see now in the Market Hall because we had a sculptor come in and turn them into pieces of art. … So we’ve repurposed some things. Some functional; some, like I said, just artistic.
AJT: What else has been preserved?
Mansbach: The windows are original. There are 65,000 panes of glass. The preservation piece speaks for itself. You can see it. Everywhere. Preservation was at the forefront of the design. It was really the starting point.
AJT: How long have you been working on this?
Bronfman: Four years.
Mansbach: The first office and residential tenants moved in last November. So what we’re really bringing online now is just the third part of mixed use when people talk about live, work, play. People could live here, and people could work here, but the play and the shopping and the eating is what’s coming online now, and it’s why we’re now viewed as being open. Whereas the reality is there were over 1,000 people coming here every day since November. This is our big moment for that reason.
AJT: What were some roadblocks that you encountered or challenges you had to overcome?
Bronfman: The city was a good partner in this. Mayor Reed was a huge partner and is part of the success story here. He was a big part of making this happen in a very positive way, in terms of realizing that the BeltLine needed a signature project. … The mayor saw that something like this needed to happen. It would have been very easy for a city administration just to keep owning real estate. That’s what a lot of cities have done. And he saw a higher and better use.
AJT: So this is your flagship project?
Mansbach: But for everybody that worked on it, it is. And everybody will tell you this is the most, the most significant project of my life. I don’t think I’ll ever do anything this great. It’s that big.
On the heels of Party at Ponce, Ponce City Market events include:
- Oct. 24 — Red Bull Soapbox Race 2015. Pits open at 11 a.m.; the event is at noon.
- Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 — American Field pop-up market featuring American-made goods from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Oct. 31 — Quiet Hounds/Masque costume celebration of music and a spirited Halloween story from 8 to 11 p.m.
18.21 Bitters, Bellina Alimetari, Biltong Bar, Boti Walla, Dancing Goats Coffee Bar, Dub’s Fish Camp, El Super Pan, Farm to Ladle, H&F Burger, Honeysuckle Gelato, Hop’s Chicken, Jia, Lucky Lotus, Marrakesh, The Mercury, Minero, Simply Seoul, Spiller Park Coffee, Strippaggio, Ton Ton Ramen, WH. Stiles Fish Camp
Anthropologie, Archer Paper Goods, Binders, Core Power Yoga, The Frye Co., Goorin Bros. Hat Shop, J. Crew, Karoo, Lily Rain, Lou Lou, Lululemon, Madewell, Michael Stars, Mountain High Outfitters, Onward Reserve, Q Clothier, Rejuvenation, Rye 51, West Elm, Williams-Sonoma