February 27, 2021

Square Feet: Ambitious Plans for a Building Where Sears Served Atlanta

But now there is a plan to salvage the space. A prominent Atlanta-based developer, Jamestown Properties, which owns Chelsea Market in Manhattan, bought the building from the city last month for $27 million. It expects to spend $180 million to convert it to a mixed-use cluster of restaurants, apartments, office space and perhaps even a rooftop amusement park, all renamed Ponce City Market, by early 2014.

“That’s a big hunk of building, and it’s been dead space for so long,” said David F. Haddow, a consultant and architecture professor at Georgia Tech. “But it’s not going to be easy.”

Others have tried before. The city bought the building for $12 million in 1990 — “the deal of the century,” Maynard Jackson, the mayor at the time, said — but ended up using only 10 percent of the space, mostly for police offices and storage. Then, in 2006, a well-connected former state lawmaker introduced a plan to build apartments there, but that idea fell victim to the economy.

The real estate market in Atlanta is still sluggish. But supporters say the project has a better chance than most. City Hall East is at the junction of four fashionable neighborhoods: Midtown, Virginia-Highlands, the Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park. In a city known for glittery newness, the 1926 building is raw, historic and authentic.

So the conventional wisdom among civic leaders is: right building, right place, right developer. But is it the right time?

“There are clearly challenges,” said David Bennett, a senior policy adviser to Mayor Kasim Reed who helped broker the deal. “There is a 20 percent vacancy rate in Atlanta in the office market, the condo market is in disarray and even the commercial market is down quite a bit.”

The city is so invested in the outcome that Mayor Reed spoke at the purchase ceremony, predicting that a successful development could have a $1 billion economic impact. A kickoff celebration in October will feature a concert by the Indigo Girls and catering by a who’s who of Atlanta chefs.

“We see this as being transformational for that area of Atlanta,” said Ernestine Garey, the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Atlanta Development Authority. “It is a huge, huge opportunity.”

Early blueprints make Ponce City Market look not unlike Chelsea Market, the renovated biscuit factory that leases space to the Food Network and other technology and media companies. It will contain high-ceilinged office space, a range of restaurants, a food market, apartments, exhibition spaces, a skywalk and perhaps even an amusement park, Jamestown says.

The plan calls for reducing the building’s square footage by nearly half, to 1.2 million square feet, constructing a parking garage with at least 2,000 spaces inside the structure and demolishing many internal walls and ceilings. But Jamestown says it will preserve the exterior and as much equipment as possible from the original Sears department store and distribution center. A giant electrical panel will become the backdrop for a bar, and a train trestle will be repurposed as a pedestrian walkway.

“We think the history is really central to the culture we’re trying to create,” said Michael Phillips, a managing director of Jamestown. “We’re trying to keep the spirit of this place alive and to keep it true to its Southern roots.”

In its heyday, Sears shipped to customers across the Southeast. Older Atlantans remember picking up furniture or clothes there. “That’s where everybody shopped,” Trudie Wade, an Atlanta resident who worked at the Sears in the 1970s, says in a video that Jamestown produced about the building’s history. “It was huge. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s such a huge store that we’re going to get lost in here.’ ”

Other cities have refurbished Sears stores and distribution centers. In Seattle, a former Sears is now the headquarters of Starbucks. In Dallas, one has 400 apartments and a nightclub. In Boston, one has an REI, a Best Buy and a movie theater.

But Atlanta’s Sears center has its own difficulties because it was vacant so long. The city spent months removing and auctioning the office equipment that had piled up inside over the years, raising more than $100,000.

Architects are still figuring out how to avoid damaging a sewage system from the early 1900s that runs directly through the building’s lower floors. Although it retains its elegant maple flooring and tall glass windows, parts of the building have fallen into disrepair.

“The office spaces quite literally looked like terrorists had run in the front door and people had fled out the back door in a panic,” Mr. Bennett said. But Jamestown says it has faced obstacles with historic buildings elsewhere: Chelsea Market; the former Port of New York Authority at 111 Eighth Avenue, now owned by Google; and Warehouse Row in Chattanooga all required substantial overhauls.

For the 64 years that Sears owned City Hall East, the building was treated “like a Rolls-Royce,” said Jim Irwin, a vice president at Green Street, a subsidiary and development arm of Jamestown.

Tenants are already signing up. Anne Quatrano, an Atlanta chef and restaurant owner who has worked with Jamestown before, said she planned to open a po-boy shop at Ponce City Market.

“It’s a little scary,” Ms. Quatrano said of the building’s uncertain prospects. But if you like the building, the developer and the history of the neighborhood, she said, then you have to trust that customers will come.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=fb8c1d8c642f86ba18eac94e8ea6b522

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