November 29, 2013

Ponce City Market: Atlanta's History in the Making

  • By: David Weible

Bird's eye view of Ponce City Market in Atlanta. Credit: Sarah Dorio
Bird's eye view of Ponce City Market in Atlanta

When it’s all said and done, Ponce City Market will be Atlanta’s largest adaptive reuse project ever, encompassing 1.1 million square feet of retail, office space, and residences in what was once a Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center. But as much as the sheer size of the project impresses, the delight is in the details.

The complex -- first developed in 1926 -- sits on the eastern edge of Midtown Atlanta, about a mile-and-a-half from the famous Peachtree Street, and among some of the city’s most historically prominent neighborhoods, like Virginia-Highland and Morningside/Lenox Park. By 1966, the facility had grown to cover 2.1 million square feet.

“Anything that you ordered from the Sears catalogue, if you were in the general Southeast, came from this facility,” says Jim Irwin, senior vice president of development for Jamestown Properties, the organization developing the site.

That is, at least until Sears discontinued its operation on the site in 1986.

In 1990, the city of Atlanta bought the site with the intention of centralizing the city’s departments and programs. A few offices like the Parks Department eventually relocated, but the building was so massive and the concept so complicated that only about 10% of the facility was ever in active use. The complex eventually served as a major staging area of the 1996 summer Olympics, but by 2010, City Hall East, as it was then known, was costing taxpayers roughly $600,000 a year just to sit vacant.

Exterior of the Ponce City Market building, previously known as City Hall East. Credit: mikehipp, Flickr
Exterior of the Ponce City Market building, previously known as City Hall East

That’s where Jamestown stepped in. The organization spent 18 months working with the city to purchase the site, finally closing the deal in July of 2011.

“One of the key components of our ability to make the investment that we are, of course, is the historic tax credit program,” says Irwin, who added that value of the credits are estimated at around $35 million. “We carried the building through almost complete schematic design and pricing and approvals necessary [before closing on the purchase] to feel good that we were going to be able to make the building work from a modern function perspective and also be able to honor the history and tell that story in an important way.”

And if all goes according to plan, that history will be evident. One of the highlights of the project will be the restoration of the steel rail trestle that ran alongside the building’s third floor. Jamestown plans to install an old box car -- perhaps to be used as a restaurant or bar -- on the trestle as a nod to the site’s history.

Another aspect of the project, which is modeled in part after New York City’s High Line, also calls for a new footbridge and other infrastructure that will connect the site to the proposed Atlanta Beltline, a multi-billion dollar, 22-mile linear park that will circle the city once it’s complete.

Inside the unrenovated Ponce City Market. Credit: tdominey, Flickr
Inside the un-renovated Ponce City Market

As an additional way of putting historic elements to modern uses, Jamestown is also retrofitting the building’s historic 46,000-gallon steel water tank to harness water from the site’s natural spring to supply the site.

Then there’s the market itself. Inspired by authentic spaces like Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the developers see Ponce City Market as a 50-60,000-square-foot space where artisanal chefs and local producers come together to create a vibrant atmosphere.

It’s all part of a plan to move Atlanta forward while maintaining and emphasizing the city’s unique history and culture.

“One of the things that’s happened over the past couple of decades in this country is the overwhelming majority of the development that has occurred has led to a lack of authenticity,” says Irwin. “This plague of sameness has really stripped away a lot of what is special and authentic about places. [But] I think there’s a real curiosity about history, about the things that have a sense of permanence and place."

“How that’s really translated into the development,” he continues, “is that we are taking painstaking care to not clean it up too much, not to strip the patina away from the building. We want people, when they walk through the building, to really experience what it’s been like for the last 90 or so years.”

Rendering of the completed Ponce City Market. Credit: Ponce City Market
Rendering of the completed Ponce City Market

With commercial units opening up in the coming months, as well as residences in August and retail in the fall, the steadfast dedication to the site’s history isn’t just idealism or nostalgia. It makes good business sense.

“If you look at the median age of many of the companies [we’ve already signed leases with], they [the owners] are in the low 30s. And what they have said is that a building like this is a huge differentiator for them. And it really becomes a recruiting and retention tool because if you ask people of Gen X or Gen Y where they want to work… it’s a place that has character and it’s not just the next big glass high rise. So all of those [historical elements] really create a culture and create a community, which is really at the heart of what we’re trying to do.

For more coverage of Ponce City Market, visit Curbed Atlanta. A big thanks to our friends there for sharing this story with us.

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story