Notable Portman projects
Hyatt Regency Atlanta
Westin Peachtree Plaza
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
Embarcadaro Center, San Francisco
Renaissance Center, Detroit
Shanghai Centre, China
Tomorrow Square Shanghai, China
Note: As designer or developer
It would be difficult to overstate architect and developer John Portman’s influence on downtown Atlanta.
His buildings make up a large part of the city’s skyline, from SunTrust Plaza to the Westin Peachtree Plaza to Peachtree Center. His companies have weathered real estate booms and busts. For the past few decades, much of the Portman empire’s work has been overseas, particularly in India and China.
But on Wednesday, Portman Holdings unveiled the redevelopment of one of its chairman’s early major projects — 230 Peachtree. The downtown tower, the first office building in Peachtree Center, has been renovated with a 206-room Hotel Indigo and a high-end restaurant J.P. Atlanta on the lower floors.
Portman, 91, spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about coming back to one of his early professional landmarks, Atlanta’s future and the one project he’d still like to build here. The conversation is edited lightly for clarity and length.
Q: What was it like to come back to a project like this?
A: To quote Yogi Berra, ‘It was déjà vu all over again.’ I built (230 Peachtree) 50 years ago and it was the first office building in the Peachtree Center complex and it was the beginning of the master plan that’s grown out of that.
When we had the opportunity to buy the building … I wanted to develop it into a mixed-use (property) and get more people (into the building) and take a third of the building and turn it into a hotel and retain the office space. We took the lobby and made it a community arena and separated all the units such as the J.P. restaurant.
The bar is designed as a sort of modern Irish pub. It’s open 24 hours a day because it is a hotel lobby, yet it isn’t a hotel lobby. It’s been pulled apart to create more synergism and to invite people in who aren’t necessarily going to a hotel.
Q: What project are you most proud of in your career?
A: Oh my gosh, that’s like asking me which one of my children I love the most. I don’t really know how to answer that. As with your children, you might have more than one child and though they might have the same parents, they have different personalities.
Q: Is there a project that you would like to do in Atlanta that you haven’t done yet?
A: I’ve always wanted to do housing in the central city. We’ve never been able to make the numbers work because of the high price of land and the length of time it would take to build high-rise and move the first tenants in or sell them as condominiums.
Housing is the only thing that we have our eye on from the standpoint of a new arena we might look at, but you have to realize that I’ve sort of positioned myself to be strictly urban and I’ve stayed downtown and developed buildings here when everybody else ran to the suburbs. But we’ve never given up on downtown.
I think Atlanta is on the verge of having a new renaissance. What we’re interested in doing right now is figuring out how many ways we can take this urban space and turn it into something that’s more people-centric.
The way traffic has developed, and development has spread out, out, out on the edges and it is very inconvenient. It takes forever to get anywhere.
Q: Do you think inward migration to the city will continue?
A: I don’t think there’s any question about it. What we would like to do is to build miniature mixed-use livable areas where you can live, work and play and you can walk to the corner drug store and the grocery store and your kids can play in the open space. The time is coming where that’s beginning to make more and more sense and the cost related to continuing to build density out in the suburbs is coming to a point that it is unsustainable.
The other thing is that the demographics are having a big push in all this. Older people are beginning to want to move back in, they want to be closer to places and don’t want to call a third cousin to drive them to the grocery store… Then you have the younger group that wants a place with more life to it than some isolated suburban complex.
The traditional suburban development was driven by people who are married with kids. Well, people are getting married later if at all now, and the population is not expanding like it was. If we can get people back, get them out of their cars and put them on their feet and put in them in a place that fulfills their needs within walking distance; the more we do that, we cut down on traffic, we don’t have the infrastructure problems, we have a more humane living condition and it’s a win-win-win.
Q: With this project at 230 Peachtree, the second phase of Technology Square and design work at the new airport hotel, this is perhaps the most work at one time for your companies in Atlanta in a number of years.
A: We’ve continued to build AmericasMart all through that time. But there was a period there in the 90s and the early 2000s where there just wasn’t the demand. For anything major to happen you have to kind of line up the stars. A lot of things have to come together and work together. And it’s only recently that we’ve seen a lot of bubbling up.
It’s true of Atlanta, but it’s true of the United States. That’s why so many architects from around the world have gone to China and India. We’re doing a lot of work in India.
There used to be a television show called Have Gun — Will Travel. Well, Have Idea — Will Travel.
Q: You got emotional at the re-opening of 230 Peachtree and talked about being in love with Atlanta.
A: I’m a native of Atlanta – I’m a native minus three weeks. My mother was visiting in Walhalla, South Carolina, and I decided to come early. I came three weeks early. I was born there, but we didn’t live there.
We came back into Brookwood Station and I was three weeks old and so I’m a native of the city. I’m a product of the city school system. … I used to sell magazines up and down Peachtree when I was a kid. I’ve walked the sidewalks. It’s part of my blood.
Q: Another notable developer, Donald Trump, is making a lot of news these days, and we were curious if you’ve ever met him and what you think of his foray into politics.
Yes, I have met him. I did the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square and at the time he was doing the (Grand) Hyatt at Grand Central Terminal. I met him in those times but only casually. I never spent a lot of time with him. But I think he has a right to do what he wants to do. Just like anybody.
If you think you ought to be president and you have the ability to get out there and run for it and spend your own money, then have at it… I don’t have a comment and I won’t get into what I think of his ideas and the various conflicts he’s gotten himself into. I mean, that’s not my game.