Long-awaited Buckhead Atlanta project opens

The long wait is over. The debut is finally here.

On Thursday, the streets and first major wave of high-end shops will open in the nearly $1 billion Buckhead Atlanta project at East Paces Ferry and Peachtree roads.

The long-anticipated development’s path followed the cycle of Atlanta’s recent economic history. Known as the Streets of Buckhead during the boom, it was left unfinished after the financial crisis, only to be resurrected by a new developer amid Atlanta’s rise out of the Great Recession.

Even after California development firm OliverMcMillan stepped in in late 2010, rechristened the project and resumed construction, some locals wondered if an eight-acre hole in some of the priciest property in of Atlanta would ever be filled.

“This was an intellectual, emotional and financial challenge of great proportions,” said Dene Oliver, CEO of OliverMcMillan. “There were many people who said, ‘You’re not going to get it done.’ ”

But now, real estate experts say the project’s debut could be the springboard for future redevelopment in the stretch of parking lots and low-rise shops, restaurants and bars around the Buckhead Triangle.

Major landholders and developers including the Loudermilk family — the clan behind rent-to-own retailer Aaron’s — are working up plans that could bring more residential, retail, hotels and offices to the crowded crossroads.

“I just can’t convey enough how I feel about the way that Dene believes in the city of Atlanta at a time when we needed a business person to believe in the city,” Mayor Kasim Reed said in a recent interview.

Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and current president of the Buckhead Coalition, said he never lost faith in the site, which he called the most talked-about piece of real estate he’s ever seen.

“There were a couple of … years that people fussed.” Massell said of the community’s angst. “‘When are you going to do something?’ Like we had control over it. That the economy had nothing to do with it.”

But Massell predicted Buckhead Atlanta will add to Buckhead’s international appeal with its stable of global brands such as footwear boutique Jimmy Choo and fashion house Christian Loubitan.

“There will be so much window shopping they’ll have to wash the glass more often,” Massell said.

But it won’t be easy. Buckhead’s reigning luxury retail centers including Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza have bolstered their upper-crust bona fides with new offerings and remodeled facilities.

Then there’s the ever-present concern of Buckhead traffic, something Buckhead Atlanta developers hope can be solved in part by a walkable grid of streets and the growing number of wealthy residents above and around the neighborhood.

Luxury retailers Canali and Warby Parker are among the first tenants to open. The twin 22-story high-rise luxury apartment towers are welcoming new residents with a mansion building at the center for amenities.

The remaining retailers and restaurants will have a rolling schedule of grand openings through spring. Atlanta-based shapewear giant Spanx will eventually open its flagship store and occupy much of the development’s first phase of office space early next year.

Filling up storefronts along city streets allows stores to open over time, unlike an enclosed mall that requires every space to be finished at once. The continual openings allow the project to take on new life with each visit, said Jeff Zeigler, senior managing director of retail services for OliverMcMillan.

“This is the re-creation of six city blocks,” Zeigler said during a recent site tour. “The neighborhood will be returned to Buckhead and the city of Atlanta.”

Luxury backbone, broad appeal

Buckhead Atlanta started its life more than seven years ago as Buckhead Avenues and later became Streets of Buckhead, Mall of Georgia developer Ben Carter’s vision of a mini-city. Carter planned high-rise condos, hotels, restaurants and retailers aimed at wealthy atop Buckhead’s raucous former party scene.

Fed-up Buckhead residents wanted an end to Buckhead’s version of Bourbon Street, and Carter pitched arguably the most ambitious mixed-use development Atlanta had ever seen. It boasted international brands few regular Joes had ever heard of, nor could afford.

Carter paid top dollar to buy up the bars and storefronts, rounding up 37 parcels. He set loose a vision widely called “the Rodeo Drive of the South,” though today Carter says that moniker didn’t come from him.

But after the financial markets seized up, the unfinished buildings and ghostly cranes hovering over the project helped turn Buckhead into the poster child for Atlanta’s over-development pain.

Carter scaled back his plans and tried to restart construction, but ultimately OliverMcMillan stepped in.

The new team lowered the scale of buildings and made avenues more intimate, but kept the luxury bent. Condos became apartments. Hotels were nixed (though lodging could be in a future phase).

“The goal is not to be ultra-luxury,” Zeigler said. “The goal is to appeal to males and females, zero to 100 years old. We plan to have varying price points, certainly luxury is the backbone, but it will have broad appeal.”

In fact, several of the tenants Carter announced or let it be known he was courting ended up as part of the new development. Fado Irish Pub and Hermes stuck it out for years on Buckhead Avenue as development languished, and Hermes will soon move into a larger store in the center of the project.

Getting ready

As crunch time nears, the Buckhead Atlanta site has been especially busy, with workers preparing streets and facades and installing about $10 million worth of landscaping and public areas.

A few weeks ago, crews planted a 40-foot-tall elm, and four 35-foot oaks grown on a farm in Athens. The mature flora, including more than a hundred trees topping 25 feet, were planted to provide a bit of shade from the hot Georgia sun and give a sense of permanence, Zeigler said.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes and live with them for 10 years,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, workers ground down stone tiles and finished interior walls in some of the ground-floor shops and restaurants.

John Meadow, the founder of LDV Hospitality in New York, is working to open three restaurants at Buckhead Atlanta. The first, Corso Coffee, an Italian-style coffee and wine bar, will open this fall. American Cut, a premiere steak restaurant in partnership with Iron Chef Marc Forgione; and Lugo Cucina Italiana, a modern Italian eatery, will open in the spring.

Meadow said he wanted to be surrounded by the “best retailers and restaurants” in the business, not in a traditional mall but a development that blends into Buckhead and becomes its own neighborhood.

“We’re talking the biggest financial risk of our career in Buckhead Atlanta,” Meadow said.

As OliverMcMillan readies the first phase, plans already are underway for a second, but executives aren’t saying much. They have said residential, hotels, restaurants, retail and more offices are under consideration, and the firm also is considering buying land.

But talk of spinoff development in the vicinity is well underway. A flagship store for Restoration Hardware, the luxury furniture and décor retailer, is under construction across Peachtree Road. The old Cheesecake Factory site also is available, and developers are snapping up land.

Massell, the Buckhead Coalition president, said more than 8,700 apartments are in some stage of planning or development in Buckhead since January 2012, driven by population growth and a surge in job creation.

Robin Loudermilk, the former president of rent-to-own retailer Aaron’s, said he and his father, Charlie Loudermilk, are at work on development plans for retail, office and high-density residential near Buckhead Atlanta.

The Loudermilks own about 20 acres near Buckhead Atlanta, and Robin Loudermilk said he expects to present plans in the next 60 to 90 days.

“Our plan has always been to follow the heels of what OliverMcMillan has delivered,” Loudermilk said. “We’re certainly not competing with them.”

Some of that work, Loudermilk said, will be managed by the family. Other pieces could be sold to other developers.

The existing retail in the area, Loudermilk said, is past its prime and needs renewal.

“The exciting part is it’s going to be redeveloped. There’s too much value there,” he said.

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