On a Wednesday evening in May, Aida and Allan Flamm drove away from their Buckhead home of 31 years heading for Palm Beach. The couple had been stalwarts of the community, but in recent years, it had just gotten to be too much.
The relentless development was a prime factor in their decision to leave. “Buckhead has changed and I don’t think it is for the better,” said Aida Flamm.
In recent years, stalled developments — most notably in Buckhead Village, the geographical center of Buckhead district — were put back in action, bringing in a new crop of restaurant, retail, residential and office spaces.
It is a phenomenon playing out across the metro area as mixed-use developments from north of Alpharetta to south of I-20 continue to crop up, serving area residents as well as visitors.
While some longtime residents in Buckhead may look back on the old days with nostalgia, developers plow forward. But finding the right mix of players can be a challenge. Some retail shops and restaurants in Buckhead have opened and closed so quickly, residents have said they never had the chance to visit.
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At the Shops Buckhead Atlanta, some restaurants, such as American Food and Beverage and Thirteen Pies, and clothing retailers, such as Kit and Ace and ScoopNYC, closed amid corporate changes. But other retailers such as Helmut Lang, Denim & Soul and at least one service concept also departed. New York-based LDV Hospitality has brought in three concepts: Dolce Italian, Corso Coffee and posh steakhouse American Cut. Only the latter remains. Birmingham, Ala.-based Revelator Coffee is now giving it a go in the former Corso space with Mourning Dove coffee shop.
Dene Oliver, CEO of OliverMcMillan, the developer who took over and revived the stalled project in 2011, said the challenges have been a combination of economic changes, shifts in the retail industry and the business model of any given company. Dolce, a top restaurant in New York, simply didn’t have a product that suited the Atlanta market, he said.
“It is great real estate and it will always be great real estate,” Oliver said. “Who is going to be most successful there? Time will tell.”
A work in progress
After two decades, Buckhead, the place that once defined the entire city of Atlanta, is still searching for a new identity, and those who are deeply invested will admit, it remains a work in progress.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Buckhead, one of the fastest-growing areas in the region, shifted the city’s economic center away from downtown. Even as the 1990s saw development pick up in outlying areas such as Alpharetta and Duluth, Buckhead kept booming.
Buckhead has remained one of the wealthiest districts in metro Atlanta. The average home sale price in 2016 was just over $1.1 million. Preserving that cachet is part of what drove one of the largest redevelopment efforts in the area.
Buckhead Village was known for its clubs, bars, restaurants and the street-thronging crowds on weekends. But in 2000, several high-profile crimes led to a crackdown that would bring the end of an era. By 2006, the area had become 8 acres of razed land on which developer Ben Carter had planned to build a mixed-use development.
The property has met its promises of walkability, beautiful landscaping, luxury retail and dining, but the area has never seen the kind of traffic it saw when it was the epicenter of nightlife in the city. As a result, some tenants have come and gone with complaints of high rent and low traffic.
“Is our rent expensive? Yes, our rent is expensive. Our real estate is expensive. We have adjusted our rents and we have adjusted it downward,” Oliver said.
Foot traffic in 2017 was up 20 percent over the previous year with about 70 percent from local visitors. Sales are up more than 30 percent over the past three years, Oliver said.
“It is taking much longer to gestate this project than we ever expected,” Oliver said, but he pointed to the development that the project helped spur.
Beyond the Shops Buckhead Atlanta
There are at least two dozen development projects in the Buckhead district right now. That includes a conversion of Phipps Plaza into a mixed-use center that will include the upscale Japanese dining concept Nobu as part of the Nobu Hotel, along with a number of residential high-rises and more.
For decades, Phipps Plaza and its sister center, Lenox Square, were the premier shopping destinations in the city. They, too, have been shaken up by the economic challenges in the retail industry and by the shift away from mall shopping. Most recently, that includes the closure of Belk, one of Phipps’ anchor stores.
Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz of Miami-based Genuine Hospitality Group said the company selected Buckhead for the Genuine Pizza concept it opened in Phipps Plaza in January because “density is important to us — and sophistication, a progressive attitude toward food.”
“The Buckhead dining scene is evolving just like the rest of Atlanta,” said Todd Richards, chef-owner of Richards’ Southern Fried at Krog Street Market. He fed the affluent crowd when he worked at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead from 2010 to 2012. “It’s not just about the classic places that have been there for quite a long time. It’s about new energy and established corporate dining wanting to come to the area. That’s driven by retail. It’s retail-focused dining.”
Richards noted that he couldn’t necessarily afford to open an eatery in Buckhead because “access to capital is a lot different” for restaurant groups than for independent operators such as chef-owners.
Not the only game in town
Buckhead remains the primary destination for luxury shopping and plenty of fine dining, but these days, there are other choices.
Midtown is experiencing a boom in development. Multiuse development Ponce City Market bustles with visitors who can choose from more than two dozen food concepts, shop for everything from boutique clothing and jewelry to high-end home decor, or head to Skyline Park on the rooftop for carnival amusements.
Kyle Raymond, 30, who recently moved to Smyrna, frequents Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market. “One of the things about Atlanta is there doesn’t seem like there is a central heart,” he said. “There are a lot of different places to be. I don’t see Buckhead or downtown being places people want to go.”
Residents north of the Perimeter can now stay closer to home yet still enjoy shopping and dining at Avalon, a large-scale mixed-use development in Alpharetta.
Leila Gomez, a real estate agent, lived in Buckhead for years before moving to Alpharetta in 2002. Avalon, she said, has become a landmark in the area. Locals at one point called it “the new Buckhead,” she said.
Schwartz of Buckhead’s Genuine Pizza knows that his restaurant can’t be all things to all people, but “what we want to accomplish as operators is to, within a limited scope, offer as many experiences as we can. As a millennial, you’ll feel comfortable. Businessmen, families … you’ll feel comfortable.”
Restaurateur Pano Karatassos has seen Buckhead shift from an exclusive residential area to one with a focus on commercial retail since his Pano’s & Paul’s debuted on West Paces Ferry back in 1979. The founder and CEO of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group said that the clientele who visit one of his eight Buckhead restaurants these days include a mix of “the well-heeled, older crowd” as well as young professionals who “don’t mind spending, but they want value. I’m talking the total package: quality, consistency, service.”
Millennials are the up-and-coming customers, and maybe they will help define Buckhead in the future, said Caren West, founder of Caren West PR. When she and other Gen Xers begin reminiscing about the good old days in Buckhead, the millennials on her team look at them with blank faces. “There was such energy around Buckhead and it was so exciting,” she said. “It has gone through this transition … Buckhead is still trying to find itself.”