With new public plazas, office workers set to return to a greener Midtown

Clockwise from top left: Renderings for new greenspace at Bank of America Plaza, Tower Square, Midtown Union and The Commons at Lake Hearn.

Credit: Courtesy: Shorenstein Properties, Tower Square, Cooper Carry, SK Commercial Realty

Credit: Courtesy: Shorenstein Properties, Tower Square, Cooper Carry, SK Commercial Realty

Developments old and new are adding new greenspace to their designs

Some companies have decided the best way to bring workers back to the office may be to tempt them to come outside.

Office buildings across metro Atlanta are adding expansive outdoor spaces complete with deck chairs, retractable glass canopies and plenty of grass, both real and fake. Some even have huge video screens and bars.

In Midtown, aging office towers like Colony Square, Bank of America Plaza and the former AT&T Midtown Center are retrofitting their outdoor common areas to add new public plazas. Pockets of greenspace are also coming as part of new developments currently under construction. Even midrise suburban office parks have enhanced their outdoor spaces.

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With many Atlantans still working from home, building owners are expanding outdoor areas to both lure workers back to the office and keep them there for the long run. The plazas offer space for social distancing, but also a reason to hang out at the office after closing time. Business leaders in Midtown also hope the additional greenspace makes for a more welcoming and vibrant atmosphere for residents and pedestrians.

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The high levels of office vacancies might also be driving some decisions. The vacancy rate at Atlanta-area office buildings hit 19.4% in December, its highest level since 2014, according to real estate firm JLL. Despite those black clouds, many office building owners are betting that workers come back by adding bigger spaces outdoors.

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“I think with the events of the last year, functioning outdoor spaces matter a lot,” said Kevin Green, the president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance. “People need more places to gather and they need more elbow room.”

A rendering for the new Midtown Union project.

Credit: Courtesy: Midtown Union/Cooper Carry

Credit: Courtesy: Midtown Union/Cooper Carry

Many office workers, especially in younger generations, have come to expect it, said Matt Wilson, a senior associate at Cooper Carry, an architecture firm designing Midtown Union, a mixed-use project at 17th, Spring and West Peachtree streets.

“It’s becoming a necessity now to start with the question, ‘What are the amenities?’” Wilson said. “Yes, this is a bank tower, but how do we get beyond that?”

Midtown Union will include offices, residences and retail offerings. A quick glance at renderings for the project, however, and you might mistake Midtown Union for a a luxury hotel. One rooftop deck features outdoor pools, projection-wall video screens, cabanas with curtains and private video screens, an outdoor kitchen and at least two large fire pits. It will also include public outdoor space at ground level.

After more than a year working from home, it may take time to persuade Atlantans that it’s worth it to hop in their cars or on MARTA again and commute to work. More than half of full-time employees want to work from home at least three days a week after the pandemic recedes, according to a survey conducted by PwC in November and December.

“This is a third space,” Wilson said. “It’s not your home and it’s not your office. But it’s another place to get things done and be productive.”

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A mile and a half south, at the Bank of America Plaza building, the tallest skyscraper in the Southeast, developers are in the midst of a major overhaul of greenspace at the corner of Peachtree Street and North Avenue. With more places to sit and additional greenspace, the goal of the 1.2-acre park is to make the plaza, built in 1992, more accessible from the sidewalk and provide more places for office workers to gather. It is set to open this summer.

Midtown has long been a dense residential and office hub in Atlanta’s urban core, but has historically lacked pockets of greenspace and public spaces outside of Piedmont Park. Green said the new outdoor spaces coming to Midtown will make the neighborhood more pedestrian-friendly and encourage people to walk more.

“Maybe Atlanta is little late to the game on this, but I think it’s here,” he said.

Colony Square, which first opened in the early 1970s at the corner of Peachtree and 14th streets, is in the midst of a $400 million renovation. Those changes include adding a 10,000-square-foot plaza, inspired by the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid. It opened in October and is already seeing the result of pent-up pandemic-related demand, said Mark Toro, the chairman of North American Properties’ Atlanta office, which is spearheading the Colony Square renovation.

The new plaza at Midtown's Colony Square at the corner of Peachtree and 14th streets. (Jenni Girtman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Events for April happening on the plaza are all sold out. He expects it will become even more popular after the nearby food hall opens.

“The idea is that we’re leading our community out of isolation by providing this public space,” Toro said. “You see people working, you see people just coming and meeting and having a cup of coffee. It has become the gathering place for everybody all over Midtown.”

The appeal of outdoor space near offices goes beyond Midtown. The Commons at Lake Hearn is a six-story medical office building in Sandy Springs that has always had an outdoor area where workers and visitors could spend time outside. However, few people used the space, said Scott Martin, a senior vice president at SK Commercial Realty.

SK spent $1.1 million to add a 1,200-square-foot canopy with a retractable glass roof, install commercial-grade seating and tables, and make other improvements. That’s enough space to accommodate 80 people.

“We’re transforming it and bringing it back to life,” Martin said. “We’re taking a space you might have looked at through a window and making it a place that’s inviting where you can actually go use it.”

Colony Square said the new plaza has been a successful draw after opening in October. (Jenni Girtman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman