Portman’s effort to supercharge Amsterdam Walk creates a lightning rod

Developer’s vertical vision for 9-acre shopping center could become a new Beltline destination, but it garners pushback from neighbors over density and traffic fears
Views of Amsterdam Walk development in Midtown shown on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Views of Amsterdam Walk development in Midtown shown on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect results Wednesday of the area’s non-binding neighborhood planning unit vote.

A quirky retail district near Piedmont Park has become the latest flashpoint for development along the Atlanta Beltline.

Atlanta developer Portman Holdings wants to transform Amsterdam Walk, a 9-acre shopping center housed within a series of aging warehouses, into 840 residential units along with new offices, retail spaces and public plazas. But during a pair of community meetings Monday night, many neighbors said the plans are a terrible fit for the neighborhoods.

Signs opposing the development’s high-rise scale dot the well-manicured lawns of Morningside-Lenox Park and Virginia-Highland. A petition against the project has garnered more than 970 signatures over fears of increased traffic and its supply of new rental residential units in an area that’s avoided Atlanta’s apartment development boom.

Credit: Zachary Hansen

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Credit: Zachary Hansen

“This plan is super high density, way more than any other project that exists along the Beltline,” resident Charlie Kaften said during the Morningside neighborhood meeting.

Still, after hours of debate Monday, leaders for both neighborhoods voted to back the proposal. But on Wednesday, a neighborhood planning unit overwhelmingly voted against the plan with 77% in opposition, according to Rough Draft Atlanta. Those votes are advisory and non-binding. The proposal needs to go before multiple city planning committees before reaching Atlanta City Council, meaning a final vote is still months away.

Most of the neighborhood board members argue the proposal fits with comprehensive plans and the character the Beltline aims to foster. They add that they’ve pushed Portman to reduce the project’s scale, paring back the number of apartments and chipping away at the buildings’ height. But many who spoke Monday prefer more changes and accused the board of bowing to the developer.

“Anyone who wants to imply that the board has ulterior motives can go to hell,” Micah Coleman, a Morningside-Lenox Park Association board member, said during the meeting. Two members of his board voted against the project, and one Virginia-Highland member also dissented.

The 22-mile Beltline loop has become a magnet for developers, especially the Eastside Trail and the area around Ponce City Market. Just as a plan to install a light rail line along the trail has become a lightning rod for controversy, so have dense development proposals.

Portman’s current proposal includes razing the existing warehouses to replace them with new buildings — the tallest a 15-story tower rising 180 feet.

Mike Greene, Portman’s vice president of development, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Amsterdam Walk is the only suitable site for a Beltline-adjacent project east of Piedmont Park.

“If you want this portion of the Beltline to be active and engaging the park, that’s your option,” he said.

Portman Vice President of Development Mike Greene stands on the transit corridor in front of Beltline construction on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

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High-rise zoning

In April 2023, the AJC broke the news that Portman was partnering with Amsterdam Walk’s owner, Halpern Enterprises, to redevelop the aging shopping center.

The developer first approached the neighborhood groups in late 2022, where they hashed out concerns over density, traffic, the number of apartments and the buildings’ heights, according to Don Campbell, Morningside’s president.

Initial plans for a 17-story apartment tower and 13-story office building have shifted.

“It’s not going to be agreeable to everyone, but there has to be a compromise,” Campbell said.

This is a rendering of Portman Holdings' Amsterdam Walk project.

Credit: SOM Architects

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Credit: SOM Architects

The revised 1.2 million-square-foot development plan was unveiled in early May, slightly reducing the number of apartments, slashing office space and lowering max building heights — a 21% cut to the project’s square footage. The building reduction reduces the anticipated number of new daily car trips to fewer than 2,400, roughly a 40% decline from the original proposal.

Credit: SOM Architects

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Credit: SOM Architects

Amsterdam Walk is currently zoned C-1, which allows for about 750,000 square feet of commercial and about 300,000 square feet of residential. Portman’s proposal needs to be rezoned to allow for more residential, but the amount of commercial space would be much less.

Multiple residents in favor of the project cautioned their neighbors against opposing Portman’s plan, since high-rises are allowed under the current zoning. Hernán Bello, a project opponent, called that a scare tactic, asking why no one has built an office tower on the property yet.

“There’s not going to be someone coming to build a 30-level office space in that area,” he said. “... and we’ll fight it at that point.”

Connectivity and transit

Another point of contention is how Amsterdam Walk will interact with the Beltline as a transit corridor. Some residents blasted Portman for its opposition to Beltline rail while proposing a huge project along already congested roads.

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The property lies about 16 feet below the Beltline, so Greene said an underground deck with about 1,400 parking spaces will line up public plazas and shop entrances with the multi-use trail.

However, the trail is separated by one key area — the Beltline’s transit corridor.

It’s an area along the path designated for future parallel transportation to run alongside the Beltline. The original plan, a light rail extension, has faced a recent wave of scrutiny from prominent Atlanta leaders such as Mayor Andre Dickens.

Greene and other Portman officials have questioned light rail’s viability, sparking backlash from urbanists concerned that Amsterdam Walk’s development could sully those connections. Greene said that won’t be the case, since Amsterdam Walk will only have two spurs connecting to the Beltline and will preserve the transit corridor.

“If it wasn’t for the transit corridor, I would make this whole stretch of the project connect to the Beltline,” he said. “It would be awesome. It would be waterfront.”

Views of Beltline construction (left) and the transit corridor (right) near the Amsterdam Walk development in Midtown shown on Friday, May 10, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

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Brandon Dhande, the secretary of Morningside’s board, voted against Portman’s plan Monday over the developer’s light rail opposition.

“You shouldn’t be able to put density on the Beltline and, not just be neutral, but oppose transit,” he said. “This is not an amenity, a lake, a river or a beach. It’s a transit corridor that needs to have light rail transit.”

If the rezoning is allowed, Greene doesn’t expect to break ground until 2026. The entire project will likely take three years to complete, potentially opening by 2029.

Halley Blythe, a resident in support of the project, spoke in favor of the developer’s commitment to preserve 20% of apartments at below market-rent rates alongside some affordable retail spaces.

“These are great neighborhoods that I want to share with more people,” Blythe said. “I want to share them with middle- to low-income people as well. I don’t want to keep it to myself.”