Mike Greene looks back fondly on his many visits to The Masquerade’s original location off North Avenue during his teenage years.
The century-old mill gained a second life as a grungy music venue, and Greene said he’s unable to separate the building from the good times he experienced there. So when The Masquerade moved half a decade ago to make way for a mixed-use development, Greene said it felt “like a piece of my memories are being changed.”
Greene, now a developer with Portman Holdings, is hearing that same perspective from the other side.
He’s in charge of an effort not far from his old teenage haunt to tear down several buildings along Ponce de Leon Avenue and the Beltline, blocks known for gritty bars and bumping nightclubs, to build a giant mixed-use project. The site, across the street from Ponce City Market, is home to businesses including The Local, The Bookhouse Pub, MJQ Concourse, Friends on Ponce and the recently shuttered restaurant 8ARM.
The Portman proposal, which is in its preliminary design phases and has yet to be rezoned, has sparked mixed feelings among neighbors. Some are anxious to see new life breathed into an aging area, while others decry the likely loss of many beloved businesses and late-night escapades.
“I’m really sad that we’re just tearing down all of the character of Atlanta,” Virginia-Highland resident Colleen Malikian said at a Nov. 16 community town hall.
Ryan Purcell, the owner of MJQ, said the nightclub will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, but it will be bittersweet since it’ll be the last time they do so on Ponce de Leon.
“You see places get developed and things change, and you hope it’s not coming to you,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “A lot of the classic places that people love are just being taken away.”
The stretch of low-rise buildings sit on the closest thing to oceanfront real estate that Atlanta has. The site has Beltline Eastside Trail frontage and is a short walk to Ponce City Market and other luxury developments nearby. The white hot neighborhood has seen land values soar, and to unlock profits, developers will want density.
Greene told the AJC he empathizes with those who worry about a big development leeching the color out of the area. While he believes in Portman’s project, he said it’s impossible for new construction to maintain that sense of uniqueness that’s been created over decades.
“We developers can lie to ourselves all we want and say we’re going to create authentic space in a new building, and yeah you can get that up to a certain point, but you can’t recreate flavor,” Greene said. “That grows naturally. That’s part of the character. You can’t artificially make it, and if you try and try too hard, people smell that a mile away.”
The town hall gave residents their first chance in person to weigh in on Portman’s plans, which include hundreds of apartments, 470,000 square feet of office space and roughly 38,000 square feet of retail space. At least 50 neighbors attended the two-hour discussion.
Portman filed for a development of regional impact analysis (DRI) last week, the first step for large projects that could affect multiple neighborhoods, cities or counties. The company expects to seek rezoning in January, and the soonest shovels could hit dirt is 2024. Greene emphasized multiple times that if residents do not want this project, it won’t move forward.
“You can’t force people to do anything,” he said. “Our attitude is we believe in ourselves, and we believe we can make something awesome here, and I hope that they will share that believe with us by the time we’re done and be excited. Or at least not be upset.”
Seeking local support
Rumors of potential redevelopment began circulating online last summer, with the threat of losing beloved bars and restaurants causing a stir.
Greene, who said he’s eyed the properties since last year, said most of that backlash appeared to come from visitors to Virginia-Highland, not residents who live there.
Stephen Ramsden, who lives near the bars, spoke at the town hall and said he is counting down the days until they’re demolished. He complained about trash and rowdy partygoers.
“Let’s not get carried away with some romantic idea that we’re tearing down Margaret Mitchell’s home or something,” he said. “It needs to be torn down, quickly.”
Portman, founded by renowned Atlanta architect and developer John Portman, has under contract land stretching from Morningside Storage to the gusto! restaurant. Greene said the deal is contingent upon Portman rezoning the land by mid-2023.
Greene said it’s vital to get the community on board with the project before starting the rezoning process.
The project site is in the southwest corner of Virginia-Highland, a wealthy residential neighborhood known for craftsman-style architecture in comparison to Old Fourth Ward’s graffiti and neon aesthetic, which has shifted recently to luxury apartments, million-dollar homes and trendy shops.
Jack White, planning co-chair for the Virginia-Highland Civic Association (VHCA), said the neighborhood has made its displeasure clear in the past when it rejects a large development.
In 2018, a proposal by Fuqua Development at 10th Street and Monroe Drive near Piedmont Park never got off the ground due to resident outcry. The project would have featured a hotel, a grocery store, a food hall and roughly 300 residences.
White, who hasn’t endorsed or rejected Portman’s project, said he’s been impressed with the developer’s neighborhood involvement so far.
“To my knowledge, we’ve never had a significant developer walk in and say we won’t do this if there’s significant, coherent neighborhood opposition,” White told the town hall audience.
Preparing for density
Some neighbors said change seems inevitable, since the property owners are willing to sell their land for redevelopment.
Aaron Fortner, a planning consultant for VHCA, told the AJC that residents have to be prepared for taller buildings and more densely packed dwellings, whether or not the Portman vision comes to fruition.
“There’s various city policy documents that have all affirmed this area should be more than just one-story buildings,” he said. “That’s something that the neighborhood has to be aware of, and that’s sort of a starting point for the conversation.”
Ponce de Leon Place bisects the site. The east half will have a residential tower and an office and retail building, while the west site will connect to the Beltline and consist solely of shops, restaurants and offices. Parking will be underground below the buildings.
He expects neighbors to find some consensus surrounding the project or at least some of the project’s details rezoning starts. Fortner added that the development’s design details, from traffic mitigation efforts to Beltline integration, should be scrutinized.
Greene said an existing Chipotle will return as a tenant, but it’s hard to include the other existing tenants, since the development likely can’t be completed before 2026. They’d have to close for roughly two years before they could reopen in the new space, which is impractical for many small businesses. As for the late-night businesses, he said it’s hard to incorporate bars and nightclubs into projects with so many residences.
Purcell, MJQ’s owner, said his business plans to move to a new location, which he isn’t ready to disclose. He said it’ll be a challenge to rebuild the sense of community they’ve formed over the decades in a new space.
“How do you hold on to this essence of what has been this hole in the wall place,” he said. “Even when we move, it’s going to be different.”
But Greene said it’s clear residents want the project to act as an entryway into Virginia-Highland, and they want a bevy of small businesses to bring their own character and charm to the area.
“One thing is clear and it’s that the neighborhood feels like they’re unique and they deserve something unique,” he said.