Atlanta’s Mad Men-era landmarks get makeovers

Colony Square, Peachtree Center mall, CNN Center slated for updates

Colony Square, Peachtree Center and CNN Center were mixed-use before mixed-use was cool.

But the three landmark Atlanta developments are products of their time – inward-focused fortresses over malls geared more to the workers inside and commuters in their cars than to attracting pedestrians off the streets.

Now all three are gearing up for major overhauls that their owners say will open the developments to their surroundings.

The renovations — each at a different stage of concept and design — will focus on energizing the malls to bring life to aging developments that need new juice to keep up with rivals.

The plans come amid a wave of in-town migration, renewed interest by employers in locating near transit in the urban core and tightening office space around the metro area. They also reflect a city that’s maturing and finding new uses and value in older buildings in prime locations.

“Projects like those are not unlike any other retail property,” said Abe Schear, a real estate lawyer focused in retail with Arnall Golden Gregory. “They’ve got to be spruced up from time to time.”

Customers and tenants’ needs change and shoppers are always seeking new experiences, he said. But an old real estate adage — location, location, location — also holds true.

“I think what’s true about all three of them, all three are on terrific pieces of dirt,” Schear said.

The upside to the owners is if they get the refreshes right, they’ll boost traffic to stores, increase spending and reap the benefits in higher rents.

Midtown’s ‘living room’

Plans for Colony Square, the Midtown pioneer of mixed-use development, are the most developed. In December, North American Properties and equity partner Lionstone Investments acquired the two office towers and the mall and announced plans to turn the complex into Midtown’s “living room.”

Since then, the team has developed a still-evolving concept of taking the top off the existing mall and building a modern-looking glass plaza with new retail, public art and cafes.

An installation of letters spelling out “Midtown” and public events in the plaza have helped create some buzz.

In May, North American and Lionstone announced New York City architects Beyer Blinder Belle and Atlanta’s Lord Aeck Sargent had been hired to help transform the public spaces. The project will take cues from well-known public squares such as Plaza De Santa Ana in Madrid, and will focus on the pedestrian experience, the team said.

Jeff Speck, a Boston-based city planner who’s a consultant on the project, said the team is thinking not just of how to move pedestrians around Colony Square but to knit the development into future street improvements being studied by the Midtown Alliance. (Speck is a consultant to the Midtown Alliance as well.)

The 1960s and 1970s design concepts were to move suburban features, such as indoor malls, into cities.

“For a while many cities thought they could beat the suburbs by competing with the suburbs on the suburbs’ own terms,” he said. “But you can never beat a suburb by becoming more suburban because they can always be more suburban than you.”

Speck said he wants the Colony Square plaza to feel as if it’s a natural extension of the street grid, though no cars will travel through it.

De-malling a mall

Mark Toro, managing partner for North American in Atlanta, said his team’s task is to “de-mall a ‘70s vintage mall, turn it inside out and create true public spaces and address the street.”

“All (three) of these properties were developed at a time when you turned your back on the street,” he said.

North American’s plan encompasses the current mall and potentially adding another 60,000 square feet of retail space. Toro said his group has been approached by retailers seeking “flagship” stores, though he declined to name potential merchants. He declined to discuss speculation about an Apple store, though he did say his team is considering a boutique movie theater concept featuring fine dining.

Toro said his team is racing towards July 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Colony Square’s ground breaking, to finish construction.

Colony Square is at the northern end of the long-planned “Midtown Mile” of street front retail and denser development.

“I live a block away and I’ve coveted Colony Square for going on 10 years,” Toro said. He noted thousands of new apartments planned within a few blocks and thousands of office workers nearby.

“As the foot traffic has built, you can feel the momentum build every day,” he said.

Downtown’s return from the economic slump has been slower than Midtown’s revival, but there are signs of awakening. Among them is the effort to rethink the mall at Peachtree Center.

Marti Blackstock, an executive with Peachtree Center’s owner, Banyan Street Capital, said her group wants to make the complex more attractive to office tenants but also tourists and downtown residents, and to bring more weekend business.

The basic design of Peachtree Center won’t change, but Banyan Street and its leasing team at CBRE want to put restaurants and shops in Peachtree Center’s outdoor plaza to make the complex more inviting to the street. They’re also considering restaurants with entertainment components to woo corporate retreats and customers for after-work functions.

‘Downtown is relevant’

“I think downtown is relevant and will only become more relevant as the office market grows stronger,” Blackstock said.

Noted Atlanta architect and developer John C. Portman Jr., who created Peachtree Center, bought the complex’s original office tower, 230 Peachtree, and recently converted some of the lower floors into a Hotel Indigo. Guests at the new hotel are another potential center of demand for the downtown complex, Blackstock said.

At CNN Center, redevelopment plans are still in their infancy. But in May, CNN parent Turner Broadcasting announced it is considering renovations as part of other real estate moves in the city.

In a meeting with employees, Turner executives said the work will focus on the food court as well as office space. Turner also plans to sell its 50 percent stake in the Omni Hotel.

But Turner said the Hawks’ plans for a future entertainment district at Philips Arena were central to their thinking. The studio tour at CNN Center remains one of the city’s more popular tourist draws, and the atrium is a front door of sorts for fan attending events at the neighboring arena.