Torpy at Large: Atlanta’s apartment craze: Just add Millennials

If you’re getting a feeling of déjà vu when passing those new apartments going up all over town, well, you’re on to something.

Metro Atlanta has become the nation’s second-hottest apartment market (Brooklyn is No. 1) and developers are rushing to meet the shelter needs of all those new folks moving to town. A relatively new housing product called the “five-over-one” is becoming the new apartment standard in hot metro neighborhoods across the nation.

You’ll see more of these human terrariums popping up in areas where people want to live-work-play — like the Beltline, Atlanta’s northwest side and a few northern ‘burbs. The style is five stories of wood-framed construction over a concrete podium slab. Downstairs, you have the coffee shops, eateries and parking, while upstairs developers can stack five floors of Millennials paying $1,500-and-up per keyhole.

As with anything, the buildings provide a certain utility and ubiquity, bordering on numbing similarity. The architects dress them up with brick facades, painted siding, cantilevers, stucco and micro-decks where residents can catch a breath of city air and stash their bikes.

But after a while they start to seem the same, even in their stabs at individuality.

Or so I thought. But who am I? I never went to urban design school.

A couple months ago, however, I got a nudge of affirmation from Matt Bronfman, head of Jamestown Properties, who turned the old Sears building into the nuclear-hot Ponce City Market. (I know, I know, everyone is tired of hearing about the Ponce City Market, so I won’t mention it again.)

Anyways, Bronfman told a collection of high-priced attorneys, developers and urbanist-types that “it’s way too easy to build a building here.”

He used the term “commodity building” to say aesthetics were getting the bum’s rush in Atlanta. “They let people put up too much schlock in this city,” he said, which he later regretted. Sort of.

I called and asked him is the new style Modern Minimalist? Or just Cheap?

Developers are getting inexpensive financing these days, he said, and they often ask themselves, “What is the cheapest way to build it?” And, he added, “it often looks like it.”

Apartments are increasingly looking alike and the city needs a tougher process in approving building facades. I guess he is asking someone to save developers from themselves. Maybe creating some sort of a style police.

“Facades are important,” he said. “You want them to look good in 10 or 15 years, particularly on our most valuable addresses.”

The Beltline, he added, “is our closest thing we have to beachfront property.”

Not long ago, I was on the Beltline and shot a panoramic photo of the new apartments. The architecture style looked to me like Early Soviet Bloc.

To test my theory, I called my old AJC colleague Catherine Fox, founder of the ArtsATL website, and asked her to jump in my minivan and take a tour. Cathy, an award-winning art and architecture critic, did so and continually tried to disabuse me of the Soviet hypothesis.

At one stop, she pointed to the building and said the commies wouldn’t have had cantilevers and decks, nor would they paint, as builders did one Howell Mill apartment, in alternating colors of ochre and rust. (I saw beige and red and wondered whether all that was separating some new Atlanta construction from Kazakhstan was industrial paint.)

Atlanta architect David Hamilton, who is designing a five-over-one on Memorial Drive, admitted developers “are a bit like lemmings. Once they see what works, they keep doing it.”

Some hire architects who “just pull the plans off the shelf,” although he noted that “good design doesn’t take that much money.”

Atlanta, Hamilton said, has long been an “ownership city,” with single-family housing being the bedrock. But that is changing with young people not wanting to (or not being able to) buy and people wanting to move where the action is. Plus, he said, “People are more aware of good design in Atlanta than they were.”

Terry Kearns, a retired computer programmer who runs the Architecture Tourist blog, said there has been a “globalization of architecture. You just can’t tell what city you’re in.”

In fact, in my reading, I came across complaints about the sterility of the five-over-one buildings from Charlotte to Seattle.

“I call them spreadsheet apartments,” Kearns said. “You can build them fast and calculate the costs and the rents.

“I wish there was an apartment going up that I’d want to make the extra trip to go back and see,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “But I can’t really think of one.”

Still, Kearns said, the apartments are bringing people in-town and putting them on the streets and sidewalks, which is the key.

“Atlanta has something happening that other cities don’t,” he said. “It’s confident, optimistic and excited about its future.”

If we can just get some more vivid architectural sight lines, comrades.

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