Portman evolves development style to meet a changing Atlanta

Famed development firm known for downtown fortresses shifts focus to walkable projects in Midtown and along the Beltline
Portman CEO and Chairman Ambrish Baisiwala poses for a portrait at his company’s new development Krog Junction in Atlanta on Monday, December 4, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Portman CEO and Chairman Ambrish Baisiwala poses for a portrait at his company’s new development Krog Junction in Atlanta on Monday, December 4, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Some of Atlanta’s most distinctive structures came from the hands and eye of the late John Portman.

Portman creations such as Peachtree Center, the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel and Truist Plaza help define the look of modern Atlanta. Portman’s business empire continues to build skyward, adding Georgia Tech’s Coda and Spring Quarter in Midtown in recent years. But many of Portman Holdings’ newest development deals represent a new approach and scale for the storied Atlanta firm.

“Consumer preferences change. Tastes change,” Ambrish Baisiwala, the CEO of Portman Holdings, said. “Today, it’s all about indoor-outdoor integration.”

Portman is developing three projects along the Beltline’s eastside trail and is under contract to buy 15 acres near the westside trail for a fourth development. The flurry of activity makes Portman one of the busiest developers along the popular multi-use trail, which is quickly gaining a skyline of its own.

As result of zoning, Beltline developments tend to be smaller, favoring mid-rises to avoid dominating nearby neighborhood streets while attracting passerby. It’s almost the antithesis of Portman’s legacy projects.

Portman is credited with revitalizing city centers from San Francisco to Shanghai, but many of his landmark buildings have been criticized for occupying a separate realm from the streets below. Sky bridges, like those connecting Peachtree Center’s towers, are nowhere to be seen along the Beltline or in many contemporary designs.

Portman’s shifting design on its new developments epitomize how walkable districts are influencing not only where projects take place in Atlanta but how they look.

“It’s an evolution of not only (Portman’s) architecture but how the city evolved to reward much more open space and activity at a street level,” said AJ Robinson, a former Portman executive who now leads downtown civic group Central Atlanta Progress. “We were in love with the automobile for way too long.”

‘Experimental playground’

From the start of his career, John Portman made an impact in Atlanta.

His first major project in the city, the 7-million-square-foot wholesale market known today as AmericasMart Atlanta, was a statement of purpose in the early 1960s. The surrounding Peachtree Center office towers and mall expanded the district’s scope and featured its own fortress-like design, incorporating controversial sky bridges that allowed office workers to avoid the streets below.

A person enters Peachtree Center in Atlanta on Monday, September 25, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

His other designs were equally bold. The cylindrical Westin Peachtree Plaza, at 723 feet tall, was the tallest hotel in the world when it was finished in 1976.

Robinson, who left Portman in 2003 after a 22-year stint, said his boss honed his style in Atlanta and replicated it in other cities.

“Atlanta was his experimental playground,” Robinson said.

Baisiwala, a global real estate veteran appointed as Portman CEO in 2010, said Truist Plaza marked a turning point for the company’s design evolution in Atlanta. Completed in 1992, the city’s second-tallest building features a public ground-level area with statues, art and water features designed to intrigue those trekking through downtown.

John Portman was a rarity by acting as both the architect and developer on many of his projects, and Baisiwala said the company tries to remain consistent with its founder’s ideals.

“He was a very talented architect and designer who kind of saw through it all,” Baisiwala said. “We are basically carrying on the same philosophy and same approach.”

Portman CEO and Chairman Ambrish Baisiwala poses for a portrait at his company’s new development Krog Junction in Atlanta on Monday, December 4, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Remaining selective is the cornerstone of that approach.

Baisiwala said the firm looks for a lengthy list of prerequisites before it takes on a project in a new city or emerging part of town. From population density to rent rate trajectory, he said Portman will carefully evaluate neighborhoods and available project sites before drawing up design documents or bidding on property.

“We end up saying no to more deals than we say yes to,” Baisiwala said. “We’re very fortunate in that we don’t have to do deals unless we really believe in them.”

The Beltline effect

John Portman might not have been among the earliest developers on the Beltline, he was one of the its earliest benefactors. Portman and his companies donated more than $1 million to help create the 22-mile loop of trails on former rail lines around the city.

Dave Pierce, the Beltline’s director of real estate and asset management, said before the Beltline, buildings “turned their backs” on the rail corridors, he said, but that has reversed as developers flocked to tap into the trail’s many users.

“It’s created an entirely new way of thinking about development in our city that is primarily influenced by walkability,” said Jim Irwin, the president of New City Properties, the developer behind the Beltline-adjacent Fourth Ward project.

Portman began its first Beltline project in 2018 by buying 1.4 acres near the popular Krog Street Market to develop a boutique hotel. However, those plans were nixed after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, instead resulting in a mixed-use development called Krog Junction. Baisiwala said his design team evaluated more than 140 concepts and iterations before pivoting to a six-story office building that recently finished construction.

Portman’s land-buying spree along the Beltline — which Baisiwala said equates to “previous waterfront real estate” — would only ramp up from there.

A view of 667 Auburn Avenue in Atlanta on Monday, December 4, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Since late 2022, Portman bought multiple blocks along a stretch of Ponce de Leon Avenue to redevelop, acquired the Amsterdam Walk shopping center through a development partnership and bought land to expand Krog Junction. Baisiwala added that Portman will pursue its first development along the Beltline near West Midtown, but declined to provide further details. But he made clear that Portman is reacting to the Beltline’s quick ascension as an Atlanta attraction.

“Companies are relocating to Atlanta because of Georgia’s economic setup but also its talent pool,” Baisiwala said. “The talent pool wants to be here for the lifestyle, and the Beltline is a big component.”

The Beltline lifestyle and the rush for developers to meet its demands have prompted controversy among longtime neighbors. Portman found itself facing some community pushback over its Ponce de Leon Avenue and Amsterdam Walk redevelopment plans, which are poised to raze existing structures to make way for new construction.

During meetings with the Virginia-Highland and Morningside-Lenox Park neighborhoods, Portman Vice President of Development Mike Greene repeatedly said his firm would not pursue rezoning the project sites for denser redevelopment if the neighborhoods were united in opposition. Baisiwala reiterated that approach, saying Portman is “not going to try and force something through.”

Portman Holding released renderings of its proposed Amsterdam Walk redevelopment during a September 2023 community meeting.

Credit: Portman Holdings

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Credit: Portman Holdings

Aaron Fortner, a planning consultant for the Virginia-Highland Civic Association, said it’s rare neighbors are approached that early in the process. He added that Portman was quick to show off detailed renderings, site plans and schematics to show what its projects would look like and how they would impact surrounding roads and street views.

“They’re not just basic drawings. They’re really immersive and well-done, which helps people to really visualize what this will look like,” Fortner said. “... I think that’s where John Portman’s legacy is still alive and well at this company.”

’A sucker for punishment’

Downtown may be where John Portman got his start and where his company’s headquarters are located today, but it’s not a place that meets the firm’s criteria for new projects.

The city center remains home to Atlanta’s older and often cheaper office stock, but a lagging office market since the pandemic has prompted multiple foreclosures, including six towers and the mall within Portman’s iconic Peachtree Center. While no longer owned by the company, the office towers have struggled to retain large tenants.

Multiple large downtown towers, including 225 Peachtree within Peachtree Center, are vacant awaiting a potential second life as an apartment building or hotel.

“Iconic buildings tend to stick around,” Robinson said.

In 2016, Portman re-acquired Peachtree Center’s first office tower known as 230 Peachtree to transform into a Hotel Indigo, refreshed office space and an upscale restaurant. Baisiwala said he’s keeping an eye on other potential conversion candidates.

“If none of the buildings become available because they are viable as offices, that’s great news because that means downtown is in a good place,” he said. “But if the buildings do become available and that office play wasn’t viable, we are very actively keeping an eye on that and seeing how we can lean in.”

Multiple megaprojects are underway downtown aiming to revitalize the area and create new housing opportunities. Baisiwala said he’s watching those efforts closely and expects they’ll pay off long-term.

“Residential density will attract retailers and food outlets, and that starts the next cycle (of investment),” he said. “But it all takes time.”

He pointed to a section of Midtown near Georgia Tech’s campus as a recent example. Portman was the development partner on Georgia Tech’s Coda tower, a research center and corporate office space within the institute’s Technology Square campus.

Views Coda Tech Square on the campus of Georgia Tech as seen on Thursday, October 20, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Tech Square’s development has led multiple corporate giants to build new campuses nearby.

But Baisiwala said financing Coda was a challenge, since it was unproven whether that corporate investment would follow. He said developers who stick to their convictions and deliver time-tested buildings, whether in emerging areas of overlooked districts, are what create future landmarks.

“We are almost a sucker for punishment,” he said. “You just have to be comfortable that whatever you’re taking on and be able to stand behind it.”