OPINION: Old Portman concrete tower could deliver new life to downtown

Peachtree Center in 1990. (AJC file photo)

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Peachtree Center in 1990. (AJC file photo)

A plan is seemingly afoot to transform an entire tower at John Portman’s iconic Peachtree Center from office space into residential. This is certainly a titillating development for downtown advocates who say this could help turn the tide for the long-forlorn area.

Sure, we’ve heard that before. The files of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are rife with such optimism, such as a 1983 story headlined, “Downtown coming back to life, merchants say.”

But this could be different. People have been moving back to the city of Atlanta in the past decade, and places like Midtown and the Beltline are sizzling hot, where people are clamoring for apartments and developers are only too happy to oblige. Sure, downtown has been a laggard in this mass enthusiasm. But there are signs its time is coming, what with a German conglomerate gobbling up scores of old buildings in South Downtown in recent years and the city giving developers from the Left Coast a seismic tax break to fill in the Gulch.

The idea that a building in Portman’s concrete fortress of modernity would be turned into residential living would be a step in a transformation toward making downtown more of a 24/7 place to be. Portman, the visionary architect/developer, transformed a huge swath of downtown with his several-block creation. He has been alternately seen as a hero and a villain, having either created a “city-within-a city” that helped save downtown when no one else was investing there, or having created an insular complex that turned its back on city streets and snuffed out all other life.

The hope is that bringing hundreds — and ultimately thousands — of new residents to those city streets would pump new life into downtown. And God knows it needs it.

Architect and developer John Portman outside his new building One Peachtree Center in Atlanta on Dec. 8, 1992. (RICH MAHAN / AJC file photo)

Credit: Rich Mahan

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Credit: Rich Mahan

Word of the project has been circulating for months, as the company that owns Peachtree Center, Banyan Street Capital, has been quietly emptying out the 27-story South Tower at 225 Peachtree St.

A young commercial real estate broker named Tim Wright broke the news last week on social media, having spoken with several tenants of that tower who are still under lease but have gotten carrots from the owners to move to other spaces in the complex.

I spoke with attorney Steven Wisebram, whose firm, Finch McCranie, is negotiating for other space from Banyan.

“It’s pretty empty over here right now. There’s not many people on the elevator,” Wisebram said. “I think we are the last guys here.”

He says there is no one else on his floor and there are few tenants left in the building. Changing focus from office space to residential makes sense, Wisebram said, with COVID-19 changing our collective mindset of working at home. “I know a lot of law firms that when their lease is up, they will take drastically less space,” he said.

In July, Portman Architects posted a story on the company’s website saying: “At 225 Peachtree Street, we are converting a 25-story tower from office to residential use. With less than 20% tenant occupancy in 2020, the remaining 274,170 (square feet) will be retrofit with residential housing and rooftop greenspaces to seamlessly accommodate additional users and activities.“

The post talked about “adaptive reuse” and said “historical office buildings converted into apartments have demonstrated a way to extend the life of buildings.”

It’s funny to think of Portmanville, kind of a dystopian version of the Jetsons, as “historic.” But most of the complex is more than 50 years old.

The Portman architects also underlined attorney Wisebram’s point: “The post-pandemic world perceives working in-office to be a thing of the past. Office buildings must take on a creative approach to adapting and diversifying offerings to bring people together to build culture, increase innovation, and spur new ideas through collaboration and connection.”

The Hub in downtown Atlanta’s Peachtree Center will feature a new lineup of restaurants, shops, entertainment experiences and boutique services such as fitness and grocery. CONTRIBUTED

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I contacted — repeatedly — the owners of the 2-million-square-foot development. Finally, I got a written statement from Banyan’s honcho, Taylor White: “We are big believers in the future of Downtown Atlanta and have made significant investments at and around Peachtree Center, such as our Ascent Peachtree project. While we are excited about the possibilities for this tower, it’s too premature to share specific plans at this time.”

In 2017, Banyan rebuilt the mall-like corridor of shops and restaurants under Peachtree Center called The Hub. It also partnered with an apartment developer to build a 29-story high-rise, with 345 apartments atop an old parking garage around the corner on Peachtree Center Avenue. Rents would range from $1,560 monthly for a small studio to pushing $6,000, a fact that would help along the proposed project at Peachtree Center. (The complex would offer some 70 lowered-rent “workforce” units because the developers got some financial love from Invest Atlanta.)

A.J. Robinson, the head of Central Atlanta Progress, a cheerleading org for downtown, said Banyan “has been looking at this seriously for a while” and must make a calculation to determine if it’s worth turning office space into rental units. One consideration, he said, is the buildings were built with a different era in mind. He noted the small lobbies. And office managers now want wide-open floor plans.

“You’d never build that as it is for offices today,” said Robinson, who was a Portman exec for 23 years and managed Peachtree Center. “This would be very innovative. There has been a march toward housing downtown, but not at this level.”

“The building is iconic now,” he said. “People seek out authenticity. Portman buildings are authentic.”

An influx of residents is vital to making downtown Atlanta a real big-time area. Last year, a group of residents from the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association fired off a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. They said the city government basically gave up on trying to maintain order and provide basic services after office workers, conventioneers, tourists and government employees disappeared because of the pandemic.

The group estimated it represents 6,000 residents living downtown — and there may be 14,000, including students at Georgia State University.

Kelly Parry, one of the authors of the letter, told me last week, “The city not paying attention to us is more of a general lack of an urban mindset.”

The city of Atlanta is a collection of neighborhoods and downtown is kind of an oddball in that quilt. Having more people living downtown gives the area some buzz and more of a voice with City Hall.

“The more residents, the better,” she said. It’s a chicken-or-egg thing. People don’t move there because there are few amenities (like, for instance, even a grocery store). And amenities won’t locate there because there aren’t enough people.

City planning czar Tim Keane said the design of the Portman complexes are masterful. A person can walk the labyrinth of tunnels, skybridges, atriums and corridors for blocks.

Stuart Jackson (left) and Robyn Jackson, longtime residents of South Downtown, recently bought a weed whacker to clean up the streets. Photo by Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

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Credit: Bill Torpy

Portman once told the AJC: “Venice (Italy) is my favorite city. I thought of the streets as canals. With the bridges, I wanted to tie the land masses together.”

But, Keane said, the design was almost like a shopping mall and “the city then abandoned the public spaces.” The street-level stores withered. The action was inside and set up almost by definition to exclude some people.

“The quality of Atlanta’s growth is dependent on downtown growing phenomenally,” Keane said. “To have just a few thousand (residents living downtown) is unfathomable. Change is dependent on things like this. The transformation of Peachtree Center could turn the tide. This could be a great new dynamic. The hope is this is the beginning of an entire new transformation.”