OPINION: Reusing offices for living space? A new twist on ‘That ‘70s Show’

Views of Two Peachtree office building in Downtown Atlanta as seen on Tuesday, December 13, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

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

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

Views of Two Peachtree office building in Downtown Atlanta as seen on Tuesday, December 13, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The concept of “adaptive reuse” seems to make sense on a “Yeah-duh” level: Office spaces in aging downtown towers are emptying as folks work from home. And a housing shortage forces people to pay dearly for rent.

Basically, the idea is to turn a structure used for one thing (offices, warehousing, factories) into something else (apartments, retail, brewpubs) once it outlives its original purpose.

The office-to-residential switcheroo is providing a bit of hope for downtown Atlanta’s sagging office market. Filling up space and enlivening the area with living, breathing and taxpaying residents is something downtown badly needs.

Adapting old warehouses, cotton mills and factories into residential lofts, hip restaurants and innovative workspaces has been done. Raw brick walls, industrial beams, wrought-iron staircases and tall ceilings are vital to the necessary uniqueness.

But how will it go when the buildings being converted are vanilla 1970s office towers?

That’s the multi-million-dollar question.

To help answer that, Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) has hired a consulting firm to analyze downtown’s buildings and surrounding street scenes to come up with an idea of the do-ability of conversion.

Seneca Langston walks in front of the Grant Building on Saturday, March 18, 2023, in Downtown Atlanta. Many office buildings like the Grant Building are being considered for apartment conversion since the pandemic has changed the office building landscape. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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The commercial real estate firm Avison Young did a survey of 26,000 buildings in 14 North American cities (Atlanta wasn’t one) and determined a third could be candidates to be reused. That’s not to say they should be converted. Just that they could.

There are many factors involved. First is whether it makes financial sense.

“The No. 1 factor is acquiring the property at the right price,” said Scott Fleming, an architect for Cooper Carry, who’s worked on seven conversion plans in the past year. “There’s a lot of unknowns with conversions.”

Downtown’s office market has waned as businesses seek the newer, amenity-laden “Class A” offices of Midtown and Buckhead. CAP estimates vacancy rates downtown are probably in the mid-20% range, possibly higher.

“These buildings from the ‘60s and ‘70s, they’re not going to be offices again,” Fleming said.

But what might seem to be boring offices can have unique features like large windows or even space for a climbing wall. “You have the opportunity to make something cool; you come up with something you wouldn’t have designed” if starting from scratch, said Fleming, who likes working with “complicated buildings.”

However, some complications can make conversions iffy, like sprawling floor plans with swaths of interior space far from windows, hermetically sealed windows, low ceilings and large areas eaten up by elevators and staircases.

AJ Robinson, CAP’s president, said downtown has the oldest building stock and many of the historic buildings worth converting already have been.

Shaneel Lalani announced Thanksgiving week that he had purchased Underground Atlanta from a South Carolina company. Photo contributed

Credit: Photo contributed

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Credit: Photo contributed

Four years ago, the 17-story Candler Building, built in 1906 with a grand marble staircase, was converted into a boutique hotel. Currently, the 125-year-old W.D Grant building in the Fairlie-Poplar area is being renovated to have 165 apartments.

Now, it’s onto those built from the 1960s to 1990.

Will it be worth doing? That’s why they’re paying the consultants. “We’ll see if this next wave makes sense,” Robinson said.

The city of Atlanta bought the 41-story former bank office tower at 2 Peachtree Street, just up from MARTA’s Five Points station. It hopes to convert it into hundreds of mixed-income units.

A block north is 34 Peachtree, a 30-story building owned by Shaneel Lalani, who also bought Underground Atlanta in 2020. His building, also a former bank, was built in 1961 and was Atlanta’s tallest building until 1966, when 2 Peachtree was erected.

Lalani wants to go residential, too. He is trying to get historic recognition to help with tax purposes and wants to turn floors 5-25 into apartments. It’s in the design phase. Then he’ll go to getting-the-money phase.

Kyle Kessler, an architect living in a converted retail store in South Downtown, said the CAP study will give city officials and building owners a game plan, a concerted vision, for future efforts.

Kessler lives near the massive former credit-card processing building at 222 Mitchell St, down the street from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Conversion on the building was started by the German firm Newport, which purchased about 50 older buildings in the area. But last week, Newport announced it has decided to sell the entire stake, citing market conditions. The plan at 222 was to build office space but construction stopped this year and now the goal is to pivot to residential and retail.

I noted to Kessler that some buildings being converted downtown might not be architecturally stirring. He said he doesn’t mind.

“I’d care more about what I’d see looking out my building than what the building I’m in looks like,” he said. If the building is, say, a 1960s box with little curb appeal, then maybe the developers, he said, “could lean into the era that it’s built, like the ‘Mad Men.’”

That’s genius. How about a martini bar on the ground floor with men wearing skinny ties?