Powerhouse Atlanta developer Portman Holdings is shaking up plans for its dramatic remake of a commercial never center on the city’s eastside, meaning at least one beloved nightlife destination will live on for the foreseeable future.
Mike Greene, Portman’s senior vice president of development, tells Urbanize Atlanta that Portman’s three-building development ambitions for where Ponce de Leon Avenue meets the BeltLine in Virginia-Highland are being scaled back. Challenging financing markets are to blame, according to Greene.
Portman no longer plans to purchase the three easternmost parcels it had under contract on the north side of Ponce de Leon Avenue, spanning from 752 to 774 Ponce. Three buildings on those properties today, from west to east, are: vacant (formerly Marco’s Pita); home to The Local bar and restaurant; and a two-story structure where Vesta Movement, a fitness gym, operates.
An email to Vesta hadn’t been returned as of press time. But The Local is planning a 180-degree switch of previous plans to sell and bow out, announcing candidly on social media it was “just kidding” about closing and will remain in operation on Ponce.
Portman’s decision to shrink its Ponce plans was dictated by a new reality that it doesn’t expect to break ground in the area for at least a couple of years, given changes in the current economic cycle, Greene said. Company leaders decided against buying all parcels required to build three buildings, subtracting plans for a heavily residential mid-rise that would have stood farthest from the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.
“To us, that seemed like the logical thing,” Greene said.
Closings on all other properties are still scheduled to happen over the next couple of months. The overall project has been called "Ponce and Ponce," but development officials have said that's little more than a placeholder name.
The decision means, at the very least, a retail/office building planned for the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Ponce de Leon Place will have to be redrawn. That section of the footprint today is home to MJQ nightclub, Chipotle, Friends on Ponce, Southern Star Tattoo, The Bookhouse Pub, The Drunken Unicorn (an additional live music venue at MJQ), among other businesses.
The westernmost side of Portman’s redevelopment is home to the former Paris on Ponce and 8Arm restaurant.
It’s possible, Greene said, that all previous plans will be scrapped, while still abiding by restrictions set by the city during a recent rezoning process. (Those guidelines restrict the height of the Beltline-adjacent parcel to 190 feet tall, and 160 feet tall for the properties east of that.) The full project could become residential with retail at the base, on a smaller scale, Greene said
“We’re going to look at what’s the best combination… Maybe there’s a small office piece to it. They’re all going to have retail—that’s kind of a given,” said Greene. “We’ll still preserve the pedestrian connection between the BeltLine and the corner of Ponce, still do the offsite road improvements we promised the neighborhood, still stick to our height restrictions in the zoning. It may be a smaller project in general, but it’s still going to be awesome, and have all the ground-floor activation.”
With the smaller footprint, the maximum residential development allowed in Portman’s plans will drop about 200,000 square feet, to a total of 525,000 square feet.
“If you split that up into two buildings, it’s almost two regular-sized residential buildings,” Greene said. “The neighborhood preferred all residential in the first place.”
Atlantans can expect all current businesses in question to be open for at least a couple of years, and Greene said developers are discussing potential building improvements with owners to help them be successful in the interim.
The exception is the MJQ complex, though Greene says he’s hopeful they’ll stay in business for a while, even if it means operating two MJQ concepts: one on Ponce, and another planned for Underground Atlanta. Should any business leave, Portman officials expect they will try to backfill their space with another tenant before the redevelopment moves forward. That includes MJQ’s unique spaces under street level.
Greene sounded pained, in a way, that Portman’s decision to contract its Virginia-Highland footprint will leave The Local and adjacent property owners in a bind.
“If those guys can get together, they can sell to somebody else,” said Greene. “But it looks like The Local decided to stay, which is great, actually. I hate that we delayed [the owner’s] retirement, but he was cool about it.”
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• Q&A: Portman Holdings CEO discusses uncertain future of Ponce (Urbanize Atlanta)