On August 2, 1926, Sears threw a party and 30,000 Atlantans showed up, frantic to peek inside the new 750,000-square-foot retail center on Ponce de Leon Avenue, where all of the 35,000 items in the iconic Sears Roebuck catalog were on display. “If ever there was a doubt in the minds of Atlantans that the company actually kept in stock the thousands upon thousands of articles . . . that doubt was erased after a tour through the building,” enthused an Atlanta Constitution reporter. It was built in a record six months by more than 2,000 workers, and Sears pumped $2 million into the construction job market. That’d be $26 million today; no wonder Mayor Walter Sims was on hand to hoist a flag atop the 232-foot tower.
Now another massive crew is at work on the site, in the throes of a project that will have an even larger impact on Atlanta. Sears closed the retail-merchandise distribution center in 1989, and in the ensuing years the cavernous compound—eventually expanding to 2 million square feet, the largest brick structure in the Southeast—was dubbed City Hall East and housed the police department and other city government offices as well as various nonprofits. In 2011 Atlanta-based Jamestown Properties, best known for developing New York’s Chelsea Market, bought the property for $27 million and is sinking a reported $180 million into an office-retail-residential conversion called Ponce City Market. Plans include a food hall with farm stands and restaurants, an organic garden, and rooftop entertainment hearkening back to the old Ponce de Leon Springs amusement park—think carousel rides with a skyline view.
Merry-go-rounds are cool, but what’s thrilling about this twist on the live-work-play cliche is that Jamestown is reusing a landmark. “We feel a responsibility to save what’s special about this place—at the most granular level, like making sure people aren’t disturbing the wood floors or damaging the signature columns,” says Jim Irwin, vice president of development, who’s overseeing the project and whose grandmother grew up around the corner on Glen Iris.
Ponce City Market is at the confluence of neighborhoods that are established (Midtown, Virginia-Highland), transitional (Old Fourth Ward), and still blighted (the Boulevard Corridor). For Jamestown CEO Matt Bronfman, the prospect of serving as a catalyst for transforming the area is what’s most exciting. “We were the largest landlord in the meatpacking district in New York when it was not the most desirable. The same when we invested in Times Square. We’re building that sense of community on Ponce,” he says. This includes deliberately hiring people from the surrounding area.
The market, scheduled to be completed in 2014, is adjacent to the Historic Fourth Ward Park and the eastside spur of the BeltLine. A trestle that used to bring freight cars into the Sears distribution center will be reincarnated as a pedestrian bridge. That’s a nice symbolic nod to the area’s history, but it’s more significant from a forward-looking perspective: As a structure that might have been demolished in Atlanta’s old bulldoze-and-rebuild mind-set, Ponce City Market is at the center of an effort to get us out of our cars and back on the sidewalk.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.