If Jim Irwin were developing an office building on Ponce de Leon Avenue 20 years ago, he probably would not have cared so much about how the back of the building looked. He and his architects would not have spent weeks picking the placement of some stairs near where the dumpsters would be placed. And Irwin probably would not have included a grocery store on the bottom floor of the building. He probably would not have even been developing an office building along Ponce because, 20 years ago in Atlanta, who did that?
But 20 years ago the Atlanta BeltLine didn’t exist. And today Irwin, the founder of local development firm New City, is focusing on how the front of 725 Ponce, the 10-story office and retail building he’s constructing in the place of the unfortunately nicknamed Murder Kroger, faces the wildly popular Eastside Trail. Located directly across the BeltLine from Ponce City Market—which Irwin helped develop while working at Jamestown Properties—725 Ponce could be the first ground-up development along the Eastside Trail to truly capitalize on its seemingly endless stream of bicyclists, walkers, and, eventually, transit riders.
“Building next to the BeltLine is like building next to something that has tremendous cultural value for the life of the city,” he says. “It’s like MOMA or the Eiffel Tower. And it’s worth the extra thought and expense to get it right. This is intended for the BeltLine not just to be the back entrance, but, predominantly, the front door.”
Atlanta experienced a collective identity crisis in early 2016 when New City announced it would demolish Murder Kroger to build a type of development that was high in demand and low in supply along the Eastside Trail: a 360,000 square-foot office building. The suburban-style grocery store was a relic of both the city’s and Ponce’s more gritty years—a candlelight vigil was held in its honor prior the building being razed—but was now sitting on extremely valuable dirt thanks to the intown development boom and the BeltLine. New City hopes to create a well-designed job hub that offers more places where people can work along the BeltLine. At the bottom: A new 60,000 square-foot Kroger will feature amenities designed to compete against nearby Whole Foods—and will open up to the BeltLine.
Properly orienting the building alongside the trail has taken years of thought and tinkering, Irwin says, but allows two opportunities. For one, it’s more conducive to the type of horizontal layouts that allow workers to be concentrated on one floor—Mailchimp’s PCM headquarters showed him workers and employers like such an environment—and it makes the most of the city-changing trail project.
For workers and visitors who use the BeltLine to access the building, the group has spent a considerable amount of time focusing on a set of M.C. Escher-esque stairs that connect the trail to 725 Ponce’s indoor/outdoor lobby on the building’s second floor. The lobby itself will be akin to a hotel’s, Irwin says, a “bustling office space” where people can hang out and work. Foot traffic from an adjoining restaurant will spill into the space, which will also have free wi-fi—and if you’re into it, a snooker table—to encourage interaction. (Office workers who park in the subterranean garage—that’s the giant pit currently being dug along the BeltLine and North Avenue—must first take an elevator to the lobby before heading upstairs. That’s an intentional design choice to help create the vibrant common area and break up the humdrum routine of arriving at and leaving work, Irwin says.) The covered porch area, facing Ponce City Market’s Shed, will include seating where people can eat and share growlers purchased in the grocery store. A tall breezeway connecting the parking area to the Beltline is adjacent to the covered porch.
“When you focus all the energy of people moving in and out of a place, that creates friction and life and becomes a place where people can interface, interact, and literally bump elbows,” he says.
The group is also thinking about the area outside the project. Movies could be projected on an exterior walls. Future BeltLine plans call for redirecting the Eastside Trail over a bridge spanning North Avenue when transit is built along the project. The path will run through a corner of 725 Ponce—a scaled-down version of how New York’s High Line cuts under some buildings—breaking up the canyon-like effect that can be created between two buildings. In addition, New City has spent months turning a former parking area on the bottom floor of the neighboring Ford Factory Lofts into restaurant and retail space, along with creating a breezeway through the building that would allow people easier access to the BeltLine. Irwin says he’s also thinking about how the overall project will evolve as density increases and transportation choices change—a time when, one hopes, 725 Ponce’s parking spaces not located underground could be turned into places for people, not cars.
“I‘m legitimately trying to future-proof our project from that perspective,” he says. “Who knows if it’s five or 20 years. That’s all coming and we’re having serious conversations about it.”