When the hype for Atlanta Dairies began, the Braves had two full seasons left to play at Turner Field, and Donald Trump was several months away from announcing his candidacy for president. The brainchild of Krog Street Market developers Paces Properties, Atlanta Dairies was initially projected to open in 2016, transforming 11 postindustrial acres in Reynoldstown into a mixed-use hub that paid homage to Atlanta’s blue-collar past while embracing architecture of tomorrow.
Three years later, that’s still the plan, but the whole thing is very much a work in progress. Why? It’s complicated, says David Cochran, Paces’s president and CEO.
Paces is the main player in a surge of development that’s altering the look and function of Memorial Drive from Grant Park to Kirkwood and beyond. But with its adaptive-reuse ambitions, sheer size, and multiple functions, the Atlanta Dairies property at 777 Memorial Drive could be the most intriguing. In phase one alone, plans include 321 apartments, five retail slots within the art-deco style building that once housed Atlanta Dairies, office space (13,000 square feet, above the retail), a music venue with a rooftop hangout, all set around an industrial-hip outdoor space called The Yard. The property has been abandoned since Italian milk company Parmalat shuttered in 2004. Substantial demolition work finally launched about a year ago.
Beyond the music venue (a partnership with Agon Entertainment, owners of the Variety Playhouse and the Georgia Theatre in Athens), confirmed tenants include a coffee shop by Thrive Farmers, and Collier’s Department Store, a throwback retailer for everyday conveniences. Cochran says other negotiations are ongoing, apartments will be ready in October, and that retail openings should start rolling out around Thanksgiving through early 2019. In the meantime, Paces is selling Krog Street Market to an undisclosed buyer, a transaction Cochran expects to complete within a few weeks.
Cochran spoke candidly about the headaches his team has encountered with Atlanta Dairies and why they might be worth it in the end:
On how Atlanta Dairies could stand out from Ponce City Market, Westside’s Stockyards, and other adaptive-reuse ventures:
The [former factory’s] catwalk is something I’ve never come across and probably never will again. You don’t see elevated catwalks much, ever. I was blown away by how [architecture firm Perkins + Will] incorporated it in the existing framework of the master plan. On first blush, I basically viewed it as an obstacle.
I think the space itself is one of a kind. A lot of the visual elements are things people haven’t really seen. At this point in our construction, people are driving by, and it’s a blur … when they visit the first time, coming out of the parking deck, standing on the catwalk, they’ll have the realization: Oh my God, I’m actually standing in that old structure. You’ll view The Yard for the first time from an elevated perspective, which is really unique. We’re doing adaptive-reuse of the old structures, but where it’s new, it’ll be clearly new—we’re owning that fact.
On The Yard component:
The goal was not to create this sort of lush environment that looks like we created it, but bring all these elements of the [site’s] harsh history and the newness of it, and make it look and feel like it was not created overnight. So basically an open space that’s very walkable, usable, but yet not obviously brand new. It’s hard to do that.
We’ve created a lot of zig-zagging pathways, with stone and walkways. The High Line in New York, we took a lot of inspiration from elements you see in certain sections there. It’s basically designed to create certain areas where people can gather and feel like they’re in an intimate space but not an exposed space, where you can have multiple groups of people chilling out and not bothering each other, yet not wondering if they’re the only people out there.
What he’d like neighbors to know:
We appreciate their patience. We’re going to give them the place and the experience we originally said we were going to, it’s just that it’s an extraordinarily complicated transaction. It’s compelling visually, experientially, and the potential it has being new and different—all those things don’t equal easy. That’s the double-edge sword of what we do . . . Sometimes when you get into the size and scale of a project like this, and you have all those components, sometimes it’s really hard to find all the right groups that you ultimately need in order to build a capital stack to finance the construction. I figure [the public] is probably scratching their heads, even though we’re working our tails off out there.
It took the apartment deal coming together to finally get us over the hump from a risk standpoint with a lender. It got delayed because we had two apartment groups that had [a corner piece of the site, previously owned by Paces] under contract before we finally were able to engage with partners who are real, legit, smooth-operators, who don’t mess around. [Apartment developer] Wood Partners finally saw it for what it was. Sometimes these things just take forever.
On unwanted surprises:
When we finally started working out there—we just hit, I mean, every kind of subsurface obstacle that you can hit on a site. We hit all of those things—and all of their brothers and sisters and cousins. I’m starting to realize that’s a common aspect of dealing with these old buildings, especially the ones that were in industrial and manufacturing-type uses. Because, you know, they build the first building, and then that business grows. What do they do? They just tack on more space back where the loading dock was. And then they build another loading dock. And the space in between the two loading docks, they fill that up with trash, concrete, metal, and then pour just a giant amount of concrete on top to make it smooth. In all of those areas, we were cutting trenches for plumbing lines and running columns into the ground to support the second-story office space . . . Plus, we had a lot of bad weather. The hits just kept on coming. But we finally got out of the dirt.
Where things stand:
Now we’re just dealing with the vertical components, [and] we’re doing fun stuff like trying to figure out how to repurpose the old milk carton sign and get it lit again. And with the final design of the open area, we’re picking things out like the fire pits, swings, and benches. All of these parts of a real estate job that I really love are finally happening. Which is a good reward for all the pain and suffering.
On why the project is worth the headache:
It’s a part of history. It’s been there for a long time, and it doesn’t deserve to be thrown into the trash heap. Unless there’s a reason for it to. I think I said it on a panel once: Sometimes, Old Yeller does have to be taken out back and shot. You’ve got to at least figure out if he’s rabid or not. But sometimes people throw the baby out with the bathwater, because it’s easier to start new. Frankly, I used to be one of those [developers], but now I get it. I see the benefits and the impact. I’m driven to have an impact on Atlanta’s skyline that I’m proud of.