Jamestown honcho talks Ponce City Market’s magic rooftop, new restaurants, and rent-rate debate

No, the building isn’t open yet - but will be soon


  • Jamestown
  • Ponce City Market

Ponce City Market residents and visitors won’t just be able to play miniature golf on the massive building’s roof. They’ll also be able to partake in a good old fashioned game of skee ball, dine in the former Sears building’s iconic tower, or host a private party in a rooftop event facility.

Jamestown, the firm developing the 1.1 million square-foot mixed-use behemoth, says the nearly .5-acre “magic rooftop” — half of which will be open to the public — will center on nostalgic amusement games and carnival rides you’d find while eating cotton candy along boardwalks during the early 20th century. Think more old-school merry-go-rounds than Six Flags Over Georgia’s Ninja. Visitors will be transported to the roof via the circa 1926 building’s original freight elevator.

The inspiration, says Jamestown President Michael Phillips, came from the days when Rich’s Downtown flagship store used to light a tall Christmas tree every year. Families made memories — Phillips remembers them from his youth living in the city — at the holiday event, which included choirs and performances.

The roof at PCM, Phillips says, is intended to offer another chance and place to make those kinds of memories.

“The rooftop needs to be an experience of kind of exhaling for people, and energizing in a way,” he says. “There aren’t so many of those things in our lives anymore - to stand on a great big rooftop in the sky affording us a landscape that’s almost like a mountain range offering views of all the different high-rise nodes, from Downtown to Midtown and Buckhead.”

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Making that happen requires some work, including making sure the roof can accommodate the large numbers of people expected to mill about and frolic. Phillips says the team is aiming for a spring 2016 opening, although it could potentially open in fall 2015 for the holidays.

In the meantime, the PCM crew putting the finishing touches on other areas of the project. PCM has presented an interesting series of challenges for the firm, which specializes in transforming historic buildings into mixed-use developments. Past examples include Chelsea Market in Manhattan, which was turned from a former biscuit factory into a commercial and retail center, and White Provisions, a one-time slaughterhouse on the Westside that’s now a shopping and restaurant district.

What’s challenging about developing PCM, he says, is that it the building combines commercial, residential, and retail. Some aspects of the development and uses have been designed as the project has progressed and the team has discovered more about the building, Phillips says.

“What we’ve done is be really careful to not move too fast because we can only deliver so fast,” he says. The firm had two years to conceive the development, but layering the multiple uses has posed challenges and, “in the scheme of things, it’s delayed other things.”

Thus far, he says, the reaction from the public about the buildings plans and potential as being a hub along the Beltline has been positive.

Some people even incorrectly think that the development is open, possibly because some tenants have slowly opened and some news reports have proclaimed the development open for business. Dancing Goats Coffee disclosure: my wife works at the coffee shop has been pouring drinks since summer 2012 and Binders Art Supplies and Frames recently opened its doors. General Assembly has been hosting events and some fenced gates lining the site have been removed.

But much of the building is still off limits except for tours or tenants moving in. The whole development won’t open most likely until next spring.

“It’s an incremental organic process for us,” Phillips says. “A lot of people, when they open things, they open with a grand openings and a bang. We’ve been more humble than that. It’s the difference between a meal where it’s all served at once or in courses.”

PCM’s food hall is 60-percent leased, Phillips says, adding that the team has tried to be particular about creating the right mix of options.

“Atlanta is in a mode right now where there’s a lot of food,” he says. “Some people think Atlanta is over-restauranted. We want to be careful. I’m slow to commit to people because I want the right mix.”

More than half of the fashion and lifestyle retail spaces have been claimed, Phillips says. In addition to the tenants already announced — AthenaHealth, MailChimp, General Assembly, H&F Burger, Juice Box, and the Suzuki School — more are on the way. Jamestown is waiting until late November to make a “big announcement” about other tenants. Until then, the team will lock down construction preparation timelines and opening dates.

The residential component, known as the Flats, is roughly 35-percent leased. That figure is around what Jamestown expected at this time, he says. The first tenant will get their keys the beginning of next month and others will start calling it home before the year’s end.

The units, which range from studios to three bedrooms, initially sparked a debate about affordability in fast-changing Atlanta when leasing rates were announced last April. Some, including CL, had whiplash. Others said the rates were on par with what a person should expect to pay for living in an amenity-filled building along the Beltline in one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods.

Phillips wasn’t necessarily surprised by the reaction, which he says Jamestown noticed thanks to social media and the immediacy of today’s news environment. The units are high-quality and tried to have a “European feel,” he says. Some people might have mistakenly thought that, because of the vast amount of space, more units would mean cheaper rents. There’s also the reality that much of the building is nearly 100 years old and that more people want to live in post-Great Recession Atlanta. And costs are higher.

“Keeping historic buildings can sometimes be much more expensive than building something new,” he says. “Atlanta as a whole is sort of facing the reality of what happened after the downturn and where the market is today.”

The development’s location along the Beltline has already worked to its advantage — Jamestown has allowed its former loading dock adjacent to the smart-growth project, which will be rebranded as The Shed, be used during special events. And some people could use the Beltline as a means of moving about the city and living or working car-free at PCM. The project will have a bike repair facility and valet that can accommodate 400 bikes. A former set of rail tracks that veered into the building is being repurposed into an entrance to give people the option of actually pedaling into the building’s food hall.

Construction on buildings facing the 22-mile project is about to start construction. That development is starting late in the game, Phillips says, because designers wanted to decide how best to integrate the structure with the Beltline. PCM’s new buildings won’t try to replicate the building’s character so they’ll be different in design.

“The things that are not historic need to be juxtaposed so they’re not trying to be historic,” Phillips says.

Just give them another six months or so to finish all the work.

NOTE: This post has been altered to correct the size of the roof and clarify a quote about the cost of redeveloping old buildings versus new construction.