Kay Stephenson has lived in Virginia-Highland for 26 years. In that time, she has seen significant changes along Ponce de Leon Avenue, the southern border of the historic neighborhood that separates it from the booming Old Fourth Ward.
The Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail spurred the massive redevelopment of O4W’s Ponce City Market, the construction of the 725 Ponce office tower and a new Kroger to replace the aging “Murder Kroger.”
So when she heard about Portman Holdings’ plans to redevelop about a block on her neighborhood’s side of Ponce de Leon Avenue with hundreds of apartments and office towers and a buried parking lot with 1,000 spaces, she was not surprised.
“Anybody who didn’t expect this wasn’t paying attention,” she said on Nov. 7 while standing on the porch of The Bookhouse Pub. “The whole corridor has been improving in a really thoughtful way. I call it a restoration rather than renovation.”
Portman, the developer known for such projects as Coda at Tech Square and Junction Krog, was holding a happy hour at The Bookstore Pub. Company representatives answered questions from about 20 or so interested residents about their plans to redevelop the gritty stretch between the Eastside Trail and Vesta Movement gym.
The Bookhouse Pub has stood for some 15 years on this stretch of Ponce. It would be torn down along with other longstanding venues such as the MJQ Concourse nightclub and dive bar The Local to make way for Portman’s planned new development tentatively called “Ponce & Ponce.” Chipotle, the only national chain business, is expected to part of the new development.
Portman’s plans have angered some Atlantans who say online the city continues to lose part of its identity as developers raze older, local businesses to replace them with tall, shiny new buildings.
Stephenson, who is vice chair of the Va-Hi neighborhood planning unit, said the majority of people who patronize the businesses in the assemblage of properties Portman wants to redevelop don’t live in the neighborhood.
“And so from the neighborhood’s point of view, we’d like some amenities we can take advantage of,” she said, such as new retail, a direct connection to the Atlanta BeltLine, new sidewalks and road improvements.
She said she has spoken to some people, admittedly a small group, who said the people who made these establishments “the nitty, gritty heart of Atlanta” don’t come to them anymore.
Bill and Robin Conway live near where the new development would rise. For 17 years they have enjoyed the diversity of this area along Ponce, they said. Density is needed for a city to survive and thrive, Bill Conway said. His reaction to Portman’s plans?
“Wary,” he said.
“It will change the character of the area, maybe for the better,” he said. “But it will dramatically increase traffic in a nice residential area where people walk, ride bikes and children play.”
Robin Conway said she doesn’t oppose new development but she enjoys having small, independent businesses like The Bookhouse Pub to walk to.
“I realize things change, but I don’t want to lose the charm that is our neighborhood,” she said.
Portman is under contract to buy the land owned by five different property owners on the condition the city approves rezoning the area. The company plans to file its rezoning application with the city in January; the rezoning process takes roughly six months.
A Nov. 16 community meeting is planned to possibly show more detailed sketches of what the buildings would look like, said Mike Greene, senior vice president of development. A place for the meeting hasn’t been finalized.
He said the Atlanta BeltLine makes all the property surrounding it valuable and the property owners saw now as the best time to sell. If the project is eventually approved by neighborhood groups and the City Council, it will revive an area where change was inevitable.