By Collin Kelley
Editor
Amazing.
I think I uttered that word 20 or 30 times last month on a tour of the mammoth Ponce City Market project. I’d only been inside the historic building, which housed retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. from 1926 to 1987 and City Hall East from 1990 to 2010, and those brief visits gave no indication of the vastness of its 2 million square feet. You’ll see what I mean beginning this month.
Monthly public tours of the site were slated to begin in September, but you’ll want to visit PonceCityMarket.com and sign up because previous, occasional tours have filled up within hours. Bring some comfortable walking shoes, too, because this is a lot of ground and history to cover.
While the completion date is still two years away, there is already a business open on the site. Dancing Goats Coffee Bar opened last month in the former fueling station at the corner of Glenn Iris and North Avenue. It sits adjacent to the shiny new offices for PCM, which is where I met James Irwin, vice president of Jamestown Construction and Development. Although he’s explored every nook and cranny of the 16-acre property and given countless tours, his excitement about the project remains palpable. And infectious.
We climb aboard The Beast, a golf cart with big knobby tires that looks off-road ready, and Irwin zooms us through the front door of PCM and into the cavernous first floor. The soaring ceiling held up by massive mushroom-capped columns will become a giant market space with retail, restaurant and leisure spaces. Think the Chelsea Market (which Jamestown also developed) in New York, Pike Place Market in Seattle or Pier 39 in San Francisco.
“Imagine food stalls with a baker, next to a deli, next to a flower shop,” Irwin says.
Above us, an old railroad trestle that used to bring boxcars into the building for easy loading when it was Sears’ regional catalog warehouse will be excavated and become part of a mezzanine garden. This level will also offer direct bike and walking access from the Atlanta BeltLine, which runs directly along the east side of PCM. There are plans to put a locomotive engine, boxcar and tanker car on the trestle. Irwin envisions the boxcar as an outdoor bar and the tanker as a giant rain-harvesting vessel that will water the garden.
Irwin drives The Beast into a freight elevator, hops off and expertly handles the controls. In just a moment, we are on the top floor, which leads out onto 4.5 acres of open rooftop with commanding views of Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead. To pay tribute to the PCM site, which before Sears was once the Ponce de Leon Amusement Park, this will be the “fun level” with food carts serving up hot dogs and popcorn. The impressive model of PCM shows the roof will feature a putt-putt golf course, covered swimming pool, basketball court and a lap track. Or you can just sit on the patio area and watch the sunset. Irwin said these features are all being considered for the future.
Back inside, crews of workers are busily replacing windows and making other repairs. The main structure that faces Ponce is 86 years old, while the two wings that stretch back toward North Avenue were built in the ‘40s and ‘60s. Irwin says the entire structure is like a “tank” and in remarkably good condition. In the “east wing,” you get a sense of how the condos and apartments will be laid out. You’ll be able to drive directly into the wing via a series of ramps. Several floors will be designated for indoor parking between the giant support columns.
On another floor, office space will be available. On the maple wood floors, you can still see the shadows of old shelving units that were lined with Sears merchandise ready to be shipped to catalog customers. From here we zoom down a corridor and arrive at the entrance that leads out onto the BeltLine. PCM will have its own station once streetcars are eventually added to the BeltLine. The convenience of PCM will be unparalleled. The old “live/work/play” moniker is hackneyed, but you do get the sense you do all three of those activities without ever having to leave the property.
Our final stop on the tour is the old electrical room. It looks like something from a movie set with rows of dials, pressure gages and levers, but it still provides power to the building and runs the freight elevators.
As work on the building continues, artifacts from the early 20th century have been found and preserved for future use to keep the building’s character or as sculptural pieces. There are light fixtures, scales, wooden file cabinets, clocks and a massive mail-sorting machine from the Sears.
With Atlanta’s long history of tearing down its historic buildings, the fact that PCM is still standing is a miracle in itself. When it opens in 2014, there is no doubt that PCM will become a destination for Atlantans and visitors.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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