Apartment developer John A. Williams has one great regret in his career —- demolishing the block known as Pershing Point on the northern edge of Midtown.
Up until the mid-1980s, Pershing Point was one of the most vibrant communities in Atlanta with 300 apartments in a half-dozen historic buildings with street-level grocery stores, a pharmacy, retail shops, restaurants and bars. They all sat on a compact, triangular block bounded by Peachtree and West Peachtree where the headquarters of National Service Industries is now located.
"I personally regret that more than anything else," Williams said. "If we knew then what we know today, we would have kept those apartments and remodeled and rehabilitated them. It had everything we are trying to create today."
In some ways, Williams, chairman and CEO of Post Properties, is making amends.
His mantra today is live, work and walk —- healthy communities of the future will need those three critical ingredients.
These days, you can find Williams at Riverside by Post off Northside Parkway —- a community that epitomizes a walking environment with a town square, a mixture of offices, retail and dense residential development.
Riverside also is the culmination of a decadelong shift —- philosophical and strategic —- for both Williams and Post.
"We think the most successful real estate in the future will have a live, work and walking environment," Williams said. "We now have a full commitment to building intown city homes in conjunction with mixed use, Main Street retail."
It is a 180-degree turnaround from Post’s roots. Post gained national recognition for developing garden apartments with elaborate landscaping in suburban locations.
"It was 1987 before we ever built anything within the city of Atlanta," Williams said. "Beginning about 10 years ago, we started seeing a vast shift in demographic trends, such as people getting married later. There was a more permanent apartment resident. And they wanted nothing to do with the suburbs. They wanted an intown urban feel."
What works for the community also works for the bottom line of developers, Williams said. Post has found that its closer-in developments perform better with stronger occupancy rates and higher rents.
"People clearly are willing to pay more to live in these intown communities," Williams said.
As Williams sees it, Riverside is the best project Post has ever done, and it represents a turning point for him. It was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the creator of Seaside, a model Florida coastal community centered on a town square that connects work, home, shops and restaurants within a five-minute walk. Seaside was recently featured in the movie “The Truman Show.”
The nine-story office building at Riverside already is 75 percent leased, with tenants such as Post, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Stormont Trice Corp. and several investment firms.
A number of retailers and restaurants will open at Riverside between July and September: the River Room Restaurant and Tavern, a sister restaurant of the Vinings Inn; Charter Bank; Cook’s Market and Deli; the Bob Steele Hair Salon; the Fabricare Dry Cleaner; and an insurance firm and travel agency.
The development includes 203 apartments, and construction has begun on the second phase, which will have an additional 334 units. Riverside also has a swimming pool, tennis courts and access to the Chattahoochee River Recreation Area.
Sitting in his smartly decorated executive office on the ninth floor overlooking Riverside’s town square, Williams said, “Now that we are here, we look at this as more like a working laboratory.”
With this experiment, Williams is leading Post in the redevelopment of downtowns in other cities, such as Dallas and Denver. The latest project will add 1,100 apartments in downtown Tampa.
Of all cities, Atlanta may have the greatest need for Williams’ belief in urban rebirth. With the longest commute times in the country and one of the worst air pollution problems, Atlanta desperately needs to re-create a strong downtown and a true walking city.
But in some ways, it is harder for Post to transform its own hometown than it is downtowns in other cities.
"We’ve got to change our development habits. You can’t continue to go to counties like Forsyth and build high-rise office buildings. That’s crazy," he added. "The density has to be forced closer to the center where there are alternative transportation systems."
Now that he has seen the darkness of suburban sprawl, Williams hopes Post will set an example for other developers who want to enliven urban areas —- providing the kind of communities where people want to live.
"This is a trend like a roaring freight train," Williams said. "You would have to be blind not to see it."
Credit: Saporta, Maria. ”Mixed-use project an apartment developer’s turning point” The Atlanta Journal Constitution 29 Jun 1998, E:07