May 8, 2014
Posh stores lift Buckhead
by Leon Staffort and Katie Leslie
Welcome to Atlanta, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin.
The luxury designers, whose much sought-after shoes and accessories are the calling cards of the super fashionable, are the latest retailers to sign on as tenants at Buckhead Atlanta, the more than $1 billion mixed-use destination replacing the city’s onetime favorite party district.
It’s a sign that the former Streets of Buckhead — once a “hole in the ground” eyesore that many worried would never be completed after the recession jeopardized its future — could become the mega-destination the business community has long billed as a potential game changer in Atlanta retail. And according to Buckhead Atlanta developer Dene Oliver, more good news about the project could be coming.
In an exclusive interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oliver, chief executive officer of OliverMcMillan, confirmed many high-end retailers and restaurateurs are coming to the development off Peachtree Street and Pharr Road.
Future plans for the eight-acre, six-block site may include a boutique hotel, more office space and additional residential housing, including condos. Oliver has previously announced the development will house new corporate headquarters for fashion giant Spanx.
“Some of the brands (we’re announcing) here today are bellwethers in luxury,” said Oliver, adding that Atlanta was competing not just with other U.S. cities, but globally, especially against hot markets in Asia.
Other retailers announced Wednesday include Italian fashion retailerHelmut Lang, opening the designer’s first Atlanta location, as well as purse consignment store Bella Bag. Oliver confirmed luxury brands that were previously speculated about will be attached to the 1.5 million square-foot-project, including Brunello Cucinelli, Hermes,L’Occitane and restaurants Le Bilboquet, Lugo Caffe and Shake Shack.Stores will begin opening in September, with all tenants in place by 2015.
The announcement comes amid a wave of development news. Georgia State University and real estate developer Carter — unrelated to Streets of Buckhead developer Ben Carter — unveiled Wednesday a proposal to redevelop Turner Field’s 77 acres into an athletic hub and mixed-use development upon the Atlanta Braves’ departure. The school is one of four parties interested in the site, according to Atlanta officials.
Emil Gullia, a senior director at real estate firm Franklin Street, said drawing brands such as Louboutin, which has just a handful of stores in the country, is a testament to Atlanta’s economy. The city suffered a much longer economic slump than its peers, so luring destination stores signals that money is once again flowing. “It is a litmus test of the strength of Atlanta and the rebound of the city as a whole,” he said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called the revamped retail destination “one of the most important projects” for Atlanta in recent years. “Not being able to get movement on that project was a very discouraging sign to the overall real estate environment in the city and the region,” he said. “… I just can’t convey enough how I feel about the way Dene believed in the city of Atlanta at a time when we needed a person to believe in the city.”
That doesn’t mean the project will be an easy home run. While Atlanta has a track record supporting outside luxury retailers, it has not been as kind with restaurateurs. Big name New York chefs such as Tom Colicchio, Emeril Lagasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have all tried and failed to operate stores in Atlanta.
And competition could be stiff to lease the 370 high-end apartments that are part of the project — The Residence Buckhead Atlanta — because of growing apartment inventory across the city.
Still, Oliver is upbeat that Buckhead Atlanta is just what the city has been seeking. The project will distinguish itself because of its scale, with wide sidewalks, al fresco dining and a canopy of trees, some of which will likely be installed by helicopter because of their size.
“We want to create places people feel good about,” he said. “The bottom line is as time goes on consumers will be more driven by places where there’s an experience.” Bringing Buckhead Atlanta to fruition, however, was the most challenging experience of his career, Oliver said.
California-based OliverMcMillan took over Streets of Buckhead in 2010 from Ben Carter, the original owner of the property whose $1.5 billion vision of a luxury retail destination included taller buildings and hotels. Carter relinquished the property to his lenders during the height of the recession and OliverMcMillan soon stepped in.
While much of the physical structure that had been built before OliverMcMillan took over was sound, Oliver said his firm underestimated the difficulty in changing negative perceptions of the project.
“Without question….this is the most difficult project we’ve undertaken,” he said. “It was badly broken in the middle of a severe economic crisis period … there was some speculation that the world was actually flat and that we might be sailing toward the edge.” With the opening-day goal line in sight, he said the objective today is to create a destination that brings people closer together in the age of Internet shopping and isolation.
“You can’t hold hands on the Internet,” Oliver said. “You can’t have a cup of coffee and stare in somebody’s eyes. You can’t share a great meal. It’s all those kinds of things that bring us together.”