October 2, 2014
Review: Mixed-use “Buckhead Atlanta” an Urbane Contribution to Cityscape, If Not The Hoi Polloi
For the past several years, some of the most valuable real estate in Buckhead sat undeveloped. In the mid-2000s, Atlanta developer Ben Carter had commenced construction on a ritzy eight-acre retail district. Streets of Buckhead, as the project was billed, fell victim to the recession in 2009, leaving a half-built wasteland where Buckhead Village had once stood.
In 2011, San Diego developers OliverMcMillan took over the site. Renamed Buckhead Atlanta, the project has maintained the recipe of luxury retail, restaurants, office space and residences in its new iteration.
Buckhead is a community marked by explosive growth, but the $600 million, 1.5 million-square-foot multiuse project is among the most ambitious efforts. The Urban Land Institute Atlanta (ULI) awarded “Buckhead Atlanta” Project of the Year at its annual Awards of Excellence Ceremony before it had even opened.
ULI’s recognition is fitting. While the architecture is not particularly stunning and the name a galling co-optation of a whole district, Buckhead Atlanta shines as a pedestrian-oriented project, whose mix of uses is insurance against dead time, drawing people to its streets at different times of the day and week.
Rising in an area bounded by both skyscrapers and low-slung development, Buckhead Atlanta seamlessly integrates with the urban fabric. One- and two-story shops and restaurants stand wall-to-wall with office buildings four to seven stories tall and two 20-story apartment towers.
The architectural styling augments the visual diversity. As with many new urban developments of the last quarter century, the predominant architecture is a fusion of classical and contemporary elements. Though subtly united by color and material palette, the facades are broken up and expressed individually to avoid a monolithic street wall.
As with the facades, the streetscaping and landscaping emphasize pedestrian scale and circulation. While roads bisect the development, cars are deemphasized. Large planting beds and street furniture buffer the sidewalks from the narrowed roads in the development, and even extend along the edge of Peachtree Road.
Side laneways between some of the smaller buildings provide refuge for those on foot; it is easy to forget that you are only a block off of Atlanta’s spine. Restaurants and shops open onto the lanes and small plazas. Buckhead Atlanta has the ingredients for an energized environment — if people come.
Just who will those people be? It’s clear who developers are after. Start with the name: Branding the project Buckhead Atlanta signals wealth, just as the high-end retail telegraphs exclusivity: this is to be Atlanta’s Rodeo Drive or Saville Row.
The omnipresence of paid watchful eyes reinforces the sense of exclusivity, despite the fact that the streets are public. As soon as I stepped off of Peachtree, I felt as though I was being watched. A large contingent of security guards stands in front of the shops along Buckhead Avenue. I was approached by two “ambassadors” during my early evening visit. They did not make me feel unwelcome (indeed, it seemed their job was to welcome me), but it was an unnerving experience to be approached by someone in a uniform.
Like many such developments, the varied architecture is intended to mimic organic development over time. And like the others, it doesn’t avoid the reality of its newness. But the fiction works better here than in the more Disney-esque Atlantic Station, with its piped-in music and artificial grass.
The term mixed-use has been applied to many developments of late. While it is good to see variation in zoning, with development not restricted to purely residential or commercial, the planned developments, including Buckhead Atlanta, are more retail districts and far from self-sustaining neighborhoods. Lacking basic amenities such as a grocery, and with the retail limited to high-end clothing and accessories, the development is not a full step toward creating a diverse, livable center, which would help curb Atlanta’s reliance on vehicles, but rather a destination for people to travel to for a specific reason.
But as an example of urban planning, Buckhead Atlanta gets high marks. It not only blends seamlessly into its surroundings, but it also improves the neighborhoods that it adjoins. The inclusion of exterior public space and restaurants, which take advantage of rooftop spaces, encourages people to linger, or even visit merely to window shop, enlivening the well-landscaped sidewalks and lanes.
With an emphasis on urban amenity and pedestrian scale, Buckhead Atlanta stands out against many projects in Atlanta. When patrons come to the area, perhaps they will walk to Charlie Loudermilk Park, which is being refurbished, or the shops just to the north on the other side of Peachtree. If so, Buckhead Atlanta will make an important contribution to the area and serve as an impetus for more growth.