As Atlanta’s East Side Goes Upscale, Some Residents Ask: For Whom?

When neighborhoods go upscale, who are they going upscale for, if not the people who live there?
When neighborhoods go upscale, who are they going upscale for, if not the people who live there?
Credit Kyra Semien / WABE

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Candler Park resident Anandi Salinas still remembers how excited she was when the residential/retail hub Ponce City Market opened its doors in 2015.

“I was like, ‘Oh! Let’s go check out Ponce City Market!’ And we walked over there, and I needed to buy a yoga mat,” she says.

The mat she ended up buying cost $80—which is pricey for a grad student like her.

“And I was like, ‘This is the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought,’ and I quickly felt really out of place, and I just bought it and left.” 

Salinas hasn’t been back shopping there since. Granted, she and her husband Tony Knuppel still spend some evenings strolling the Beltline and noshing in Ponce City Market’s food court. But they don’t shop there.

Salinas says the stores seem to cater to a “certain demographic, which is not us.”

And that’s the issue. When neighborhoods go upscale, who are they going upscale for, if not the people who live there? This is a question that has long puzzled Sharon Zukin, author of “Naked City,” a book about what happens when swanky shops take over a neighborhood’s retail landscape.

Zukin says experiences like Salinas’s are not unusual.

“The reactions that you’re getting from longtime residents of Atlanta are exactly what longtime residents are saying in cities around the world, when urban amenities suddenly drop into their laps,” she says.

To say Atlanta’s east side has changed in the past ten years would be an understatement. The Atlanta Beltline has spurred a ripple effect, and now, new condos, apartment buildings and remodeled houses have sprouted up where old houses, industrial spaces and empty lots stood for decades. And fancy restaurants, dog daycare and shops have followed in their wake.

In Zukin’s native New York, the rails-to-path project The Highline spurred a similar crop of high-end retail, and similar complaints from some residents.

“Although these commercial spaces are very attractive and represent a complete turnaround from the under-serving of neighborhoods before,” Zukin says, “they create very expensive, somewhat exclusive spaces.”

In these spaces, she says, long-time residents often feel uncomfortable.

Meant for Tourists

In the case of Ponce City Market, that uncomfortable feeling may be because the retail center isn’t meant to be an everyday shopping spot for locals. 

“The investment really speaks to a broader market than just the immediate community, because of the types of retailers that they chose,” says Kwanza Hall, Atlanta city council rep for District 2.

In other words, Ponce City Market was planned to be a tourist attraction, a place for people from all over metro Atlanta and beyond to come and spend a Saturday.

Hall says it had to be that way. It’s easy to forget that Ponce City Market, at its start, was a risky endeavor. Developer Jamestown Properties needed tenants it knew could pay the rent in a neighborhood where property values were destined to soar.

“So in light of that, they tend[ed] to target the super high-end AAA credit-type lease tenants, because that increases the likelihood of success.”

AAA tenants accounts for the $80 dollar yoga mat stores.

Upscaled Out

The story of upscaling also includes those businesses who are priced out.

Stone Soup Kitchen was one of those local restaurants where businesspeople and neighborhood families rubbed shoulders over $5 entrees for decades, first at the restaurant’s Virginia Highland location, and then later in Grant Park.

Stone Soup closed in August.

Co-owner Sarah Rick operated the place under a local landlord, who was also a friend. Then that landlord died, and developer Paces Properties bought the building.

Rich says she brought a potential business buyer who was interested in signing a lease with the developer, but Paces turned that buyer down. After that, she says, “I didn’t hear anything from them until I got the eviction notice.”

For its part, Paces Properties said in a statement the rent hikes were necessary to pay for needed building improvements. The developer had no comment on its future plans for the space.

As for Anandi Salinas and her husband Tony Knuppel, there is one store near Ponce City Market Knuppel says he’s comfortable in.

“Kroger,” he says. “That just seems like a regular store that I don’t feel like I’m out of place. I could go there and buy an orange if I want.”

Well, not any more. The infamously-nicknamed “Murder Kroger” just closed its doors. It will re-open in two years as part of a large-scale office and retail development.

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