Ponce City Market Environmental Graphics and Placemaking

Ponce Upon a Time

Ponce City Market will resurrect a storied Sears Roebuck & Co. building and create a vibrant urban centerpiece for Atlanta. Environmental graphics and signage will help tell its story. Explore this and other dynamic Atlanta projects at the 2014 SEGD Conference in Atlanta June 5-7!

When Travel + Leisure magazine recently released its list of the World’s Coolest New Tourist Attractions, Atlanta’s Ponce City Market made the list even though it’s still under construction.

The magazine summed it up perfectly: “Just off the BeltLine—Atlanta’s network of trails and parks that follow former rail lines—a $250 million redevelopment is turning a massive Sears, Roebuck & Co. into a multiuse beacon of regenerative cool.”

When it opens this fall in the 10-story, 2.1 million-square-foot former Sears distribution center—the largest brick building in the Southeastern U.S.—Ponce City Market will encompass 330,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, 475,000 square feet of Class A office space, and 259 residential flats. Its focal point is a Central Food Hall that developer Jamestown hopes will rival the great food halls in other U.S. cities: Pike Street Market in Seattle, Quincy Market in Boston, and Chelsea Market in New York. Add a rooftop garden with mini-golf and an amusement park and a BeltLine-accessible outdoor bar made from a repurposed boxcar, and the cool factor keeps multiplying.

The development is also driving major urban revitalization on Atlanta’s east side, connecting the Old Fourth Ward, Virginia Highland, Poncey-Highland, Inman Park, and Midtown neighborhoods and providing a powerful economic engine for the area.

Hometown developer Jamestown, which purchased the building from the City of Atlanta for $27 million in 2011, has fashioned Ponce City Market after its Chelsea Market project in New York, but with a uniquely Atlanta twist. Most Atlantans have fond memories of the old Sears building, and Jamestown’s goal is to bring those stories to life and at the same time, create a modern, eclectic, walkable urban experience in the heart of the city.

“There is only one building like this, only one place with this story and this heritage,” says Jim Irwin, Jamestown’s senior vice president and director of the project. “When we bought the building, it had been lost in plain sight for 20 years. It's a lot of fun reawakening Atlanta to it.”

Storytelling with graphics

From its experience at Chelsea Market and similar heritage projects, Jamestown knew the role that environmental graphics can play in telling the story of a special place. So Irwin called on Design360 (New York), which had added compelling graphic and wayfinding interventions at Chelsea Market.

“The fun of working with talented people like Jill Ayers and Rachel Einsidler is that they really understand the role of materiality and color and character in telling the story of a place like this,” says Irwin. “They know when to make a statement and when to let the building breathe. Just like at Chelsea, at Ponce City Market they’re making big punches with color and graphics in key areas. And in other areas, graphics take more of a back seat.”  

Irwin believes the “trifecta” of a good environmental graphics program is playfulness, utility, and materiality. For Ponce City Market, that translates in some key ways, says Jill Ayers, Design360 president and creative director.

 “Setting a warm, friendly, and slightly whimsical tone was really important as we developed the graphics and signage package—and particularly the wayfinding system,” she explains.

Getting them there

The scope of the signage program is vast, from exterior and interior wayfinding to iconic identification elements and ADA and base building signage. But the first order of business is getting people from the surrounding roadways into the parking garage. Atlantans are accustomed to the abundance of surface parking lots, but parking at the Ponce City Market site happens under the building. Persuading them to go against instinct and park underground is a challenge, says Ayers.

“You’ve got quite a mix of people who will be coming into the site: people who work here, live here, or who are just here to shop or eat out. A huge task was identifying the major entryways to the site and creating easy paths for people to follow. We want to make sure people have a good experience getting to parking.”

So Ayers and her team designed colorful, fun guideposts to get them there. Retro exterior signage (including some modern-day interpretations of signs previously on the site) is combined with directionals, lollipop signs, and once inside the garage, a system of color-coded supergraphics on garage ramp walls, on support beams, and in stairwells. “The goal was to make it fun, easy, and available,” says Ayers.

Modern heritage

Jamestown and Design360 agreed that while it’s important to evoke the feeling of what once was on the site, being a slave to the past was not on the agenda. So colors, materials, and forms have a retro feeling, but with a clean, contemporary attitude.

The color palette starts out “almost primary,” says Ayers, but turns retro quickly, inspired by the color palettes that Sears Roebuck & Co. offered to customers in the 1930s and 40s. Typefaces were chosen to support the story, but also to work for marketing and collateral materials that Jamestown produces. They include League Gothic and Forza from the Hoefler & Frere-Jones type foundry.

The site’s main identity signage harkens to the past: 16-foot-tall reverse channel letters marching almost 125 feet along the rooftop of the massive building. A painted sign on the brick façade at ground level echoes the look and harkens to the painted signs of the past.

Signage materials were inspired by the building’s warehouse aesthetic and by the railroad tracks that led to the Sears distribution center in its heyday, as well as by a market vernacular. Exterior signs will be constructed of raw and corrugated steel, and steel will also be used as accents and reinforcements for indoor signs. Inside, retail pylons that will be found throughout the site recall old Sears shipping crates, but offer a sophisticated modularity that allows space for directional information, the Ponce City market identity created by Jamestown, and promotional information.

Jamestown has spent a lot of effort harvesting old equipment and Sears products from the site, and plans to incorporate them into public art. Owned by the City of Atlanta for two decades and used as an outpost for city hall, the building was never fully utilized and tons of old equipment sat idle, waiting to be resurrected, says Irwin.

“The City in many ways did us a favor by never expanding into the building,” says Irwin. “It was full of old equipment like metal scales, sinks and water fountains, old catalogs and tools—all kinds of treasure that can be used now. We’re working with local sculptors to create some amazing art to spread around the site.”

Ayers says Irwin pushed her design team to step outside their graphic designer roles and think like historians. The Design360 team even scavenged the site for old graphic components that could be incorporated into signage.

“They really wanted to preserve and communicate the historic flavor of what had happened on the site, so we refer to that era in subtle ways. There is very little illuminated signage, and no flashing signs or LEDs or billboards. They wanted everything to be in keeping with the historical context of the site.”

Irwin says Ponce City Market flies in the face of what he calls today’s “plague of sameness.”

“You can go to a grocery store or mall in Seattle and one in Florida and not know the difference. We’re all tired of that. People are always going to be interested in places like this—places that have authenticity and character and a real sense of permanence.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 08, 2014

 Historical photos and renderings: Jamestown

Sign drawings: Design360

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