For decades, John Williams ran the most recognizable name in Atlanta apartments — Post Properties.
His company’s gated communities, with their meticulously designed landscaping that always featured tulips, were the first residences for generations of Atlantans.
Williams founded Post in 1970 when he was just 26 years old. He took it public in 1993, left after a bitter proxy fight in the early 2000s, then went on to launch Preferred Apartment Communities in 2009. It’s now one of the nation’s fastest-growing real estate companies.
Williams, who was 75, died unexpectedly April 16.
The loss of such an iconic real estate developer stunned the Atlanta business community and longtime friends, including former DeKalb County CEO Liane Levetan.
She sold Williams his first apartment property in the late 1960s. “It was on Tilly Mill Road before I-285 even came through,” she said.
Levetan knew the minute she met Williams almost 50 years ago that he was special.
“I mean, that smile,” she said. “That exuberance.”They became close friends, always checking in on each other over the years. They even shared the same birthday in March, and it concerned her that she hadn’t heard as much from him this spring. She spent the afternoon of April 16 coping with the shock of his death and reflecting on how his friendship enriched her life. An influential voice in local politics now in her 80s, Levetan said Williams’ wisdom sticks with her.
“One of the most important things was that you have to be optimistic,” she said. “You don’t let anything get you down, because every kick in the rear-end moves you forward. I think he liked that expression.”
That is how Williams chose to lead his life — never indulging in self pity after defeats.
Consider Post Properties, the company he ran until 2001, when he had open heart surgery and later took medical leave for an arrhythmia. It was then that some board members began to orchestrate his exit, he told Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2016. It led to a well-known proxy battle that eventually forced him to leave the company.
Almost two years ago, Mid-America Apartment Communities announced it was buying out Post Properties. Williams said the sale brought him “incredible sadness.”
“It was a great company and it’s not there anymore,” Williams told the Chronicle.
But, with typical Williams perseverance, he had moved on.
His next company, Preferred Apartment Communities Inc. (NYSE: APTS), is one of the country’s top-performing real estate investment trusts. Earlier this year, after acquiring Armour Yards, the popular loft office project along the Atlanta Beltline’s Northeast Trail, Williams told the Chronicle, “Our goal is to continue buying.”
Reactions to his death continue to pour in.
Kessel Stelling, chairman and CEO of Synovus Financial Corp. (NYSE: SNV), said the news left him deeply saddened.
“John was no doubt a giant in the Atlanta business community,” Stelling said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family, and the many colleagues and friends who will miss his influence and presence.”
Michael Paris, president and CEO of the Council for Quality Growth, had known Williams since 1985.
“I can’t think of another person who has contributed more to the economic success of this city and with a true spirit paying forward,” Paris said.
The Council honored Williams in 2007 with its Four Pillar Tribute. The theme of that award was “The First to Commit.”
“John was always is the first to commit — to our community, our region and to our quality of life, with innovation, extraordinary vision and a true desire to give back,” Paris said.
Kerry Armstrong, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, said of Williams, “John was truly unique — a real trailblazer as a developer, businessman and citizen.”
Ed Allen, of residential real estate company Related Development, called Williams a great innovator.
“I knew John as a charismatic leader and a visionary,” Allen said. “Perhaps his greatest quality was his fierce loyalty to his friends, partners and employees. John’s passing is a tremendous loss for the real estate world.”
Dwindling intown industrial
Almost 460,000 square feet of intown Atlanta warehouses that once belonged to cleaning products company Zep Inc. are coming back on the market.
The 28-acre property on Seaboard Industrial Boulevard was vacated by Zep, which relocated the distribution hub to Cartersville, Ga. What remains is one of the largest collections of empty industrial buildings amid the rapidly changing Atlanta neighborhoods Upper Westside and West Midtown.
A joint venture of Weaver Capital Partners, Seng Co. and SilverCap Partners announced April 9 it bought the former Zep buildings, though it did not release a purchase price. The property sold for about $19 million, according to people familiar with the transaction.
CIBC Bank USA arranged the financing.
The venture will market the space for lease or sale.
It’s possible the venture could target breweries, distilleries and building supply companies that are being displaced as more of Atlanta’s old warehouses are either torn down or converted to office space, food halls, stores or restaurants.
For example, Australian plumbing company Reliance Worldwide Corp. consolidated its U.S. headquarters into Atlanta’s Upper Westside, bringing about 250 jobs to the area. The building was adapted to loft-office space by a group of Atlanta investors with New City, Sweetwater Holdings Co. and Wyatt Capital. In West Midtown, which includes new developments on Howell Mill Road and Northside Drive, some former industrial sites are selling for as much a $5 million per acre.
The joint venture that bought the Zep facility could get offers to buy the remaining buildings from $75 per foot to up to $135 a foot. It could also lease the space in the range of $6 to $10 a foot.
Wilson Hull & Neal has been hired to market the property.
The Zep campus transaction was brokered by Terminus Commercial Real Estate Partners, which is led by Taylor Smith.
Financing was arranged by Patterson Real Estate Advisory Group.
Even developers of warehouse space are embracing greater density.
At least, to some an extent.
Engineering firm Eberly & Associates submitted plans to the state on behalf of an unidentified user for a four-story distribution center in Gwinnett County. The 640,000-square-foot project could employ up to 1,800.
The project would rise on 92 acres at 2100-2300 West Park Place Boulevard, which just northeast of Stone Mountain Park.
It could be completed in about two years, according to the filing.
The project is large enough to be submitted as a Development of Regional Impact, or DRI. The process triggers the Atlanta Regional Commission to prepare for the development’s effect on local traffic and infrastructure. The DRI typically reflects a project’s maximum density for an area, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be developed to that scale.
Often, metro Atlanta developers look for sites in exurban and rural areas to build warehouses, as the land is plentiful and cheap, but that’s slowly changing as retailers move e-commerce centers closer to the urban core.
Atlanta saw about 21 million square feet of industrial absorption last year, fueled by demand for large blocks of space. However, developers are becoming more concerned about running out of suitable land for new projects, according to CBRE Group Inc.