The Art of Homebuilding
One Museum Place in Midtown, across Peachtree from the Wodruff Arts Center, will be more than just a
John Wieland, founder, chairman and chief creative officer of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, whose signature houses dot the Metro Atlanta suburban landscape, has been a force in the housing industry almost since he began his career in the early 1970s. A native of Cleveland, he has joined the distinguished ranks of local business leader/ philanthropists.
He and his wife, Sue, are passionate collectors of art; their $12-million gift to the High Museum made the stunning new Wieland Pavilion possible.
Now his company is set to build a luxury condominium, One Museum Plaza, across from the museum in Midtown – and the Wielands will be among the first to move in.
Wieland talked to Georgia Trend Editor Susan Percy at the company’s airport-area corporate headquarters, where the offices are filled with stunning artwork, including works by Radcliffe Bailey, William Christenberry and Howard Finster – all with a house theme.
Following are excerpts from the interview.
GT: Did you start out to collect art with a house theme?
JW: Our first theme actually was works by artists who were born in the South and worked in the South, but that really proved to be too broad. So we thought what would be most logical [was to] collect art where the house was central part of the image. What’s interesting is that so many artists at some point in their career have used the house in their work.
GT: Many of your company’s houses are “move-up” houses. Was that always true?
JW: Our first home was the magnificent price of $24,000. Things have accelerated since then.
GT: How would you characterize Atlanta’s homebuilding scene in 1970?
JW: I think probably the best way to explain it is to say it was very fragmented. Now a homebuilder is a very professional occupation. I was the anomaly 35 years ago. Not only was I a college graduate, I was very scary; I was a business school graduate – a Harvard Business School graduate. Most of the people 35 years ago were really up from the ranks. They were people who had largely worked in trades and had evolved into homebuilders. Over the 35 years, I would say homebuilding has become a business; 35 years ago it was an occupation, and now it’s a very serious business. It requires a lot more skills than just being able to go out and construct a house. Houses have become more complex, customers have become more demanding – rightfully so. And it’s become an industry, especially here in Atlanta with the tremendous growth.
GT: It sounds as though you caught the Atlanta market at the right time.
JW: I had the great good fortune of deciding to be a homebuilder when Atlanta decided it needed homebuilders.
GT: Could you talk a little about houses themselves and how they have changed?
JW: One thing that’s happened is that Americans and Atlantans put a tremendous amount of their disposable income into their house. Homes have increased in size and in luxury in the last two decades. My personal feeling is that some of it is excessive, that certainly some homes being built are larger than any family or individual could possibly need. When you read about homes with seven-and-a-half bathrooms – how many are necessary? It’s an interesting societal question, especially when you contrast Americans with say, Europeans. Except for Versailles and other notable exceptions, they seem to live more modestly. But the job of the homebuilder is to provide the housing that people want to buy.
GT: You’ve done a lot of building in the suburbs. Why are you now going into urban locations?
JW: Nationally there’s a back to the city movement – a feeling on the part of a lot of people, and I would be included, that as we have moved to the suburbs we have really lost something. We’ve lost a sense of community; we’ve lost a closeness to the arts. We’ve lost the wonderful thing called walking – where you can walk to get a gallon of milk, walk to see your neighbor. There’s this sort of rediscovering-the-past experience that America is going through in cities as people move to high-rise condominiums and also experience in mixed use developments.
GT: So we’re likely to see more homebuilding in the city?
JW: One thing that is very germane to this issue is the subject of density. The perception on the part of many of the city and county zoning boards is that density is bad; and I think people are starting to recognize that density isn’t bad, it’s what you build that can be bad. You can have density and have beauty and a great living environment. You can have a two-acre lot and it can be very wasteful and unproductive. We as a society, especially in Atlanta, have become more comfortable with density. That’s allowed us to do projects like One Museum Place and like Ivy Walk [in Vinings], and we will continue to emphasize that.
GT: People are becoming more accepting of higher density, then?
JW: The other societal change that has taken place over the last couple of decades is that the nuclear family is not dominant – the Ozzie and Harriet, two people, two kids is not the dominant [model] anymore. You have lots of different family groupings, so you have lots of different housing needs. Society in general is living longer, living more healthily. You have this aging population that I would be part of. I’m not interested in my front yard anymore. I drove off this morning and I didn’t commune with it at all. I can’t wait to take the elevator to my front yard.
GT: You’re looking forward to the move to Midtown?
JW: When Sue and I move to One Museum Place it will be a very satisfying experience. We will be able to leave all sorts of things behind and trust them to others – simplify our lives.
GT: Will the suburbs embrace the notion of density?
JW: Basically the suburbs are still uncomfortable with density, and I think that’s really a bad rap for density. We have a neighborhood called Vinings Estates. Within that neighborhood, we have 100 townhomes. They’ve been a wonderful success. They’ve created multigenerational living. We have a number of families there – parents live in the townhome, children live in the house. They’re all living in the same neighborhood. It’s made for a healthier neighborhood, because we have older people who would not otherwise be living there, not in the single-family house with the big front yard. My vision of the future – idealized, I imagine – for the suburbs would be where there are density components, quality density neighborhoods in close proximity to quality traditional, single-family detached houses. It’s very inefficient to put one house in the middle of one big yard, then put another house in the middle of another big yard, in terms of just resources, pavement, water. And then this gasoline thing’s not going away I don’t think. That’s just one more reason to look back toward the city.
GT: But in terms of attracting families … ?
JW: The issue in the city is schools. To the extent that the city schools can improve, the city will prosper. There are innumerable people who would be thrilled to live in the city who don’t live in the city because of the schools. The services are here, the arts are here, the short commute is here – all those goodies. But if you have a family …
GT: What about the affordable housing component in new communities, especially in urban locations?
JW: I think the issue is whether or not it’s mandated. I personally am in favor of mandates, because I don’t think it’s going to happen any other way. To me it’s logical that if the government says yes, you may go ahead and build so many homes that some modest percentage should be affordable. Some people call it affordable housing, some call it workforce housing. We need teachers, need police officers, need firemen. I don’t think it’s fair to say you need to live 20 miles farther out [where you can afford to buy a house on your salary], but we want you to be on time coming into our community to teach our children, protect our houses.
GT: Where does the opposition come from?
JW: From the builders – they see it as encroaching on their profits. Heaven forbid. But if everybody plays by the same rulebook, if everybody is providing 10 percent workforce housing in new developments, then the market adjusts. It’s a little bit of Robin Hood, but if you’re going to make it happen, you need a little bit of Robin Hood.
GT: Is Atlanta’s housing market slowing down? We’ve been hearing the warnings for a long time.
JW: Personally, I’ve been predicting a slowdown for the last eight years. And the great thing about consistent prediction is that sooner or later you’ll be right. This year I’m going to be right. Definitely there is a slowdown – to some extent you have a perfect storm. You have had rising land costs. And thanks to the petroleum situation you’ve had rising construction rates, and now you have rising interest rates. You put all that together and housing is relatively more expensive than it has been in a number of years. The flipside is that it is still remarkably inexpensive. On a historic basis, the interest rates are still remarkably low. And Atlanta, in terms of the overall U.S. picture, is remarkably inexpensive. We love meeting people transplanted from California. They think they’ve just died and gone to heaven. They look at a 3,500-square-foot house and you tell them what it costs and they say, “I’ll take two.”
GT: Could you talk about plans for One Museum Place?
JW: The goal is to create an iconic residence at the heart of Atlanta. Our feeling is that Midtown is now the heart of Atlanta. Nothing has been yet [built] that in my terminology is truly special. Our reference point to some extent is the Dakota in New York City. We want to build a building that is so special that when people think of a wonderful place to live in Atlanta, they’ll think of One Museum Place. We are taking 15,000 square feet, which is the same size as one floor of the new Wieland Pavilion at the High Museum, and devoting it to a gallery to show contemporary art that is more cutting edge than the timeless contemporary art that is part of the third floor [exhibit]. We expect to have an artist in residence living in the building, working in the building … on a one-year grant. We have offered the Woodruff Arts Center an option to acquire the space for a dollar after 10 years.
GT: The $12-million gift that you and Mrs. Wieland gave to the High is an extraordinary one. How did you decide to give it to the museum?
JW: I’m a former board chair at the High. I personally have a deep appreciation of the impact of the visual arts. That’s why I personally collect and that’s why we have it here. I really believe that our people are more creative because this “juice” around here makes you think creatively.
GT: Community involvement and philanthropy have always been a part of business success in Atlanta. Is that changing or likely to change as new business leaders arrive?
JW: I think it’s incumbent on the current business leadership to engage the new business leadership. Classically busy people and CEOs, who are classically busy people, don’t self-engage. I was asked by somebody to join the High Museum board. If I’d never been asked, I wouldn’t have gone down there and said, “I love art. Let me in, let me in.” It’s really the job of the people who have gone down the road to try and work with the new business leaders to involve them in the city. That doesn’t mean just give your money – that means give your IQ and give your physical presence.
GT: It can be harder to engage people who don’t have roots here or who didn’t achieve their success here.
JW: To the extent that management is less an up-through-the-ranks thing than it has been in the past and to the extent that you’re now dealing with second- and third-generation managers instead of the manager themselves – the ties are much looser. My ties are very tight because Atlanta gave me this opportunity. If I hadn’t moved to Atlanta I wouldn’t have sold these homes and I wouldn’t have made this money. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to give back. The other thing that is a challenge is that we have so many companies now headquartered outside of downtown. They don’t see downtown, they don’t feel the compelling relationship. I think it’s fabulous that Cousins Properties is moving downtown. It’s creative, kind of daring, but going to be very productive – not good just for Cousins Properties but good for the city.