For Release Friday, August 7, 2009
Criticism of Atlanta’s traffic congestion and sprawling consumption of land are well-deserved. Severe air pollution has threatened to choke the city. Right now a bitter debate is raging over whether and how the state will let the city and region pay for critically needed anti-congestion, pro-transit improvements.
But there’s another Atlanta with a radically different image, as I discovered recently exploring some areas close to center city.
A top example–Atlantic Station. I’d been hearing a lot about it in the real estate development and planning world, and knew the project was heralded as a great infill project with good transit. But I was short on the details. So on a recent trip to Atlanta, I decided to visit.
On a rainy day, without prior briefing, I approached Atlantic Station with open eyes. I took MARTA to the stop nearest Atlantic Station, but I still had to walk a considerable distance, including crossing I-75/85. OK–Clearly this crossing/interchange was upgraded for Atlantic Station, and the sidewalk was wide and had a sun shade along much of its length–a thoughtful gesture to pedestrians in Georgia summers. (Only on my return to MARTA did I realize there is frequent shuttle bus service between the development and the station. Still, MARTA is an excellent, if underbuilt, transit system.)
As for Atlantic Station–well, I’ve never seen anything like it. On arrival, I found the drill was to descend from street level into one of the numerous parking access points. But I wasn’t underground–not even close. I was still three stories up, as the actual ground is three levels below the street. I could see for what seems like an eternity in every direction in a bizarre underworld of parking.
Atlantic Station is mostly built out, and the area known as “The District” is centered on a park that is flanked by pedestrian-friendly retail, with a Publix grocery store, Target, and hotel and office towers at the edge. The District, in terms of mixed uses and design, is much like other “new-old” town centers built in the last five years. The most stunning feature is that the entire complex is built over the three-story parking structure. Since the site is a former steel mill, apparently they couldn’t dig down (too dirty, too expensive, or both). So they built three stories of “underground” parking above ground, treating the fourth level as the “ground level.” It is ingenious, and I’m sure it wasn’t cheap.
To the west is “The Commons,” an area of apartments and condos centered around Commons Park. The entrance to the Commons contains a huge arch, called Millennium Gate, which is not unlike the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Overall, Atlantic Station is a big, grand, and pretty impressive infill development. It’s obviously the result of extensive collaboration between numerous public and private entities. Its design definitely encourages walking.
But the examples don’t stop there. The core of Atlanta is full of good urbanism. I next made a visit to the offices of Atlanta Beltline. In a very ambitious plan, the organization is converting a 22-mile set of old rail corridors that circle the core city. It’s converting them to greenways, trails, parks, transit and sites for housing and other infill development.
Ethan Davidson of Atlanta Beltline gave me a quick tour of the Beltline and some great infill development that has already occurred nearby, particularly east of downtown. Along the way we breezed through Inman Park Village and Glenwood Park, two large scale redevelopments in historic neighborhoods, and past Renaissance Walk, a project in the historic Sweet Auburn district of the city. We traveled through numerous neighborhoods rich in character, all giving me the urge to go back and explore on foot or by bike.
Also on my itinerary was an evening stroll through Centennial Olympic Park, built for the 1996 games. Although the rain had abated, a mist still hung in the air, and nobody was about. It was delightful. I watched the Fountain of Rings and wandered across the great lawn and up the garden walk. Every downtown deserves a nice park, but I couldn’t help but think that if not for the Olympics, I’d have been standing in a still-neglected portion of downtown.
Yes it is true, and hardly surprising, that Atlanta managed to grow in to a poster child for a half century of decidedly anti-urban policy in this country. But for a city with such a reputation for sprawl and sometimes soulless high-rises, much of today’s city core qualifies as an island of good urbanity. Notably, many of the good examples have gone up in the past decade. It’s as if the city saw the error of its ways and is making amends. It will be fascinating to see if it’s willing (and able) to continue on this path.
Sam Newberg’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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