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Much-Maligned Atlanta’s New Urban Magnets

Sam Newberg / Aug 06 2009

For Release Friday, August 7, 2009

Sam NewbergCriticism 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.

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  1. Curt Johnson
    Posted August 7, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Good reporting, Sam. I was there a couple of times over the past year and was surprised at the shift you see all over toward more urban densities — especially in Mid-town and Buckhead. If it’s a real shift, we should soon see a different transportation politics there.

  2. Kevin Whited
    Posted August 8, 2009 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    Next time your in Atlanta, you should stop by the offices of The Midtown Alliance. They should be given much of the credit for helping make midtown Atlanta what it is and inspiring the investments like Atlantic Station as well as many others.

  3. Susan Fraysse
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I live in Atlanta and have enjoyed shopping and going to movies in Atlantic Station. I have also heard that Atlantic Station has been hit very hard by the economic downturn. I hope it can recover quickly because it is one model we might want to follow as we (eventually) develop the old GM plant in Doraville in northeast Atlanta.

  4. Janice Livings
    Posted August 17, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the postitive spin of Atlanta but lets be honest it was a big mistake to allow Atlantic Station to be built without the developers/city adding a MARTA link. Its like an island in between freeways.
    The fundermental problem Atlanta faces is ignorant suburbanites wanting bigger houses than they can afford and corrupt politicians allowing developers to build further and further out to satisfy this desire without any thought for overall intergration or long term sustainabilty. Not to also forget a totally biased Governer and political establishment who would rather build eight lane roads in rural areas to keep their buddies in the concrete industry rich rather than invest in alternative transport in the Metro area where the actual tax revenues come from. Right now you cannot even get from the Amtrak station to MARTA without a miles walk.