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04.21.2014
Transit's a Peach
Urbanizing Atlanta tries out multi-modal transit options and a walkable district.
A new transit center with offices and apartments could add vibrancy to downtown Atlanta.
Courtesy FXFOWLE

As with most all Sunbelt cities, Atlanta is known for its sprawling development, network of freeways, and reliance on the automobile. Today, however, a series of studies suggest that the city is urbanizing, and local leaders are pushing for new mass transit options as a regional solution to mobility. One ambitious project currently in development by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) and a coalition of local and regional partners could create a Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal (MMPT) that would serve as the centerpiece to a new $1.5 billion, 120-acre, transit-oriented neighborhood on the edge of downtown.

The project began in 2010 when GDOT issued an RFP—eventually selecting a team led by Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises—to develop a master plan for an area of eastern downtown known as “The Gulch.” Historically an industrial train yard, the Gulch’s topography drops off, halting the city grid in a morass of elevated viaducts that rise some 30 feet above the ground. “The road is basically a long bridge with nothing on either side,” said Abbas Hasan, manager of planning and development at Forest City. “The area now is just not pedestrian friendly.”

   
Besides rail service, the terminal accommodates buses behind a dynamic facade of vertical fins.
 

Forest City worked with FXFOWLE Architects in association with Cooper Carry to devise a 20-year master plan that uses the existing viaducts and topography to its advantage. “When we began looking at the feasibility of the Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal, we had two goals: transportation—how we could bring multiple modes of transportation together efficiently—and development—something like this won’t be successful unless it’s economically successful,” said Hasan. The futuristic terminal layers the city’s existing transit system with intercity trains and buses to create a regional hub that could also one day be connected to the national high-speed rail network. “The last thing you want to do is build a hub and not plan for the future of transportation, like high speed rail,” he said. Atlanta is currently listed as a stop on the southeast line extending from Washington, D.C.

 

“The challenge was, how do you create a place people want to be?” said Hasan. “You can’t just create activity out of nothing; you need to create a rationale for people to be there with overlapping uses like transportation, retail, parks, offices, and residential. It’s a very holistic approach to creating an urban environment.” FXFOWLE first reconnected the city grid, adding streets to make the area more walkable, and then arranged a series of new office and residential towers on top of and around the terminal. A series of parks help define urban spaces within the plan, culminating with a linear rooftop park on the terminal itself. “You need to create a lot of density around this thing. The more people you have there, the better it is for transit,” said Hasan. “Once you have people living there, you create a sense of ownership in the area, as opposed to just an office park environment.” New buildings and parks would be built up to the level of the viaducts with parking, train tracks, and mechanical systems built underneath. “When you’re on the street, you won’t realize you’re not on terra firma.”

 
The Gulch site is located in a key portion of downtown Atlanta (left). Proposed site plan for transit-oriented development around the terminal (right). Existing and proposed rail that would service the passenger terminal (below).
 

 

With design and planning complete, GDOT is working to finish an environmental review for the project. The final environmental impact statement is expected to be complete by the end of the year, resulting in a record of decision that allows the project to apply for federal funding. If all goes by the book, construction could begin as early as 2015, with a construction time of three-and-a-half years.

Hasan said the coalition—including GDOT, city officials, and a terminal advisory group—will determine how to move the project forward next year, and whether FXFOWLE’s design will be part of that plan. “Our job was to create a vision and a plan to implement that vision that’s market feasible,” he said. The firm’s contract with the project expired in December, and with the changing economy Hasan said Forest City would have to determine whether the project still makes sense for the company to pursue.

Branden Klayko

 

Current site conditions are not pedestrian friendly and divide downtown Atlanta.
 

 

A series of residential and office towers could be built alongside the terminal to add density to the new district.
 
   
Interior views of the Multo-Modal Passenger Terminal include bright, airy spaces.
 

Terminal elevation.
 

Section through the terminal shows the program complexity.