Georgia’s largest city is establishing a new pattern for urban success by building density in its core and opening new modes of transit. Darin Givens tells us about the city’s aspirations and struggles as it develops in the 21st century.
A national report from 2014, “The Young and Restless at the Nation’s Cities,” found that recent years have seen a significant rise in the percentage of young and educated adults living within a three-mile radius of the Downtown Atlanta central business district. This includes intown neighborhoods such as West End, Adair Park, Atlantic Station, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Grant Park, and Glenwood Park. The metro region as a whole, though, has taken a loss on this demographic.
Shunning the sprawling fringes, young people with college degrees are flocking to the places that are most urban in Atlanta; the ones with transit service, density, and mixed uses. In contrast to the way baby boomers of the latter half of the 20th century reshaped the region with car-centric, low-density development, this new generation is eager to take part in the powerful trends of urbanism that are improving the center-city’s core, making it a better place to live and work.
It isn’t hard to see a geographic correlation between the location of this trend and the outline of the Atlanta BeltLine. Looping the center of the city with a series of paths and parks, it will, when fully completed, pass through 45 close-in neighborhoods that are all within a two- to four-mile radius of downtown. Even in its partially completed early stages, the BeltLine has proven itself a powerful tool for changing the way people think about Atlanta’s development.
This series of multi-use paths and green space is boosting the amount of parkland in the city by 40 percent. Nineteen percent of the city’s land mass falls inside the planning area for the project. The city touts $775 million in real estate development within a half mile of the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail alone. This puts a considerable number of residents in easy access of a popular public space that is now known for its weekend crowds, while also demonstrating the ability of the city’s growth to occur in new ways. It is happening not alongside wide, multi-lane roads; instead, this part of intown’s resurgence is taking shape around the BeltLine’s shared spaces and bike lanes (and, some day in the future, planned rail transit).
The sea change ushered in by the BeltLine can’t be understated. In one of the least “designed” large cities in the U.S., where market trends and interstate infrastructure have had an outsized role in shaping the urban fabric, people are now excited about re-thinking how the city is shaped. Residents who seldom considered the urban environment beyond their own block have become aware of the strength of conceptualizing whole neighborhoods and the links between them. And it is having an effect on architects as well.
Ryan Gravel is a senior urban designer for the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will. His master’s thesis in Architecture and City Planning from Georgia Tech in 1999 became the original vision for the BeltLine. He said that the project is “making obvious improvements to the form and life of the city, but the consumer market that it is generating is also pressuring developers and architects to make better buildings.
“You can see this right now with the unfolding of Ponce City Market, which is raising the bar three or four rungs for quality. But you can also see it on the drawing boards for projects like the Atlanta Dairies site on Memorial Drive, which are re-introducing Atlanta to a more interesting mix of uses, like markets, music, and the arts. They’re also taking advantage of both historic and nondescript old structures to deliver more inventive designs. Along with the general upgrades in Downtown and Midtown, an emerging bicycle culture, and a fantastic culinary scene, Atlanta’s central city is coming alive in a really interesting way.”
Ponce City Market
The adaptive reuse of a hulking, 1925 Sears, Roebuck & Company distribution center is an appropriately transformative project to take place alongside the BeltLine. One point one million square feet of the structure has undergone a mixed-use conversion as Ponce City Market (PCM). The finished product includes 517,000 square feet of offices, 300,000 square feet of retail, and 259 residential units. The project has proven successful in drawing in tenants, with most of the office space already leased to a variety of high-profile companies including Twitter, and an array of shops is set to open throughout 2015.
Atlanta architect Kyle Kessler said that PCM, which sits directly beside the eastside BeltLine path, is “important as a project itself (adaptive reuse, on the BeltLine, etc.) but also because it appears to have captured the public’s imagination and is setting a new baseline for development in Atlanta.”
Indeed, even the high rental prices announced for the residential units have not soured the city on it. PCM has become a symbol of what Atlanta can accomplish in terms of reusing structures of the past, and re-aligning them with modes of transportation other than cars, and opening them to public space.
Immediately south of PCM lies Historic Fourth Ward Park. Opened in 2011, it offers 17 acres of green space, walkways, an amphitheater and event lawn, and numerous water features. A stormwater detention basin forms a two-acre lake, surrounded by a carefully landscaped park. Several recently constructed mid-rise apartment buildings overlook the park, which boasts a popular playground and splash pad that draw in families from surrounding neighborhoods. The sight of children playing in a carefully designed park, in the midst of human-scale residential development and a multi-use path, conveys a very European sensibility in its overall aesthetic; something many may be surprised to find in Atlanta.
Struggling to find connections
In a city that is sliced through its core several times with interstate highway infrastructure, as well as large arterial roads that serve highway entrances and exits, finding pedestrian-friendly connections from place to place can sometimes be a challenge. In many cases the urban fabric can be repaired, but sometimes the city seems content to develop islands of activity set apart from each other.
Atlantic Station is 138 acres of a former brownfield site that became a master-planned, mixed-use city within a city. Opened in 2005, it has an impressive six million square feet of office space that sits among a varied array of housing, including townhomes, apartments, condos, and detached houses. Its central retail area is an outdoor shopping mall outfitted with gridded streets that host popular shopping destinations, with levels of parking stacked directly underneath.
But despite being walkable in itself, there is a rough transition between Atlantic Station and surrounding nodes of activity, from which it is separated by a combination of interstate highways, car-centric corridors, and freight rail lines. Without a safe pedestrian connection to the rest of Midtown to the east and west, or to Buckhead to the north, it is largely a car destination.
Car destinations are also a big part of the landscape of Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead section, on the north end of the city. The commuter congestion on its central Peachtree Road corridor is known by locals as something to be avoided as much as possible. One attempt to link Buckhead’s destinations for human-powered transportation is PATH400 Greenway Trail. This north-south multi-use path will eventually link up with the BeltLine on its south end. Its first phase opened in January 2015, and the full 5.2 miles of trail will eventually connect a series of parks, schools, and neighborhoods to the urban center of Buckhead.
The fact that the Buckhead community business district has shown major support for the PATH400 project is telling; even in the most challenging places, Atlanta is focused on developing in a new way.
Perhaps the most challenging location of all is Underground Atlanta in the south end of Downtown. With lower-level storefronts that used to be at the main street level in the earliest days of Atlanta, before the viaducts were built over them (hence “underground”), this is the historic birthplace of the city that eventually morphed into a financially troubled mall.
Even the presence of a MARTA rail station next door has not been able to draw enough foot traffic to make the mall profitable. One probable culprit is geography: It is disconnected from the popular neighborhoods of the city by crisscrossing highways, a railroad gulch, and a series of enormous events facilities and their adjacent parking structures.
The city decided in 2014 to end its ownership of Underground Atlanta. Making the sole bid for purchase, developer WRS Inc. has submitted concepts that would transform it into 12 acres of mixed uses, including a grocery store, additional retail, and residential development. Instead of only trying to draw in visitors from other neighborhoods in the city, this new plan for the space could end up some day serving as the centerpiece for the South Downtown neighborhood.
Atlanta Daily World Building: big gains from small packages
This is a modest building, physically, by any standard. Comprising 4,756 square feet of space on 0.11 acres of land, this simple two-story structure built in 1930 is not visually striking. But true to its placement on Auburn Avenue, which served as the epicenter of African American commercial and cultural life for several decades in the early-to-mid 20th century, it has a prominent place in the city’s history.
It served as the headquarters for its namesake publication for many years, which was the nation’s first successful black-owned daily newspaper. Threatened with demolition after being damaged by a 2008 tornado that hit Downtown Atlanta, it was spared thanks to the voices of local preservationists. A real estate professional purchased it and has carefully renovated the building for apartments on top and two retail spaces below.
Small projects like this tend to slide under the radar, missing out on the coverage afforded to mega developments. But these are the ones that make neighborhoods feel authentic. According to Kessler, this project is important because “it’s on the opposite end of the scale as Ponce City Market. Much of what has stifled development in Atlanta’s urban core is that developers can’t get the property assemblages together to make a project big enough for the pro forma to work. This building was a goner, but the project proves that a small developer can make the numbers work. Hopefully this is a model that can be repeated throughout downtown and the rest of the city.”
Challenges for furthering Atlanta’s good urbanism
Urbanists have much to celebrate in the strides Atlanta has taken toward building places that are more walkable and that echo some of the best practice of good urban form. Though the city government has supported efforts at reshaping the city for the better, it has not always taken the reigns when it comes to leading those efforts and fostering a cohesive vision. Matthew Garbett, a community leader who is currently working with the city on a tactical urbanism project, said, “I think urbanists share a vision for the city, but I don’t think we’re effectively sharing that vision in a way that is shaping the city. We lack an advocate at the city-wide level who really has the people and the press’s attention, someone willing to speak about the bad and the real, sometimes difficult measures that need to be taken to improve.”
And even with the addition of planned public spaces such as the BeltLine, the market economy still has the biggest say in what gets developed. As Kessler noted: “Yes, architects are taking part in the vision, but I wouldn’t say we’re leading the vision. As has been proven with the new Falcons stadium, Civic Center, Turner Field, Underground Atlanta, etc., the vision has been put forward by a developer who’s worked with a particular architect, but architects serving as design advocates have not been out in front of the process.
“There have been calls in the media and from new organizations such as the Architecture & Design Center to raise the level of discourse regarding architecture, but I think Atlanta needs more architects advocating for better design and not just allowing developers, bankers, and other participants that don’t have an obligation to serve the public to dictate what gets built.”