Atlanta Relapses into the Past with Plans for More Parking in South Downtown

Posted on October 12, 2016 by Darin Givens [ATL Urbanist]

A new City of Atlanta resolution has authorized over $42,000 for a project geared toward adding new parking at four spots in South Downtown, including:

  1. Additional levels of parking to the Government Parking Deck on Central Avenue
  2. Additional parking deck at the City Plaza Apartments
  3. New parking deck at 197 Forsyth Street
  4. An expansion of the judges’ parking with the extension of the Municipal Court

Which seems incredible. Additional parking is probably the thing that this struggling neighborhood needs the least.

After mid-20th Century white/suburban flight, this once bustling district was emptied out, and property owners converted their devalued land to so many parking facilities that the result is a kind of concrete and asphalt blight on the urban landscape. Now this specter of subsidized blight — by way of new publicly-funded parking capacity for government staffers — adds insult to injury.

What’s the harm in a little more parking?

Kyle Kessler serves as Community Program Manager at the Center for Civic Innovation leading the South Downtown Initiative. I asked for his thoughts on this move by the city.

These four projects are adding parking in deck form rather than in surface-lot form. Is it possible these plans could work toward eliminating the need for South Downtown’s surface lots, making them more likely to be converted to new developments?

Kessler: “Based on comments made so far by City officials, they are simply looking to add more parking capacity. There has been no mention of consolidating parking to free up land for redevelopment.”

Are there current problems in South Downtown that might be exacerbated by added automobile trips — which will likely happen after an increase in parking capacity?

Kessler: “Increased automobile traffic negatively impacts all other forms of traffic. South Downtown is the most transit-rich neighborhood in the entire Atlanta region. (Transit Score of 79.) We should be taking advantage of the heavy-rail MARTA infrastructure that’s in place as well as the numerous MARTA and commuter bus lines. There is no location better-equipped for less employee parking than South Downtown.”

New visions for South Downtown: support them, don’t thwart them

Planning Commissioner Tim Keane recently asked Georgia Tech to work on a 25-year plan for Downtown Atlanta. The resulting visions, published online here, imagine a future with much less parking due to improved transit service, better bicycle and pedestrian facilities, increased use of ride-sharing services, and the possibility of autonomous vehicles.

In the document, Meredith Blakeley, Lu Pang and Animesh Shrestha — three graduate students at in the Master of Science in Urban Design — studied conditions and trends in South Downtown and saw a future with less parking, more development, new residents, and an emphasis on the arts.

South Downtown vision

Here’s a quote from their piece:

The area around Garnett Station in South Downtown is currently mostly surface parking lots. There are many jobs in the area but the employees commute from other areas of the Metro. With the arrival of autonomous vehicles and improvements to the streets, the parking lots can be redeveloped into residential units and commercial space. A school and green space are included to attract family residents.

This is the kind of bold vision that needs to be supported — not thwarted — by city leadership with every step we take in South Downtown. Increasing parking capacity in this area could very well thwart moves toward better urban design, livability, and placemaking.

Why would we make this move for designing new parking now? Central Atlanta Progress is currently working with Kimley-Horn to evaluate transportation and parking for all of Downtown as part of an updated master plan. Shouldn’t we be waiting until that process is complete, and allow the evaluation to inform our decisions on increasing parking capacity?

Charge market rates for existing parking and encourage transit, carpooling

Demand for parking for government employees in South Downtown is likely being artificially inflated due to the fact that it’s under-priced.

City employees currently pay $35/month to park, a rate has not increased since at least 2007 and is well below the market rates of $75-95 per month charged at the Underground Atlanta decks. Can’t the city raise the parking prices to levels closer to market rates? Surely that would increase alternative commutes (transit, carpooling) and decrease demand for parking spaces.

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Courtesy: Kyle Kessler

Needed in the city center: affordable housing for people, not cars

The Government Center Parking Deck on Central Avenue was intentionally engineered to accommodate additional levels of affordable housing — a critical need in the city right now.

Which makes it particularly shocking that the city is now changing that plan with this resolution, instead adding additional levels of parking where that affordable housing would have gone. And it’s doing so in a place that is served by multiple transit lines. Cars don’t need the use of those trains and buses. Residents do.

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The Government Parking Deck on Central Avenue in South Downtown, Atlanta. It was intended to have affordable housing added on top, not extra parking.

And not only would these projects add nothing of value at a neighborhood level the way residential construction would — they also are an economic loss. Adding onto a deck on city property robs the city of property tax revenue (since government-owned property is untaxed). Off-street parking should not be a core service that the city provides. At the least, let the free market compete for providing parking to government employees and allow all involved to pay the true cost of parking while contributing to revenue.

Don’t put more parking spaces next to a train station

The lot at 197 Forsyth Street is immediately across the street from the Garnett MARTA Station. MARTA has been actively working to create Transit Oriented Developments near its train stations. Replacing these parking lots with mixed-used developments, not parking decks, would result in a better use of land near the public resource of transit.

Simply increasing parking capacity here would be a waste of potential, and it would also increase automobile trips in a place where we should be instead increasing pedestrian trips.

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The parcel near Garnett MARTA station where the city is proposing a new parking deck.

Garnett, which opened in 1981, cost $12 million to build. Adjusted for inflation that’s about $30 million in 2015 dollars. With all of that public investment in this station (including what’s spent annually to maintain it), it’s already a shame that there’s so little going on around it in terms of good urban land use. Why exacerbate the situation?

City leaders sometimes seem lost when it comes to how understanding what’s best for South Downtown. Ideas come along like those from the Georgia Tech report, and those from the renderings for the (apparently long dead) concept of a Multi Modal Passenger Terminal…

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Rendering of a proposal for a Multi Modal Passenger Terminal in South Downtown, Atlanta

…but what actually gets funding and design work is parking. The scourge of South Downtown, creating deadness where there should be destinations, and inducing car traffic that furthers the lack of street vibrancy.

A WABE news piece from earlier this year explored the city’s inability to reduce “parking lot deserts” in Downtown. It includes this quote from Keane: “That has been proven time and again, in every single city in the world that the more parking you provide, the more people drive.”

South Downtown has been struggling for decades to overcome the damage to its urban fabric by these parking deserts and dead spaces. The city should be repairing that damage in a forward-thinking way that embraces the newest and best ideas for good urbanism in historic street grids and near transit.

Instead, it looks like we may be getting more of the same thing that’s defined its blightedness. This authorization is only for designs. It’s $42k of public money being spent to design the wrong thing for this area. That’s bad enough. Let’s at least hope that the designs are never implemented. Please email your councilmember and let them know that this shouldn’t happen.