The Worst of Atlanta Urbanism, 2016

Thread ATL presents our first annual “Best and Worst of Atlanta Urbanism” list. As is the case with everything we do, we focused on things happening within the City of Atlanta limits for these lists. First came the good stuff! Now, here’s the bad. 

Thanks to everyone who gave us input on this list through the online form. We took those entries and added our own, and ended up with this as the top ten worst things to happen with the urbanism of the city this year. We’ve also included a more optimistic list of things to watch for in 2017.

1. Fuqua’s Kroger developments at Glenwood & Lindbergh

The Glenwood development — anchored by a Kroger grocery store but containing much more — puts a massive, parking-dominated piece of retail next to the Atlanta Beltline, effectively ensuring that a high volume of car traffic will be awkwardly crossing a portion of the city’s premiere pedestrian/bike path (and future transit line) for many years to come. It also takes up space that could have been used for walkable urban forms near transit and uses it for surface parking instead.

And believe it or not, this project was subsidized by Invest Atlanta.

The Lindbergh store is a Kroger alone. With a MARTA rail station nearby and a massive amount of new apartments surrounding it, this store should have been designed for pedestrians, with an entrance facing the street. Instead, it’s fronted by a sea of parking.

2. Pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive

Here’s what was recommended by a planning study of Northside Drive from a few years ago: a signalized intersection with good pedestrian crossings. A simple, relatively inexpensive, and common sense approach to connecting people on the west side of the road (which includes the Vine City MARTA Station) to the east side, where the new Falcons/Atlanta United stadium is replacing the Georgia Dome.

Instead of following these recommendations, Atlanta leaders ignored them in favor of building a $13 million gleaming tapeworm of a bridge that will curl over Northside Drive, making the crossing distance longer and on an incline. This is something recommended neither by the planners nor the community voices, but was demanded by the powerful, who will fund it with our public money and likely light it and maintain it with the same (and now it seems the the public cost will possibly double by the time construction begins).

Former Atlanta city planner Mike Dobbins has written an excellent piece about the folly of this bridge. It’s truly a must-read.

3. Mark Becker’s comments about the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition

Neighbors to Turner Field, which is being sold to GSU for expansion, wanted a Community Benefits Agreement to make sure that the design of the redevelopment would benefit surrounding communities and not just the university — that it wouldn’t become another mega-project that turns its back on the needs of locals.

Not only did the agreement fail to happen, GSU President Mark Becker openly criticized the community coalition for being disorganized and unstructured. Really? If GSU had been a good neighbor and actively reached out with its own structure for public engagement, that would have solved the problem. It was insulting to hear the president of one of the largest universities in the nation criticize the community — which has suffered so long from housing the Braves stadium — for a lack of structure in its efforts for engagement while the school was providing none from its own end.

4. Continued emphasis on parking availability instead of transit

In 2016, parking availability seemed to trump common sense in some projects. Three stood out in particular:

  • We lost about 1/3 of Selena Butler Park in the Old Fourth Ward across from the King Memorial MARTA Station so that a parking lot could be built at the entrance of a new natatorium.
  • We traded city ownership of green space in Buckhead in order to get a parking deck for the potential new owners of Underground Atlanta, next to Five Points MARTA Station.
  • We  authorized over $42,000 for a project geared toward adding new parking in South Downtown, where the dead spaces formed by its current mass of parking facilities is already overwhelming, and where we should be encouraging the use of three MARTA rail stations.

Mayor Kasim Reed has said multiple times that transit is the future of Atlanta, yet we keep undermining the value of our transit stations with this emphasis on parking at projects near those stations.

5. Fort McPherson redevelopment

The redevelopment of Fort Mac as, primarily, a film production studio has produced a series of losses in terms of good urbanism.

  • The project ignores a neighborhood-planning effort for this property that called for a mix of uses that would connect surrounding communities
  • A huge piece of land near a MARTA rail station will be blocked off to the public, maintaining the longstanding divisions between neighborhoods
  • The studio will block access to interior streets on the property, so the city is now faced with a proposal to spend over half a million dollars in public money on building a new road. One can’t help but wonder what the property tax revenue will be for the city via this new studio, and how that compares with the public cost of new road construction and maintenance.

6. BeltLine developments that threaten future transit access

As much as we love having this great new path to walk and bike on, let’s not forget that the 1999 plan by Ryan Gravel for the Atlanta BeltLine was for a rail route forming a ring in the center of the city. That original plan should stick. And we should make sure that all these new developments popping up around the BeltLine are ones that will enable and encourage transit ridership. We’re doing that, right?

We thought so, until it turned out this year that a single section of the route in northeast Atlanta was undergoing a design change that could have seriously hindered our ability to connect the rail alignment to the southeast. It could have left a significant portion of BeltLine neighborhoods with either no or low access to the kind of efficient transit service that others would have.

It was a jarring experience that taught us a sobering lesson: we can no longer assume that ABI (Atlanta BeltLine Inc.) and neighborhood groups and developers are all working toward that goal of the original rail plan. We have to keep watching them.

7. Slow movement on addressing blighted homes in west Atlanta

A group called Blyght has been doing a good job of documenting the city’s shortcomings with tackling blighted homes, many of which are on the west side. We need better record keeping, more follow-through with warrants against slumlords and negligent owners, and generally more money allocated to addressing issues around blight.

This is something that negatively effects the everyday lives of Atlantans and prevents neighborhoods from being strong. Blyght has called on  City Council to dedicate more money in the budget to cleaning up abandoned homes and properties. Building a better city isn’t just about the shiny new things under construction. It’s also about correcting the negative impacts of ugly, dead spaces.

8. Dominance of luxury housing

While Atlanta certainly isn’t alone among US cities with its boom in expensive housing, it does rank at the top among cities developing almost no new affordable and low-income apartments. Luxury-priced apartments dominate the market. It’s that dominance that matters. Nearly all of the new apartments built in the city in the last couple of years have been in the luxury market.

That means the share of housing that’s available for middle-to-low income folks is shrinking. Georgia Tech professor Dan Immergluck was quoted as saying: “There’s essentially no new low-income housing development. There’s also very little for moderate income folks, and so there’s this mismatch.” The desire for homes among the full range of income groups is not being met in the city, near transit and bike lanes and parks.

One of the most concerning aspects of this mismatch: even the Atlanta BeltLine, which was supposed to have provided the city with “2,800 units affordable to those earning a teacher’s salary” by now (according to Saporta Report) has only produced 570 units, and even some of those have already risen in price since they hit the market.

9. Closed sidewalks

You could be forgiven for not knowing that Atlanta has a policy on sidewalk closures. It’s hard to believe it exists, given the omnipresence of sidewalks in the city that are blocked for long periods of time during construction. The policy is obviously not being enforced as it should.

David Emory penned an excellent post on the subject for us this year. He wrote: “For those of us that embrace the urban lifestyle, ‘walkability’ is not a marketing buzzword. Walking is a core part of our everyday experience, and when the ability to walk is impeded, our ability to experience the city is affected in a very fundamental way.”

10. Underground Atlanta redevelopment

Everyone wants Underground to succeed, and the city’s plan to sell it to a developer is a good one. But the car-centric design of the few renderings that have been released, the general lack of transparency around the sale and redevelopment, and the loss of public streets through abandonment all paint a picture of a troubling project.

Why are we turning several blocks of historic Downtown streets into private property? The rights of Atlantans who use them, who walk them after exiting the Five Points MARTA Station, should not up to the discretion of a private landlord. Why hasn’t there been a more public process for the redesign of this property? Why all the parking spaces? This property sits on the literal birth place of the city, next to the busiest transit station in the region. It needs good urbanism.

Things to watch in 2017

Here’s some stuff that Thread ATL is particularly excited about…

1. The Dekalb Avenue redesign and other complete streets projects progressing. You can follow the progress of them all on the (quite impressive) Renew Atlanta website.

2. MARTA’s community engagement regarding which projects to fund with new tax revenue — and particularly their promise that plans for bus service “will be among the most innovative you’ll see” in US.

3. Changes in City Leadership wtih 2017 elections. Thread ATL is planning to be engaged with this election cycle and to get urbanism topics on the table as talking points. Let us know if you’d like to help!

4. Various plans to improve access to waterways such as Peachtree Creek, the Chattahoochee River, and a cleaned up Proctor Creek — a great way for a landlocked city to let residents have time in nature near water. The Proctor Creek project will be helped by this year’s approval of the TSPLOST.