Private Streets at Underground: Finding a Better Solution

Published on Jan. 8, 2016 by Per Johnson

This past Thursday the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association (ADNA) issued a demand letter to the City asking it to repeal Ordinance 16-O-1611. This rushed and poorly-considered ordinance abandons several blocks of Pryor and Alabama Streets (see image below) to facilitate the sale of Underground Atlanta. The letter asks the City to suspend the sale of Underground until procedures required for street abandonment, which were waived, can be followed. This letter represents the precursor to a lawsuit should the City not meet these demands within five days. 

16-o-1611-updated-exhibit-a
The limits of Pryor and Alabama Streets abandoned under Ordinance 16-O-1611.

As an advocacy group for good urbanism in Atlanta, Thread ATL has supported ADNA’s contentions by raising funds for the legal fees. This financial support could not have happened without the generosity of many contributors as well as the help of Georgia Beer Garden who kindly hosted a fundraiser.

Our concerns

The concerns we have with Ordinance 16-O-1611 can be summed up in two main points:

1. A lack of notification. The City clearly and intentionally avoided providing affected residents and stakeholders with adequate notification, denying them the opportunity to comment as required under both local and state law.  

Since 1974, Atlanta and its residents have benefited from the wisdom of Mayor Maynard Jackson’s Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) system. Out of haste, the City avoided an opportunity for community input through that system.

2. A flawed process. Abandoning public rights-of-way in the heart of Downtown simply to give them away to a private developer at no cost creates a short-term solution to a long-term policy problem – it is lazy policy making.  Whether or not the motives of the City or the developer to privatize these streets were sound or have merit, the process that the City followed was flawed and resulted in a bad decision.

Better Solutions

Thread ATL’s opposition to the City’s waiving of required procedure should not be viewed as opposition to the sale of Underground or to its redevelopment. Everyone wants to see this area thrive. We strongly believe that the City could find a better solution for the treatment of these streets — one that compliments a thoughtful redevelopment plan — if adequate opportunity for public comment is allowed.

Upper Alabama Street, one of the blocks that Atlanta City Council’s ordinance hands over to a private owner.

The following three core principles could form the basis for a solution which we could support even if these public streets are privatized.

  • Public easements must be retained where public rights-of-ways currently exist.  Atlanta doesn’t have to look far to see what private streets could mean. Walk down what appear to be public streets in Atlantic Station with the wrong clothing, or while talking a bit too loud, or heaven forbid while taking a picture with your phone, and you might find yourself escorted off the premises. Such a future for streets in Downtown must be avoided. All Atlantans must be able to continue to use these streets as they have and the right to assemble must be protected. These public rights-of-ways have been paid for by generations of Atlantans and are currently the property of all residents, who get to reap the rewards of that significant cost invested. These public assets must be be protected.
  • Public transportation must be allowed to use these private streets. The Five Points station that Underground neighbors is the most heavily used MARTA rail station and it provides critical bus connections. Preventing the future use of transit through these streets limits the ability of transportation planners to leverage the Five Points station as a multi-modal transit hub.Despite the fact that former Public Works Commissioner Richard Mendoza testified that these streets are supposedly “unnecessary,” no one can envision what the future holds. Ten years ago, the idea that ride sharing apps like Uber and Lyft would proliferate as they have may have seemed ludicrous. Who knows what the transportation landscape of tomorrow might look like. Public ownership of these blocks could end up being crucial to connectivity for future transportation technologies in ways we can’t imagine today.
  • Private streets must revert back to public rights-of-ways in the future. Our hope is that whomever purchases Underground will create a project that improves Downtown for everyone through contextual urban design. But beyond the aesthetic nature of the redevelopment, we have to understand that buildings have lifespans that are much shorter than the streets they front. In the end, abandoning these public rights-of-way has the potential to create a private mega-block in the middle of downtown that will last even beyond the point when the planned redevelopment meets the end of its own lifespan. Should the streets be abandoned, a sunset clause or similar mechanism should be inserted into the agreement to revert them to public streets in the future. Surely any developer or property owner responsible for maintaining these streets in the future would appreciate this, as would the public.

We strongly believe that a solution exists that could accommodate these principles, that meets both the City and developer’s goals, and that satisfies ADNA’s legal stipulations.

Without question, other fundamental concerns are likely to come up if the public is allowed its legal right to comment on the street abandonment and those concerns should be thoroughly considered. The streets  are the property of the public first and foremost. Should a solution be found by City Council which satisfies these three core principles, Thread ATL would consider supporting a repeal and replacement of Ordinance 16-O-1611 with that better plan.