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The car-centric curse of Fuqua mega development hits 17th Street

Attendees at the walk
Attendees of the walk around the site of the proposed Fuqua development

Last month, ThreadATL and CNU Atlanta co-hosted a walk around the site of a proposed mega development at the corner of Northside Drive and 17th Street. That’s where controversial developer Fuqua is partnering with others to build a massive new grocery store that will be fronted by a parking deck and surrounded by some small retail buildings, a gas station and a storage facility. 

A good group of attendees came with us (many who live in nearby Atlantic Station) and offered some great comments on the way the drive-to design of this project will affect them. I’ve included some key comments in this post.

I won’t rehash the many vexing, car-centric elements of Fuqua’s past shopping centers here. Refer to this excellent Creative Loafing article about them, from a few years ago, for all the details. Let’s just say that the hallmarks of car-oriented, pedestrian-unfriendly design in the existing Fuqua canon are in full display within this new proposal.

You can download the entire master plan for the Loring Heights neighborhood that the property falls within from the City of Atlanta website. Neighborhood master plans represent a lot of work on the part of planners and residents toward shaping the future of a place. It’s one of the ways in which we can follow through on Atlanta BeltLine mastermind Ryan Gravel‘s idea of defining the city: “Atlanta isn’t perfect, but you can redefine what it’s going to be and that’s fun.”

Ignoring the public engagement of the master plan for the neighborhood

A comment from an attendee from the walk:

“Loring Heights master plan calls for mixed-use developments. But instead, apartments north of this property got built with no retail at the bottom. All the retail is being built on this one property, detached from the apartments in an unwalkable design. Plus, this overall land use leaves no room for industrial uses.”

Indeed, it was very strange to see so many recently-built apartment buildings, just north of 17th Street, with no retail on the bottom. All the retail will be at this one giant Fuqua shopping center. Which is directly contradictory to the plan and it seems to even fly in the face of this warning in the document:

“From the perspective of this master plan, the redevelopment of the 17th Street/Bishop Street corridor into a single-use, big box retail center would be a lost opportunity to create a truly meaningful and vibrant focal point for Loring Heights.”

That chance for a vibrant center is being lost for certain with a proposal that seems to purposefully turn its back on the neighborhood. These master plans are things that the neighborhood and planners spend a lot of time on. This is the public engagement process at work. What are we saying to Atlantans who devote time to these processes when we ignore the results like this?

A lost opportunity for a skyline view

The second comment that matters here…

“This is a low-density waste of a skyline view. The view is lovely and more vertical development would allow people to enjoy it.”

The master plan, in fact, makes note of the incredible view, which you can see today from the intersection of 17th and Northside:

Atlanta skyline
The view across the property from 17th and Northside.

Here’s an image from the master plan, showing the potential for “Skyline Views” from this property (along with the potential for it to become relocated Amtrak Station, which was being talked about at the time but seems to no long be in the cards).

master plan
Image from Loring Heights Master Plan, 2012. The property containing the “Skyline Views” and “Potential Amtrak Station” is the one being turned into this new shopping center.

As it stands with this development, you might get a nice view of the skyline when you’re parked on the top level of the parking deck and walking to and from your car. Or maybe if you’re repairing the HVAC on top of the grocery store. But basically, this viewshed is being wasted.

This development is simply delivering what is allowed by the city’s zoning

Here’s another comment from an attendee…

The main problem is zoning: this is perfectly allowed. Overlay Fairlie-Poplar [in Downtown Atlanta] on this and point out that it’s basically impossible to build that kind of pre-automobile city fabric now.

The Fuqua thing is so vexing. Those developments are just doing what zoning allows –we can’t say that Fuqua is doing anything “wrong” in terms of zoning rules. But what we end up with is property that’s wasting the potential of large pieces of land by condemning them to exist as nothing but parking (or single-story retail) for many years. That’s the polar opposite of what we need to be developing on unbuilt land in the city.

There’s a zoning rewrite underway that will address this and hopefully make these car-centric mega developments a thing of the past. The Creative Loafing piece from a few years ago about Fuqua touches on that. But the new zoning is still years away from completion and adoption. What can we do in the mean time as these things continue to sprout up in the city?

The mobility and access problem

Rendering of proposal
Rendering of the proposal

Three comments from attendees all relate to the mobility and access issues, so I’ll list them all here:

There’s a lot of residential density nearby but the design of this development (and of the 17th Street/Northside Drive intersection) will make people want to drive a quarter mile to get here rather than walk or bike.

Road diet on Northside Drive would be good. It’s really loud from the zooming cars. Everyone seems to be driving over the speed limit.

What can we get from Fuqua? An interior sidewalk? Surely it wouldn’t take away many parking spaces in order to build a path from the road to the grocery store, plus maybe some stairs at the corner of Northside and 17th.

One of the things we did on the walk was really looking at the impact these car trips will have, and the impact that the overall car-centric design will have on anyone trying to arrive here (or even just pass through) on a bike or on foot.

This currently-empty property is a blank slate that could become something good for the livability of surrounding neighborhoods, or it could become a big parking lot with some stores that people drive to from all over the city.  Will nearby residents even have a chance of entering this safely on bike or on foot?

The news articles about this development tend to pussyfoot around the horrible urbanism, to keep the belief going that any development is better than no development. Three of the buildings have drive-throughs. The parking ratio appears to be close to 6 per 1,000 SF which is high — even in the suburbs.

The intersection of 17th Street and Northside Drive, where cars will be entering this shopping center. Notice the very thin, un-buffered bike lane.

A  cyclist who lives in an apartment at Atlantic Station and wants to ride to this new Kroger in the narrow bike lane on 17th Street and cross three lanes of traffic to make a left-hand turn into the shopping center at Bishop Street.

Can we get some concessions from Fuqua? Sally Flocks of PEDS, Atlanta’s pedestrian advocacy organization, was one of the attendees at the walk and she had some great comments to make about some things that we might be able to ask for to retrofit some walkability into the proposal, such as a stairway from the corner of 17th and Northside (in the above image) into the retail area. Flocks said it might be worth reaching out to City Councilmember Yolanda Adrean, representing Loring Height’s District 8, to see if she can make some suggestions to Fuqua for easy improvements to pedestrian access.

My own comment: we’re supporting this and we shouldn’t

In January, 2017, the Development Authority of Fulton County approved $34,000,000 in taxable revenue bonds for the development of a 82,000 square foot Kroger grocery store, fuel center, and parking lot to be located at the Northside Drive and 17th Street.

Yes, that’s right — the parking lot too. We’re supporting this car-centric development with public money.

According to the development authority,  this project site is a brownfield and was formerly owned by the Georgia Toll Road Authority. The property is currently generating $69,000 annually in property taxes. After the project is completed, the property is expected to generate approximately $250,000 annually in property taxes. It will create approximately 150 permanent jobs. Kroger will be paying for the brownfield contamination cleanup and that the cleanup costs are included in the development budget.

Which all sounds pretty good when you look at the numbers. But how many *more* jobs could we generate with better land use? There are no residential units being built with this project. How much more good could we do for the city by closing the gap between low-supply of urban housing and high demand here, all within a better walking distance to retail? We shouldn’t look at these numbers and think that just because they represent an improvement, this is a win. In the long term, we are losing because we’re wasting space in the center of the city on drive-to shopping that turns its back on the walkability needs of surrounding residents.

Consider this: in 20 years time how much will it cost to retrofit urban relevancy into these car-centric monsters in the middle of the city? Short term gains in tax revenue and jobs have to be weighed against that.