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Emory’s giant parking deck gets a redesign, but is it good urbanism?

A new design has been released for the giant parking deck that Emory Healthcare wants to build in the northernmost section of Downtown Atlanta — a project we criticized last year.

Atlanta’s Department of City Planning has worked with Emory in an effort to improve it, and in a press release posted by the planning department, Emory goes so far as to claim that the new design “promotes urbanism.” Does it really, though? Did the collaborative redesign work?

The new proposal brings a completely different design to the exterior.

Let’s start with the good stuff

There are definitely some things to like about the new approach. For starters, Emory plans to subsidize MARTA passes at 100 percent for all its employees in conjunction with this new parking deck (staffers currently pay about $18 per month for the passes). That’s great news, and it allows transit to be more competitive with driving.

Also, Emory is going to end the current leases it holds on several parking lots nearby, consolidating its parking in deck form. This could potentially (according to the press release, anyway) lead to the development of those parking lots, once they lose their major lease holder.

And really, just the fact that the Department of City Planning collaborated with Emory to improve the proposal is promising — it shows that we’ve got a planning department that knows how to be persuasive and work towards better urbanism with developers. Knowing the crusade that our planning chief Tim Keane is on to prevent ugly new designs from junking up the city, it seems clear that he played a positive role in getting that new exterior on the proposal in place of the ultra-bland original one.

And now…the bad stuff

Emory still needs to be held accountable for this amount of parking they’re creating in Downtown, a place where we should be focused on a goal of generating no net gain in car trips and shifting trips to transit. It’s also a place that needs quality retail spaces and parking plans based on real studies — and unfortunately this deck comes with neither, which is clearly in conflict with stated goals for the district and also with the concerns about this deck raised last year by the Downtown neighborhood association.

Tiny retail spaces are barely worth the effort

While there will be some “active use” commercial spots along Linden and Spring Streets, the only half-way viable one, size-wise, is along West Peachtree where the security offices will be. The remaining ones are very small.

In red: the tiny commercial space at the bottom of the proposed parking deck. Notice how the spaces are the exact same length as a parking stall. That’s sad.

If this project’s ability to create vibrant street-level activity is limited to these tiny retail stalls (shown above in red), we have to question the potential for success. The depth of the commercial space is about the same as that of a parking spot. That narrows down options for stores that could work here.

The City’s SPI-1 zoning, which applies to this area, requires a 14-foot ceiling for spaces along the sidewalk to allow for retail. But with this deck, Emory requested and received a variance to reduce ceiling heights to 10 feet, and a significant portion of the retail space has solid concrete walls less than 6 feet back from the windows. The rendering shows one of the spots getting used as a cafe, but that’s honestly difficult to imagine given the tiny sizes.

Why was there no parking study?

Perhaps the biggest concern here is that Emory hasn’t actually done a parking study, yet it’s building a behemoth parking deck in Downtown near MARTA rail. All they’ve done is state, basically: “this is how much parking we currently lease elsewhere and provide to our employees at below-market cost, therefore this is how much we’re replacing it with plus additional spaces for future growth.”

But despite the plan to consolidate parking into this one deck giving the appearance of a reduction, Emory’s overall parking count is being increased by this project. They say they’re currently under-parked and that they’re expecting more demand as they add a new cancer treatment center, but plans show that the center will also have it’s own parking deck.

There should be a study on this issue instead of just assumptions.

Yes, giving up the leases on assorted parking lots nearby is a good move, to be sure. But there’s no guarantee that the spaces Emory stops using will become anything else anytime soon, particularly since Emory’s new deck is private and not shared with the neighborhood.

Conclusion: nice try, but Downtown still deserves better

Yes, the exterior design has been improved. And a strip of retail along the sidewalk is marginally better than just parking, but it’s still far short of what we should expect for a development within a couple blocks of both the North Avenue and Civic Center MARTA Stations.

Emory is still putting 3,000 parking spaces next to transit in a non-convertible design (the deck levels are not designed for conversion to other uses over time), with no guarantee that their leased surface lots will be developed when they leave.

Here’s an example of the kind of responsible planning we should expect from Emory Healthcare: a hospital in Seattle made a point of focusing on healthy transportation in their planning, structuring both pricing and capacity of parking to maximize incentives for non-car trips. Public health institutions should be expected to develop their campuses in ways that promote public health.

Kudos to the City planning department for stepping in and making some headway, but we need better things from major institutional land owners in Downtown. Emory is receiving awards for sustainability but meanwhile they’re supporting vehicle trips that will negatively impact the area. They obviously care about public health with their work, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the asthma rates being worsened by traffic pollution that is enabled by this amount of non-shared parking. Emory can deliver better urbanism, and Atlanta deserves it.

What we’re asking for:

Normal size retail that works. 20-feet deep is the bare minimum for good urban retail store size, but a little deeper would be better. And 14-foot ceiling heights are standard — making these strange 10-foot heights too cramped.

The parking deck should be shared. If Emory Healthcare truly wants to be part of the neighborhood, they shouldn’t be designing private, single-use parking.

An actual parking study that shows the need for the this staff-only deck in addition to the upcoming cancer treatment center parking deck.

Make the parking deck convertible – that should be a requirement with ALL new parking decks near train stations and we should push the city to make sure that’s part of the next zoning update.