Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Longing for Atlanta

Dateline: 6:06 pm July 17, 2009 Filed under:

I’ve never seen anything like it. Descend from street level at Atlantic Station in to one of the numerous access points, and you are not underground. Not even close. You are still three stories up, as the ground level is the third level of underground parking below the street. You can see for what seems like an eternity in every direction in a bizarre underworld of parking.

I had been hearing about Atlantic Station for some time, as it is held up as a good example of TOD and infill. I was in Atlanta for a short time on business, and I figured I’d check it out.

I knew nothing else about it, so I approached with open eyes. I took MARTA to the nearest station to Atlantic Station, but I still had to walk a considerable distance, including crossing I-75/85. Clearly this crossing/interchange was upgraded for Atlantic Station, and the sidewalk was wide and had a sun shade along much of its length – a thoughtful gesture in Georgia summers, no doubt, but also appreciated on this cold, rainy December day. Only on my return to MARTA did I realize there is frequent shuttle bus service.

Atlantic Station is nice. It is mostly built out, and the area known as “The District” is centered on a park that is flanked by pedestrian-friendly retail, with a Publix grocery store, Target, and hotel and office towers at the edge.

The District is much like other new mixed-use town centers built in the last five years in terms of mix of uses and design. The stunning thing is the entire area is built over the three-story parking structure I described before. Since the site is a former steel mill, apparently they couldn’t dig down (too dirty, too expensive, or both), so they built three stories of “underground” parking above ground, and treat the fourth level as the ground level. It is ingenious, but it can’t be cheap.

To the west is “The Commons,” which is an area of apartments and condos centered around Commons Park with a pleasant lake. The entrance to the Commons contains a huge arch, called Millennium Gate, which is not unlike the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Overall, Atlantic Station is a big, grand, and pretty impressive infill development, obviously created by numerous public and private entities. But there is much more to Atlanta.

I next made a visit to Ethan (pronounced “Ay-tahn”) Davidson at the offices of Atlanta Beltline. The beltline is a 22-mile set of old rail corridors that circle the core city, and the organization is converting them to greenways, trails, parks, transit and sites for housing and other infill development. Mr. Davidson gave me a quick tour of the beltline and some great infill development that has already occurred nearby. I highly recommend visiting Inman Park and Glenwood Park next time you are in Atlanta. Atlanta Beltline offers bus tours and self-guided tours of the beltline. Check their website for more information.

All this urban touring worked up my appetite, so following a brief respite and wine tasting at the Ellis Hotel on Peachtree (named after my son), I heeded their directions and hailed a cab to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack for a half rack, potato salad, pecan pie and delicious 420 Extra Pale Ale by the Sweetwater Brewing Company.

I needed to walk off the meal a bit, so I ventured down to the Centennial Olympic Park, built in Atlanta for the 1996 games. Although the rain had abated, a mist still hung in the air, and nobody was about. It was delightful. I watched the big spitting musical fountains (Fountain of Rings) and wandered across the great lawn and up the garden walk. Every downtown deserves a nice park.

I’ll say this much – Atlanta may have gotten a well-deserved bad rap for sprawling every which way over the past couple decades, but I saw none of that. I’m not interested. What Atlanta has is a great core city, with a lovely downtown park and evolving beltline, good rail transit system, some very good examples of infill development, and excellent food. These things will serve the entire metro area well in the decades to come. I cannot wait to return, rent a bike and see more.

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