Is MARTA’s Transit Oriented Development a light at the end of a very dark tunnel of idling cars?

Ever since Jane Jacobs celebrated diverse, high-density neighborhoods in her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, city planners, politicians, academics and even some developers have been trying to emulate the quaint West Village hood where she lived.

To adopt Jacobs’ prescriptions for the perfect city — short, walkable blocks, with high-density, functional living — would have required a monumental 180 in most of our nation’s sprawling, car-centric metropolises like Atlanta. However, Jacobs’ call for mixed-use development — commercial and residential combined together to produce a lively street scene— was one goal that most cities could easily implement without bulldozing and starting from scratch.

Thus was born the artificial American version of mixed-use development. Slap a couple condos on top of a few businesses like a clothing boutique or a chain coffee shop, and abracadabra, you’ve got yourself an interesting, walkable street, right? Keep developing the same thing over and over and maybe you’ll witness the birth of a charming neighborhood, the kind you would find in Copenhagen, Düsseldorf, or Buenos Aires. Too many mixed-use projects are green-lit solely based on residential growth, or because of civic pressure from municipal leaders pushing for what they perceive to be the “next big thing.” The fact that developers are able to pitch ivory tower concepts, absent any kind of boots-on-the-ground, supply-and-demand realities has a lot to do with how many poorly planned mixed-use projects exist.

Atlantans are now watching with baited breath as our underdog transit system, MARTA, takes on several ambitious TOD (Transit Oriented Development) projects at multiple station locations throughout the city. MARTA will be looking to build upon their severely under-used land they own around each heavy-rail station or bus terminal area. In other words, something more attractive and useful than thousands of parking spaces, which MARTA studies found are used only 40% of the time during the weekdays.

This is the most positive and exciting news I’ve heard in a while pertaining to walkability and urban development getting more traction in Atlanta. Sure, it will generate millions every year in lease revenue that can fund rail and bus operations, but mark my words, this will be the tipping point for a much larger goal here. As one of the worst sprawling cities in the nation, we have limited options to redo some of the mess that has been created and carried on for the past half-century.

Curate the businesses carefully

However, it has to be done right. Most of the local mixed-use developments, in central Atlanta (and the rest of America), fall seriously short of truly being an island of independence and sustainability. They become destinations for out-of-towners (visitors or tourists) with large SUV’s on the weekends “wanting to be seen” than for the locals that live in walking distance. I see it happening, as I write this, via the Krog Street Market project, Emory Point, White Provisions and Ponce City Market. One reason, is because there is no logical curation to the type of businesses leasing the retail spaces. Instead, “mixed-use” becomes glorified shopping centers with way too many fluffy boutique retail stores and moderately to expensive places to eat. Why would you want to live on the Westside in the heart of White Provisions? Your food options would include four-star-rated ($$$) Abattoir, the Optimist, JCT Kitchen or Bacchanalia, and your shopping options would include Billy Reid, Room & Board or Knoll. Realistically, you would only use what is right outside your doorstep if a friend came to visit. Instead, offer one of each thing the neighborhood is in serious need of. For example, the King Memorial area needs a decent liquor store (that is not a front for a drug operation aka: Azar) and a post office of sorts (the closest one to us is on Metropolitan Avenue in EAV).

Mix density with core functionality

We need these TOD villages to be self-sustaining. The majority should be living units above, mixed with offices, which would include: a dentist, a primary physician, an accountant, a daycare, a law office, maybe a design agency — places where people can work while actually being extremely beneficial to the residents that live in the village. Then below you would have your more fun necessities: a yoga studio or gym, a grocer with a deli and a liquor store, a Kinkos-style post office/work space, an independently run coffee shop, a dry cleaners, a nail place, a tiny hardware store that sells apartment essentials, a pharmacy, and maybe a doggie day care (you get the picture).

Then you can allow your food and retail to come into the picture. Have different money-tier brackets for restaurants so there are suitable options for residents. A pizza place that charges 2$ a slice would be right next to a restaurant you could get an omelette on Sunday morning, but also serve sandwiches for lunch and burgers for dinner. I find it laughable that Gunshow (the only restaurant in Atlanta that made the national “where to eat in 2015" list) is in the “mixed-use” village of Glenwood Park. How does this benefit the surrounding residents? It doesn’t. Instead you now have a parking issue on your hands because you have people from anywhere but Glenwood Park coming to see what the fuss is about. Even if everyone in the village could afford a weekly dinner at Gunshow, they would never be able to casually drop in because they have a 3 month waiting list. This is the complete opposite of mixed-use done correctly, even though I am certain a lot of people would disagree with me.

Let walking rule over parking

In their TOD Guidelines, MARTA wrote a section header called “a new approach to parking”. It states: “TOD does not mean “no cars.” Even with high transit utilization, many people will come and go by automobile and need a place to park.” However, they also state that parking will be hidden from the visual pedestrian environment and that there will be considerably less parking than similar non-transit oriented development. If there are less places to park (or less free/cheap spots in general), there will be less people driving but then finding other ways to get there to enjoy it all. Sidewalks, bike paths and additional routes also need to be redone in order to stimulate foot traffic. If MARTA rolls over to zoning and builds a ton of mandatory parking (visible or not), they will continue Atlanta’s legacy of promoting driving and not walkability. Period.

I realize they have to keep different type of people in mind, from the commuter to the urban core resident to the outside visitor, but who are they primarily building for? Are they planning on renting primarily to daily MARTA customers that don’t own a car and are living examples of walkability? Or are they building it for visitors who are willing to drop money on the weekends but leave the community and streets desolate during the weekdays? In order to have urban vitality and a safe community, you have to have people walking around all over at all times of the day and night. If you have people only coming and going in their cars, the true purpose for mixed-use will never be realized.

What we have now in Atlanta is an abundance of Malls instead of the rare and elusive mixed-use. Atlantic Station is one of those self-proclaimed “Live Work Play” areas that is really just an outdoor mall with department stores, a parking garage and (more) fancy restaurants. Yes, it has a park green but it is made of astro-turf and is surrounded by singing planters. You can walk around but watch out for cars driving through the mall. During the weekdays, Atlantic Station and the like, are fairly dead. Instead of people living above all those retail spaces, the buildings are fake facades. It’s kind of like Disney’s Celebration town.

The Beltline is a massive urban-growth, walkability project attracting worldwide attention, yet I rarely use it on the weekends as a local, because it has as much traffic as 285 during rush-hour. It is packed with suburbanites who drove down to use it and walk 5-people across. Was it built for reputation or for functionality? Is Atlanta just trying to prove they are keeping up with the Joneses or are they accurately meeting the needs of their citizens? If it is to succeed for locals commuting on bikes (the only realistic way), there needs to be a separate bike lane. This is for safety reasons and for speed. I can cut through from the 04W to Midtown in 15 minutes, but not if I have to avoid wandering children and aloof tourists taking pictures. The brand new Atlanta street car is yet another questionable money-hungry venture. Us Atlantans are still asking ourselves: was it built to get tourists to far-reaching areas of our sketchier downtown or for locals to functionally get to businesses or their work they could not walk to otherwise? At 60-minutes for a 2.7 mile loop trip — I don’t know if it’s for either. I feel like the people making these decisions are all living in Alpharetta and driving BMW’s. They are socially far removed from the real perspective someone could have if they were in town, taking our transit system or walking every day.

Lease to actual advocates of transit

If you rent to just anyone with money, TOD communities will just look like another highly overrated, gentrified, Ponce City Market project. Only rich, yuppie-types, who drive everywhere, can afford that $1500 price tag on a studio apartment, which quickly squashes a more multi-cultured, all walks of life, urbanist community that would have filled the streets with presence and given it the life it deserves. This has sparked other luxury apartment development in the area and is quickly driving out people that have lived or done business in the O4W for years. This is basically suburbia in town—segregating poor minority locals from a wave of wealthier Millennial's looking to rent wherever is cool, safe and where they can still stay in their car bubbles. Mixing in 20% lower-income residents, that rely on our transit and walk everywhere, is a must.

What MARTA can show Atlanta now is how density and smart growth will make transit work. Bringing all-inclusive, truly mixed-use development, right on top of the stations, is the smartest step we can take to build a city that people want to live in, attracting new talent and ultimately put an end to unnecessary driving. Atlanta has horrible sprawl, but if they can generate incentives for why people would want to live in town again, the prosperity will follow. We can fix what has been broken; moving people closer together to revitalize downtown and make Atlanta what it never had a chance to become.

Thanks for reading.

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