Atlanta Urbanism 2015: year in review

Here’s a list of what I think are the highlights from 2015 when it comes to urbanism in Atlanta. These are developments that impact the built environment of the city.

Good moves by city government: things that made me proud of our leaders

City properties up for sale

The city has put both Underground Atlanta and the Civic Center up for sale. These are great moves. Underground is a failing mall that represents massively underused potential of land that is both historic (it’s part of the birthplace of the city, basically) and well connected to the Five Points MARTA station; it’s potential for reuse and new development is enormous.

And the Civic Center is a little-used money loser for the city that does no favors for surrounding neighborhoods with its massive amount of surface parking, creating a big dead space. A redevelopment could begin to stitch together the Old Fourth Ward and Downtown with a more connective type of urban fabric.

New planning boss

Tim Keane was hired as the city’s new Commissioner of Planning and Community Development. He’s turned out to be a planning rock star, energizing Atlantans to take a greater interest in the shape of the city. Pecanne Log tweeted “who’s got tickets to the Tim Keane concert?” in reference to the crowd response for a Future of Atlanta panel he participated in this year.

Take a look at this quote from an an interview I did with him: “The city can’t be a better suburb than the suburbs. All we can do is be a better city. We’ve got that market. We’re the city. Well, what does it mean to be a better city? What it means is that you can walk and ride your bike and get on a bus or a train for some things.” He gets it.

Atlanta’s first Bike Czar

Becky Katz was hired in 2015 as the first Chief Bicycle Officer for the City of Atlanta. One of her big projects for 2016 will be rolling out a bike share system. In a recent interview, Katz says that she wants to get a network of bike lanes established here that will allow people to “choose to bike around our city to get to the destinations they want to go to safely, comfortably, enjoyably.”

That’s perfect — we need to give Atlantans a safe, comfortable network of routes that allows cycling to be an attractive choice for getting to destinations, for a greater number of people.

Neighborhoods speaking out

Turner Field sale and the struggle for community input

The Braves are moving to a new stadium outside the city in 2017, so this massive property — made up of the stadium and its sprawling parking lots — is being sold to Georgia State University. The school will expand their campus there, but what else? What will it do for the surrounding neighborhoods like Summerhill that have been disconnected from the rest of the city for decades by the gulf of land occupied by this stadium (along with the nearby interstate)?

The neighborhoods’ struggle to have their needs addressed by the redevelopment has been a big story this year, and it hits to the core of a hot topic: do we have effective processes in Atlanta for public input on mega developments?

Buckhead bike lane freak out

This year, the Georgia DOT tried to get bike lanes striped into a section of Peachtree Road in the Buckhead area. But residents and business owners in the neighborhood spoke out loudly against the plan. GDOT says that over 2000 comments were received about the project and over 70% of those comments were opposed to the bike lanes. Which, to me, raises an interesting question: for a major road that is used by many Atlantans to get across the city, how much weight should we give the voices of people who live on the road versus all the current and potential users of it?

Adaptive Reuse & Construction

Mixing uses and transportation modes on Ponce

Ponce City Market opened its doors in 2015 and Atlanta loves it. Visit the food court at lunchtime on a pretty Saturday afternoon. You’ll end up in a crush of people, many of whom are arriving by way of the Beltline trail that connects to PCM via a bridge. This building, built in 1922 and adapted for new life as a mixed-use development, has become a great ambassador for the reuse of old buildings.

Developments near transit in Midtown

In January I wrote about the construction boom near Midtown MARTA station. Most of those projects are complete or near completion now, and the transformation of the area is incredible. Sidewalks around the station are buzzing with pedestrian activity now, alongside properties that used to be dead spaces (parking lots, empty lots). I haven’t seen any numbers on a possible uptick in MARTA riders here, but it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be one.

Streets & Mobility

MARTA expands service area into Clayton; more to come?

MARTA buses started running in Clayton County this year. When the county joined the system, it was the first expansion of MARTA since its inception. Now, Gwinnett County voters say they’d like some of that action too. A majority of likely voters in Gwinnett say they’d not only like to see MARTA extended there — importantly, they’re willing to pay for it, according to a survey.

Streetcar impacts are slight alongside the tracks

2015 was the Atlanta Streetcar’s first year of service. Lots of people have taken advantage of free rides (fare service starts tomorrow), and I’m glad to see that the kinks have been worked out with arrival times — it seems to be running pretty smoothly, and my family has used it regularly.

As far as economic impact goes, though, there’s a lot to be desired. The city has touted a huge dollar figure in terms of investments made “near the streetcar,” but I’ve seen the list of what they’re counting as streetcar-related investments and, honestly, it’s ridiculous — bordering on outright deception in some cases. I’m waiting impatiently for built-environment impacts beside the tracks, where there is far too much underused and blighted property.

Voting yes on infrastructure

In a referendum this year, Atlanta voters approved a $250 million infrastructure bond package. It has a project list that includes, among many other things, complete streets makeovers that will add new bike lanes to several roads. Important to note: the vote did not include a finalized project list, so we need to watch out and make sure the city actually follows through with good stuff like bike lanes (though I trust the Bike Czar will do a good job with that).