Food trucks are the latest idea for enlivening Atlanta’s Broad Street Plaza

Crowds lined up for one of three food trucks at Broad Street Plaza

Do the crowds who came out for this event bode well for better use of this troubled public space?

The first in a series of Food Truck Fridays happened today in Downtown Atlanta’s Broad Street Plaza and it drew in big crowds of people from nearby offices.

The plaza is usually a fairly barren place with sparse activity. But today it was alive with office workers, GSU students and more all lining up for lunch and enjoying shaded patio tables that were brought in for the event. It was inspiring to see this atypical level of excitement here.

Given that it was only a few days ago that a Historic Photo Scavenger Hunt also brought in a crowd of people to the plaza, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of events programming could be the start of regular use of this public space. It would certainly be a welcome turn for a plaza with a troubled past.

Crowds at the Food truck Friday event today in Broad Street Plaza

The checkered history of this public space

Originally called Broad Street Mall, this is a city-owned pedestrian plaza that sits atop a viaduct over freight rail tracks. People walk through here to get to and from the MARTA station and the buses that park on the other side of the station. Alongside the plaza there are some fast food chains and a couple of convenience stores.

The photo below ,shows the grand opening of the plaza in 1983.

Francesco Somaini sculpture, “Phoenix.” Broad Street Plaza, Atlanta

The main feature of it is the 1970 Francesco Somaini sculpture, “Phoenix” that was relocated here for the grand opening. It’s a striking piece of art that seems a bit out of place beside a McDonald’s and inside a fairly bland plaza. For a look at just how bland it can be, see this photo from 1983 just prior to the grand opening. Not a terribly inviting space:

Broad Street Plaza, 1983

Here’s a 1983 newspaper article about the dedication of the plaza that has some interesting info in in about how much the adjacent Five Points MARTA station cost at the time and also about a plan that would have created a continuous plaza from here through South Downtown to the Garnett MARTA station:

“The North Broad Mall, a 360-foot-long walkway leading from Marietta Street to the monolithic Five Points MARTA rail station, is to be presented to the city of Atlanta with the fanfare of a brass band and balloons. The mall, landscaped with round, marble planters, Is part of a pedestrian corridor that eventually will run from Garnett Street to Peachtree Street. The mall is part of the $48 million MARTA Five Points station.”

Struggles with drugs and crime

Despite the optimism of the opening-day fanfare, the plaza ended up falling on some pretty hard times. For many years it was notorious as a place to avoid unless you wanted to buy drugs or get into a fight. In 2008 there was a highly publicized crackdown from city police on the criminal activity, with the tree planters being blocked off with barricades in an effort to prevent loitering.

A 2007 piece in the New York Times sets the scene for the plaza’s use at the time, and also explored the frustrating pass-the-buck politics of what city department needed to take ownership of the space in order to improve it:

On a recent afternoon, a group of young people stood inches apart in the square, screaming at one another. A man lay unconscious in a gutter, homeless people sat on concrete benches, and a smell of urine, incense and marijuana wafted in the air.

What can the future bring?

The food truck event this week was a big success, as was the photo scavenger hunt. Is this kind of programming sustainable? What impressions were attendees left with in regard to the bland design of the place? Will they return?

I think the key to success could be in a combination of regular programming, some redesign to make the plaza more inviting, and perhaps some dedicated security to help prevent the unwanted behaviors of crowds in the past. And one more thing could help: ownership by locals.

Downtown is in dire need of new residential construction and people to fill it (the current, limited stock of housing stays full). When you’ve got people relying on public spaces as a residential amenity, 24/7/365, that’s a kind of ownership and concern for the space that can’t be bought or manufactured in any other way.

Food Truck Fridays will continue through October, 2016.