Rationalizing Inertia on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue
With dead spaces & empty streetcars on Auburn Avenue, just saying “it takes time for these things to happen” isn’t good enough
Auburn Avenue, with its architecture and history and connectivity, has the potential to be a vibrant and beautiful signature-street for Atlanta — sort of an east-west counterpart to Peachtree, but with shorter buildings.
But four years after construction began on the Atlanta Streetcar, Auburn is still plagued by the deadness of several disused properties. The way we answer the questions of “why is this still here?” and “what will improve things?” says a lot about our expectations of city leadership.
New investment on Auburn: the good and the bad
The parking facilities, empty lots, and abandoned buildings that linger here are a drag on the few green shoots of goodness that have sprouted up, such as Condesa Coffee in the renovated Daily World Building, some new retail outlets at the bottom of the City Walk Apartments, plus a facade improvement grant that did a great job of improving a couple of empty buildings on Auburn.
In fact, the only conversion of empty lots I can think of in the last four years is the two that were paved and turned into surface parking. Below is a photo (top) that I took a couple of years ago of a large gravel lot across from the King Center streetcar stop.
I was dismayed a few weeks ago to see that the owner had finally made an investment in the property — and that investment was asphalt. It’s now a paved surface parking lot (bottom). This is now long-term dead space, which joins another similar lot on Auburn a few blocks west of this, and other surface parking lots and parking decks as well. Are we helpless in the face of “market conditions” when it comes to addressing this deadness?
Streetcar ridership is still low
The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported that the streetcar, which runs through several blocks of Auburn Avenue on its 2.7 mile loop, is still carrying a very low number of riders. Which is actually not news. We’ve known for a year now that ridership plummeted 58 percent when the city began charging a low, $1-per-ride fare and the beginning of 2016, after offering free rides during the first year of service.
A quote from the AJC article:
“JoElle Shuman of St. Paul, Minn., was in town for a conference. She rode the streetcar to entertain her 4-year-old son, Knox. She was underwhelmed. “We rode it thinking we’d see some things,” Shuman said. “There was no place really that we wanted to get off.””
Indeed, as I walk past the streetcar every morning and evening (I live a block away from the tracks), I see completely-empty trains gliding past many empty spaces alongside the tracks — blank walls, parking decks, empty plazas and more.
The city has responded to this AJC piece with a statement that claims the fix for streetcar ridership is in epanding the route so that it connects with more places. And yes, expansion would be a good thing for sure.
But this rationale for explaining why the cars run empty now is very troubling. When you look at the quote above from Ms. Shuman — “There was no place really that we wanted to get off” — that’s something that should never be said about 2.7 miles of street in the historic Downtown of a major city. Period. And Auburn Avenue is a major part of Downtown, both historically and geographically.
Rationalizing the inertia
Some people will say that it’s all about market conditions. That “Auburn just isn’t ready yet” or maybe that “property owners need a tentpole new retail to provide incentives.”
Market conditions do matter, but so does leadership. The city is what we make of it through our laws, initiatives, priorities, incentives, budgets, and bargaining powers. What has to guide all of those tools is our vision for what greatness looks like at the street level and knowledge of best practices in good urbanism.
Below is a map of properties around the streetcar route, with their uses color coded. Institutional ones in blue are mostly government buildings, churches, and governmental-agency properties like the Georgia World Congress Center and its Centennial Park. Commercial ones are in red. Notice the tiny, barely-perceptible amount of yellow that’s residential.
We need a blitz of non-student residential housing and new retail around the streetcar, filling in dead spaces (and importantly: doing this without adding new parking capacity). People in Atlanta are desperate for places to live near transportation options, in a walkable context. Here’s the opportunity. And as for visitors from nearby neighborhoods, “places Atlantans like to go” is never going to be surface parking lots and empty buildings. Put homes and businesses for Atlantans in those places instead.
In a way, the streetcar has been like a litmus test for Downtown and Auburn Avenue. The resulting emptiness of the cars is a sure sign that we need to make dead spaces a priority for the full economic and cutlural health of the city center. We need to understand that it’s not enough to add some good new things to a place if the bad things are still dragging it down, and that we aren’t helpless in face of this problem.