APA14: Atlanta and Its Evolving Relationship with Urbanism

A few weeks ago I journeyed seven-plus hours by car from Cincinnati to Atlanta for the American Planning Association’s (APA) national conference. The five-day conference was held in the Georgia World Congress Center in the core of Atlanta between downtown and Vine City.

This was my first trip to Atlanta since passing through the city in the early 1990’s.

For an urbanist, the city of Atlanta at first glance is a conundrum. Subway stations that seem to feed park and rides, buildings that barely front the street and streets with no crosswalks where pedestrians play a dangerous game of Frogger just to cross to the other side are all typical occurrences in the city.

However the city is all of these things and more. Atlanta boasts beautiful and funky neighborhoods such as Poncey Highlands, Little Five Points and Castleberry Hill. Beautiful parks such as Inman Park and the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Piedmont Park.

The BeltLine, a multi-modal transportation corridor we reported on last week, has sparked development along its route and spurred pedestrian and bicycle connectivity between many of Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods.

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During the conference I also had a chance to view the Atlanta Streetcar, which could begin operating later this year. Planners in Atlanta have tucked the streetcar’s maintenance facility under a highway viaduct. This is where the streetcars that have already arrived are now being stored.

As you might expect, social divisions by income were evident. I had a chance to explore some of Vine City, which is located just west of where the conference was held and was also home to Martin Luther King Jr. This neighborhood has given way to abandonment and decay. Empty lots, run down houses and discarded vehicles littered the streets.

At the conference, one particular session focused on the redevelopment of Vine City and the adjacent English Avenue. During that session, neighborhood leaders and proponents of the redevelopment plan were questioned vigorously by a representative from a community group that is active in those neighborhoods. The challenges reminded me of the not-so-distant past for Over-the-Rhine and other Cincinnati neighborhoods, such as the West End or Avondale, that are still struggling to rebuild what they have lost over the years.

On the last day of the conference, the APA announced that they had completed a survey which found that both Millennials and Baby Boomers prefer to live in urban settings where there are plenty of transportation options and walkable neighborhoods.

“If there is a single message from this poll, it’s that place matters,” stated APA’s executive director, Paul Farmer, in a prepared release. “Community characteristics like affordability, transportation choices, safe streets, high-speed internet and housing that can accommodate others or enable you to live there as you grow older matter as much as job opportunities.”

It seemed odd that the APA would choose to release this information while hosting a conference in an infamously automobile reliant city; but, while Atlanta is a city that is still overrun by the automobile it is showing signs that communities, residents and activists are coming together to push for neighborhood connectivity and pedestrian improvements.

Even though my initial impression was that the city serves as a dystopian future for urbanism where pedestrians are marginalized in urbanized places, after learning more about the city at the conference, it is encouraging to see that old mentality is changing.

  • I think Atlanta is a place that doesn’t necessarily get a fair shake from a lot of urbanists around the country. Yes, it is still largely a car-oriented city where even its modest subway system is designed to accommodate motorists driving to its stations before pedestrians or cyclists. And yes, much of its development over its boom years left a lot to be desired.

    With that said, Atlanta has remarkably well-maintained and beautiful intown neighborhoods. The city has some stunning parks, like the famed Piedmont Park, and has a bounty of Olmsted-designed neighborhoods. And yeah, they have that subway system too. Something most cities in America would love to have.

    The BeltLine, as most urbanists are now aware, is a remarkable project that will completely transform Atlanta. Its layout and reach is truly impressive and will firmly solidify Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods as the epicenter for the 5.5 million person region.

    Another area where I think people miss on their analysis is Downtown. It’s easy to throw stones at Downtown Atlanta and quickly classify it as a dull, 9-5 center no different than most small and mid-sized cities. This, of course, would be ignoring Midtown Atlanta, which is located immediately north and really serves as the city’s 21st century “downtown”. Midtown is filled with mixed-use buildings, residential, office and hotel towers; parks, schools and museums; and it is home to Georgia Tech, Savannah College of Art & Design and numerous subway stations.

    To judge Atlanta by its official downtown is to ignore the reality that Atlanta, by most American city standards, has three to five “downtowns” (see Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, Perimeter, Decatur).

    The city and region has a long way to go, but it has much greater potential than many of its notorious peer Sun Belt cities.

    • EDG

      A lot of bad modernist architecture and no coherency to downtown layout.

    • Good analysis but I wouldn’t write off Downtown — it’s a real emerging neighborhood with a great neighborhood organization committed to preservation and livability. Though many buildings have been sadly lost, we’ve got a nice collection of architecture from pre-automobile Atlanta remaining here.

      We’re also getting a big boost in residential population from a recent series of announced and proposed apartment buildings, and that influx of is going to make a big difference as the ratio of residents to office-workers/conventioneers/events-goers levels out.

      Yes, it doesn’t represent the city as a whole but that’s true of historic downtowns in many cities that boomed and sprawled in the auto age. It’s an important piece of the whole fabric.

  • Nick G

    Corrections: George Washington Convention Center is actually the Georgia World Congress Center, Castelbury Hill is actually Castleberry Hill. Other great intown neighborhoods include Virginia Highland, Brookhaven, Druid Hills, Grant Park, Cabbagetown, Ansley Park, and many others.

    • Virginia Highland is great…perfect spot for young families. And yeah, there are a slew of terrific intown neighborhoods that I think John didn’t have time to visit when he was there. But you are spot on…Druid Hills, Grant Park, Cabbagetown, Ansley Park, Brookhaven, West Midtown, Inman Park and Peachtree Hills are all fantastic, along with many others.

    • John Yung

      I actually ate brunch and dinner in Virginia Highlands at a place called the Bookhouse Pub. I guess the place I stayed at was near the border between Poncey Highlands and Virginia Highlands. It was either playing frogger to cross the street or walking about five minutes more to find a crosswalk.

    • Before moving Downtown my family lived a couple of blocks away from Bookhouse. That main road, Ponce, is a nightmare for pedestrians. It’s in need of some traffic calming but I’m not sure what. They’ve put little un-separated bike lanes on it recently, but I wouldn’t dare use them the way people drive there.

    • John Yung

      Sorry about the confusion. Everyone kept on calling it “the GWCC” at the conference. Also discovered that the term Waho meant Waffle House.

  • I visited Atlanta last weekend and was mostly just confused by the urban form. While the MARTA subway made it extremely easy to get around without a car, there was a pedestrian-hostile environment as soon as you left many subway stations. It really reaffirmed the idea that people’s willingness to walk is not determined just by the distance, but the quality of the experience along that walk.

    In the Buckhead area, I walked to a multi-level shopping center that contained several big box stores. Most stores had two entrances — one from the street and another from the parking deck. However, many of the stores locked their street-level entrances and hung signs that said “Please Use Parking Deck Entrance”. If I was a resident who frequented one of these stores, why would I bother walking? Why wouldn’t I just drive my car into the parking garage and enter through what the store considers their “main” entrance?

    • John Yung

      When I first arrived a friend told me to get off at the Midtown Marta station to find a place to eat. When I emerged from the station I found a park and ride commuter lot and the blank side of a building. All the food places were a block or more away.

    • That’s not actually a park-and-ride lot across from the Midtown Station. It’s parking for a neighboring office building. Thankfully, the lot has been purchased and it’s being converted to a mixed-use building. So next time you’re in Atlanta, maybe it won’t be there.

    • John Yung

      That is great to hear. Looking forward to seeing it built!

  • EDG

    I think the best thing they have going is the Beltline and the parks and development around the few sections that have been completed. The crosswalks had this weird timing where peds are only given a few moments to cross and the area the streetcar will run through is going to be a traffic nightmare and pales in comparison to OTR. It was neat to see the stcar tracks turn right at Ebenezer Baptist where MLK grew up and preached.

  • nickfATL

    The wife and I lived in Midtown Atlanta for about 3 years (2009-2013) and loved it. I went to grad school at Tech and walked everywhere. She had to drive to work and about half of our errands would have been tough without a car but it was still a nice lifestyle. Then I got a real job and we wanted dogs and kids (one on the way), she wanted a yard and I wanted to own because the Atlanta market is a buyers market (plus the American Dream blah blah blah). We make pretty good money but we still can’t afford at this point to live in any of the neighborhoods called out by John. Some of those neighborhoods are historic and expensive. Most of the rest are post war, often small ranches on big lots that have massive additions or are being torn down and rebuilt because of their great location, but again not in our budget. So here we are, the inner ring of suburbs, just outside the city limits with no sidewalks but no place to walk anyway. We can still hop in our car and get to Midtown in 20 minutes or Decatur in less, but the charm of Atlanta is mostly gone for us.

    We do have some friends still toeing the line in the city. One couple is in a transitional neighborhood near Little Five Points, very small house, unnecessarily large lot. They can walk to a couple restaurants (few sidewalks though!) but have to drive everywhere else (and city driving in that area is an absolute nightmare). They have one baby and are already talking about needing more space. The only other couples with kids I know living in some of the great neighborhoods listed above (Grant Park and Peachtree Hills) are about 15 years older than me and bought their houses about 15 years ago for about 1/4 to 1/5 the market value of the house today.

    I guess my lament is that the city of Atlanta today is largely unaffordable for middle class families. The urban core is growing for sure, but it’s being filled with young professionals pre-children who rent or the wealthy (many of the senior leaders at my corporation live in the ‘cool’ neighborhoods). There are a lot of people my age (30), married with kids or kids on the way who want something that’s not available in Atlanta. I think what we are all looking for but can’t find are neighborhoods that are relatively dense, so smallish lots is fine, with decent sized houses, either public transportation or roads that aren’t constantly full of gridlock traffic, sidewalks and a community center that can be easily accessed (foot, car or transit), an ability to do at least some of your errands without needing a car, safety, good schools and affordability. Instead, everything affordable is in suburbia, large lots, oddly designed houses that take up a ton of space but aren’t even always that big, no sidewalks, no place to walk, limited sense of community because we’re all stuck on our property, the need to drive EVERYWHERE, a minimum 30 minute commute but at least it’s safe and the schools are good. I don’t mind a 30 to 40 minute transit to work if I can come home to a walkable community.

    Cincinnati’s not perfect, but when I look at house prices across the city I miss the livability of my home. If Cincinnati is in the midst of a Renaissance that leads to population growth, I hope the city grows better than Atlanta has. Many of of my generations don’t want to live in the suburbs but we don’t want to live in an apartment when we start a family. Many of us want safe, affordable, urban neighborhoods with good schools, which is exactly what I experienced growing up in Cincinnati. I committed to at least 3 years with my current employer, in another 18 months I’m going to start looking for work in Cincinnati.

    • Well said. There’s a great need in Atlanta’s dense, transit-connected, core neighborhoods for more multi-bedroom family housing — and generally a more welcoming environment for families. I think that will happen as perception of public schools improves and I’m optimistic that it will. There’s a boom in housing for young singles going on right now but there are also plenty of opportunities for further infill growth of a different, more family-friendly variety.