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.

PHOTOS: Riding the Rails in Europe

Last summer I visited several cities in Europe and photographed a few of the scenes going on across the pond. My travels took me to Brussels and Oostende in Belgium; Cologne, Germany; and to London, Cardiff and Brighton Beach in the United Kingdom. The photo set below is premised on several observations:

Quality of  city transportation: Brussels has the cleanest trams of the whole trip. These trams are Bombardier 4000 series trams delivered to the city in 2010. The seating is very comfortable, the trams feature LCD screens and wood panel finishes. Trams running underground featured the traditional turnstile system found in many other underground systems.

Cologne’s trams are older and feature on-board payment systems both above and below ground. Their system consists of two joined rail cars. In some instances such as around Neumarkt Square also use the same transit right-of-ways reserved for trains.

London’s Tube system is the largest subway system in the world. However the city also features an aerial tram known as the United Emirates Line. The tram runs continuously, unlike a similar system in Portland, Oregon, and connects London’s former Olympic Village to the O2 Centre.

Cardiff also featured rail transit, however the system was antiquated and utilize heavy diesel trains that were sometimes as small as a single rail car.

Bicycle Infrastructure: Bicycle share was available in many of the cities I visited including Brussels and London. In Cologne bicycle lanes were placed on the road side of sidewalks and were delineated with either special paint or pavers in some areas. There were similar observations in Cardiff.

Placemaking: From the Dom in Cologne to Grote Markt in Brussels, Europe is filled with beautiful community gathering spots.

Enjoy the photos!

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Public Meetings Set for $200M Western Hills Viaduct Replacement

Over 55,000 vehicles traverse the storied Western Hills Viaduct. The iconic art deco era viaduct, constructed as part of the Cincinnati Union Terminal project in 1932 replaced the older Harrison Avenue Viaduct.

The viaduct last saw renovation in 1977, almost twenty years after the eastern section was demolished to make way for Interstate 75, but over the last few years a team of city, county and consultant engineers have been studying ways to repair or replace the aging bridge.

The city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE), Hamilton County Engineer’s Office and URS are working together to determine the future replacement of the aging viaduct. The team will be hosting two public meetings on Thursday to engage adjacent property owners and frequent users of the bridge on the process of replacing the viaduct.

westernhillsviaduct-1-5The Western Hills Viaduct is one of a few crucial road connections to the west side of the city.
Photo by Jake Mecklenborg for UrbanCincy.

Because of the amount of repairs needed to maintain the existing viaduct, the team is not considering continuing the use of the existing viaduct. Instead the team is looking to build a new viaduct just south of the Western Hills Viaduct.

Richard Szekeresh, Principal Structural Engineer with DOTE told UrbanCincy that there are a number of other projects and factors that constrain the teams ability to determine a suitable relocation alignment; such as the rail yard operations below the bridge, the Metropolitan Sewer District’s (MSD’s) Lick Run Valley Conveyance System project, and Ohio Department of Transportation’s (ODOT’s) proposed new connection bridge from I-75 to the viaduct which is part of the Brent Spence Bridge project must be factored into the new location.

Additionally because of hillside grade issues at the McMillan and Central Parkway intersection a new alignment north of the existing viaduct would be extremely challenging and more expensive.

The team is studying whether to pursue another double-decker bridge or a single level span as the replacement alternative. Some private property will be affected along Harrison Avenue and Central Parkway along with the existing rail yard below the viaduct. Additionally, the team is looking for input on bicycle lanes and other transportation alternative improvements.

The design team hopes to have the engineering completed and a preferred alignment selected by 2014. The cost of the viaduct replacement would be an estimated $200 million. No funding has been identified and the project is not part of the Brent Spence Bridge project, even though it is in the northern edge of that section of the I-75 reconstruction project area.

Both of Thursday’s sessions will be at Cincinnati City Hall. One will be from 4pm to 5:30pm and the other from 6pm to 7:30pm. City Hall is accessible by the #1, #6 and #49 Metro buses.

Szekeresh concluded,“Typically, due to the size, complexity, and cost associated with a project of this nature it is not unusual for it to take ten or more years to bring them to construction. We are still at the beginning of a long process.”

Meet OKI Executive Director Mark Policinski at this Month’s URBANexchange

In an effort to better connect you with the region’s land use and transportation decision makers, we are doing something different this month for URBANexchange.

Instead of meeting at the Moerlein Lager House for food, drinks, networking and conversation, we will be meeting at Memorial Hall for the OKI Reveal event.

At this event, the OKI Regional Council of Governments will be sharing the information they have gathered and developed thus far as part of their regional planning process. This past winter, they conducted a survey that asked participants to share their thoughts on how they want the region to grow. The results were decisive with respondents indicating that they want walkable communities that are well-connected by transit.

In addition to being able to share your comments and questions with OKI staff, those who attend OKI Reveal through URBANexchange will be treated to an exclusive meet and greet with OKI executive director Mark Policinski.

The URBANexchange meet and greet with Policinski will take place at the start of the event from about 5pm to 5:30pm. At 5:30pm, those in attendance will then be asked to join in on a group photo out on the steps leading into Memorial Hall.

Following the group photo, those in attendance will head back inside to continue learning about OKI’s regional planning process and hear from Tim Miller about the focus land use areas that have been developed thus far.

There will also be a special farewell tribute for Don Burrell, senior bike planner at OKI for 35 years who has decided to retire. Burrell, over the course of his career, has said that he has put more than 90,000 miles on his bike and is striving for 100,000.

The OKI Reveal event will last until about 7pm, and then those that are still in attendance will head across the street to Washington Park for live jazz out on the oval lawn for their fellow urbanists.

All of this is free and open to the public, but we do encourage you to RSVP online. If you want to meet with the URBANexchange group, we will meet on the sidewalk just in front of the steps leading into Memorial Hall starting at 4:45pm, and then head inside at 5pm.

Memorial Hall is accessible via several Metro bus routes and sits along the first phase of the Cincinnati Streetcar system. Those who bike to the event will be treated to a free bike valet courtesy of Queen City Bike.

Chicago Improves Protected Bicycle Lanes

Although protected bicycle lanes help improve cyclist safety from automobile accidents, Chicago is looking to further reduce conflicts between bicyclists and pedestrians by making some enhancements including traffic lights directed towards cyclists. These are lessons that Cincinnati may be able to implement as the city expands its bicycle network. More from the Chicago Tribune:

From 2006 to 2011, there were 1,140 reported crashes on this part of Dearborn, city records show. Pedestrians and bicyclists were involved in more than half of the accidents that included injuries.

Authorities and bicycling advocates expect accidents will decline on Dearborn and other streets that get protected bike lanes.