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Darin Givens

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Commentary: The Gulch could connect downtown—and more. We can’t squander that opportunity.

The Gulch

The Gulch is notorious. The enormous, unsightly mass of parking spaces in downtown next to Philips Arena—with freight trains and MARTA rail running through it—contradicts its historical importance. While the site is basically where a “terminus” of railways gave birth to the city in the 1830s, for decades it has ultimately been an embarrassingly visible asphalt wasteland in our urban heart.

Atlanta was wowed by some incredibly ambitious proposals about 10 years ago that would have turned the Gulch into a high-speed rail and regional bus terminal. Dubbed the multi-modal passenger terminal, the project would’ve put a big, pretty facility here, with all kinds of high-rises on top and around it. But the plan, despite going through a costly study period locally and at the state and federal level, was largely shut down as it fell out of political favor.

Cut to late 2017, when we were understandably wide-eyed with hope after learning that Los Angeles-based CIM Group was proposing roughly 10 million square feet of mixed-use development in this forlorn spot. Though the plans are subject to change, the proposal could include more than 9 million square feet of office and retail and more than 2,000 housing units and hotel rooms, scattered among multiple high-rises. And we were positively beaming with pride when we figured out that the proposal is likely related to the optimistic expectation of Atlanta landing Amazon’s sought-after second North American headquarters, HQ2.

Getting excited about our chances in the HQ2 race is a fine thing to be sure. And Atlanta has rarely met a development rendering it didn’t like. But let’s not get blinded by the gleam of this mega-development bling. Yes, the Gulch project is dazzling for good reason—and in many ways the transformation involved would be an urbanist’s dream come true. It would energize a dead space in the city with a shock-and-awe density of offices, jobs, and related retail and housing, all connected by a new street grid, standing majestically atop a no man’s land.

But take a step back, zoom up to 30,000 feet, and look down toward the Gulch and the potential below. Done right, CIM Group’s redevelopment of the Gulch could stitch together more than 100 acres in downtown, creating a new chunk of the city core. The opportunity to build a new grid, one that’s open to pedestrians and transit users, doesn’t come along often. We can’t design and develop for one tenant or one use. Atlanta and CIM Group must make sure what rises from the ground is the very best urbanism, with room for future growth and mobility. We’ve got one chance to do it right.

The Gulch

The Gulch can be a successful development while also making the details of the development future-friendly. The new streets that are designed as part of this massive undertaking, according to CIM Group’s presentation, will be private. With private streets come the potential to restrict access and can create what is essentially a gated community in the epicenter of the region. Atlantic Station’s streets, for example, are private, giving the property owners the authority to close them off, limit protests, and curate what, by all appearances, is an urban environment. The streets in the Gulch development must be open 24/7/365 to the public, allowing this massive property to serve as a conduit for pedestrians within the broken urban fabric of this part of South Downtown.

In addition, the plan should include room for a new rail line. CIM’s early plans put about 8,000 spaces worth of parking deck in the Gulch, with development on top. The design not only leaves no room for a grand terminal—it appears to nix the ability for any future rail to connect to the center of downtown. That’s a short-sighted move.

Yes, this is not a great political climate for arguing for the future of intercity rail. But climates change. Political will for intercity rail is likely at a nadir right now, but that doesn’t make it okay to kill the opportunity for building rail here in 10 or 20 years. We have one chance to get development in the Gulch right for the future of Atlanta, and we can’t allow our HQ2 dreams to spoil it—not when we’re capable of shaping this proposal in a future-friendly way.

Arguments against passenger rail in southeast have always hinged on Northeast cities having greater density. But population growth in southern cities is changing that scenario. Atlanta and other Sunbelt towns are proving increasingly popular places for relocation.

Consider this: a preferred route for a high-speed rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga was announced only a few months ago by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency’s report mentions only one station in the City of Atlanta limits: Downtown. State lawmakers just this week introduced a piece of legislation calling for the creation of a committee to study reviving direct passenger rail service between Atlanta and Savannah.  The future of high-speed, intercity transportation in the Deep South could depend on this.

It was about 170 years ago when Atlanta was founded as a town built around rail lines, near the Gulch, before growing into the powerhouse urban center of the South. It would be fitting for this city to someday lead the charge of newer and better passenger rail among growing Southeastern cities. But that might only be possible if we ensure that the potential ‘win’ of Amazon’s HQ2 doesn’t undo the promise of this property in playing a key part in the future mobility of our region.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker

Keith Parker
Photograph by David Walter Banks

When Keith T. Parker became CEO and general manager of MARTA in 2012, he was faced with not only a bigger agency than those he’d previously managed in Charlotte and San Antonio, but one with a $33 million budget deficit and a public relations problem. Employee benefits and absenteeism were costing tens of millions of dollars annually. Customers were angered by service cuts that saw bus routes and stops eliminated and wait times for trains grow to 15 minutes or longer. The operating budget struggled under decades-old, state-imposed restrictions on how MARTA could spend and make money. But by 2015, with the system steered into a major turnaround, it was evident Parker was up to the challenges. He’s balanced the budget and upgraded service (train waits are down to 10 minutes or less), all while avoiding fare increases.

Parker won over some hearts by commuting via MARTA almost every day. More of them became fans thanks to a crackdown on “knucklehead behavior” and practical touches like adding urine detectors to some elevators.

The harder task: winning over politicians and business leaders who have historically treated transit with skepticism, if not outright disdain. This year lawmakers lifted the 1971 requirement that MARTA spend only a certain percentage of its tax dollars on operations and encouraged more public-private partnerships. “Now we can spend the money as we deem best,” Parker says.

The business community approves, too. State Farm, NCR, Mercedes-Benz, and Kaiser Permanente all announced plans to relocate headquarters closer to MARTA train stations. Soon neighborhoods around several rail stations will benefit from plans to turn parking lots into developments. “We have intentionally not set them up so that the highest bidder wins,” Parker says. “Instead, they have to show us how they will improve the neighborhoods.”

Back to Groundbreakers

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.

Who owns these Atlanta eyesores?

Atlanta is riddled with vacant properties, many of them development efforts that stalled during the recession. But other decaying structures have been that way for years—decades even—often in the middle of burgeoning neighborhoods. Here’s a closer look at a half dozen of the most confounding examples.

1655 Peachtree Street
Catty-corner from SCAD Atlanta’s main building
0215_eyesores01_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What A 1962 12-story apartment building known for the metal peach on its roof
Valued at $4 million
Last used as Offices
Empty since 2005
Owned by Peach Condominiums LLC
Backstory In 2005, it was prepped for condo conversion, but work abruptly stopped. The owner, who has been tied up in legal disputes, has been using the building to hold up a cellphone tower and an animated billboard. On a recent walk past the building, we spotted a tree growing in the former atrium.

142 Auburn Avenue
0215_eyesores02_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What A pair of buildings, one built in 1892 and the other in 1936, that once housed the historic Atlanta Life Insurance Company
Valued at $1.3 million
Last used as Offices for Atlanta Life
Empty since 1980
Owned by Historic District Development Corporation, which has overseen other Sweet Auburn–area projects
Backstory HDDC raised hopes for renovation after purchasing it in 1997, but nothing has been done; the facade remains boarded.

Bankhead Avenue
0215_eyesores04_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What A 1912 bridge over the CSX tracks
Valued at N/A
Last used as A commuter artery carrying 4,000 cars daily
Empty since 1991; closed due to structural problems
Owned by The City of Atlanta
Backstory The city has put this bridge on multiple project lists over the years—with proposals to rebuild it and reconnect the road (now Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway)—but nothing has come to fruition so far.

2540 Piedmont Road
Adjacent to the Lindbergh MARTA station and south of Sidney Marcus Boulevard
0215_eyesores05_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What A 1964 restaurant surrounded by 50,000 square feet of parking
Valued at $1.5 million
Last used as A Shoney’s
Empty since 1999
Owned by GAPR1 LLC, one of Shoney’s limited liability companies
Backstory Shoney’s was purchased by Atlanta-based restaurateur David Davoudpour in 2006, after this location closed. The property, still held by the company, has remained untouched while Lindbergh has boomed.

384 Peachtree Street
0215_eyesores06_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What The Medical Arts Building, a 1927 office tower
Valued at $2.4 million
Last used as Offices
Empty since The early 1990s
Owned by Three Eight Four Peachtree LLC
Backstory Interstate construction drove most tenants out in the 1980s, and a high asking price—combined with 2005 fire damage—has kept it empty. (A parking deck still operates in the rear.) The building has been on Central Atlanta Progress’s redevelopment wish list for years.

693 Peachtree Street
Across the street from the Fox Theatre
0215_eyesores03_jmcdonald_oneuseonly

What A two-story, 6,000-square-foot brick structure built in 1922
Valued at $1 million
Last used as Agatha’s Mystery Theater
Empty since 2005
Owned by Southerly Hotels
Backstory After 18 years, Agatha’s was forced out in 2005 when a previous owner wanted to build condos on the lot. According to Agatha’s (since relocated downtown), those plans were scuttled by electrical problems that made building anything larger a moot point.

Photographs by John E. McDonald.

This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.

24. Go on a public art scavenger hunt

Encountering vibrant murals throughout intown neighborhoods has been a happy surprise in recent years. But to really understand the magnitude of the Living Walls project that pairs local and international artists with brick and concrete canvases, set out on a quest to find as many 
as you can. Use the organization’s online map to craft a cycling, urban-hiking, or driving tour through neighborhoods like Reynolds­town and East Atlanta Village or East Point and Castleberry Hill. Can you spot Cabbagetown’s lofty fox? Or the four-story fire extinguisher Downtown? With several murals along the Atlanta BeltLine, your hunt can combine two of the city’s best new features.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

16. Go backstage at the Fox

The ladies-lounge chairs are exact replicas of those in the throne room of King Tut’s tomb. You’ve probably taken such details of the Fox Theatre for granted, but won’t after signing up a guided tour. Squint in the dim-lit lobby to spot the F in the carpet patterns designed by movie impresario William Fox himself, or look up at the mezzanine’s “wood grain” ceiling beams actually crafted from plaster. Study the gorgeous skylight in the Grand Salon and try to find the few pieces of stained glass that don’t date to 1929. The Fox’s ornate rooms echo with the twentieth-century history of Atlanta, from the boom-to-bust 1920s to civil rights protests; the theater’s gallery seats were once “colored only,” with a dedicated side entrance. Toward the end of the ninety-minute tour, after you’ve heard the guide dissect the illusions of the theater’s grandeur, sit in the empty auditorium and imagine the Shriners choral group, the first performers to take this stage.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

1. Play (or play hooky) in Woodruff Park

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In the shadow of beaux arts skyscrapers, Woodruff Park is the city’s historic heart. If you haven’t strolled through it for years, you’ll be surprised by its vitality. GSU students rest on the lawn, Downtowners walk their dogs, and visitors stroll by—all under the watchful eyes of those pith-helmeted Ambassadors at the adjacent outdoor reading room. Parents: Let your kids explore the creatively designed “ATL” playscape. Downtown office workers: When Atlanta’s glorious spring arrives, head to the reading room, borrow a book, and spend a long lunch hour on a park bench.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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