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Hannah Palmer

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Commentary: Goodbye and good riddance to bland Atlanta airport development

Sheraton Hotel Atlanta Airport
The sun is setting on the airport Sheraton

Photograph courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

For most people, the reaction to news that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport plans to demolish a Sheraton hotel to make way for a sixth runway was probably . . . who cares?

The Sheraton Gateway, which opened in 1987, is a towering brown brick and bronze slab that, judging by its Yelp reviews, is long past its prime. Located on the southwest edge of the airport in a desolate little pocket created by I-285 and the 5th runway, the Sheraton is part of a cluster of hotels that includes every major chain from Holiday Inn to Super 8. The area is almost like an island for marooned tourists. I see them resolutely trooping out of their hotel lobbies only to find more hotel lobbies and a Ruby Tuesday. And because the airport has been sketching a runway on top of this spot since at least 2014, the Sheraton has become a zombie hotel—still operating, but on borrowed time.

For those of us living on the southside, the term “airport expansion” is a trigger warning. We’ve been burned in the past by the airport’s growth, which despite the economic benefits for the larger region, is almost always destructive for our communities. We have been following the rollout of ATLNext, Hartsfield-Jackson’s 20-year, six-billion-dollar expansion plan, the way most people watch the weather forecast: closely, but with resignation.

So we weren’t surprised or sad to hear about the Sheraton. In fact, when I first learned about the sixth runway plans a few years ago, I was relieved that the proposed runway is almost entirely squeezed onto existing airport property and that the only expansion area is a forgettable corner of the aerotropolis. It hardly compares to the last runway project, the astronomically ambitious, expensive, and controversial fifth runway, which opened in 2005. While that project moved mountains and waterways, homes, businesses, even graves to construct the world’s first runway on top of a highway, this new runway will displace mostly chain hotels.

But Hotel Island wasn’t always an airport dead zone. Hartsfield-Jackson, and the hotels orbiting it, didn’t grow up in the middle of nowhere or in a bad part of town, but right on top of thriving communities. At 4,700 acres, the world’s busiest airport is relatively small and entirely surrounded by neighborhoods. Compare Hartsfield-Jackson with Denver International Airport, built on a 33,531-acre greenfield site 23 miles from the city center. ATL’s edges have always been contested. When you have an airport in the middle of your city, you can’t build a moat around it. As the city grows, neighborhoods will continue to bump up against the airport, and demand to access and redevelop the airport fringe will grow, too.

Those edges haven’t been completely scoured of life, even on Hotel Island. On one side of the Sheraton is Sullivan Creek, part of the Flint River headwaters that disappears into a culvert underneath the fifth runway. On the other side is the Phoenix Trail, a dreamy but deserted mini-BeltLine where my kids have been learning to ride their bikes. When it was dedicated in 2014, the 2-mile trail was heralded as a much-needed connection between the airport hotels to Main Street in College Park.

The creek and the trail are real community assets that are about to be lost, and I will miss them. But I’m pragmatic, and I’m not against airport expansion. What I am against is lousy, disconnected, bland airport-area development that is blind to those kinds of community assets—the essential culture, history, and ecology that makes a place unique. For decades, we’ve treated the airport edges as a lost cause, left in a holding pattern of short-term airport-centric uses like parking, warehouses, or lame conglomerations of hotels. These developments have been isolated little kingdoms, despite their location on the edge of vibrant neighborhoods. They may generate jobs and tax revenue short term, but they aren’t places where anyone, including the tourists, really want to be, and they certainly won’t be worth preserving in 25 years.

Do we need airport hotels, parking lots, and warehouses near the airport? Of course. Every airport in the world has their share. But not every airport has been in a decades-long race to maintain that “world’s busiest” title, resulting in relentless expansion and a fatalistic, the airport-is-encroaching-so-anything-goes attitude towards development on the southside. When Hartsfield-Jackson has finally reached the limits of physical expansion, will we start creating developments that last?

While all airports must secure and contain their airfields, not all airports have such a hostile periphery with their community. I’ve studied free, public airport observation areas from Dusseldorf to Dallas. I’ve marveled over Amsterdam’s airport bike paths and nature preserves alongside Chicago O’Hare. Even the playground and restaurants at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport are a model of a welcoming, well-integrated, aviation appropriate development.

Thankfully, the best new hotels, offices, residences and mixed-use developments on the southside are finding ways to integrate with both the airport and the surrounding communities of College Park, East Point, and Hapeville—developments that 25 years ago would have been consider too close to the runways. Hotel Indigo, for example, took a chance on locating its boutique hotel in historic downtown College Park, one MARTA stop away from Hartsfield-Jackson’s domestic terminal and within walking distance to Main Street restaurants, galleries, and parks. It is no further from the airport than the Sheraton or any of the other chain hotels clustered along the SkyTrain. The only difference is that it’s in an actual city.

The oncoming wave of newcomers, from Porsche executives to home buyers priced out of gentrifying intown neighborhoods, are bringing higher expectations for design, walkability, bikeability, transit, local character, connections to nature—all the qualities of good urbanism to the “aerotropolis.” So goodbye and good riddance to Hotel Island. The next airport Sheraton would be wise to scout a location in downtown Hapeville. Or maybe further upstream on Sullivan Creek and the remains of Phoenix Trail, connected to a community that will care about its survival in the future.

Hannah Palmer’s fascination with southern cities and place-based writing led to a career in urban design. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Sewanee: The University of the South and her first book, Flight Path, about Hartsfield-Jackson’s impact on Atlanta’s southside, was published by Hub City Press in April. She lives near the airport with her family.

An ode to Eats

Eats on Ponce De Leon Avenue
A modest pea-green stucco shoe box, Eats has been wedged into a hillside on Ponce de Leon avenue since 1993.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

The cornbread is dry, but I always eat it anyway. The trick is to find the butter. The single-serve tubs are piled in a stainless steel bucket on a table by the sweet tea—the same table where you grab your own forks, napkins, and lemon slices. I apply it liberally, frosting the cornbread like a slice of birthday cake. Crumbly and sticky, sweet and salty, I eat it last like dessert.

The cornbread at Eats may be nothing special, but it comes free with every meat-and-three, vegetable plate, and classic Eats platter (jerk chicken, black beans, white rice). The rice is chewy and bland. Order a side of steamed broccoli and you get a bowl of bright-green florets, undercooked and underseasoned.

Eats food

Eats dinner plate

Eats chicken

Perhaps the sides are forgettable because the jerk chicken is the star. Or maybe that’s the point of comfort food: It’s cheap, it’s filling, and it doesn’t try too hard. I am not a food critic, though, and this it not a restaurant review. I am an Atlanta native who has been going to Eats for decades, and I mention the food up front simply to get it out of the way. There’s more to this place than the food.

A modest pea-green stucco shoe box, Eats has been wedged into a hillside on Ponce de Leon Avenue since 1993. Go for lunch on a weekday and you’ll see the following: silver-haired retirees in cowboy boots, uniformed Comcast technicians, moms in yoga pants hoisting toddlers into high chairs, high school punks cutting class, silent old couples, high-heeled transgender women, dreadlocked scenesters, police officers, nurses.

Eats building

They shuffle along as Otis Redding’s voice trickles from the speakers, handing their money to a bored art school undergrad manning the cash register. Before they can find a booth—red-painted wood buffed to a shine by countless sliding rumps—a line cook, his beard netted, pulls a knot of pasta from boiling water, tops it with broccoli and marinara, drops it onto a melamine cafeteria plate, and shouts out a name. The system functions like clockwork.

Eats couples at booths

Karcheik Sims-Alvarado
Longtime Eats customer Karcheik Sims-Alvarado met her husband here.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Not everyone loves the restaurant. “It just seems kind of grungy,” says my friend Sara, when I ask her to meet me for a weekday lunch.

I get that. My college boyfriend, Jason, who’s now my husband, used to walk into Eats with sheet metal dust on his jeans, and no one batted an eye. He worked as a welder at Ray-O-Lite in the 1990s, when I’d pick him up between classes and we’d spend his lunch break sharing a $9 plate of cheese-filled tortellini with lemon pepper chicken. Twenty years later, Jason and I bring our two young sons here for the same food—and the unbreakable plastic plates. Regulars like us come to Eats to be fed, but we’re really looking for consistency. That’s worth a lot in an ever-changing city.

Owner Robert Hatcher III
Owner Robert Hatcher III

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Robert Hatcher III, who opened Eats with his onetime business partner Charlie Kerns, still roams the front of the house five days a week from morning to night, bussing tables and making small talk with customers. A thin, handsome guy in his 50s, Hatcher looks at ease in jeans and a well-worn T-shirt with the bubble-lettered Eats logo. Today he is the restaurant’s sole owner but takes little credit for its origins. “To understand Eats,” he says, “you have to remember Tortillas.”

Hatcher and Kerns, both Army brats, met in high school in Germany. Later, they worked together as stagehands in San Francisco. (“Think Journey at the Fillmore West, that kind of thing,” says Hatcher.) He and his now-wife moved to Atlanta in the 1980s, and Kerns followed soon after. In 1984 Kerns opened Tortillas on Ponce and brought on Hatcher as its manager. There, they served Atlantans the rice-and bean–packed burritos that had fueled their California days.

Tortillas quickly became an unofficial headquarters for Atlanta’s indie rock scene. Several nights a week, the restaurant’s basement operated as a music venue, and almost every server was in a band. Local groups Seely, the Rock-a-teens, and Flap all got their starts playing gigs there.

Building off the success of Tortillas, Hatcher and Kerns opened Eats in 1993 in a former nightclub a few blocks west on Ponce. Their partnership ended some years later, and Hatcher won’t say much about the breakup except that it was like a marriage ending. Kerns got custody of Tortillas, which he closed in 2003; Hatcher kept Eats.

Eats license plates

When I ask Levi Nichols, one of Eats’ managers and an employee since 2000, why he thinks the restaurant has stuck around for so long, he chalks it up to both nostalgia and affordability. “People move away from Atlanta, and when they come back to visit, this is their first stop.” He continues as he arranges a row of red trays: “Now it’s also people walking over from across the street. It costs $19 to eat a burger and fries in the food court over there.”

Nichols is talking about Ponce City Market, where I once paid $6 for a nut milk latte. The Atlanta I love has space for both $6 lattes and $7 dinner platters. Without places like Eats, though, I don’t know that I would recognize—or could afford—this city. As I sit in one of those red booths and look through my son’s greasy fingerprints on the windows at that brick mini-metropolis, I wonder how long this institution will be here.

Eats restaurant crowd
At lunchtime, you’ll find a diverse crowd packed into Eats’ dining room.

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Eats restaurant

Eats dinner plates

Eats dinner plate

“That would depend on the owner,” says BeltLine visionary Ryan Gravel, Atlanta’s de facto voice of urban design, when I ask him to look into his crystal ball. “Does he own the land?”

He does. Hatcher officially bought the building in 1998. Every six months or so, he gets a call from real estate developers interested in the property, but he’s content bussing tables and managing the playlist for now. So there’s still room for people like me on Ponce.

I ask Hatcher if he’ll ever retire, and he makes a joke, “One day, you’ll come here, and the sign on the door will say ‘Gone Fishin.’”

This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.

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