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How Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School is trying to keep its student body diverse

Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School
What does a southeast Atlanta charter school do when its student body all starts to look alike?

Illustration by Mike McQuade

When the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School opened in Grant Park in 2002, it was everything that parents and neighborhood leaders wanted. For six years they’d fought to establish their own school for the community, which at the time was split among five different zones within the Atlanta Public Schools system. ANCS would be walkable for most students, class size would be limited to 20, and pupils would spend time solving hands-on projects rather than being dismissed every day loaded down with homework.

The demographics of the new school—first known as Neighborhood Charter School—reflected the diversity of Grant Park and Ormewood Park, the two communities it was designed to serve. Nearly half of the 104 students were black, and 35 percent were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches—consistent with the racial makeup and poverty rate of Grant Park at the time. In the ensuing years as many as 40 percent of ANCS students were eligible for free lunches. “The beauty of my kids going to the school they did is that all of a sudden my home looked like a Benetton commercial,” says Margaret Kaiser, a former state representative and founding parent.

By 2005 ANCS added a middle school in Ormewood Park to accommodate students going into grades six through eight. In 2015 it was named the best charter school in Georgia. The wait list for kindergarten spots is nearly 200 names long. Today the school enrolls 650 students.

Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School

Real estate is all about location, location, location. But in Atlanta, it’s more specific: schools, schools, schools. Look no further than Grant Park, where Victorians now fetch around $600,000 and up and average households earn $92,500 a year.

When ANCS opened, the neighborhood was starting to gentrify—a process the school’s success only sped up. And as the neighborhood changed, so did the ANCS student body. By the 2015-2016 school year, black students represented just 18 percent of overall enrollment. Only one out of 10 elementary students qualified for free or reduced lunches, a measure of the growing affluence of many students’ families. Indeed, only one of APS’s 17 charters, Atlanta Classical Academy in Buckhead, had a smaller percentage of students coming from low-income households.

The school’s diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, that was such a point of pride had become a victim of gentrification but also of more choice. Parents now have more options for educating their children. Wesley International, a charter school that opened in 2006 one mile away on Memorial Drive, immerses students in Mandarin. Parkside Elementary, the APS traditional school on the east side of Grant Park, last year posted APS’s 10th highest scores based on the past three years’ average. John Wright, a founding parent whose children attended ANCS and who’s now running for a seat on the APS board, says the school might not have also done a good enough job proving its non-traditional curriculum, which emphasizes projects and working in groups, to minority parents.

In 2014 ANCS instituted a plan to boost the enrollment of students living on low incomes—which, in the neighborhoods ANCS serves, could mean adding more black and Hispanic children. In this regard, ANCS officials weren’t pioneers. “Diverse by design,” as the effort is called, has gained traction among charter schools across the nation, as more and more seek to assemble a student body of different socioeconomic statuses and racial backgrounds.

“We’re really committed to trying to have a racially and economically diverse school,” says Matt Underwood, who became executive director in 2011 after serving as principal of the ANCS middle school. “Not to say ‘kumbaya, look at all the different-colored faces here,’ but because we really believe in—and have seen the benefits of—kids being in classrooms with people with different experiences and life stories.”

The data supports Underwood. According to the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, students at mixed-income and mixed-race schools post higher test scores and are less likely to drop out of high school than students in high-poverty schools. They are also more likely to enroll in college than their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. And there are life lessons that don’t show up on tests: seeing that your classmate’s only meal each day comes from the school cafeteria, hearing about life with same-sex parents, or learning about Ramadan—or atheism—at recess.


By the numbers
200

Number of students on the wait list for kindergarten at ANCS
47
Percentage of ANCS students who identified as black in its first year
18
Percentage of ANCS students who identified as black in 2015-16 year
40
Percentage of new students who should identify as low-income, per ANCS’s goal
$92k
Average household income in grant park, where ANCS is located


In the fall of 2014, the ANCS board decided that at least 30 percent of all ANCS students needed to qualify for free and reduced lunches. After surveying a growing national movement of “diverse by design” charters, the board added Summerhill, where 41.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line, to its attendance zone. It stepped up outreach and education to apartments, including Trestletree Village and Martin Street Plaza. The following year ANCS and other Atlanta charters convinced the Georgia General Assembly to give children living on low incomes an edge in enrollment with “weighted lotteries.” Each spring, the school uses a random number generator to determine enrollment when the number of applicants exceed the number of desks. Kids who qualify as “economically disadvantaged” would receive four numbers in the lottery, while other aspiring pupils receive one.

In addition Underwood appointed Larry Carter, a black fourth grade teacher at ANCS, to lead outreach and teach faculty and students about diversity, equity, and privilege. A team of facilitators from Georgia State University identified what ANCS activities, such as fundraisers, could make people living on low incomes feel uncomfortable. Six of its 13 board members are now people of color and include a developer who learned English as a second language and Pulitzer Prize–winning black journalist Nick Chiles. In 2016 officials from the Georgia Department of Education urged ANCS’s board to go further and helped school leaders establish a goal of 40 percent. ANCS agreed.

School officials held its first lottery using the new system, and the first in Georgia, in March. Nine new kindergarteners and two new sixth graders who identify as socioeconomically disadvantaged were accepted. Underwood says the school will keep using the lottery until as many as half of the students fall under that category, which could also qualify ANCS for Title I federal funding.

Even if it hits that goal, challenges remain, including ensuring the diverse student population actually mixes and students receive equitable treatment. Plus, home prices keep rising as Atlanta BeltLine officials design the nearby Southside Trail and Georgia State University and developer Carter start to redevelop Turner Field. “We can do all the outreach and weighted lottery, but if the tide of gentrification of real estate happens unfettered, there won’t be anyone living here who can get weight to get into the school,” says Underwood, who’s advocating for more affordable housing options in the area.

For now, the lottery is opening a door. On Christmas Eve of last year, Jameka Mitchell and her two children moved from Miami into an apartment at Trestletree. A product of mostly charter and private schools, Mitchell wanted the same for her five-year-old son, Devon. After learning about ANCS from Trestletree’s community advisor, Mitchell entered Devon in the weighted lottery. He started in August. “It makes me feel like I’m taking a great step for my son and I took advantage,” says Mitchell, who drives for Lyft when not studying to become a corrections officer. “Now my son can finally grow. He can’t wait. When he got accepted, he was so happy.”

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.

This was Atlanta’s Empire Building circa 1900

Empire Building

When construction on the 14-story Empire Building at Marietta and Broad streets began in 1900, Atlanta developers were on track to spend a record-setting $6 million on new high-rises. Thought to be named after the insurance firm that bankrolled its construction, the Empire was a risky work environment. An argument between two cabinetmakers over a joke whose humor is lost to history—“Ain’t [you] a pretty almanac picture?”—ended in a shooting. A laborer working an overnight shift fell 40 feet down an elevator shaft and fractured his skull. Working in all elements and even toiling illegally on the Sabbath to fortify a steel girder, the crew managed to cap off what was then the city’s tallest office building. After the last brick was laid in 1901, tenants, such as the National Weather Service, could see as far as Lookout Mountain. Even more surprising for Atlanta, a city never too busy to tear down its past, the structure now owned by Georgia State University stands to this day.

This article originally appeared in our September 2017 issue.

MARTA board chairman: Keith Parker “transformed” transit agency

Keith Parker, the MARTA general manager and CEO who helped pull the transit agency from the brink of insolvency and expand it outside Fulton and DeKalb counties for the first time since its creation, announced this morning that he was leaving the job to lead Goodwill Industries of North Georgia. Transit observers have long speculated Parker would eventually leave MARTA; since joining the agency from San Antonio’s VIA system nearly five years ago, Parker has overseen a far-ranging reform that has helped convince voters to add bus service in Clayton County and approve a $2.5 billion transit expansion in the City of Atlanta. Once often in the red, the balance sheet is now in the black, with roughly $250 million in its reserves. Robbie Ashe, the chairman of MARTA’s board of directors, talks about Parker’s legacy, what his departure means for the transit agency, and what MARTA needs in its next leader.

On Parker’s departure:
Keith is a fantastic person. He’s a wonderful manager and leader, and we wish him the best in this next stage of his career. Meanwhile, I’m confident in the team we have in place to make sure the trains run on time, to continue to protect the safety of our employees and customers, and balance our budget in a fiscal discipline.

At our board meeting on Thursday we will appoint an interim general manager and start the process of a national search for Mr. Parker’s replacement. That process will take several months because we’re committed to finding the person who will help us write the next chapter of our success.

It was a national search that led us to Mr. Parker several years ago and he leaves us a far stronger and healthier organization than when we found it. I’m confident we will have a wide and deep pool of first-class candidates to replace him. But we’re committed to taking our time to make sure we get the best possible one.

How his departure could affect expansion plans, including an estimated $2.5 billion build-out in Atlanta:
His team is in place. I expect that they will stay with us over the next several months. We will continue to deliver day-to-day excellence for employees, stakeholders, and customers.

The truth of the matter is Keith didn’t drive a train, he didn’t drive a bus. I expect there will be very little change, if any, in our day-to-day operations.

On Parker’s biggest legacy:
It’s fair to say he transformed our authority. We’re not done yet. But he leaves us a far healthier and stronger organization than when he came. If you look at our cash reserves (about a quarter billion dollars), our customer satisfaction, multiple expansions—all of those things unequivocally point to an organization on the rise. We’ve now finished four years in a row in the black. That’s certainly the only time in recent history that’s ever happened.

What the next candidate will need:
We’re going to look for someone first and foremost who’s an excellent manager and leader. I want them to be a strong communicator and someone who will make sure our internal operations are running well, and will partner with our external stakeholders.

We need to continue to exercise fiscal discipline. Some of our success over the past couple years might lead people to think we no longer need to exercise that discipline, that it’s easier to be tight with money and fiscal stewards when money is tight. Our challenge is to continue to manage those dollars we’re entrusted with as responsibly going forward as we have up to now. That’s what won us the expansion, that’s what won us the multi-billion dollar expansion in the City of Atlanta. We need to continue to do the work that’s allowed us to focus on our bottom line. Meanwhile, working with the rest of the region to see how we can serve them as well.

It’s a full plate. That’s why we as a board are going to be committed to making sure we get it right.

Whether the next candidate might oversee additional expansions into metro Atlanta:
I think the interest in expanding MARTA throughout other parts of the region is ongoing and will continue regardless of who our general manager is. To compete and to win the 21st century, metropolitan Atlanta needs more transit. And I think that’s the consensus that is increasingly shared across the region.

The old Atlanta Constitution building could finally get its long-awaited rebirth

Atlanta Constitution building
What the old Atlanta Constitution building could look like

Rendering courtesy of Invest Atlanta

After decades of waiting for a rebirth, one of Atlanta’s most significant historic buildings might finally be in luck. The former home of the Atlanta Constitution could get a much-needed renovation and become part of an office and residential redevelopment, according to a proposal Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, is negotiating with developers.

Next to the Gulch, a vast jumble of pavement and railroad tracks near Philips Arena where a developer connected to the owner of the Atlanta Hawks wants to build an estimated $1 billion mixed-use project, a joint venture hopes to renovate the five-story Art Moderne building located at Forsyth and Alabama streets and build a new 112-unit residential building on an adjacent parking lot. The sale price is $2 million, according to the deal’s fact sheet. The plan is still being negotiated, says Invest Atlanta spokesman Matt Fogt, so it’s subject to change. The agency’s board must grant final approval before selling the property.

Built in the 1940s, the building originally served as offices for the Atlanta Constitution, the more liberal-leaning sister to the Atlanta Journal. After the paper exited in the early 1950s, Georgia Power occupied the space until the mid-1970s. Since the 1990s, however, the building has been owned by the city and has sat vacant, used mainly for shelter by the homeless and a nesting area for pigeons. Historic preservationists and building buffs, protective of one of the last surviving examples of the architecture style left standing in the city, pushed back against a proposal in the 2000s to demolish the structure. In 2014 the city cleaned up and secured the building and last year finally asked developers to submit their ideas for the property.

Under the current proposal, Pope and Land would convert 67,000 square feet of the historic building into office space—the city’s city planning department would relocate there—and add a rooftop restaurant. The $40 million project would also include ground-level retail. Place Properties would build the adjacent residential building. Thirty percent of the units would be set aside for households making no more than 80 percent of the area median income, which equates to roughly $39,050 for a 1-person household and $55,750 for a 4-person household. Despite being located in one of the city’s most walkable neighborhoods and across the street from the Five Points MARTA station, more than 140 parking spaces are also included in the proposed vision.Atlanta Constitution building

For neighborhood boosters who have advocated for saving the Constitution and other historic buildings in one of the oldest parts of Atlanta, an adaptive resuse project is good news. “It’s been exciting to see the City’s leadership role in encouraging the renovation of this unique and historic building at the heart of our city’s transit system,” says Kyle Kessler of the South Downtown Initiative, a nonprofit effort aimed at revitalizing the neighborhood that includes the Constitution building. “The Department of City Planning’s inclusion as a primary tenant shows a prioritization and commitment to good urbanism that will have a long-term, positive impact well beyond the project itself.”

Winter Johnson Group, which renovated downtown’s historic Flatiron Building, would serve as the general contractor. Smith Dalia, the Atlanta architecture firm that designed White Provision, King Plow Arts Center, and other historic properties, is also on board. If the deal goes through, construction could begin next June and take roughly 20 months to complete.

After 50 years, Hyatt Regency Atlanta is still a downtown icon

Hyatt Regency
The Hyatt in 1967

Copyright 1967 Alexandre Georges, Hyatt Regency Atlanta Collection, The Portman Archives, LLC

When it opened 50 years ago, the Hyatt Regency on Peachtree Street felt like the architectural embodiment of the Space Age. Visitors—14,000 came one opening weekend—gazed up in awe at the 22-story atrium, designed to provide “spatial relief” from the hassles of air travel and city life. That was according to the hotel’s architect (and developer) John Portman. Visitors sipped cocktails in Le Parasol Lounge under the watch of macaws, parrots, and cock-of-the-rock birds housed in a three-story aviary. Guests queued for a rocket ride in glass elevators—the most expensive of their time—to Polaris, the blue-domed rotating restaurant on the roof. Today, the entrance tunnel is a wall of glass, the aviary is gone, and the fountain was long ago replaced by Richard Lippold’s “Flora Raris” sculpture. But Polaris, which reopened in 2014 after sitting vacant for 10 years, is spinning again, showcasing the downtown that Portman, the city’s most influential architect, helped define.

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

With a Leica camera, a visually impaired photographer showed Cabbagetown to the world

Cabbagetown 1996
Cabbagetown in 1996

Oraien Catledge (American, 1928 2015), Untitled [large family], 1996, gelatin silver print. Gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2012.597. © Oraien Catledge

Oraien Catledge might not have been able to see that well—a childhood illness left him with impaired vision—but he knew where to look. In 1980, after watching a TV news report about how gentrification was encroaching on a mill village named Cabbagetown, the Decatur resident and social worker paid the community a visit with a Leica camera. The Mississippi native kept coming back for nearly two decades, snapping black-and-white images of the predominantly white Appalachia families who had stayed after the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill shuttered. His poor vision, professional background, and life experience beckoned him to get close: to children on the stoops of shotgun shacks, teens cooling off with a fire hydrant, an elderly woman embracing her dog. Catledge died in January 2015 at the age of 86, but his work lives on in two books and in the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Today one of the bungalows you might spot in Catledge’s portraits could fetch more than $400,000.

This article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.

Kasim Reed says Atlanta will honor the Paris climate agreement. What will the city’s next leader do?

Kasim Reed climate change Atlanta mayoral candidatesPresident Donald Trump might have backed out of the landmark Paris climate agreement—but Atlanta and a growing number of U.S. cities have not. In a statement on Thursday, Mayor Kasim Reed said the city would honor the commitment he and the mayors of more than 100 other cities made—along with more than 169 countries—to lower carbon emissions in an attempt to stave off a projection of rising sea levels, brutal temperatures, and devastating storms.

“The President has made a disappointing decision today to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, and by extension, global leadership,” Reed said. “This decision isolates our country from international partners in shared, global efforts to curb climate change, and at its core is an assault on our future stability and prosperity.”

He’s sticking with the pledge, Reed said, and the city “will intensify our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, work to cool the planet by two degrees, ramp up clean energy solutions, and seek every opportunity to assert our leadership on this urgent issue.”

The mayors of New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and more than 60 other cities are saying much the same. The thinking being: if the federal government won’t take the lead on climate change, the cities and states must do what they can on the local level.

However, Reed’s second and final term in office ends in January, when he’ll turn over his desk to whomever emerges victorious from a crowded field of candidates. Here’s where some of the leading candidates running to replace Reed stand on Trump’s decision and what they would do, if elected, about climate change.

Peter Aman
We must act today if we are to preserve the Atlanta of tomorrow. As mayor, I will work to ensure every community in our city has access to clean water and air, renewable energy, and expanded transportation and housing options so all of our citizens can participate in Atlanta’s continued economic growth

Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms
I am equally angry and heartbroken that in just a few short months, policy decisions made by this president have negatively impacted the trajectory of generations. Clearly, the international implications are tremendous. Closer to home, however, we live in a city where thousands of children struggle to live with asthma, and I am saddened to think of what America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement will mean for them.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves
Yesterday’s action by President Trump did not make America great. In fact, it not only disconnects us from the rest of the world, it makes us a follower instead being a leader.

When I am mayor of Atlanta, I will do everything in my power to ensure that we do our part to curb carbon emissions, so that future generations of Atlantans will have a healthy city in which to live and thrive.

State Sen. Vincent Fort
Trump’s decision emphasizes what I believed from the time he got elected: Whether it’s climate change, healthcare, or other issues, the change that’s going to be made is by progressives on the local level. What we do on the city level is going to be critical.

As mayor I would maintain the city’s commitment to the Paris agreement. It’s all the more critical in a city like Atlanta where income inequality is at a such a high level. Climate change impacts working-class and poor people and the elderly more than anyone else. It’s more critical that Atlanta be engaged in the climate justice movement. I’m going to maintain that commitment, heighten it, and broaden it and make sure the issues of class and race are dealt with in climate change efforts.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall
The President’s wrong-headed decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement strengthens my resolve to do all in my power to help Atlanta reach our ambitious goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2035. Over time, the clean energy program I have proposed will engage everybody in Atlanta by creating good jobs, lowering our utility bills, cleaning our air and water, and doing our part to mitigate climate change.

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell
Leadership means making hard choices. It isn’t simply saying something that makes people clap at a rally. It is about deciding what is best for the people you serve, and for the planet we all share.

Today, Donald Trump abdicated his responsibility to his people and his planet. He made a decision based not on the science and studies of experts, but on the shouts and screams of his supporters.

President Trump may not wish to carry the mantle of responsibility to our planet, but we can still do our part. As city council president, and as your next mayor, I pledge today to pick up what he has dropped and make Atlanta do her part in the spirit of the Paris climate agreement.

Turning your back on the world is not leadership. Let’s show him what real leadership looks like.

We must redouble our efforts to protect the environment. That means recycling, that means alternative modes of transit, and that means protecting our tree canopy. These are all things that we, as Atlantans, can do, and they are things we will do if I am your mayor.

We can make Atlanta clean, green, safe, and thriving, we can do it together, and we can start today.

Cathy Woolard
When our federal government walks away from its responsibility to protect the environment for current and future generations, it’s a gut check. As city council president I started Atlanta’s first energy conservation program. As mayor I will build upon that work to ensure Atlanta participates with mayors all over the world to mitigate the impacts of climate change. We have a moral responsibility to ensure the excesses of our carbon-based economy don’t cause misery to the poorest of the poor and leave an irreversible legacy for our future generations to endure.

Councilwoman Mary Norwood and Michael Sterling have not yet responded to a request for comment. We will update if we hear back. 

Ryan Gravel and Tim Keane are sketching a smarter city plan for Atlanta

Ryan Gravel and Tim Keane
Ryan Gravel (left) and Tim Keane

Photograph by Wedig & Laxton. Illustrations by Nick Chaffe

In 1906 a group of Chicago businessmen commissioned architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham to bring order and beauty to their fast-growing, filthy, and congested Midwest city. Burnham, the visionary behind the city’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, proposed a plan nicknamed “Paris on the Prairie”—grand boulevards cutting through a simple grid, leading citizens to plazas and parks.

Today, when Chicagoans and tourists stroll along Lake Michigan or the Magnificent Mile, or when they board an Amtrak at Union Station, or when they spin on the merry-go-round at Navy Pier, they are enjoying the fruits of Burnham’s plan.

Chicago, thanks to Burnham, is an intentional city. Atlanta is not. For much of its history, the city has been shaped by parochial interests, political expediency, and the whims of developers. Tim Keane knew before he left Charleston in 2015 to become Atlanta’s planning commissioner that the city was roaring ahead without a vision. He came anyway. Why?

“Atlanta has an opportunity over the next 25 years to completely shift [its] way of developing,” he says. “But we will not be successful if we don’t have a design.” City Hall projections show that the city’s population could almost triple by 2050. Atlanta, Keane says, needs a master vision to guide the city as it stretches to accommodate new and existing residents.

For the past 17 months, he and Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who came up with the idea for the Atlanta BeltLine, have been working on something called the City Design Project, a kind of overarching vision for how the city should look and feel in the coming decades. To Gravel, a child of the auto-centric suburbs whose idea for the BeltLine forever changed intown’s development pattern, the challenge of designing Atlanta’s future was a “dream job.” And he found a fellow traveler in Keane, whose bold ideas about urbanism have earned him goodwill from planning, transit, and development communities.

First, the duo revisited the city’s greatest contribution to history: the civil rights movement. The most fitting way to honor that legacy was for the city to become a “beloved community”—the open, inclusive, and accessible society espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. “Nowhere else can claim that,” Keane says. “That’s ours. That’s powerful.”

Gravel canvassed community leaders, but also relied on his own daydreams, fleshing them out into concepts that were tweaked by two urban designers at a pop-up studio at Ponce City Market. Keane worked City Hall, briefing department heads on how they could integrate the vision into their projects. The two hosted community meetings to collect input. Every Thursday they’d meet at the studio to discuss progress.

Five core values—equity, progress, ambition, nature, and access—emerged, which Keane and Gravel believe should guide all future city plans. Density would be concentrated in downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead “skyline zones,” with some high-rises even higher than today’s skyscrapers, and in smaller scale along the edges of single-family neighborhoods. Plazas and parks could help tame hectic intown thoroughfares—Peachtree Road between Brookwood and Buckhead Village, for example—and encourage walking.

The lush tree canopy in southwest Atlanta and parts of northeast Atlanta would remain verdant, buttressed by two “anchor” parks comprising thousands of acres along the Chattahoochee River and the overlooked South River straddling Fulton and DeKalb counties. Bike paths along ridge lines, safer streets, and “eco trails” would bring together communities that have long been separated by wide roads, railroads, and bad development. New transit on Atlanta’s suburban-style far west side would boost access to jobs.

Over the next year, Keane and Gravel say, the project will start to take shape as its findings guide plans covering transportation, urban ecology, and housing—as well as the multiyear overhaul of the city’s zoning code, which has not been updated since the early 1980s. The latter could offer the city an opportunity to ax policies that keep people in their cars, which Chris Carter, the founding partner in Vantage Realty, says enables Atlanta’s automobile addiction and hinders smarter development. “The only way to pull off the plan they’re coming up with is to eliminate the city’s parking requirements in urban areas,” Carter says. Developers will also have to convince lenders who bankroll new housing and retail that a less auto-oriented Atlanta is possible.

The shelves of City Hall, of course, sag with grand plans gathering dust. What will make this one different will rely, ultimately, on the willingness of politicians and residents to keep their focus on issues big and small, whether it’s affordable housing or a light rail route. Winning public support is partly how Chicago’s Navy Pier went from paper to construction. Gravel, who saw his own graduate thesis become a $4.5 billion reality, says it’s possible. “It’s just like we demanded to build the BeltLine,” says Gravel. “If we want it and speak up, we will get it. It will be hard and complex and there will be a cost associated with it, but we can have it.”

It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Chicago, after all, built just 25 percent of the Burnham Plan in the end. But Chicago dared to dream about what it would become and, in doing so, established what Keane calls a “true urban identity.” Now Atlanta may get to do the same.

Atlanta values
5 principles to guide Atlanta’s growth

Ambition
Provide opportunities to help the next Outkast find its voice.

Nature
Accentuate Atlanta’s lush tree canopy and waterways.

Access
Plan for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users—not just cars.

Progress
Population growth can benefit the city and solve issues like affordability.

Equity
How does everyone participate in Atlanta’s prosperity?

This article originally appeared in our May 2017 issue.

First Look: Grant Park’s new parking deck will have rooftop greenspace

Mayor Kasim Reed this morning is unveiling the city’s design for a 1,000-space, $48 million parking deck at Grant Park that will replace the space-wasting, seven-acre parking lot off Boulevard officials say is insufficient. The three-tier deck will be partially embedded into the hillside and—in a move that helped win support from the neighborhood and park advocates—capped by a green roof and a restaurant with views of the Downtown skyline in the distance.

The announcement and detailed renderings come six months after City Hall first issued a request for proposals to design and build the deck. City officials have no set date to start construction but expect the project to wrap up in late 2018.

The structure, which will double parking in the area, is designed to be largely hidden from people walking, biking, and driving along Boulevard. But yes, where parking in the current lot is free, the new deck will not be. Revenues from those parking fees will go to pay off the bonds that will help fund the deck’s construction.

Dubbed the Grant Park Gateway Project, the idea for the deck started out simply enough, according to Amy Phuong, the city’s commissioner of parks and recreation: to beef up parking capacity at one of the city’s most popular parks and tourist destinations. Judging by the renderings, lounge chairs will line the edge of the facility and border the terraced green roof where park-goers can gather and relax. Inside the deck will be an area for bicycle parking and a rainwater harvesting system to irrigate the greenspace.

The deck will offer park visitors a new entryway into Grant Park and the zoo, turning a “hideous surface parking lot into a highly designed feature,” Phuong said. Gone will be the days, she said, when moms pushing strollers will have to navigate a downward slope on asphalt. The path spanning the deck’s entrance will stretch deeper into the park and toward a new plaza and the 96-year-old neoclassical building designed by Atlanta architect John Francis Downing that until recently hosted the Cyclorama. (The massive painting of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta is now at the Atlanta History Center as part of a $35 million restoration and relocation project.) The zoo, with the help of a $20 million matching grant from the Robert Woodruff Foundation, plans to turn the old Cyclorama building into a ballroom and events facility, complete with wall-to-ceiling windows and a patio overlooking an expanded area for elephants, giraffes, and other animals, plus administrative offices.

Grant Park finds itself in the middle of a southeast Atlanta development boom, with hundreds of millions of dollars in new housing and retail planned or underway in the surrounding area, along with the Atlanta Beltline on its southern border. Zoo Atlanta is projecting 1.2 million visitors by 2019, up from the nearly 1 million people it hosted last year. Officials expect a sizable chunk of those zoo patrons, plus other people who might be drawn to visit the park and the new facility into the future, to choose driving over taking the bus—at least until Beltline transit a few blocks away, or the streetcar, which could run along Georgia Avenue, becomes a reality.

The Grant Park parking deck project has garnered nowhere near the controversy that sprung up in in the mid-2000s just a few miles to the north, when the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Piedmont Park Conservancy, and City Hall turned a chunk of Piedmont Park into a (mostly) underground parking deck. Though some Grant Park residents said they were frustrated with the city’s transparency early on in the planning efforts, voiced concerns about losing mature trees, and questioned the actual need, others are now pleased that the proposed facility does more than just serve as a place to park cars. Eric Schneider, who moved to Grant Park a few years ago, said he hopes the city takes the opportunity to build connectivity between the greenspace, the surrounding neighborhood, and other communities, and will “use this project as an anchor to develop a safer Boulevard,” the hectic thoroughfare that runs along the park’s edge and which will feed motorists into the new deck. A city spokeswoman says it is exploring options to do so.

In all, says Michelle Blackmon of the Grant Park Conservancy, which worked with the neighborhood association to advise the city on the design, the facility could help more people access the park that Col. Lemuel P. Grant envisioned being a respite for urbanites when he gifted the land to the city in 1883. The fact that the project is tucked into the landscape and uses green infrastructure such as rainwater harvesting was critical to winning support. If the city proposed just dropping a box, she says, the welcome might not be so warm.

“Today’s announcement is a win for everybody involved,” Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who represents the area, said. “The underground parking and mobility solution will replace seven acres of asphalt with new, usable greenspace, convenient parking for residents and visitors to the park and Zoo Atlanta and new amenities. Grant Park is a jewel in the city and this new facility will make it even better.”

As for that restaurant, no details yet on what chefs might be interested. Paging Kevin Gillespie?

725 Ponce, rising from the dust of Murder Kroger, wants the Beltline to be its front door

725 Ponce
A new rendering of the BeltLine-facing side of the 725 Ponce building

Rendering courtesy of 725 Ponce

If Jim Irwin were developing an office building on Ponce de Leon Avenue 20 years ago, he probably would not have cared so much about how the back of the building looked. He and his architects would not have spent weeks picking the placement of some stairs near where the dumpsters would be placed. And Irwin probably would not have included a grocery store on the bottom floor of the building. He probably would not have even been developing an office building along Ponce because, 20 years ago in Atlanta, who did that?

But 20 years ago the Atlanta BeltLine didn’t exist. And today Irwin, the founder of local development firm New City, is focusing on how the front of 725 Ponce, the 10-story office and retail building he’s constructing in the place of the unfortunately nicknamed Murder Kroger, faces the wildly popular Eastside Trail. Located directly across the BeltLine from Ponce City Market—which Irwin helped develop while working at Jamestown Properties—725 Ponce could be the first ground-up development along the Eastside Trail to truly capitalize on its seemingly endless stream of bicyclists, walkers, and, eventually, transit riders.

“Building next to the BeltLine is like building next to something that has tremendous cultural value for the life of the city,” he says. “It’s like MOMA or the Eiffel Tower. And it’s worth the extra thought and expense to get it right. This is intended for the BeltLine not just to be the back entrance, but, predominantly, the front door.”

Atlanta experienced a collective identity crisis in early 2016 when New City announced it would demolish Murder Kroger to build a type of development that was high in demand and low in supply along the Eastside Trail: a 360,000 square-foot office building. The suburban-style grocery store was a relic of both the city’s and Ponce’s more gritty years—a candlelight vigil was held in its honor prior the building being razed—but was now sitting on extremely valuable dirt thanks to the intown development boom and the BeltLine. New City hopes to create a well-designed job hub that offers more places where people can work along the BeltLine. At the bottom: A new 60,000 square-foot Kroger will feature amenities designed to compete against nearby Whole Foods—and will open up to the BeltLine.

Properly orienting the building alongside the trail has taken years of thought and tinkering, Irwin says, but allows two opportunities. For one, it’s more conducive to the type of horizontal layouts that allow workers to be concentrated on one floor—Mailchimp’s PCM headquarters showed him workers and employers like such an environment—and it makes the most of the city-changing trail project.

For workers and visitors who use the BeltLine to access the building, the group has spent a considerable amount of time focusing on a set of M.C. Escher-esque stairs that connect the trail to 725 Ponce’s indoor/outdoor lobby on the building’s second floor. The lobby itself will be akin to a hotel’s, Irwin says, a “bustling office space” where people can hang out and work. Foot traffic from an adjoining restaurant will spill into the space, which will also have free wi-fi—and if you’re into it, a snooker table—to encourage interaction. (Office workers who park in the subterranean garage—that’s the giant pit currently being dug along the BeltLine and North Avenue—must first take an elevator to the lobby before heading upstairs. That’s an intentional design choice to help create the vibrant common area and break up the humdrum routine of arriving at and leaving work, Irwin says.) The covered porch area, facing Ponce City Market’s Shed, will include seating where people can eat and share growlers purchased in the grocery store. A tall breezeway connecting the parking area to the Beltline is adjacent to the covered porch.

“When you focus all the energy of people moving in and out of a place, that creates friction and life and becomes a place where people can interface, interact, and literally bump elbows,” he says.

The group is also thinking about the area outside the project. Movies could be projected on an exterior walls. Future BeltLine plans call for redirecting the Eastside Trail over a bridge spanning North Avenue when transit is built along the project. The path will run through a corner of 725 Ponce—a scaled-down version of how New York’s High Line cuts under some buildings—breaking up the canyon-like effect that can be created between two buildings. In addition, New City has spent months turning a former parking area on the bottom floor of the neighboring Ford Factory Lofts into restaurant and retail space, along with creating a breezeway through the building that would allow people easier access to the BeltLine. Irwin says he’s also thinking about how the overall project will evolve as density increases and transportation choices change—a time when, one hopes, 725 Ponce’s parking spaces not located underground could be turned into places for people, not cars.

“I‘m legitimately trying to future-proof our project from that perspective,” he says. “Who knows if it’s five or 20 years. That’s all coming and we’re having serious conversations about it.”

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