December 2015: Dude, where’s my car?

Marietta Street
Marietta Street, circa 1913. A similar streetcar ran along Ponce de Leon.

If you were living here just a dozen years ago, then the changes you’re seeing now in pockets of intown Atlanta are nothing short of staggering. My route to work used to take me through Inman Park and down North Highland Avenue, and I still remember the kudzu creeping up on the old Mead factory. Where Parish is now was just another abandoned 19th-century building. Today that stretch of North Highland is unrecognizable from its former incarnation, and the area that straddles Inman Park and the Old Fourth Ward is among the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. (Thank you, Atlanta BeltLine.)

Of course, more people has meant more cars. Highland Avenue is now an occluded artery of vehicles—people leaving, traveling through, hurrying to catch an outdoor table at BarTaco. The simple fact is, for all of the newfound love we’re giving to public transit, we Atlantans are still more in love with the idea of it than the actuality of it.

This month we’re devoting a lot of the issue’s real estate to the story of Ponce City Market, which has been coming online gradually these past few months after years of development. For a while there, parking was free. That made sense: You’re going there to spend money; why should you spend more just for the privilege? Plus, as I’ve said, this is Atlanta. For all the market’s easy accessibility from the BeltLine, let’s be honest—more Ponce City Market customers will be arriving on four wheels than on two feet (or on two wheels). Then, in early fall (and, it must be said, with plenty of advance warning), they switched to paid parking, taking a page from Atlantic Station’s playbook.

It’s an intriguing experiment. Jamestown Properties, the developer of Ponce City Market, is (in)famous for sweating the details, so opting to charge its customers for parking, you can bet, was a decision they did not take lightly. After all, Krog Street Market, not even two miles due south, boasts free parking—though good luck finding it on a weekend evening.

In many ways, intown Atlanta is in the midst of a virtuous cycle: The migration of residents to the city core has led to more restaurants and shops there, which in turn encourages more housing. But the automobile is still the tail wagging the dog. Actually, it’s the tail and the dog. By charging for parking, Ponce City Market has signaled not so much that it sees cars as another way to make money as that it wants us to find other ways to get there. (After all, they’re giving $1 of each parking fee to the BeltLine.) If only this were a century ago, when the city of Atlanta’s extensive streetcar system included a route along Ponce de Leon between downtown and Virginia-Highland. Back then, Atlantans voted with their feet. Now they vote with their car keys.

This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue.