Commentary: Goodbye and good riddance to bland Atlanta airport development

When Hartsfield-Jackson has finally reached the limits of physical expansion, will we start creating developments that last?
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.