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

The development could stitch together downtown and offer a rail service to Savannah. But it’s not.
The Gulch

Photograph by Matalyn T. Hopkins

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

Photograph by Matalyn T. Hopkins

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.