It’s a “stitch” as in a way to sew together the moribund patch of no-man’s-land between the Civic Center MARTA station on West Peachtree Street and Folk Art Park at Piedmont. Robinson, Central Atlanta Progress’s president, floated the idea in 2016: a cap on I-75/I-85 to create a pedestrian-friendly space about two-thirds the size of Centennial Olympic Park. Basically, we’d build a roof over about 4,000 feet of the Downtown Connector and plant trees on it.
Six years later, in October 2022, Congresswoman Nikema Williams handed a theatrically oversized million-dollar check to Robinson at a press conference overlooking the Peachtree Street bridge, to kickstart project planning.
“We will reclaim a massive part of our community with a beautiful new streetscape, mitigate environmental damage from highway traffic, and build dignified, affordable housing,” Williams said. “As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I’m leading the charge to undo the intentional damage inflicted by federal infrastructure projects.”
Atlanta is backing a Rebuilding Communities program grant application for $21 million with an offer to match it with $10 million in city money.
Suddenly, the Stitch is looking real.
Also real: the blight that makes a $700 million park project look like feasible development planning. The Stitch sits in the center of a ring of half-empty or abandoned buildings and parking lots that we might normally expect to be preyed upon by migratory construction cranes in a city hurting for housing development.
Consider the abandoned Medical Arts building, which served as a backdrop for Williams’s comments: Its kicked-out windows ringed with low-grade graffiti loom over drivers on Georgia’s busiest highway. It’s a quick walk to two MARTA stations and should be prime property. Instead, it’s been a wreck for decades. (It’s on the market, by the way. Again.)
I bear responsibility for some of the blight this project is meant to alleviate: I worked for Central Atlanta Progress from 2015 to 2019 and helped close a dysfunctional shelter at the corner of Peachtree and Pine in 2017. We offered housing to everyone there who wanted it, increased the number of beds elsewhere, closed the shelter, and sold the building to Emory University with the assurance that they would repurpose the property into something useful to the community. Five years later, it’s still boarded up.
Peachtree and Pine and the Medical Arts building, historically significant ruins, sit across the Connector from one another like two scabrous antediluvian trolls guarding a bridge, silently mocking Atlanta’s planners and developers. Dysfunction like this is a product of choices. Some of those choices were deliberate.
Highway planners in the 1960s intentionally drove the I-75/I-85 Connector through Buttermilk Bottom, a Black neighborhood with dirt roads, considered a slum at the time. To build the highway and the Atlanta Civic Center, the U.S. government ran poor Black people out of their homes, promising new housing that never materialized. (Sixty years later, the civic center is yet another underused ruin that stands to benefit from the Stitch.)
Buttermilk Bottom is just one of many Black neighborhoods that were targeted by transportation planners in Atlanta and across the country. When federal courts started striking down local zoning laws segregating housing in the 1950s, legislators responded with the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. They used those funds to shoot highways through Black neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” It’s no accident that the Connector cut through Auburn Avenue—once the heart of Black Atlanta’s business community—or that I-20 meets the Connector at Summerhill, home to some of the city’s first Black physicians and business leaders. Planners chose to make I-20 a concrete boondocks between white and Black neighborhoods.
Atlanta’s leaders have been trying for decades to figure out how to make the Civic Center area more palatable to development, without success. You can’t unpave a highway. Early plans considered selling air rights and financing construction for skyscrapers at the edges. But the cost of a project like the Stitch seemed out of reach, until 2020 protests summoned the ghosts of Buttermilk Bottom.
I ran into then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at random on Auburn Avenue last September. I was on my way to pick up Dragon Con tickets, looked right, and saw her with Williams giving a press conference in front of Big Bethel AME Church. I pulled a U-turn into a magically open parking space, jumped out of the car, and hustled over. Pelosi was touting the Inflation Reduction Act, which is providing money to reconnect communities bisected by federal highway projects in the 1950s and 1960s. Williams, then a freshman congresswoman on the House Transportation Committee, was the author of the Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program in the new legislation. It provides for $3 billion of planning cash for similar projects across the country.
A call for equity raises questions about how to make sure these projects are targeting the right communities and don’t simply generate more gentrification. The latter is less an issue for the Stitch; there are almost no residents left to displace.
“If the City is controlling the Stitch project’s affordability component, we can’t just accept their word for it—or Central Atlanta Progress’s word—that affordability will happen,” said Darin Givens, an urban planning critic. He described the housing affordability component of early plans to redevelop the Civic Center as “disappointing” and is concerned that plans for the Stitch may follow the same pattern. “We need to see concrete plans for funding that affordability in Stitch housing, making it permanent, and truly requiring it to happen. So far, we’ve just gotten a bunch of hot air about it.”
In most massive city projects, planners expect to navigate a sea of property owners and community members at public hearings. One of the quiet selling points to the Stitch project is the presumably unanimous assent of adjoining property owners. Emory Hospital, Georgia Power, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and others are on board.
“Hopefully, starting in the beginning of 2023, we’re working to do a community stakeholder outreach and park master-planning effort to understand what that program is,” said Jack Cebe, Central Atlanta Progress’s Stitch development manager. One goal is to get the surrounding property owners to either build affordable housing or fund affordable housing by paying some of their increased property value into a pool. “We think that the Stitch can catalyze 3,000 or more affordable units, which would be 15 percent of the mayor’s 20,000-unit goal. We want as much of that to be long-term or permanent affordable housing as possible.”
The devil is in the details, though. Atlanta and the development community made huge promises about affordable housing when the BeltLine stopped being Ryan Gravel’s grad school project and started being real. We see how well that went: $600,000 condos and just about half of their promised 5,600 units of affordable housing.
To get affordable housing, someone is going to have to hold planners’ feet to the fire. A federally funded project meant to redress inequities should have a process that puts people who have been harmed at the table. The salty irony of the Stitch is that there isn’t a Black community left to reconnect.
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This article appears in our January 2023 issue.