Live, Park, Drive - Or Why ATL Redevelopment Plans Still Don't Work
Recently, various sections of Atlanta have been threatened with massive Walmarts.. Buckhead just fought off a proposed store at Lindbergh/Piedmont. Decatur is still in a fight with developers over a proposed super-store, and now Glenwood Park, a very expensive new-urbanist planned community is threatened with a Walmart based shopping center at its backdoor.
Good news: the same developer was recently defeated in Denver. Since I live in Reynoldstown now and was thinking about moving to the area near Glenwood Park, the possibility of that Walmart has become a burning issue to me. Currently, Glenwood Avenue, where the Walmart proposed, is a two-lane road with ample sidewalks and bike paths in both directions. It connects the funky East Atlanta Village to Grant Park, so it's a useful pedestrian or bike pathway. The major shopping center being proposed there would likely turn it into a choked and noisy thoroughfare. While I would oppose Walmart in any situation because of its labor policies, I also am opposed to the overall plan of development for this neighborhood - no matter what thing they put in that space. I'm not alone. When one commenter on Creative Loafing's recent discussion of the plan suggested a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Publix, or a movie theater instead of Walmart, I initially thought "yes, a grocery store! Perfect."
Then, another person pointed out that anything on that scale would bring more traffic to the neighborhood. One of the major features of the proposed development is 75,000 square feet of surface parking. The plan could be tweaked by creating a storied parking garage instead, but still....there would have to be more cars coming into the neighborhood to make that work - and where would they come in and go out? The Beltline is supposed to come into the neighborhood via an expanded Bill Kennedy Way and extended Chester Ave, but even if the Beltline proposal were to happen and some kind of bike lane appeared, without public transit, the whole thing is still a bust.
Look at Glenwood Park. it's a beautiful area with great housing and retail, including some less expensive rental housing. But - it looks a bit like ghost town. I read somewhere on the web people comparing it to a movie set - right, because the streets are empty. In the meantime, some neighbors in Inman Park are exorcised about a development plan for Elizabeth Street near N. Highland that would add rental housing & retail space to the already bustling and walkable three-block area. That particular region of in-town Atlanta is one that I like, because it is walkable. Still, you have to drive to get there, and park when you do. This is what the neighbors don't like; urban density in this area has increased the traffic.
All this hubbub points to the major problem that is holding Atlanta back. Despite the claims to the contrary as far as I can tell Atlanta's new urbanists, including the Beltline Inc and its supporters are focused on two things - bike trails/green spaces and retail/ upscale housing development. The Glenwood Park area, Inman Park and Atlantic Station to a lesser extent, all suffer from the same problem. All these places are islands that people have to drive to. For people living in these areas, new urbanism = more traffic, not less.
When Jane Jacobs was writing about the West Village, she wasn't just advocating bike paths and parks; she was fighting freeways and living in a city that had a long history of major mass transit. While it's a lovely idea that people will bike to work, it's extremely unlikely that they will bike to a grocery store. I did that in Minneapolis, but I was shopping mostly for one person. In ATL, it's still unlikely that people would even bike to and from the movie theater. Why? There aren't enough places in Atlanta where people are on the streets to make the streets feel safe at night. And the reason for this is the absence of adequate mass transit. Mass transit and pedestrian culture go together just like cars and parking lots.
This city's transit hubs are not well connected enough, and often are not themselves pedestrian friendly. A new MARTA CEO has just arrived in town, and, like a principal in a troubled public school, he'll be saddled with the responsibility for structural problems beyond the scope of the institution he manages. For those who don't know, MARTA is the only major public transit agency for a metropolitan area of this size that doesn't receive state funding. As the article linked above indicates, it - and our city's growth have been hobbled by racist suburban politics. The other big problem with MARTA is that it still is not designed for pedestrian safety or convenience. The most striking example of the problem is the tragic case of Raquel Nelson.
I've experienced less dramatic consequences from the unwalkable distances between transit hubs. Recently, I had a coupon for a discount hair salon near Buckhead; I was told by the salon staff that I could get there by walking from the Lindbergh Center MARTA station along Piedmont. It was an uneasy and hot trek along a heavily trafficked street, but I didn't turn around and give up (and took a cab that cost $10) until I hit the unprotected freeway entrance and saw the long walk under the dark underpass immediately after it.Sorry, but if you have to run across the freeway entrance, that's not walkable.
Other MARTA stations are similarly positioned. Another problem is that the stations are massive and rarely staffed, making them dangerous at night. (I recognize that this is not MARTA's fault, given budget & financing problems) . I look at the size of the MLK center station and imagine walking through it alone at night and think "forget it." All you need is one small corner not visible from the street and you're in the proverbial dark alley. The same is true for the station that serves my current neighborhood. The station includes a huge bridge to the neighborhood from which there is no exit if someone is following you. It abuts a dead end street with boarded up houses on one side and a residential neighborhood with little foot traffic on the other. It's a considerable walk to the retail district that most people would take it to get to. The MLK MARTA station is only accessible for pedestrians coming from one side of the area via another dark underpass.
MARTA doesn't have enough regular passengers to guarantee a crowd for safety in numbers at various times of day. For that reason, I decided that taking the bus downtown would make more sense than the train, even though it would take longer. I agree with the Metro-Atlantan Transportation Equity Group (MATEC) that wants the new MARTA CEO to meet regularly with MARTA riders. The biggest obstacle to using MARTA, and then producing the critical mass of pedestrians needed for a feeling of safety is making the areas around the stations and bus-stops safer, more accessible, and more logically positioned relative to housing and other destinations. Until then, the dream of new urbanists will fail and fail again. If you build it, they will come...by car.