How NOT to revitalize downtown -- learning from Atlanta


Last week ground was broken on a new downtown destination for Atlanta, the $200 million Georgia Aquarium, to be funded entirely by a donation by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used the occasion to take a sober look at the likely impact on downtown Atlanta's vitality:

Construction cranes will raise hopes along with girders. Finally, boosters exhort, Atlanta's urban core will have the last major draw it needs to turn back 35 years of downtown resembling a ghost town at dusk....

Gov. Sonny Perdue adds his voice to the chorus. "This area can be a dramatic destination for people to stay longer in Atlanta," he said this week.

If the hyperbole sounds familiar, it is. Downtown Atlanta's recent past is checkered with the "next big thing" that was to save it.

The renovation of Underground Atlanta was the buzz in the 1980s. The 1990s were a whirlwind with the opening of the World of Coca-Cola museum near Underground and the decision of the Atlanta Falcons football team to stay downtown rather than move to the suburbs, not to mention the 1996 Summer Olympics, which were to make everyone want to live in the city center.

Each event was a step forward. But collectively the projects have remade downtown into the home of no more than 2,500 residents. It is not a destination that keeps suburban residents returning to events such as $3 summer concerts at Centennial Olympic Park and free ones at Woodruff Park, or packing Underground's restaurants on the way to a Braves game.

This year alone, Macy's closed its historic department store and the prominent King & Spalding law firm announced it would move out to Midtown. Last year, Georgia-Pacific scrapped plans for an office building once slated to rise more than 20 stories above Peachtree Street.

Note that Atlanta's downtown population is pretty close to Tulsa's. (2,487 was the population within Tulsa's Inner Dispersal Loop in the 2000 census.) If billions of dollars of public and private investment in large edifices haven't made the difference for downtown, will one more tourist-oriented facility bring it back to life? The article goes on to give hints as to what is holding downtown Atlanta back:

This is a break from traditional planning in Atlanta, where attractions are plunked down with little effort to link them. Atlanta's hotel district is not within easy walking distance of the football and baseball stadiums, the convention center or Underground....

These days, walking the streets is not a pleasant experience, in part because sidewalks are broken and filthy and homeless loiterers use shrubs as toilets and aggressively hit up pedestrians for cash. Few of downtown's narrow streets beckon tourists to stroll along them in hopes of finding that funky gift for friends back home....

The lack of restaurants downtown could become a bigger issue once the aquarium and Coke museum open. Several fancy places already exist near the park and downtown hotels. But they are priced for diners on expense accounts, beyond the reach of families on a budget....

There's also a clue as to what might help the most:

Meanwhile, Georgia State University's downtown expansion is helping to make streets feel safer.

Thousands of students trek daily to and from the main campus, classrooms and studios in the historic Fairlie-Poplar district, which lies between Peachtree Street and Centennial Olympic Park. GSU President Carl Patton believes the students and faculty are boosting the area's vibrancy. Still, the college crowds have not prompted many new restaurants to open.

Maybe there's a clue here -- people, not big buildings, make a downtown more vibrant. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin summarized the problem, as quoted in a sidebar to the other article:

"We see a thriving Buckhead. We see a Midtown with a great plan and a revitalization under way," she said. "But in downtown -- while we have assets like the Georgia World Congress Center, the hotels, Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome, Centennial Olympic Park -- it still doesn't seem to come together. You don't have a sense of place. And you don't know you are in Atlanta."

I've not spent much time in Atlanta, but I read that Buckhead is a district of historic residential neighborhoods and walkable shopping districts, while Midtown Atlanta also offers historic neighborhoods and landmarks like the fabulous Fox Theatre. Downtown has big sports/convention facilities, but the areas that are thriving have history, local character, and, most of all, people living there.

I note that the AJC's article was picked up by the Tulsa World over the weekend. Let's hope that the members of the Dialog / Visioning leadership team read the article and take Atlanta's lessons to heart as they choose a package to put before the voters.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on June 3, 2003 12:56 AM.

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A millstone by any other name would sink as fast is the next entry in this blog.

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