Reviving an urban core

January 2, 2010 Urban Design

This first appeared as a guest column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on November 11, 2009, under the headline, “Atlanta’s colleges key to revitalization of its core”

If Atlanta wants to revive its downtown, it needs to look at what it has already and stop trying to revive its inner core using solutions from the past.

Downtown Atlanta has no river, no ocean harbor, no view of the mountains. It has little architecture of note. Many of the corporate tenants and most of the established stores have moved to the city edge. Given the old road and railbeds underlying its streets, it barely has space for trees.

What it does have located in its urban core are three campuses comprising five nationally known institutes of higher learning–Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, and Georgia Tech, Georgia State, and Clark Atlanta Universities. Together, they draw more than 57,700 students and faculty.

College towns are some of the most pleasant in the nation–human-scaled, walkable and bikeable–and fillled with eclectic shopping, restaurants, sports, and arts venues attractive to students and adults. Instead of trying to lure big corporations and chain shopping centers back downtown, let’s concentrate on developing downtown Atlanta as a series of safe, walkable and bikeable campuses threaded with shopping, housing, and parks.

Unlike many college towns, Atlanta is dissected by major thoroughfares. Urban blight associated with the areas surrounding these campuses make this solution difficult. Changing our ideas of how to revitalize downtown Atlanta, however, might help us see solutions that we previously missed.

Many big cities have a problem with homelessness and panhandling, but many of them have a large group of working people who use the same urban space, diluting the presence of this underclass. While this problem needs to be addressed in Atlanta– the fact is that these colleges and universities already exist downtown. We do not need to lure them there, but we do need to support them, their safety and their development.

Many of the intown neighborhoods–West End, Atlantic Station, Inman Park and Candler Park among them–house students and faculty. Many of those take public transportation or bike to these universities. Recent development along DeKalb Avenue and the Marietta Street area attest to the need for apartments, condominiums, and associated dining and shopping areas.

I recommend a strong presence of mounted policeman and development geared to connecting the universities to each other with pedestrian shopping arcades and car-free bike- and walkways. We also need to comfortably and safely connect downtown Atlanta to other universities. We must finally develop direct, modern train connections to Emory and the University of Georgia.

These institutes of higher learning and the city must join to study and develop a solution that will unite them. Let the big corporations and their traffic and trucks move to the metro ring cities. Redeveloping downtown Atlanta as a college town could turn this city inside out with a peaceful walkable inner core.