MARTA station gets closer to losing a parking lot, gaining mixed-use development

As announced last year, MARTA is following through with plans to find a developer to turn a parking lot at its King Memorial rail station into a mixed-use development of apartments and retail. The rendering above is from Walton Communities, which hopes to build almost 400 apartment units here.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a good story on the project this week, reporting that the deal still requires a vote from the MARTA board and further negotiations on property leasing. Here’s a quote:

MARTA is making plans to transform the unsightly tunnel and a large parking lot adjacent to the King Memorial station into the first in a series of pedestrian-friendly villages next to its transit stations. The King Memorial project is furthest along in the planning process, but similar developments are expected to be launched over the next two years.

To me, this effort on MARTA’s part is one of the most exciting developments of “good urbanism” currently happening in Atlanta. It’s something that I’ve hoped for over a lifetime of living here and riding MARTA: that some day we’d make better use of the potential for these rail stations with surface parking lots — that we would help them to be the transportation centerpieces of walkable, compact neighborhoods instead of drive-to locations for riders. 

Politico looks at the makings of Atlanta’s Snow Jam 2014

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Your must-read article for the week is Politico’s The Day We Lost Atlanta How 2 lousy inches of snow paralyzed a metro area of 6 million. Local writer Rebecca Burns takes a look at the dysfunctions of Metro Atlanta that led to people being stranded on highways, in schools and in stores by the snow and ice over the last two days.

The highlight of the piece, for me, is her exploration of the regional peculiarities that laid ground for a situation wherein one million motorists were on the interstates at the same time, headed home to the suburbs in the snow.

Here’s a quote that answers the question of why the suburbs are so much more populated with residents than the center city:

In the 1970s…the city of Atlanta witnessed an exodus of 160,000 people. The white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, triggered by integration of schools and housing, was followed by reverse migration as blacks from the Northeast and Midwest returned to the Atlanta region but opted to move into the suburbs of DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton counties[*]. Atlanta the city, became—and despite a slow uptick in population, remains—the commercial district to which people commute from Atlanta, the suburbs.

[* For the reasons why so many new residents “opted” for the suburbs in the last couple of decades, look to the drive-until-you-qualify affordability of housing built along interstates, and the mortgage assistance offered in the 90s that enabled ownership of suburban homes. Add in the City of Atlanta’s inability to encourage transit-connected, affordable housing in it’s limits — as well as the corruption of public schools driving away families — and you’ve got a perfect storm of car-centric sprawl for the metro area.]

She also looks at the lack of transit connectivity in the metro and the failed attempt to correct that situation with the recent TSPLOST vote. It’s a great article.

Incidentally, I spotted Rebecca walking down Broad Street on Tuesday after the snow had fallen and I was coming back inside with my son after playing in the snow in the park. I almost introduced myself but she was walking with a sense of purpose that made me suspicious. It wasn’t until I got inside and saw the news that I realized the horrible things that were taking place on the roads, forcing her and others to abandon their cars.

My urbanist’s prayer: please let the silver lining of this experience be a strengthened resolve to, 1.) put affordable housing near MARTA rail stations; 2.) improve city schools so they families aren’t tempted away from the city when kids reach school age; 3.) build infill housing and mixed-use developments in the suburbs that reduce the number of car commuters in our region.

In my highly-biased opinion, the source of the problem is our sprawling, car-focused environment. It will continue to cause problems for us with or without icy roads. The best thing we can do for future generations in our region is to build (and re-build) in a way that lets alternative-transportation options thrive.

Photo by Flickr user James Bursa

"Atlanta was the poster child for sprawl…The metro area grew from 50 miles north to south in 1970 to over 120 miles today, sprawling farther and faster than any city in human history. Now Atlanta is witnessing the end of sprawl…If it’s happening in Atlanta, this is a significant national real estate trend. The market is saying no more sprawl."

— Chris Leinberger, Research Professor at George Washington University School of Business, as quoted in:
Metro Detroit Gets Ready to Grow with Transit-Oriented Development | 1/16/2014, Metromode

Atlanta’s great urbanism success of 2013: alternative transportation

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I was recently asked by Atlantic Cities to name what I considered to be the “best thing my city did this year.” As I thought about the coolest things happening around Atlanta, the answer came to me immediately. 2013 has been the year when this city really began to harness the power of alternative transportation in a post- ‘peak car use’ world.

That the nation’s driving habits have changed is not news anymore. Many articles have shown us that we’re driving less and that young people are waiting longer to become drivers. But for a place that has been particularly car-focused for the past few decades, its big news to read that Atlanta’s per-person driving miles are down nearly 12% since 2005.

Which makes it all the sweeter to see the city embracing a future with expanded alternative transportation options. It’s the right thing to do because it builds better cities, spurring new walkable development and connecting areas of density in a more sustainable way than can be done with car-dependency.

Here are some examples of what we’re doing right:

Atlanta Beltline

So far, the Beltline’s multi-use path and adjacent parks have brought in $1billion of new investment; and they’ve done so not by expanding road lanes but by offering a new way to move through our neighborhoods: human-powered transportation.

What a relief it is to see that alternative-transportation infrastructure can bring in so much development in a place that was, for a long time, considered a “car town” by many.

Atlanta Streetcar & adjacent bike lanes

The city is working to tweak zoning regulations in the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic district and the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, both of which are destinations for the in-construction streetcar line. This will allow (much needed) new development here while honoring the existing historic structures.

Hopefully, the streetcar project will be the thing that finally brings Sweet Auburn out of a decades-long slump. If so, it will happen alongside new streetcar tracks and also new bike lanes that will follow the route.

Turning MARTA parking lots into new development

In the recent State of MARTA address, CEO Keith Parker teased that some news may be coming in the near future regarding the agency’s effort to draw transit-oriented developments at stations like King Memorial, where surface parking lots now sit.

It’s way past time that these MARTA stations were converted from park-and-ride status to mixed-use projects with buildings that fit in with surrounding neighborhoods. My fingers are crossed that it happens sooner rather than later.

Bike lanes

Apart from the Beltline, we’ve also got a new two-way cycle track on 10th Street and new bike lanes on Ponce de Leon Avenue. And more is on the way as part of the city’s effort to invest $2.5 million into new bicycle infrastructure.

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With all of these projects underway, we’re setting Atlanta on a better course and giving it a chance to succeed in a world where transportation habits are changing and the ways we interact with our urban environment are evolving.

Photo of Atlanta bike lane by Flickr user Manuel Beers

"Atlanta’s planned so poorly, it’ll take generations to change the shape of the place"

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, speaking on the potential for Portland’s style of transit-oriented development to translate to other places, such as Atlanta

Hales: Let’s avoid Atlanta- and D.C.-style planning | Portland Business Journal, 9/25/2013

"Transport scholar Eric Morris…found that rail transit had a surprisingly strong connection with personal well-being. Whether or not a person lived within a mile of a rail station had a greater impact on his or her quality of life than whether or not that person owned a car."

Living Near Good Transit May Make You Happier | Atlantic Cities, 9/12/13

"The preferences of Gen Y are similar to those of people of color across all the generations. These different demographic cohorts are all growing in number, and together are creating a significant market shift toward compact, mixed-use development that is close to transit."

Where Americans Want To Live: New ULI Report, America In 2013, Explores Housing, Transportation, Community Preferences Survey Suggests Strong Demand for Compact Development | 5/15/2013, Urban Land Institute