— State of MARTA: Back in black, brighter than ever | Atlanta Magazine, 12/13/2013
This is an 1882 photo of the intersection of Whitehall (now Peachtree) and Alabama Streets. Notice the mule-drawn trolleys and horse-drawn wagons on the streets.
An article published recently, “Did Cars Save Our Cities From Horses? Debating a modern parable about waste and technology,” gives an interesting rebuttal to the common story that personal cars saved cities from mounds of horse manure.
Between the era of horse-drawn carts and personal cars was an age of electric streetcars:
The late 19th and early 20th centuries was actually the age of streetcars. Running on steel rails, a few pulled by horses but most powered by electricity, they were the dominant urban mode of vehicular transport. The first suburbs date to this time, rising along streetcar lines in Boston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and other cities.
You can include Atlanta in “other cities.” We had an extensive line of streetcar routes covering the city, as seen in the 1946 map below:
Streetcar systems like this served cities for decades before cars began to dominate. As the article states, once car infrastructure was in place:
Streetcars now had to compete on roads suited to automobiles, and it wasn’t a fair fight. Cars clogged the streets, slowing traffic and preventing streetcars from keeping their schedules. Ridership fell. Streetcar companies struggled to stay profitable, all the more so because, as local monopolies, city governments limited fare increases.
Cut to — this classic image. These are discarded streetcars from the Georgia Railway and Power Company (the precursor to Georgia Power) which ran streetcars from 1937 to 1950.
Modern streetcars across the US have been a great tool for, among other things, spurring new residential development in walkable centers, with Portland’s being the most obvious example.
But streetcars don’t even need to be fully completed to have this positive effect.
In Streets Blog post titled “New Wave of Development Follows Streetcar Construction in Mid-Sized Cities,” Angie Schmitt writes that the under-construction streetcars in Kansas City, Tuscon and Cincinnati have already brought in new residential development, with apartments announced and under construction in all three cities along their new rail lines.
Reading this got me wondering: why isn’t Atlanta’s streetcar accomplishing that same thing, seeing as we’re in the final stretch of construction? We have the One 12 Courtland apartments under way (with one wing completed and occupied) and that project is bringing hundreds of new students into Downtown’s GSU campus — a great thing, to be sure. But what about non-student housing for more permanent residents?
As of now, no new non-student residential construction has been started or even announced on the route of the Atlanta Streetcar. The city is losing out on one of the main capabilities of the streetcar that other US cities have enjoyed in theirs: bringing in new residents with new housing.
Why aren’t we getting new housing Downtown?
Looking for answers, I reached out to the office of City Council-member Kwanza Hall, whose district encompasses the streetcar. I also asked for input from Jennifer Ball. Vice President, Planning and Economic Development at Central Atlanta Progress.
Jay Tribby, Hall’s Chief of Staff, writes this:
"Kwanza has been convening the community for the past few months to update the zoning for the [King Historic] district, which hasn’t been updated since Mrs. King created the district decades ago. Part of the update process has included discussions of massing and heights for any new construction."
Jennifer Ball writes:
“While the market dynamics are supportive of new residential development in Downtown – particularly along the Atlanta Streetcar route – developers have been slow to find and acquire good sites for ground-up development. You are likely to see adaptive re-use projects first, then ground-up deals.”
Current leaders seem to be doing what they can to bring in new housing, and that’s admirable. But I can’t help but wonder why it’s so hard in 2013 to accomplish something that we’ve known about for a long time as a need for Downtown.
The housing problem we’ve known about for years
Twenty two years ago, in 1991, Atlanta architect John Portman wrote this in an editorial about the need to capitalize on the 1996 Olympics to improve Downtown: “Perhaps our greatest opportunity is housing. We must put more residential housing Downtown. It should stretch from GSU toward the central city.”
Seven years later, a 1998 Atlanta Journal piece titled “Let’s get moving again on downtown housing” had this to say: “Experts agree more housing is critical to make downtown more like a neighborhood. A study released Thursday by Central Atlanta Progress and Centennial Olympic Park Area Inc. called the city’s recent experiment in downtown housing a clear success, with overall occupancy of new projects at 96 percent.”
So we see that Downtown housing is successful and that experts agree that much more needs to be built. What about demand, though — would people actually WANT to live downtown?
Yes, they would. A 2011 survey found that one in four people across the entire metro would consider living in Downtown Atlanta.
With all of this encouragement by experts to increase residential housing downtown, and with a survey showing the willingness of a huge number of people in the metro area to consider living here, it seems only natural that local politicians would have done everything possible to create a master plan that allows and encourages a windfall of new residential housing to be built. Particularly with the massive expenditure of the Atlanta Streetcar on the horizon.
City of Atlanta: Do. Not. Screw. This. Up. Past leaders have left a mess of a situation wherein it’s difficult for even willing developers to build much-needed new housing Downtown. Understandably, this is a product of previous generations’ efforts to separate housing, office, event and retail instead of mixing them together in walkable spaces. We’re still paying for those past development/planning mistakes.
But now is the time to play major catch up and to give both Downtown and the Atlanta Streetcar their best chance for success by bringing the one main ingredient that experts have crowed about for decades: more people living here.
The Transport Politic has a great piece on all the transit projects underway this year, including our own Atlanta Streetcar. There’s a spiffy map with the details, including track length and cost. Click the image above to see the larger version, and be sure to take a look at the full post, which covers the political struggles going on with transportation funding.