Atlanta’s small towns being redefined through principles of new urbanism

By Guest Columnist THOMAS WALSH, ASLA, a founding principal of Atlanta-based TSW, a planning, architecture and landscape architecture firm

For decades, Atlanta has been defined by its sprawl – and perhaps no communities have felt the effects of the often unchecked growth more than the small towns surrounding our city.

Tom Walsh

Tom Walsh

The tidal wave of suburban development, and the construction of major thoroughfares that bypassed the small towns, sounded a death knell for once-bustling town centers.

One of the defining characteristics of sprawl is the separation of residential and commercial areas, requiring people to move between them in vehicles, often on busy four-lane highways. Now, as commuters struggle with traffic congestion, the concept of “live-work-play” neighborhoods holds great appeal, and planners are revisiting gridded street systems to spread out traffic and ease congestion.

As community planners who specialize in New Urbanism, TSW has been working with small towns to help them redevelop their central cores and attract new business and residents who see the value of living where the frequency of car trips is reduced.

What exactly is “New Urbanism”? Simply put, it’s all about connectivity: connecting where you live with where you work, shop, dine and play. New Urbanism describes the design model for walkable communities built on a pedestrian scale with a mix of uses. Homes are built close together and public green spaces are strategically located to foster neighbor interaction and engagement. If the community’s density is great enough, planners can develop mass transit, which further benefits residents and workers.

As more than 5,000 planners from over 30 countries prepare to convene in Atlanta April 26-30 for the American Planning Association’s annual conference in late April, let’s take a look at three area communities that have used the principles of New Urbanism to successfully recreate themselves as vibrant, sustainable cities with branded identities and an appealing mix of residential and commercial space.

(Maria Saporta and David Pendered provided chapters for a book APA is releasing in conjunction with its national conference. “Planning Atlanta,” edited by Harley F. Etienne and Barbara Faga, is available for purchase from amazon.com)

Decatur

Downtown Decatur

Downtown Decatur

The visionary leaders of Decatur established the Downtown Development Authority in 1982 to shepherd a successful redevelopment program. With a great deal of public participation, a Decatur Town Center Plan was created, and city leaders revisit and update it every decade.

One of the redevelopment’s first goals was to define “downtown Decatur”. Those involved realized that to create a true sense of place, the heart of the city had to be distinctfrom the rest of the community. In 1999, the city created a MARTA Mall Task Force and developed a master plan for more successfully incorporating the MARTA station into Old Courthouse Square. In recent years, the city has implemented incentives to encourage downtown infill structure, and new mid-rise residences, businesses, restaurants and retail now fill the formerly empty spaces.

Recognizing that development is just one component of a vibrant city, Decatur leadership works hard to keep the downtown area lively. An old-fashioned bandstand on the square hosts seasonal concerts, and family-friendly festivals and special events are held year-round throughout the downtown area. Distinctive signage touts Decatur’s small town charm and reinforces the town’s brand. No wonder last year the American Planning Association named Decatur one of the country’s “Top 10 Great Places”.

Alpharetta

Alpharetta’s Main Street (State Route 9) fulfills both local and regional transportation needs. Over the years, the increase in number of vehicles and speed limits has made pedestrian traffic along the corridor challenging at best, and dangerous at worst.

Alpharetta planning effort

Alpharetta planning effort

With a strong desire to recapture the flavor of a true city center, and to make the corridor safer for all who use it, Alpharetta’s leadership hosted a series of interactive community meetings to addresses the challenges and opportunities for improvement along Main Street from Old Milton Parkway to Winward Parkway.

The project was christened “Envision Main Street Initiative”, and stakeholders were invited to participate in a visual preference survey and to offer their ideas and concerns for three sections of corridor: the historic retail and dining district, the residential areas and the commercial center. From these meetings, a single, community vision emerged of an aesthetically pleasing boulevard with shared pedestrian/bicycle facilities and landscaped sidewalks and medians.

Additional improvements call for vehicular speed reduction to increase safety and livability, and lane changes to provide optimal capacity and accessibility. On-street parking will boost commerce and will further improve the pedestrian experience. Future plans call for the design and construction of a new city center, including a city hall that will serve Alpharetta and strengthen the community’s sense of place.

Woodstock

Many have called Woodstock the poster child for New Urbanism in Georgia. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from the city. By the 1990’s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.

Night view of Woodstock

Night view of Woodstock

City leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.

Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. When it became apparent our vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, we were approved to draw up new zoning that was more sensitive to the type of development we envisioned. Woodstock’s leadership also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.

The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings. New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.

Woodstock train depot

Woodstock train depot

From the beginning, the level of cooperation between the city and the development team was extraordinary, and was the greatest factor in the project’s ultimate success. Now the responsibility of ongoing development has been undertaken by local stakeholders, who are energized and inspired by what has been accomplished in their town.

Note to readers:

Walsh will serve on two panels at the upcoming American Planning Association’s National Conference in Atlanta, including a panel discussion of, “The Challenges of Sprawl Retrofit.”

Pedestrian friendly Decatur

Pedestrian friendly Decatur

Condos in downtown Decatur

Condos in downtown Decatur

Community visioning process

Alpharetta’s community visioning process

Main Street Initiative in Alpharetta

Main Street Initiative in Alpharetta

Woodstock town center

Woodstock town center

This development in downtown Woodstock was promoted by the ARC and is one example of why the ARC contends a new report that cites Atlanta's sprawl is out of date.

Residential and retail development in Woodstock

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5 comments
Transparency Fan
Transparency Fan

Doesn't the author's firm have a rather large contract with the City of Decatur to create a unified development ordinance? Shouldn't  this contractual relationship have been disclosed?

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

kevinalynch Those are excellent points. Though, many of those historic railroad towns and suburbs that surround Atlanta (particularly the historic railroad towns and bedroom communities in Atlanta's very heavily-populated Northern suburbs) do not necessarily just want commuter rail service. Many outlying historic railroad towns and bedroom communities in Atlanta's suburbs like Alpharetta and Woodstock want high-capacity passenger rail transit service (preferably reformed post-MARTA regional heavy rail transit service) connections in their cities.

kevinalynch
kevinalynch

There is tremendous potential for commuter rail to preserve what is special about these towns and afford their growth in residents and businesses. Hampton is a good example. Get off Tara Blvd at the racetrack, and in 2 minutes you're in this nice little downtown with abundant reasons to visit or reside. The proposed Atlanta-to-Macon line would let more residents live more densely in the town, and facilitate more visitors from the cities on either pole.

kevinalynch
kevinalynch

There is tremendous potential for commuter rail to preserve what is special about these towns and afford their growth in residents and businesses. Hampton is a good example. Get off Tara Blvd at the racetrack, and in 2 minutes you're in this nice little downtown. The proposed Atlanta-to-Macon line would let more residents live more densely in the town, and facilitate more visitors form the cities on either pole.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@kevinalynch Those are excellent points.

Though, many of those historic railroad towns and suburbs that surround Atlanta (particularly the historic railroad towns and bedroom communities in Atlanta's very heavily-populated Northern suburbs) do not necessarily just want commuter rail service.

Many outlying historic railroad towns and bedroom communities in Atlanta's suburbs like Alpharetta and Woodstock want high-capacity passenger rail transit service (preferably reformed post-MARTA regional heavy rail transit service) connections in their cities.

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  1. […] Atlanta’s small towns being redefined through principles of new urbanism Saporta Report — April 20, 2014 For decades, Atlanta has been defined by its sprawl – and perhaps no communities have felt the effects of the often-unchecked growth more than the small towns surrounding our city. […]