Civic leaders come up with a development agenda for Atlanta — what would yours be?

By Maria Saporta

MARTA galvanized the vision of dozens of developers and civic leaders who want to dedicate their energies on a handful of Atlanta projects in the upcoming year.

The Urban Land Institute’s Livable Communities Council spent all of March 26 at the Ritz Carlton Atlanta working on ideas on where they could have the greatest impact on the future development of Atlanta.

This is the first time that the reconfigured group has gotten together since the Livable Communities Coalition merged with the Urban Land Institute. Developer David Allman helped orchestrate that merger, and Mark Toro, managing partner of North American Properties, is the new LCC chair.

In the end, the group of about 40 of the 50 LCC members picked four projects to work on:

  1. Help develop affordable workforce housing along the Atlanta BeltLine;
  2. Explore “transit-oriented development” opportunities along MARTA’s south and west transit lines;
  3. Explore the opportunities to reinvigorate Underground Atlanta; and
  4. Transform the Lindbergh MARTA station into a national “transit-oriented development” model.

The other choices had included to work on an economic development strategy for the Atlanta BeltLine; to help redevelop the area around the new Atlanta Falcons stadium; and to help jumpstart the redevelopment of Fort McPherson.

Atlanta is a fascinating city to watch. MARTA was approved by voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties in 1971, and rail service began more than 30 years ago.

But in many ways, it has taken decades for both MARTA and developers to fully realize the benefits of building residences, offices and retail on top or next to MARTA stations. Transit-oriented developments help drive ridership on MARTA, it reduces the need for people to travel by car, and it creates a synergy between transportation and land-use.

Back in the 1999, BellSouth announced its “Metro Plan” — a plan to consolidate 80 percent of its Atlanta workforce at three job centers that were conveniently accessible to MARTA.

“BellSouth’s innovation is a model for responsible action,” said then-Gov. Roy Barnes at the time. “This plan means fewer cars, less pollution and congestion, and a greater reliance on public transportation. That’s good for Georgia.”

The move meant that 13,000 BellSouth employees relocated from suburban locations to working in offices along the MARTA line.

BellSouth’s move was heralded, but unfortunately few companies followed suit. More recently, however, a host of companies have been moving their operations to the central city where they are closer to transit. Coca-Cola recently moved 2,000 employees from Cobb County to the SunTrust Plaza Garden offices near Peachtree Center.

But metro Atlanta’s history with transit has been mixed at best.

Attending ULI’s Livable Communities Council all-day workshop was Therese McMillan, deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. She applauded the City of Atlanta, MARTA and the business community for developing the Atlanta Streetcar to connect key sites in the downtown area, and she said it will be important to make sure the city’s future transit investments are well coordinated and connected with each other.

“The key question here in Atlanta is not only how do we pay to build transit; it’s how do we continue to pay to operate transit in the long run,” McMillan said.

Part of the problem is that competition for federal funding of local transit projects is intense. The greater the local share — at least 50 percent — the better chance a community has in receiving federal funds.

“Local and state contributions play a very, very big role in how projects are rated,” she said.

That’s where metro Atlanta is at a disadvantage. The regional transportation sales tax did not pass in July 2012; and the state of Georgia currently has no dedicated fund to participate in the funding of transit in local communities. In other words, MARTA is the largest transit system in the country to receive no regular operating (and almost no capital) dollars from its state government.

When asked whether that puts Georgia or metro Atlanta at a disadvantage, McMillan responded in the following way.

“When the state is an effective partner, it just creates more opportunities for transit to succeed,” she said. “Partners working together just lead you to a better future.”

Metro Atlanta and Georgia are so underserved when it comes to transit and passenger rail, and so much of that can be traced to a lack of vision and a lack of commitment on the part of state and local leaders to invest in alternative modes of transportation.

For several decades now, the state and the Atlanta region as well as the city have had plans on the books for a multimodal station in the historic heart of downtown to anchor where two iconic passenger stations once stood until the early 1970s. Commuter and intercity rail lines were envisioned to emanate from that station to points throughout the state.

But for decades, despite plan after plan, little has happened. And if Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is right, that’s not about to change any time soon.

“You’ve never heard me talk about multimodal. I don’t believe there’s the will to achieve it,” Reed said, adding that with the Savannah port all the political oars are going in the same direction. “There’s nothing to suggest there’s that kind of coordination around the multimodal station. Everything I’m working on right now I base upon a schedule that ends in the next four years (when his term ends). I believe in the multimodal station. But there’s nothing I’ve seen to suggest that could happen in four years.”

Meanwhile, the city has now just regained control of Underground Atlanta. And from a development standpoint, the most logical partner to revitalize Underground would be Georgia State University, which would have the most to gain if that complex were to become a thriving student-oriented retail and entertainment complex, preferably with residences and unique office space.

But when GSU President Mark Becker was asked in the last couple of weeks about Underground, on two different occasions his answer was the same: “It’s not my issue.”

As I said, Atlanta is a funny place. we can come so close to having a vision, and then we let our blind spots cloud our ability to transform our city into all that it can become.

So let me take a stab at a vision I’ve shared with readers before. It’s the golden triangle. Let’s connect Georgia State University with the Atlanta University campus and Georgia Tech.

Let’s find ways to knit those three college campuses together — through streetcars, through transit, through Underground redevelopment, through a new multimodal development, through a grand Martin Luther King Jr. Drive boulevard, through a concerted effort to spark all intellectual energy that exists on these three college complexes.

My dear developer friends and civic leaders — let’s focus our energies on our core — where so much potential exists — and then we can build out from there.

It is our issue.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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