Atlanta searches for its soul – lost in the Gulch and our hidden zero mile post

By Maria Saporta

If you want to find Atlanta’s heart – our zero mile post – good luck.

It is buried beneath a downtown parking deck in a state-owned building surrounded by chain-link fences in addition to spiked metal bars topped with barbed wires.

zero mile post

Atlanta’s zero mile post is located behind these doors (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Railroad tracks run along one side of the building – an area covered with trash – showing that we as a city have turned our backs to our roots.

The zero mile post marks the spot where three railroad lines converged in 1847 to create the metropolis now known as Atlanta

Ever since, Atlanta has been a transportation hub – first a railroad town with passenger trains, freight trains and streetcars, later a key connection for the U.S. Highway System, then an urban transit center with MARTA and most recently the skies – with Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the busiest in the world.

But it all began at the zero mile post.

For the past week, a coalition of the dance arts group – glo, the advocacy group Thread ATL and Georgia State University’s Department of Anthropology have jointly shined a spotlight (which they described as an intervention) “to demonstrate a compelling and nuanced need to embrace and understand the story of Atlanta and the often covered up identity of our city.”

glo dancers

Dancers of glo artistically shine a spotlight on one of Atlanta’s hidden landmarks – its zero mile post (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The coalition, which held a panel discussion at Underground on Feb. 3, is seeking to uncover Atlanta’s hidden history and to create special public spaces in our city.

It is an opportune time to focus on the origins of Atlanta’s railroad past because a development group – CIM Group – is proposing to redevelop the Gulch – the physical heart of our history.

The Gulch is only a couple of blocks away from the zero mile post – and it used to be a hub of Atlanta’s rail history. Two statuesque railroad stations used to adorn downtown – the Terminal Station and Union Station – serving dozens for passenger trains each day.

When Atlanta allowed the demolition of those two train stations, it actually killed a part of our soul and our raison d’être.

CIM recently released conceptual plans for its redevelopment – which would include 9 million square feet of office space, 1,000 residences, 1,500 hotel rooms, a million square feet of retail space and 8,000 parking spaces.

But the developers have said their development will NOT include the long-proposed multimodal station that would re-establish the transportation nexus of Atlanta.

Terminal Station

Atlanta’s now-demolished Terminal Station (Special: historic postcard)

And that is a huge mistake.

Let me put it another way. CIM has an opportunity to create a Grand Central Station in Atlanta – a development that would become the envy of region.

It’s no secret that many millennials and seniors alike are craving a lifestyle that is independent of the automobile. A Grand Central Station surrounded by the development being proposed by CIM would create a unique central gathering place for the entire region – one that would cater to all modes of transportation.

Several people have suggested that CIM should leave open the option of creating a transit terminal in the future – to not develop a project that would preclude a multimodal station being incorporated at a later time.

That should be a given. Our city and state leaders should make that pre-requisite for any development being proposed for the area.

But I would like to take it one step further.

It would be in CIM’s best interests to actually make a Grand Central Station as a centerpiece of its development. Over the past several decades, Atlanta has designed numerous scenarios to build a multimodal station. CIM would be smart to borrow from all those ideas as it crystalizes its plans for the Gulch.

The opportunity exists to redevelop the Gulch into a vibrant transit hub (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

People have proposed creating multimodal stations at the Doraville Assembly plant and at the Atlanta airport – each of which would serve an area of the region.

But no multimodal station can replace a Grand Central Station in the heart of downtown – a hub that would serve the entire region and the state – much like it did until the 1960s and 1970s when we turned away from our essence and our inner core.

In short, CIM can help Atlanta rediscover its heart as a transportation hub by incorporating a station in its plans – and it will have the opportunity to develop a project with true historic significance and symbolism.

Working with local and state partners, CIM can reconnect our city with its zero mile post and help Atlanta rediscover its railroad roots.

And, most importantly, Atlanta will be able to regain its heart and a critical piece of its missing soul.

zero mile post

Trash is strewn all over the area between the railroad tracks and the zero mile post building – surrounded by fences (Photo by Maria Saporta)

zero mile post building

The inaccessible building that houses Atlanta’s zero mile post (Photo by Maria Saporta)

the gulch

A view of the gulch (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

the gulch

A view of the Gulch with Philips Arena in the background (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

the gulch

A view of the gulch (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

the gulch

Another view of the Gulch (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

gulch

A view of the site where Atlanta’s Terminal Station once stood and was replaced by the Richard B. Russell federal building (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

the gulch

Our forgotten past disconnects downtown from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

20 replies
  1. Bill Todd says:

    Right on, Maria. It is unconscionable for the Zero Mile Post to be locked up in a cheesy building. As a teenager in the ‘60’s my dates thought that I was cool for being able to show them Underground and the ZMP.Report

    Reply
  2. Beth says:

    I was at the events on Saturday, and it seemed to me that in fact I was witnessing the soul of Atlanta. And it was an empty parking garage inhabited by homeless people. The gulch is a sad commentary on the city’s heedless running toward the next new thing: the people living there are an indictment.Report

    Reply
  3. Klindo says:

    There is an historical marker on Marietta Street in front of the State Bar of GA labeled “Thrasherville Where Atlanta Began”. This marker claims that it was the original terminus but in 1842 it was moved to the location now marked by ZMP.Report

    Reply
  4. Greg Hodges says:

    Some cities have done a marvelous job in repurposing their old railroad stations into modern showplaces. In my adopted home of Richmond, VA. the 1919 Broad Street Station (designed by John Russell Pope, designer of the Jefferson Memorial) is now visited by thousands annually as the Science Museum Of Virginia. The magnificent building, with its soaring rotunda, was once (like Atlanta’s Fox Theater) slated for demolition. but cooler heads prevailed. As a youngster, I had the privilege of starting several journeys from Atlanta (to Washington, New Orleans, and NYC) from the confines of old Terminal Station on Spring St.Report

    Reply
  5. Larry Jenkins says:

    Great story and it is exciting there is intrests to re-devlope the area with honoring the past in mind. Unforunatly, as we all know, the “Gulch” is the prime location for the future Amazon Corporate Center and they will decide what happens if they bring all of their money and influence. It may not be bad though – wait and see.

    I am a student of Railroad History, especially Atlanta and Georgia. The thing that has amazed me to this point is the City has not touched the ZERO Mile Post, As far as I am concerned it is sacred and should be saved however as we see Conferderate statues disapear who know what will happen.Report

    Reply
  6. Sara Fountain says:

    Maria, you are so right! What a compelling article. I’m wondering whatever happened to the discussions about building a multi-modal station that the Chamber initiated in the late 90s. Wow, we could have it by now if they had kept up the energy around that wonderful idea. And, that original premise would have been so strong for Atlanta to set it apart from so many other large cities and to align it with other great metropolises.Report

    Reply
  7. westatl says:

    Maria- I am a huge fan of yours, like huge! However, I feel different about wanting CIM or any developer to set aside, or incorporate the multimodal station into their plans. Our state officials blew this plan off for DECADES and now that private money has stepped up, we expect and want them to do what our state leaders have failed to do for years?!?! That just doesn’t seem right or fair. Perhaps a nice walking area with a zero mile marker and note stating how Georgia State leaders blew the chance to build a multimodal station..?Report

    Reply
  8. Cathy Woolard says:

    I have some doubts about the Gulch as the best place for rail connections, but given our city, state, regional refusal to understand the economic and human value of transit to our future, I’m on board this train. Have a look at the multi-modal station in Osaka, Japan as one example of vertical density and connections. Residential, office, retail and an amazingly efficient transit hub all in an architecturally appealing design. And why not center it at ground zero with a hologram of historic street scenes or something cool that someone more creative can dream up. Name the thing Ground Zero Atlanta. Let’s dare to be great.Report

    Reply
    • LAWRENCE J FOGEL says:

      Philadelphia has so many points to interconnect between modes, I seldom thought ot this intermodal business. I could walk down the street from my house and take a train to downtown or to New York, or just talk trolleys and buses or walk. It took a long time to get used to Atlanta, as wonderful as that city was to me.
      .Report

      Reply
  9. writes_of_weigh says:

    Maria, As a frequent guest at certain Commerce Club functions, I’m certain that you have “digested” more than once, the lament of rail execs complaining about the “cost of passenger rail and or transit” to their now freight only networks, save the occasional passing Amtrak train. As well, I’m certain that you understand that todays costs for relocating any rail passenger facility, which may have a snowballs chance of being built outside the immediate “gulch” area, where for specific reasons of intermodal connectivity, interchange between carriers, and inter-operability, the site of Atlanta’s prior “temples” of (rail)transit stood, you better than other unknowing and ill-informed denizens of this column, know that the true costs would literally be in the billion$, and if allowed to survive as a proposal, will immediately “sink” any option or ideas of expanding such services, due to NO ENTITY being willing to bear the burden of such astronomical cost(s). So few, today, truly understand the dollar value of what we have, rail infrastructure-wise, and while many have want and true need for further investment in the mode, the multi-billions needed to solve the problem, would certain “tax ” the wealth of a Bezos, or a Musk, or a Gates(who has/may own shares in CN.ca), not to mention a Buffett(who indeed bought a major western rail carrier (BNSF)) and is learning from the bootstraps what the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Hills knew from their investments of a couple of centuries(nearly) ago. I reiterate for the umpteenth(?) time, the state of Georgia’s W&A rail line(currently under lease to CSX until 2019) which is measured from the zero milepost, to and across the GA/TN state line into downtown Chattanooga, TN, where like in our Gulch area, there is an interstate rail carrier connectivity and inter-operability, point (wye)(where the rail passenger Terminal of Chattanooga Choo Choo fame operated( and exists/(ed) as a hotel/restaurant). This piece of rail real estate, which presumably carries associated air rights/subterranean rights, water rights, etc.) COULD BE, if managed properly as a state asset with “bargaining” power, at lease renewal/rejection time, THE SPRINGBOARD to expanded rail passenger/transit and/or maglev service(s) across the state of Georgia. At the very least we may have an easy path to connect two very nice aquaria(sp?), and other entertainment and transport termani!Report

    Reply
  10. shaunhoulihan says:

    Great article! The gulch is practically begging for a multi-modal station that connects and elevates the heart of Atlanta. It would be a huge misstep not to accommodate this in any gulch redevelopment plans.Report

    Reply
  11. Priscilla Hayes Padron says:

    It is hard to believe that this is even controversial. It is so clear that with the renewed interest in transit, the time is right to promote rail and other transit. My goodness, even my home city, Syracuse, New York, a minor U.S. city, has an inter-modal center. I was surprised and proud that when I took a train from Rochester to Syracuse, buses were there to transport passengers to various destinations as well as to other modes of transportation.

    “The William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center is the long-distance ground travel terminal serving the Syracuse, New York area. It is served by Amtrak, Greyhound Lines, Megabus, and Trailways.” WikipediaReport

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?