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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.