Architect Alex Garvin reflects on Atlanta and the BeltLine
By Maria Saporta
It’s hard to pigeon-hole Alex Garvin. Yes, he’s an architect. But he’s also a professor, an author, a public servant, an urbanist, a visionary and someone who has had a major impact on Atlanta.
Garvin was in Atlanta last week to give a talk Aug. 15 at a luncheon organized by Central Atlanta Progress and the Urban Land Institute –Atlanta chapter at a special events space at the Hard Rock Café about his latest book: “The Heart of the City: Creating Vibrant Downtowns for a New Century.”
I was fortunate to spend about 90 minutes with Garvin a day earlier for an interview at the revolving Polaris restaurant on the top of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, a building designed by the late Atlanta architect/developer John C. Portman.
As we were riding up the elevator, Garvin recalled a conversation he had had with internationally-renowned architect – the late Philip Johnson – around the time the Hyatt opened in 1967. Johnson and his business partner John Burgee designed the 191 Peachtree Tower and the IBM Tower (now known as One Atlantic Center) – two of the most splendid buildings in Atlanta.
Johnson and Garvin were riding the train to New York City from Yale University, where the two were working together in the School of Architecture.
“He said the Hyatt was going to be one the most influential buildings in the modern era,” Garvin recalled, saying that prophecy turned out to be true. But another prediction Johnson made about Portman did not. Garvin said Johnson believed that following Portman’s example, architects would morph into developers – being able to better control the design of their developments.
“That did not happen,” Garvin said.
Our Polaris interview was the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to interview Garvin.
The first time was in 2005 when Garvin had just published the ground-breaking (literally) park plan for the Atlanta BeltLine. The Trust for Public Land – Georgia, under the leadership of Jim Langford, hired Garvin to design and describe a vision of a circular yet linear green space sprinkled with new parks along the corridor.
“The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta’s New Public Realm” helped change the way we viewed the BeltLine, originally proposed by then Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel to serve primarily as a transit corridor.
Garvin and TPL, with funding from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation among others, helped redefine the scope of the BeltLine to include new parks and green space in Atlanta.
“The BeltLine has changed the city,” Garvin said. On a recent trip to Atlanta, he was able to travel along some of the completed corridors – and he was especially proud to see the success of Historic Fourth Ward Park, which had been proposed in his plan. Fifteen years ago, only 3.7 percent of the city of Atlanta’s land was for parks. Today, TPL’s George Dusenbury said it’s closer to 5.9 percent.
Garvin gives much of the credit to former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for putting the pieces in place to implement the vision for the Emerald Necklace along the BeltLine.
“Atlanta is a healthier place than it was 20 years ago,” Garvin said. “The BeltLine has become a melting valve for Atlanta’s population. When you come to Atlanta and go to the BeltLine, you see people of every income, every ethnicity, every race and every age. It’s amazing. It’s changing Atlanta.”
At 78, Garvin has seen it all. His latest book is focused on downtowns – and the elements they need to keep them vibrant.
Before we met, Garvin had been walking up and down Peachtree (on a very hot day) looking at the current state of Atlanta’s downtown. He was disappointed to not see any activity at Underground Atlanta and the southern end of downtown, but he was glad to know there are plans underway to redevelop the area.
Garvin also was pleased to see a police precinct across from Woodruff Park, where there were “vagrants” hanging out. He really liked the “live and let live” message that sent out.
Garvin also was impressed by the number of sculptures he saw along Peachtree Street – some designed by Portman – a feature he had not noticed when he was here before.
“I would argue that Atlanta today is incredibly better off than it was when I came here in 2004 and 2005,” Garvin said. “I don’t think Atlanta is in trouble. It has its problems, but all cities have problems.”
As Garvin sees it, the city of Atlanta has three downtowns – the traditional downtown, Midtown and Buckhead – all are high density and mixed-use. He gives a great deal of credit to “business improvement districts” (which we call “community improvement districts”) for shoring up downtowns all over the country. There are 1,400 of those districts in the country, and Garvin it would benefit urban areas to have even more. He’s also a fan of using tax incentives to encourage the kind of development that’s needed in downtowns.
“The most successful cities are the ones that are walkable,” Garvin said, adding that improving and expanding sidewalks are among the best investments a city can make. “To me walking around a city is essential.”
The other secret to success is building more residences in the city – a move that not only adds life to downtown streets but also helps address the issue of housing affordability.
“I avoided the issue of affordability like the plague,” Garvin said of his latest book. “We are making it next to impossible for people to buy property and build housing. You have got to keep building the supply to keep prices down. The supply has to be greater than the demand. Developers everywhere will try to build high-end residential.”
Although affordability may not always be part of new developments, Garvin believes in a trickle-down theory. The more units that come on line, the more inexpensive the overall housing stock will become.
One city – Minneapolis – has found success dealing with its housing affordability profile by changing its building and zoning codes to allow single-family homeowners to add more housing units on their property by either creating smaller apartment in their large homes, building a garage apartment or developing new units on their land.
Also Garvin believes there are opportunities to renovate older buildings – whether they are office, retail or residential – and convert that space to new residences.
“The invention of the internet means you don’t need filing cabinets,” Garvin said, adding that has had a major impact on today’s office culture. “In 1970, 500 square feet per worker. Today it is 150 square feet per worker. You need less space. You can move out of the obsolete buildings and create more residential developments.”
Compared to New York City, Garvin said gentrification is not a major issue in Atlanta. In New York City, the rate of home ownership is 30 percent while in Atlanta it is 60 percent. Generally speaking, renters tend to be much more vulnerable to being pushed out because of gentrification than homeowners, Garvin said.
“The inequality is still there,” Garvin said. “The first thing you have to do is increase the size of your housing stock. After you have a supply that is exceeding demand, then other tools like inclusionary housing make some sense. Cities need to provide incentives for people to improve existing housing stock and make it financially attractive to property owners to renovate dilapidated existing buildings and convert non-residential properties to residential use. Do whatever you can to encourage more housing downtown.”