Atlanta’s waterfront is the Chattahoochee River; we just can’t get there from here

By Maria Saporta

First of two columns on the Chattahoochee River

Remember 17 years ago when the Atlanta BeltLine was just a glimmer in Ryan Gravel’s mind?

Now imagine the Chattahoochee River as reinventing the western edge of Atlanta in the same way the BeltLine has transformed our communities.

The two stories are strikingly similar.

When writing his Master’s thesis at Georgia Tech, Gravel envisioned converting railroad tracks and former industrial zones around the central city into new parks, trails, transit and mixed-use developments.

Chattahoochee River

The beauty of the Chattahoochee River is barely accessible along its City of Atlanta boundary (Photo: Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s Facebook page)

Meet Jodi Mansbach. She moved to Atlanta from Chicago one week after the 1996 Olympics. She had a paper map showing a large river close to the central city.

But when she asked people how to get to the riverfront in Atlanta, “everybody looked at me like I was crazy,” Mansbach said. “But that idea stayed with me.”

She went to Georgia Tech and did her “captstone/options paper” – similar to a thesis – about the portion of the Chattahoochee River that’s in the City of Atlanta.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when a group of environmentalists, enlightened developers and urban enthusiasts launched Chattahoochee Now.

The organization’s board includes Mansbach as chair; Serenbe’s Steve Nygren; GreenStreet’s Walter Brown; Bruce Morton of West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Jon Anderson Lanier of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation; Katharine Wilkinson of BrightHouse; among others.

It brought on Shannon Kettering as its executive director, and the organization has been building partnerships with other related organizations, such as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

“We are focused on the land and the place-making along the river,” Kettering said. That’s how Chattahoochee Now differentiates itself from the other groups by focusing on how people can enjoy the river.

Chattahoochee River

Discover your hidden riverfront – the Chattahoochee River (Special: Chattahoochee Now)

“That’s the piece that’s been missing,” Mansbach said. “We want to explore how the river inspires us, how it suits us, how it can be a resource. We want people to experience the river in new ways.”

But first people have to be able to find the river.

Last year, Chattahoochee Now hired the BeltLine’s Ryan Gravel to do a visioning piece for how the river could change Atlanta.

Gravel previewed the vision at the new Dad’s Garage Theatre on March 2 with a title sure to lure people in: “Where the F+++ is the River?”

A more acceptable title is “Discover your hidden riverfront” or “Vision 53” – a vision for the 53 miles of the Chattahoochee River as it travels through the Atlanta region south to Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County.

Gravel said cities across the United States are revitalizing their water ways and their riverfronts.

“We often say we don’t have a waterfront in Atlanta. We do. It’s just different,” Gravel said. “Atlanta’s riverfront is wild, expansive and limitless. We need to see our river differently. We need to see it. And we need to be able to get there.”

That means you shouldn’t have to go to Sandy Springs or Roswell to get to the Chattahoochee. The river is actually only a few miles from downtown, but it’s barely accessible to the public for the entire stretch that goes by the City of Atlanta.

Jodi Mansbuch

Chattahoochee Now visonary (and board chair) Jodi Mansbach (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Chattahoochee Now is looking to ignite a grassroots movement that would create a 5,000-acre park with protected green space along the river. There are four near-term goals: 20 new ways to reach the riverfront; 20 new ways to have fun along the river; 20 new ways to meet along the river; and 20 new stories of Atlanta’s riverfront.

“We want you to discover the river,” Gravel said. “What if you could walk to the river? Let’s change the way we think about who we are. Atlanta is a city with an amazing waterfront. Discover your city has a waterfront.”

A Georgia Tech studio, sponsored by the Georgia Conservancy, came up with a bunch of ideas including building a series of recognizable viewing towers along the river so people would realize how close it is to the center of town. Also, plans to create greenways and blue ways on the west side could create a web of trails and paths to the Chattahoochee.

“We can have connectivity with the BeltLine, Proctor Creek, the Silver Comet trail. All these things are connected,” Gravel said. “The river becomes that kind of connective tissue.”

Chattahoochee River

Imagine viewing towers along the Chattahoochee River showing how close it is to the central city (Image: Chattahoochee Now and Georgia Tech students)

Chattahoochee Now also is seeking ideas from the public on how to bring more life and focus to the river – a lantern parade on boats; rubber ducks; musical events along the river. All ideas are welcome.

“We want to build a groundswell with several levels of awareness. Think Streets Alive along the river,” Mansbach said. “A lot of cities that had turned their backs on their rivers have been rediscovering their rivers. Some small cities have made waterfronts out of trickles.”

When an out-of-towner was taken to see the Chattahoochee, he reacted with surprise: “Now that’s a river.”

Thanks to vision of Chattahoochee Now, one day we may discover what has been in our backyard all along.

Next week: A couple of developments threaten the economic and environmental potential of land next to Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River.

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.

17 replies
  1. Guest says:

    It’s great that new people are starting to become excited
    about connecting with the river. I would love to see some new access points. I
    wish Chattahoochee Now and Ryan Gravel weren’t so quick to write off the
    amazing work that has already been done and continues to be done to restore,
    protect, and connect people with the Chattahoochee. Chat Now and Ryan try to
    portray connecting people to the Chattahoochee as a new, hip idea, and it’s
    not. Groups like Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the GA Conservancy, Georgia River
    Network, and countless paddling, fishing, and hiking organizations have been
    connecting people to the Chattahoochee River for decades. Chattahoochee
    Riverkeeper for one has probably done more to clean up, protect, and connect
    people to the river than any other organization plus they host big river races
    and festivals on the river every year and they know about partnership. Ryan and
    Chat Now seem to ignore these other orgs and success stories while they try to
    convince us that bringing people to the river is their big, new idea. Plus they
    brush off the 7000+ acres and 100+ miles of trails of the Chattahoochee
    National Recreation Area as if it is unimportant just because you have to drive
    15 minute to get there, ignoring that the Recreation Area is an incredible
    resource for river conservation and recreation and represents a legacy of
    visionary environmental leadership in GA. Why not focus the effort on building
    off of these successes? Supporting the existing organizations with all of the
    marketing and PR going into Chat Now? Expanding the national recreation area
    southward?

    What’s more, these new visionaries, give no mention of the
    many residents that currently live along the river. Perhaps because this “brand
    new” idea isn’t for them. If the plan is to transform the Chattahoochee as we’ve
    transformed the BeltLine, the folks who live in Atlanta’s riverside communities
    won’t be able to afford to stay around to enjoy the developers’ spoils and the rubber
    ducky parade.

    I LOVE the idea of connecting more Atlantans with the
    Chattahoochee. But just know that many of us do know “Where the F is our River”
    and we get out in the water every week. Everything does not have to be like the
    BeltLine. Expand the national recreation area. Put in new river MARTA accessible
    river access points. Teach people about how every one of us is connected to a river.
    And before ANY of that happens, talk to the people who live along the proposed
    development and find a way to keep them in their neighborhoods (renters and
    homeowners alike).Report

    Reply
  2. Rick McKnight says:

    Check out the incredible effort Columbus has made in making the Chattahoochee the stand-out it is today. A riverwalk all along it, longest urban whitewater course in the world and a zipline to Alabama!Report

    Reply
  3. junehodges says:

    As a trembling 6th grader standing in front of my class at a now long closed suburban Atlanta grammar school , I recited the first 2 stanzas of the following poem. Decades later, I still remember some of its’ lines. (“With a lover’s pain to attain the plain”) My classmates would each do the same in turn.  The ‘Hooch was always part of our lives, and years later I would ease slowly down it serenely lying in an old truck inner tube. 

    SONG OF THE CHATTAHOOCHEE by Sidney Lanier (1877)
    Out of the hills of Habersham’
    Down the valleys of Hall,
    I hurry amain to reach the plain,
    Run the rapid and leap the fall,
    Split at the rock and together again,
    Accept my bed, or narrow or wide,
    And flee from folly on every side
    With a lover’s pain to attain the plain,
    Far from the hills of Habersham,
    Far from the valleys of Hall.
    .All down the hills of Habersham
    .All through the valleys of Hall,
    .The rushes cried abide, abide,
    .The willful waterweeds held me thrall,
    .The laving laurel turned my tide,
    .The ferns and the fondling grass said Stay,
    .The dewberry dipped for to work delay,
    .And the little reeds sighed abide, abide,
    .Here in the hills of Habersham,
    .Here in the valleys of Hall
    High o’er the hills of Habersham,
    Veiling the valleys of Hall,
    The hickory told me manifold,
    Fair tales of shade, the popular tall
    Wrought me her shadowy self to hold
    Overlearning with flickering meaning and sign,
    Said, Pass not, so cold these manifold,
    Deep shades of the hills of Habersham,
    These glades in the valleys of hall.
    ..And oft in the hills of Habersham,
    ..And oft in the valleys of Hall.
    ..The white quartz shone, and the smooth brook stone,
    ..Did bar me passage with friendly brawl,
    ..And many a luminous jewel lone,
    ..Crystals clear or a-cloud with mist,
    ..Ruby, garnet, and amethyst,
    ..Made lures with the lights of streaming stone,
    ..In the clefts of the hills of Habersham,
    ..In the beds of the valleys of Hall

    But oh, not the hills of Habersham,
    And oh, not the valleys of Hall,
    Avail, I am fain for to water the plain,
    Downward the voices of Duty call-
    Downward, to toil and be mixed with the main,
    The dry fields burn, and the mills are to turn,
    And a myriad flowers mortally yearn,
    And the lordly main from beyond the plain,
    Calls o’er the hills of Habersham.
    Calls through the valleys of Hall.

    ……Of course almost three-fourths of a century after these words were written, those “valleys of Hall” would be filled with a lake that
    …..now carries the name of the poet.Report

    Reply
  4. Cedric Suzman says:

    How about providing a map of the area of the River nearest to downtown so we can see how best to utilize it as a tourist destination. We already have good access in North Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  5. RiverNOW53 says:

    I would like to respond to the guest who mentions the important and critical work of the other non-profits in our region. You are absolutely correct. Their work allows the residents of the metropolitan area the many benefits of clean water, acres of preserved land, and numerous river-focused events. What an amazing treasure to have 48 miles of a National Recreation Area in our region. Chattahoochee NOW is simply asking, could others south have the same level of access and recreation in the section of the river south?
    Since 2013, Chattahoochee NOW has been fortunate to have the guidance and involvement of all of the groups you mention above. As a matter of fact, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper is one of our Founding Partners (alongside other river-focused stakeholders). We appreciate and support each and every one of the groups that wake up every day caring for the river.  Please continue to support them, and we will do the same.   We are a young organization, and certainly must recognize these organizations in all future communications- for without each of them, this resource is endangered, and our vision impossible to attain.  It will take a collaborative effort to realize more access, more parks and more activity along this stretch of the river corridor.  We just want to facilitate the opportunity for those that reside south of the Recreation Area.  -Executive Director, Chattahoochee NOW.Report

    Reply
  6. Jeff Tucker says:

    The Chattahoochee River has a vast historical standing of river-borne trade as far back as the 1820’s.  It also became an industrial and textile juggernaut for it’s time with the old Iron Works in Columbus, GA and was recoginized as the leading industrial and textile center in the South.  Obviously, the industrial and textile heavy presence was crucial in supplying the Southern Army’s during the Civil War.

    The Chattahoochee River has been a source of trade, transportation, entertainment, power, food and water, industrialization and environmental control issues.

    It would be great to incorporate the history of the Chattahoochee and translate and showcase it into the awareness and future planning efforts of the many “.org’s” that are voluteering their services & efforts.  Bring today’s innovation and yesterday’s history together to to form a useful and enjoyable being for the residents and visitors to the State of Georgia.Report

    Reply
  7. Sdarter says:

    Chattahoochee Now sort of rubs me the wrong way they never acknowledge that Friends of the River was responsible for creating the 48 mile Chattahoochee National Recreation Area upstream or that the Chattahoochee River Keeper’s law suit forced the city of Atlanta to start fixing its sewer problem creating 70 miles of clean river downstream for Now to try and save.. They are late to the party and they forgot who saved the river in the first place. Nothing wrong with their goals but they are not team players.Report

    Reply
  8. BPJ says:

    This is an encouraging development, and of course it builds on the work of Friends of the River and the Riverkeeper. Despite the impression one may get from the article, there are many people enjoying the river daily. The most popular parts are over the line in Cobb County, though just barely: Cochran Shoals is just across the river from the city. The Palisades areas are favorites of mine. That said, there are some areas along the river, within the city limits, which should be easier to access. For me, the most interesting of these is Standing Peachtree Park, which is where the original Creek settlement was. It was also the site of Fort Peachtree, built in 1814. I am told that there is a replica of the fort there, but have never been able to access it.Report

    Reply
  9. Street Advocate says:

    It’s still ~3.5 miles from the closest part of the river to the BeltLine. That isn’t very accessible and it’s located next to the intake center.  I’m all for connectivity and embracing the natural landmarks, it just seems the Chattahoochee isn’t as intuitive as other greenspace developments in the city.  Whatever transit connects Cobb with Atlanta or MARTA’s redline north extension should absolutely stop along a river trail though. In South Korea you can take their metro all the way out to the wilderness to go on hikes.  That would be a great way to preserve some land in the metropolitan area and encourage people to live in the city without a vehicle and still be able to experience nature without too much issue!Report

    Reply

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