Beautification of Peachtree Street bridges the first step in vision for adorning Downtown Connector

By David Pendered

A long-awaited effort to create iconic bridges across Atlanta’s Downtown Connector is culminating this summer and a final design is due before the year’s end.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge has curvilear lighting that evokes the lighting planned for the Peachtree Street bridges. The Sydney bridge was opened in 1932 and has become an icon of Australia. Credit: thebesttraveldestinations.com

The Sydney Harbour Bridge has curvilinear lighting that evokes the lighting planned for the Peachtree Street bridges. The Sydney bridge was opened in 1932 and has become an icon of Australia. Credit: thebesttraveldestinations.com

The first two projects involve Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s signature boulevard. The working draft for the enhancements is evocative of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a world famous bridge that’s located in the host city of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games that came right after the Atlanta games.

If all goes as planned, the Peachtree Street bridges will be completed in March 2015. About that time, planning is to begin for three other bridge projects. The $5.35 million in construction funding for the Peachtree Street bridges is coming from a combination of business, state, and philanthropic sources, according to a recent presentation to the board of the state Department of Transportation.

The schedule provided at the GDOT board meeting calls for preliminary engineering to be complete in September, followed by final design in December. Construction is expected to start in the summer of 2014 and be complete in March 2015. The bridges are located just north of the Brookwood Interchange, over I-85, and in downtown Atlanta, just south of Georgia Tech.

This rendering shows the concept of planned lighting improvements of the Peachtree Street bridge that are intended to improve the experience of entering Atlanta from the south.

This rendering illustrates planned lighting enhancements of the Peachtree Street bridge that are intended to improve the visual experience of entering Atlanta from the south. Credit: Downtown Connector

Project work is to include landscaping, lighting and bridge enhancements along the Peachtree Street bridges. Once that work is complete, similar work is slated for bridges across the Downtown Connector that serve 10th Street, North Avenue, and Ralph McGill Boulevard/Courtland Street.

The bridge beautification projects represent the last word – at least for this generation – in the conversation about how to put a distinctive Atlanta imprint on the Downtown Connector. The highway links I-75 and I-85 as they pass through Atlanta’s urban core.

One of the now-discarded proposals called for the 17th Street bridge to serve as an iconic gateway for travelers entering Atlanta from the north. That didn’t happen, partly because money was tight even before the bridge opened in 2002. The current design and bright yellow paint were selected as an aesthetic and utilitarian compromise.

Some tried to brand the bridge as the Atlanta Banana, but the name didn’t stick.

The existing Peachtree Street bridge adds little scenic beauty to the view from the northbound lanes of the Downtown Connector.

The existing Peachtree Street bridge adds little scenic beauty to the view from the northbound lanes of the Downtown Connector. Credit: Downtown Connector

Another proposal called for the complete elimination of bridges across the Downtown Connector. This concept called for building a top across the highway so that streets could be reconnected, green space could be established, and new homes and shops built.

Again, money being tight, the proposal never got further than a contemporary suggestion that metro Atlanta double-deck its major highways.

As it now stands, the bridge projects are part of a sweeping proposal to remake the façade of the Downtown Connector that’s being led by Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress.

This broader program acknowledged at the outset that while traffic congestion is a major issue, the program aims to, “improve the visual appearance, human experience, and economic potential of our urban Interstate.” To that end, the proposal envisions reclaiming the highway and its borders from a grim looking traffic artery into a leafy urban artery through the widespread use of plantings, lighting, public art and green space.

A proposed structure atop the Peachtree Bridge, across the northbound lanes of the Downtown Connector, intends to beautify the entrance into the city.

A proposed structure atop the Peachtree Bridge, across the northbound lanes of the Downtown Connector, intends to beautify the entrance into the city. Credit: Downtown Connector

The improved appearance is intended for the benefit of the passengers of 120 million vehicles a year that traverse the highway. In addition, a fair number of the 120 million airline travelers destined for Atlanta likely get their first impression of Atlanta from the passenger seat of one of those vehicles, according to figures presented at the GDOT meeting.

Construction costs for the two Peachtree Street bridges are expected to total $5.35 million.

A portion of the amount has been provided by the Midtown Alliance; Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which is affiliated with Central Atlanta Progress; and the Woodruff Foundation. The Midtown Alliance and ADID are using funds provided through an extra property tax paid by commercial landowners in their respective community improvement districts.

The remainder of the construction funding is public. The GDOT board voted in November to provide $1.7 million. The State Road and Tollway Authority, chaired by Gov. Nathan Deal, has agreed to provide funding through the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The GTIB has provided nearly $20 million to other community improvement districts, and cities, to help pay for projects ranging from the diverging diamond interchange in Dunwoody, to traffic light improvements in downtown Atlanta, to Peachtree Road improvements in Buckhead.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

16 replies
  1. Sidebar says:

    Abandon the Downtown Connector!  Let the City continue its come back.  The fact that we are comparing beautiful Sidney Harbor with an ugly highway shows a failure of priorities.  The highway is an eyesore and nothing will fix that.  The pedestrian experience is what needs to be enhanced.  Not that of people passing through at 70+ mph.Report

    Reply
  2. JL says:

    False structure imitating the real structure of an iconic bridge is an awful choice. It is pastiche. What it will say about us is that we are fake, nothing but mediocre copycats. We won’t put in the effort (or $) to design and build an inspiring span, so lets slap a few sticks on it and invoke Sydney Harbor.
    Perhaps that’s all we Atlantans are- cheapskates trying to fool everyone else that we are world class.
    JLReport

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    • forj says:

      @JL I couldnt agree with you more. I am a designer and while i would love to see something interesting along the connector, this isnt it and it is a huge waste of dollars. If anything they should just get Hense to create an awesome huge mural along the connector or visible to it.
      Non-functional art that pretends to be functional is the biggest insult to good design in my opinion. At this point they are just fools playing around with their allotted allowance, not approaching this project in any sophisticated or calculated fashion. Typical of atlantaReport

      Reply
  3. dcspencer says:

    I don’t hold much hope for the GA DOT planners to come up with any iconic designs. They had their chance with the 17th Street and look what we got: an uninviting from Midtown to a manufactured commercial district so poorly designed that the “canopy” collapsed over the Connector. Who, in their right mind, would want to walk across that mess in our blazing Summer heat?  Just save the money and move on.Report

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  4. gt3180a says:

    I’m going to sound mean, but I am just being practical.  This city is trying to improve its failing city planning and poor infrastructure with ‘makeup’ to hide the scar.
    As soon as we have a well set future with things running well for the people in the town, then we can ‘improve’ the bridges. 
    First of all, who actually walks across the peachtree bridge?  Oh yeah, panhandlers on their way from downtown to the food shelter (which hurts the development nearby to no end).
    What else can they do with 5.25 million that could actually help the city.  The list could go on for multiple pages.
    Prevent Panhandlers on the streets -what deters people more, bridges they look at for no more than 10 seconds while zooming down the highway or people begging for their money?  Hmmmm.
    Put a handle on the overdone and aggressive parking meters in midtown.
    How about funding towards better sidewalks, fewer pot holes, more parks.
    What a waste.
    If the city wants to improve it’s image.  It needs to think of something new and unique!  Think bigger than bridge renovations!Report

    Reply
  5. forj says:

    Using design elements to “artistically” mimic functional bridge structure is absolutely the wrong direction. I am all for beautification, but i agree with all the other comments in that this money could be used for real improvements – What is needed is improved connection between downtown and midtown. What is needed is more residential and commercial development in the area between them and downtown in general so that we have a revitalized city center. If they stick some metal on top of these overpasses in attempt to make them look like truss bridges or any other structure bridge design that they are not, it will be a loss and a disgrace to this city. Is the public being involved in this design process?Report

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  6. ws1170 says:

    The only positive I see in this is the comments below showing this to be a waste of money that could be better used in other places.  It kind of reminds me of the fake mullions in double hung windows.  Trying to look like something it is not.Report

    Reply
  7. 1st step says:

    Sad really.  Again Atlanta demonstrates that there is nothing special here.  At least hopefully the new installation will be better than the white painted chin link fence.  Instead of compairing the additive arches to the working catinary arches the new guardrails should be purely an artistic expression of what Atlanta is all about.  Like the Olympics atlanta does not realize we DO have a story to tell.  However the DOT is not the group to do this.Report

    Reply
  8. Traffic Concern says:

    I have to ask how this is going to affect traffic .  This area is normally heavy with traffic, multiple curves, and multiple ingress/egress.  Could this possibly be a distraction to drivers and result in attention not being on roadway?  The city I’m located in has had to rethink LED billboards for this very reason.  They draw attention away from where it should be.  Now Atlanta is going to put this where people are driving 55 to 70 mph in a congested area.Report

    Reply
  9. James from Midtown says:

    Scorn for fake structural elements is well-taken, I think.  And I think “Traffic Concern” makes a solid point, too.  But I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to try to light up the bridges or do something with them to make them an icon.  Yeah, it’s only for ten seconds as people pass by.  And yes, added traffic problems could be a concern if the bridges are too dazzling or detailed.  But driving through midtown and downtown on the connector, if you have a second to take your eye off the road, is an enchanting experience – the glittering core of a great world city rises up in front of (and above) you, and I wish we wouldn’t get too cynical to appreciate that.  And bridges can add to the display.  Maybe it’s dumb to make the bridges look like an Australian landmark.  But it’s not dumb to try and improve the bridges to match the scene around them in our unique Atlantan way.  Bridges can be integral parts of a cityscape.  Think New York, Sydney, London, Paris, San Fran.  Look up pictures of Austin, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago, or Minneapolis.  Those cities are proof that bridges can be iconic additions to, rather than bland nonfactors in, a city’s appearance.  (And the fact that those cities all build bridges over water rather than interstate highways makes no difference.  A bridge is a bridge, regardless of what it crosses, and the bridge can be either boring or beautiful.  Here, we have a chance to make our bridges beautiful.)
    Developing the aura of Atlanta, particularly in the place where people get their first (and in some cases, their only) impression of Atlanta, is just as important as connecting downtown and midtown, building parks, or controlling pedestrian inconveniences like panhandlers or holes in sidewalks.  Atmosphere leads to civic pride and higher property values, which helps to create sustainable economic development.  And small atmospheric measures like this can go a long way toward that goal.Report

    Reply
  10. gt3180a says:

    As far as higher property values, tell me which developer, land owner or realtor told you that sprucing up one bridge is going to improve property values.   Tell me what ACTUAL RESEARCH has been done to support that idea.  
    I am willing to open up a debate and say that the homeless shelter near the shakespeare tavern does 10x more detriment to property value than 5.25 million worth of bridge renovation can help overcome.
    Clean up the streets.  Prevent graffiti.  Graffiti for crying out loud is rampant, that eyesore is also detrimental to the overall appearance and will not be solved by prepping up one bridge that crosses over the connector.  
    Control panhandling and eliminate graffiti before thinking this work on the bridge will have any kind of a lasting effect.

    And as far as comparing  Atlanta to these other cities.  I am an Atlanta native and I love this city.  But we are none of those cities.  We are unique.  Almost all of those cities are near or around water, their trade and economy goes back farther than ours.  Austin and Minneapolis have artistic hubs.  Classy multicultural venues.  London, Paris and Sydney aren’t even in Atlanta’s realm to compare to until we become oh 500 years older and have some real history and identity develop.
    New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  Art, Mass Transit,  City Planning and more history.  Once again, we should not try and compare to them.  We should work to perfect what is here.  Make it beautiful, and THEN try to add UNIQUE things to our city to make it stand out.  The Olympics were a stepping stone, and that was where private money was responsibly invested in things that not only looked good, but had long term usefulness.  Turner Field, Olympic Park, Renovation of Student Dorms at Georgia Tech and Georgia State.
    Invest in improving the core of the city.  Don’t try to decorate right now.  

    The one thought I have would be this.  Work on an amazing standout piece of art.  Great cities have those.  Atlanta really doesn’t .  A city can express itself in lots of ways, but it shouldn’t try to copy others.Report

    Reply
  11. jameshrust says:

    Terrible waste of tax dollars.  If it isn’t direct tax dollars it will be dollars that are tax deducted.  The bridge plan will distract drivers and cause more accidents.  How dumb can the planners for this city be.  Our roads are full of pot holes that destroys our cars.  Vote out of office all who support this waste.Report

    Reply

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