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Mark Lannaman

Cincinnati’s revitalization effort, and how Atlanta could be headed the same way

A view from downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

On a recent trip to Cincinnati, I got to visit the Over-the-Rhine (OTR) — the city’s most popular Downtown district vibrant with shops, restaurants, people and more. It was fun enjoying relatively walkable streets and amenities. It even reminded me of parts of Atlanta. Which kind of  has me worried.

The brief time I spent in OTR gave me a sense of what Downtown Atlanta near Five Points could look like in 20 years. I say this for a few reasons. First, the $5 billion project Centennial Yards is set to be a major catalyst of investment in an adjacent part of Downtown not too far from Five Points. Second, the Underground and the old World of Coke sit almost completely vacant, save for a few shops in the Underground. 

But billionaire Shaneel Lalani recently purchased Underground with the intention of bringing it back — and beyond — its former glory days. Walkable streets, mixed-income complexes, and the abandoned portion has even found itself as a host of Atlanta’s art scene as of late.

Further, the City of Atlanta just bought 2 Peachtree Street, an old office building immediately adjacent to the Five Points MARTA station. It has plans to convert it to a mixed-use complex, though the portion of affordable units in the complex is yet to be determined, as is how “affordable” is defined. For Centennial Yards, residents making up to 80 percent of the Area Median Index were deemed to qualify for affordable housing. 

And according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Melanie Lasov Levs, “Downtown Atlanta has approximately 1,300 units under construction and another 2,500 units in planning or development.” Couple that with the fact that 94 percent of the 48,000 apartments in Atlanta built between 2012 and 2021 qualify for a luxury bracket, according to this report, and you begin to understand the trend of development. In short, development isn’t just coming — it’s here.

Some are optimistic about the changes, others more pessimistic. I tend to fall, like many, somewhere in between.

The Five Points/South Downtown has potential for major revitalization that will inject the area with life in an otherwise void section of the city after business hours. It’s no secret that any Atlanta investment in South Downtown — the area below Five Points — has been slow at best. At least in the last half-century; prior to disinvestment and a mass exodus to the suburbs, the area was more lively.

Given all this, it seems like I should be championing the idea of a revitalization effort like OTR. From an urbanist standpoint, all the vacant lots and underutilized spaces since the time of White Flight leave a tremendous opportunity for growth. So why does the prospect of Five Points and South Downtown changing for the better leave me apprehensive?

Well, it depends on whose “better” we care about. Better for investors and more affluent residents in a growing city? Absolutely. Better for low-income residents, for pedestrians and walkability, for small business owners? That’s up for debate.

According to a BBC article, there was a “73 percent drop in affordable housing in Over-The-Rhine between 2002 and 2015”. In other words, the OTR I visited was not the one where generations of low-income residents had been. Truthfully, that came as no surprise to me. 

If we grow like OTR, I fear that once again the poorest residents will be shown their way out of South Downtown. What exactly might that look like?

If we don’t value these people, we’ll see what we’ve seen in many revitalization efforts in the city — new buildings accommodating the wealthy and making neighborhoods unaffordable for low-income residents, car-centric streets as opposed to alternative transit, and chain restaurants and shops as opposed to mom-and-pop stores. If this sounds like Midtown or Atlantic Station or Howell Mill, well, that’s because it’s not far off.

And we need to take into account context. Atlanta is the “City Too Busy to Hate,” the heartbeat of the Civil Rights Movement, and “The Black Mecca.” Yet according to the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, Atlanta is the worst city in the country for income inequality; Black families’ median household income sits around $28,000 compared to White families’ $83,000. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring any other groups of people or that White residents are unwelcome in the city. Rather it means we must recognize what a shame it would be if yet another area in “The Black Mecca” becomes unaffordable and prices out so many people, many of which are Black and many of which could afford to live there prior to rapid investment. It would send a clear sign that post-investment, our lower-income residents don’t have a place in the city.

I’d love to see investment in South Downtown and Five Points, but I’d like to see the area retain some of its identity and define its new one, instead of the monolithic neighborhood that seems to keep arising at every turn of the city. The infrastructure, while underinvested, is already there; we just need to be specific and intentional in how we build. 

It should be noted that some would say a revitalization effort like OTR may not be perfect, but overall it’s net-positive. I’m confident there are many who feel safer there and enjoy amenities like a multi-level Kroger (that reminds me of the one next to Ponce City Market) which opened in September 2019 and was the first in Downtown Cincinnati for decades.

From a standpoint of Cost Benefit Analysis, I’m sure it’s true these efforts have net benefits. Further, I’m not sure there’s any large action one group or actor can do in a city that wouldn’t inextricably cause some kind of negative effect for someone else. Cities are dynamic and ever-changing with multiple interests, after all.

But it’d be a shame if we didn’t try. 

How crazy would it be to set aside a certain number of space for mom-and-pop stores so that not only large chain restaurants are included in new developments? How difficult might it be to prioritize some of the streets for walkability? Or to raise the portion of affordable housing in new builds but offer tax breaks to the properties in exchange? 

It’s not to say we’re completely clueless, either. There are plenty of people and organizations actively working towards protecting neighborhoods and helping them develop. Not every AMI is defined at up to 80 percent, and to the city’s credit they have at the very least acknowledged the need for affordable housing.

Atlanta has people working on creating a more just and equitable city. I just hope their efforts don’t have to be concentrated on one project and can help guide Atlanta at large — i.e. be the norm for development, not the exception. 

I don’t pretend to have all (or any) of the answers. Some point towards repealing the law that prohibits rent control in Georgia; some say the best we can do is welcome new development and define affordable housing so portions of new builds are truly affordable. Others point towards housing trust funds and housing vouchers.

 I’m not convinced that there is any one right way to help a neighborhood go through its puberty — only that the guiding principle should be people-oriented and inclusive to everyone. Whether that looks like walkability, transit, renting prices, access to resources like hospitals and fresh food markets or anything else, using this guiding principle will ensure that Downtown reaches its best potential. I’d like for us as a city to be as welcoming to our poorest residents as we are to the Microsofts and Googles of the world who call Atlanta home, or giant stadiums like Mercedes Benz who can avoid paying any property taxes because of their ownership by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. 

If we want to live up to our storied nicknames, the best way to do that is to be a city for all, regardless of income.

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