Downtown Atlanta developing into both a community and an amenity

By Saba Long

“Patience, grasshopper,” was the tone last week at an Urban Land Institute (ULI) panel discussion titled “Downtown: Community or Amenity?”

Downtown Atlanta is most often seen as a tourist center within the city’s largest central business district — but a further look reveals there is more than meets the eye.

According to Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), compared to the rest of the city, downtown has the largest concentration of jobs, the largest share of college students, and with five hospitals, is the medical hub of Atlanta.

In its four square miles, are a number of distinct communities including Fairlie-Poplar, Luckie-Marietta and South Downtown. Census data reflects a 48 percent increase in the average family income of downtown residents over the past decade– which should be a clear sign of the need to cater to the needs of the community.

And yet the data is not compelling companies to move from other parts of the city into downtown, noted panelist Addison Meriwether of Cushman & Wakefield. He went on to share an all too familiar story of a concierge at a downtown hotel telling Meriwether’s potential client where not to walk around downtown. The client ultimately chose to pass on relocating the company to the downtown Central  Business District.

At-Large Councilmember Lamar Willis said: “It is clear we need more development downtown, but we must first address a number of issues.”

A recent City Council ordinance aimed at curbing panhandling is working, remarked Jennifer Ball of CAP. But the perception of crime and harassment in downtown is improperly skewed. Downtown, particularly along Peachtree and near the government centers, has a strong law enforcement presence.

This area of the city has a high concentration of homelessness and shelters – an uncomfortable fact. South Downtown is home to shops selling knock-off fashion accessories like those featured in the infamous videos by then mall cop Darien Long.

Residents came out in full force at a recent city License Review Board meeting where the liquor license at 90 Broad Street was finally revoked. At the hearing, a narcotics cop noted his unit seized marijuana, cocaine, $4,000 in cash and a number of EBT cards and state-issued IDs.

For residents and developers hoping to see the southern portion of Broad Street revitalized, the revocation of the liquor license was a tremendous win.

The long-term reality is that downtown has tremendous economic development potential. Within five years, we will witness the opening of a yet-to-be-named Atlanta Falcons stadium, the College Football Hall of Fame and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Longer-term, our transportation network will be strengthened by the completion of the Multimodal Passenger Terminal – finances permitting. The Atlanta Streetcar will be operational, and we will likely see important aesthetic changes to the Five Points MARTA station and the stations located near the new stadium.

A Downtown Technical Advisory Group, convened by Councilman Willis and chaired by Brian McGowan, Invest Atlanta’s CEO, are in the process of establishing a comprehensive downtown master plan. Discussions include what to do with Underground Atlanta, how to adaptively reuse older buildings and how to attract amenities for college students and homeowners.

The beauty of downtown is its walkability, access to transit and its proximity to other areas of the city. These conveniences should readily attract more residents and businesses in due time.

The next decade will bring remarkable growth to the city’s core. Good things come to those who wait – and have the foresight to understand its long-term potential and reality.

Saba Long is a communications and political professional who lives in downtown Atlanta. She serves as the senior council aide and communications liaison for Post 2 At-Large Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson. Most recently, Saba was the press secretary for MAVEN and Untie Atlanta -- the Metro Chamber’s education and advocacy campaigns in supportive of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. She has consulted with H.E.G. an analytics and evaluation firm where she lent strategic marketing and social media expertise to numerous political campaigns, including that of Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and the 2010 Clayton County transportation referendum. In 2009, Saba served as the deputy campaign manager for the campaign of City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. Previously, Saba was a Junior Account Executive at iFusion Marketing, where she lent fractional marketing strategy to various ATDC technology startups operating out of the Georgia Tech incubator, ATDC. For the past two years, Saba has presented on online marketing and politics to the incoming fellows of the Atlanta chapter of the New Leaders Council.

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