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Equitable development: Master plan at Hulsey Yard a successful example for Murphy Crossing, elsewhere in Atlanta

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By Guest Columnist BRANDON SUTTON, a member of the Hulsey Yard Study Committee

2020 will no doubt be remembered as a time of unprecedented disruption to the lives and businesses of countless people throughout the country, including right here in Atlanta. In a macro sense, the world has changed dramatically. In a micro sense, the lives and daily choices of people everywhere are in a state of suspended animation.

Brandon Sutton

Brandon Sutton

We are all re-learning what matters most to us, and in particular the importance of our local communities. Atlanta sits at another important juncture with the critical Murphy Crossing parcel on the southwest side of the Atlanta Beltline that has been mired in controversy lately. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned and best practices to follow moving forward based on the process that unfolded in 2019 with Hulsey Yard on the eastside trail.

CSX’s intermodal facility east of Downtown Atlanta, Hulsey Yard, sat abandoned and in stasis for nearly a year starting in early May 2019. The communities of Cabbagetown, Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, and Reynoldstown engaged on an unprecedented scale to rally around a shared vision for the future of the area, including clear consensus around density, public transportation, affordable housing, and other fundamental tenets.

Despite CSX’s recent decision to reactivate a small part of the yard for a different scaled-back operation, the work the neighborhoods did to develop a master plan for the parcel remains a remarkable example of community input and dedication to having a voice in how the future of our city unfolds. Just because there is some sputtering on the yard now doesn’t mean it will last. Now is the time to continue the work of codifying the master plan so when CSX makes its next move, the city and in particular the four adjoining neighborhoods will be ready.

Sutton, Hulsey, Murphy Crossing, map

The successful process that resulted in an advisory master plan for redeveloping Hulsey Yard could be replicated to create a plan at Murphy Crossing and other significant tracts of land. Hulsey Yard is located on Atlanta’s eastern side, Murphy Crossing on the western side. Credit: Buffi Aguero via BeltLine Rail Now

Similar to Hulsey, Murphy Crossing sits at an important intersection of three neighborhoods with MARTA heavy rail transit, freight rail, future BeltLine light rail, and vehicle traffic all converging. Unlike at Hulsey, the neighborhoods surrounding Murphy Crossing have suffered from decades of neglect and disinvestment, which makes community input and active engagement even more important for an equitable outcome. The recent outcry over the request for proposals process through Atlanta Beltline Inc., begs the question: Can a similar public input process used for Hulsey Yard be replicated for Murphy Crossing? Let’s look at how it went down to see if there are pointers for ABI and Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm, in future large land sales.

For historical context, property values had been skyrocketing in the area around Hulsey yard for several years, and many people felt it was a foregone conclusion that the yard would be sold and redeveloped. Leaders in the neighborhoods that would be immediately impacted in such a scenario (Cabbagetown, Inman Park, Old Fourth Ward, and Reynoldstown) organized into a group called the Hulsey Yard Study Committee, of which I was an active member representing the Stacks Lofts in Cabbagetown. We decided in late 2018 to self-fund and develop a Master Plan to guide the eventual development of the property.

Nobody knew for sure at the time if or when CSX would sell, yet there was enough energy and enthusiasm amongst the neighborhoods that funding was secured to hire a planning firm. We believed that if we could get out in front of this thing before the proverbial train left the station, we would have a better chance of influencing how the site is eventually developed. Nobody wanted a repeat of Glenwood Park and the Fuqua/WalMart fiasco. In short, we hoped that our proactive approach would deliver better, more equitable outcomes for the community, and that all affected parties would be considered in the deal.

sutton, hulsey, crowd at model

Density, public transportation and supply of affordable housing are among the fundamental tenets that emerged from a community-driven redevelopment plan for CSX’s Hulsey Yard property, located east of Downtown Atlanta. Credit: Hulsey Yard Study Committee

By sheer luck, the four-day pop-up studio designed to take the first round of input from the community was held less than a week after CSX ceased operations on the site. Seeing an empty train yard lit a fire under people in the surrounding area, and over 1,000 people provided input and voted on what they wanted to see happen when the property is developed. The input received through multiple stages of public engagement was collated and synthesized by the planning firm, Lord Aeck Sargent, and three framework plans were developed for options on how the site could be laid out.

The most exciting part of the planning process was the level of thoughtful input received from the community. Clear themes emerged that would become central to the master plan’s fundamental tenets. A few of these included: Prioritize Affordable Housing, Embrace Modal Options, Preserve the Beltline Corridor, Advance BeltLine Rail, and Integrate with MARTA. It was crystal clear from the input received that the communities directly affected want to see a different kind of development than we are used to seeing in Atlanta – one that is not designed primarily for cars and car owners. Said another way, there is a clear directive toward equitable outcomes at Hulsey.

Given that Atlanta is facing an affordable housing crisis, as evidenced by the explosion of housing costs in the communities surrounding Hulsey over the past decade, the public input received during the planning process also made it clear that affordability is vital to the plan in order to win the support of the people. Calls for density on the site were specifically contingent on not just meeting but exceeding current affordable housing minimums specified in the Atlanta BeltLine Overlay District. It turns out that the community is ready to support density when paired with transit expansion and transportation alternatives.

A great deal of information was gathered during the design of the Hulsey Yard Master Plan, including the destination where current residents travel to work. Credit: Hulsey Yard Study Committee

In all three framework plans presented, transit was central to the conversation, with BeltLine light rail as a prominent component. However, the current timelines for building the BeltLine transit loop in Atlanta’s Regional Transportation Plan are incompatible with the immediate needs of communities throughout the city, and they are particularly problematic given the opportunities the Hulsey site offers.

What we proved with the Hulsey Yard Master Plan is that concerned neighborhoods are capable of understanding the big picture and making necessary trade-offs to realize the most equitable outcomes. The resulting document provides a high-level blueprint for would-be developers that is easy to understand and use as a planning tool. We took the guesswork out of the equation by developing the plan before the bidding started.

At some point, we have to start living up to our promise as a city to be more inclusive and stop pushing people farther and farther outside the city in search of housing they can afford. We have to decide to build an equitable city and get on with actually doing it. Accelerating the timelines for BeltLine transit is a crucial piece of the puzzle and assists in delivering affordability for those who don’t have or don’t want to have a car, particularly on sites such as Hulsey and Murphy Crossing.

Sutton, hulsey charette, hands

Neighbors worked collaboratively to devise a master plan for redeveloping the Hulsey Yard rail depot, which they hope will help guide the possible redevelopment of the land located east of Downtown Atlanta. Credit: Hulsey Yard Study Committee

We’re running out of opportunities like Hulsey and Murphy Crossing to realize this promise, and if the chance of community revitalization at Murphy Crossing is botched because of a flawed selection process, the tensions around displacement, income mobility, and related issues will only escalate. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to raise the bar here on both of these critical sites. We need our city leaders and key investors to take note and understand the communities are eager to participate in the process and help shape their neighborhoods by providing thoughtful and actionable input. It’s critical to listen to what’s being shared and act accordingly.

Note to readers: Brandon Sutton is an Atlanta native, active community advocate, and president of Insights & Strategy consultancy, Culture. He has done extensive advocacy work on climate change, hunger relief, and local community engagement.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Greg Hodges July 14, 2020 11:06 am

    Please, this property was never ‘abandoned’ …… unused for a short period, certainly…but not abandoned by its owner. And just what does “sputtering on the yard” mean, Brandon ? Just who is “sputtering” ?

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    Patty July 18, 2020 4:35 pm

    Excellent piece outlining how and why this amazing collaborative effort came together. Thank you for writing it. Please please please – Mayor Bottoms; city council members, and MARTA: please come together and make this community effort pay off for the city. That citizens from various neighborhoods came together, hired a planning firm and paid for the process, and resulted in an amazing master plan that includes density and transit and high levels of affordable housing is incredible. Please purchase this land and require bidders to develop it according to this plan. And Atlanta Beltline Inc: please use this blueprint for community input for Murphy Crossing.

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    Matthew Rao July 22, 2020 6:39 pm

    “Hats off” to Brandon Sutton and the others who led this effort. The fact that four diverse neighborhoods could come together and agree on basic outcomes in a transparent, public process says a lot of good about Atlantans. What happened here shows that a process could resolve differences and unify residents around core values like transit, density, and affordable housing and then achieve an attractive cohesive outcome supported by an overwhelming majority. It is the process here at Hulsey that is so outstanding and a model for citizen participation in Atlanta. At Murphy Crossing and elsewhere too.

    There is a huge difference in the nature of citizen engagement and direct participation in the design process. It takes much more than surveys and public meetings a time or two before and after the design is settled to really get to the best solution on sites like Hulsey Yard. With the right process, leaders can trust the stakeholders to come up with an outcome no single planner, developer, or policymaking entity could have achieved alone.

    As connection points to MARTA, Beltline light rail, and to other transit modes, Hulsey Yard and Murphy Crossing are of critical importance to the future of transit and transit-oriented development in Atlanta. As a co-chair of BeltLine Rail Now, I challenge ABI, the City of Atlanta, and Invest Atlanta to think bigger than before and to reach further at Murphy Crossing.

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