Let's start talking highway removals in Atlanta

By: King Williams

What started as an initial tweet on my Twitter timeline concerning freeway removals has led to a great online conversation on what to do concerning our highways.

North Avenue bridge
photo by Kelly Jordan

So hear me out before you say “we don’t have money for X, Y, and Z.”

The city and state are willing to spend money when they want to. Unfortunately most of it is with people who have antiquated notions of planning or plans that have no foresight.

It’s time we start looking to remove and revamp our highways.

The Atlanta region is projected to gain more than 2.5 million residents within the next 20 years, and our current mode of development isn’t factoring in the future.

We can’t meet the needs of the future sixth largest metro area in the United States by expanding or building more roads and highways. It will come through better planning that focuses on interconnectedness, transit and density.

Our current roads, retail and residences are being built with the 1950’s mentality of car-centered development and suburban placemaking. This highway move removal movement has taken place so far in cities throughout Europe.

But American cities such as Portland’s Harbor Drive project in the 1970’s, San Francisco’s removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in the early 1990’s, Boston’s removal of its downtown Central Artery and Dallas’s Kylde Warren Park, a $76 million dollar park developed on top of an existing freeway and that has now generated over $1 billion dollars in economic development.

We are facing the future of Atlanta our roads and highways have reached the point of diminished returns. For every new road or highway we build, we won’t solve traffic congestion, address a population boom or grow economic activity, so let’s try a radical idea…

Removing Highways

Freedom Parkway/Freedom Park
Copenhill Park, an original streetcar suburb in Atlanta of the 1800’s, was a neighborhood in the area we now refer to as Freedom Parkway.

Freedom Parkway evolved out of the highway destruction era of Atlanta in the 1950’s and 60’s. The project was a part of the once-proposed I-485 highway and the Stone Mountain Tollway projects – crisscrossing thoroughfares that would have slashed through Morningside and Virginia-Highland as well as the communities from downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain.

The highway projects met tremendous opposition, and they were ultimately abandoned after years of coordinated neighborhood opposition and the leadership of newly-elected Mayor Maynard Jackson in 1973.

The right-of-way for the projects, however, had already been acquired before the projects were stopped, and roughly 500 homes were destroyed.

In order to make a more efficient use of space, I propose we close all of Freedom Parkway to cars and open the space to the public.

Due to its connection to the Beltline, Ponce City Market and Ponce De Leon Avenue, the entire Freedom Parkway corridor represents an entirely new placemaking opportunity.

The Freedom Parkway closure could represent a connection point for both affordable housing, park space and new business development within in-town Atlanta.

Memorial Drive
I propose we completely close all of Memorial Drive from Moreland Avenue to Bill Kennedy Way to cars. The intersection of Moreland Avenue and Memorial Drive is among the most dangerous intersections in the city.
Closing this two-mile stretch completely can lead to a new marketplace for small business growth along that corridor.

This is in addition to a $250m+ Madison Yards retail development and tour de force of parking lots from Fuqua Development. This area also will potentially feature the future home of for Atlanta arts organization WonderRoot’s, new renovated elementary school along that same corridor.

This section also connects to the Southeast corridor of the Beltline, and there are currently several large-scale apartment complexes and condos already being built along that corridor of Bill Kennedy Way to Boulevard along Memorial Drive.

It would be ideal to connect all of the current amenities in the area with a new variety of walkable storefront businesses, office spaces and multi-family homes along that corridor.

Revamping the Highways

The Stitch
The purposeful building of our highways of I-75/85 and I-20 purposely uprooted black business and residential areas in Atlanta preventing the city from reaching its fullest economic potential. Currently, there is a plan being proposed by Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) to cap the section of the Downtown Connector from the Civic Center MARTA station to Piedmont Avenue.

This park would be a game changer for the expansion of downtown, and it also would serve as a way to make amends for what happened to Auburn Avenue when the highway came through.

This development of the highway system in the 1950’s and 1960s crippled Atlanta’s black economic base for decades, and I’d like to see a real commitment to providing business opportunities to minority firms in any future project.

Using former Mayor Jackson’s stipulation to have at least 25 percent minority participation in the building of the Atlanta airport, I’d like to see similar participation in the Stitch project.
Even though it would be an expensive proposition, I would propose that we consider building highway caps from the Civic Center MARTA station all the way to 17th Street and Atlantic Station.

The upper Downtown-Midtown corridor is our fastest value creating district in Atlanta and we should be looking at how much more economic growth could be created from having new land in the heart of Atlanta.

Georgia 400
There has been a proposal for a few years about developing an above ground park over Georgia 400 in Buckhead.

The current renderings of this project show that most of the park space would not cover the full highway, which seems like a missed opportunity. It appears the proposed park above Georgia 400 does not have enough connections to the retail and residential units already in Buckhead.

Our future depends on vision from competent politicians, planners, students, residents, developers and business leaders.

Many cities around the world are reclaiming highways, and Atlanta should be a leader in this space.

As we look to the future, we should be considering car-free and car-optional developments to accommodate new residents and businesses
I believe a good place to start is to reclaim the spaces taken up by our highways.

So if you have better ideas on what to do with revamping our highways let me know.

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Chris Johnston says:

    Don't forget a wall around the Atlanta city limits to help the true believers inside feel safe from the unwashed outside. And congestion fees, ala Manhattan, for those who enter.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Optional says:

    Probably the most unabashedly, pro-gentrification, pro-corporatism, and anti-poverty article I've read all year. Pat yourself on the back as you even further alienate the entire west and south sides of town.

    Guess what?! People who can't afford to live in the unaffordable housing along the beltline need to drive to go to work. And you'd turn a 45 minute cross-town drive into a 90 minute one. For absolutely nothing other than your vanity and convenience. You suck.Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Dan says:

    Closing Memorial Drive between Moreland and Bill Kennedy Way to car traffic without another artery opened would spill all that traffic into Reynoldstown – that neighborhood is not equipped to handle that kind of volume. What alternative idea do you have to get people east to west? Car or no car, you just mention closing this main state owned artery but don't have any suggestions for putting in a streetcar or any other mode of transport than walking – I am not opposed to closing streets but one has to consider the alternatives to keep people moving if that where to happen – what I would like to see is Bill Kennedy closed to cars, put in transit on the Beltline with dedicated right of way and build 2 more bridges on Pearl St and Grant Street to offer alternatives to Moreland, Bill Kennedy and Blvd. I-20 cut a terrible path between Grant Park and we need to find more ways to move people north and south between those neighborhoods – but only if the Beltline gets a dedicated right of way transit system, operating on a schedule like the MARTA trains so people can depend on it to pick them up on time and get them to a connecting MARTA transit station. my 2 centsReport

    Reply

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