Involve community in design of Underground Atlanta’s redevelopment

By Guest Columnist NATHAN KOSKOVICH, a registered architect in Georgia who is chairman of the Architecture and Design Center

The redevelopment of Underground Atlanta appears to be underway. WRS, the South Carolina-based firm, is in the process of purchasing the property from the City of Atlanta, and it has begun planning for its redevelopment.

Underground is an icon of Atlanta and a key component of downtown’s viability. It rests at the center of downtown at the intersection of Peachtree Street and Alabama Street. It contains the Zero Mile Post of the railroads, the place where Atlanta was born.

Nathan Koskovich

Nathan Koskovich

It is adjacent to the central MARTA bus and rail hub, and it is next door to Georgia State University as well as the centers for state, county and city governments. It is a true crossroads of business, government and tourism in the heart of downtown.

Underground is important in other ways. It is the next in an increasingly long line of high profile projects in the City of Atlanta that demonstrates a regional and national shift away from edge-city, car-based development in favor of central city, mixed-use development. Each one of these projects presents an opportunity to not only rehabilitate an underutilized city asset, but also to further Atlanta’s development as an international center of business and culture.

Yet our city’s record is uneven when it comes to maximizing the return on such redevelopments. Sometimes we get developments which spur economic growth and reinvestment in our communities such as the Atlanta Beltline, Ponce City Market, the West Side Provisions District, and mixed-use developments in Midtown Atlanta.

Plaza Park

Plaza Park – in 1959 – what existed at street level before the current design of Underground Atlanta (Photos: Pullen Library Special Collections at Georgia State University)

Other times we get developments that don’t connect to and complement the neighboring communities.

In this way, the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta is not only important in and of itself, but it provides an opportunity to reassess the development process in the city and the standard of design which architects, urban planners, developers, community leaders and public officials are held to

Plaza Park today

Underground Atlanta today at the location of Plaza Park

Each new development is going to impact our city. Every addition either exacerbates challenges or improves our city. It is in all of our interests to increase the percentage of the latter.

While there is a preliminary redevelopment concept proposed by developer WRS, there has not yet been a public planning and design process for this site.

Because Underground Atlanta is so important to our city’s future, the Architecture and Design Center believes that a broad range of voices must be included in its redevelopment.

Our organization believes great cities are made from great design and great design comes from an open and inclusive process. With such a process, Underground can serve as model for future developments that improve our city.

Here are a few of the general principles that should be applied to Underground Atlanta as well as to other projects.

  • Keep the entire street grid in place, and where needed reconnect the street grid;
  • Create spaces for mixed-use development that is appropriately dense for downtown;
  • Develop buildings that relate strongly to the street;
  • Develop safe and pleasant places for people to walk in and around the site;
  • Reduce parking and rely more on shared parking, MARTA bus and rail transit, and other existing and emerging transportation alternatives (biking, walking, zip car, Uber, taxi, etc);
  • Use environmentally-responsible construction;
  • Include mixed-income housing; and
  • Create architecture that serves the uses of the site, provides some level of interest and creativity yet fits with the surrounding downtown environment.

Atlantans have come to expect such amenities in new developments – features which support walkable, safe, livable communities.

Plaza Park

Another view of Plaza Park – site of current Underground Atlanta

Great cities use their people to build lively urban areas. They use their people to identify key local preferences and meld them with the best in time-tested design principles. That’s why the ADC supports the continued development of a robust design culture.

Our city needs to understand that design is not an extra. It is fundamental in establishing healthy, safe, sustainable and enjoyable cities. Design is best when it is part of a robust, determined, and inclusive public process.

Plaza Park

Sitting in the shade at Plaza Park

Underground is one project, one location only. But it is a key example for others.

Unlike the stadiums that have occupied the region’s attention over the last two years – a football stadium that exemplifies iconic architectural form and a baseball stadium wholly intended to be a neighborhood unto itself, Underground Atlanta is about making the best urban space that unifies downtown.

We believe all developments should not only consider their surroundings, but work to improve their surroundings. to be good neighbors that contribute to and benefit from an increasingly vibrant Atlanta.

Plaza Park

An aerial view of Plaza Park

11 replies
  1. letmesaythis says:

    Awesome Artile – totally agree with all points. The redevelopment shoud serve the intown community – not be designed in a way to (attempt) lure folks down from the burbs.
    What is the source for the unique views of the Plaza? GSU archives??Report

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  2. JerryChau says:

    The economic feasibility comes first, last, and in between
    for Underground Atlanta to become a sustainable icon of Atlanta. And only then
    can we have a meaningful discussion about design.
    Without knowing the details of the purchase contract between
    the City of Atlanta and the developer, my biggest fear is that the heavy-handed
    dictates local politicians will influence the proposed development.
    Instead, the developer needs signed leases from national,
    creditworthy tenants in order to procure financing. Otherwise, bankers won’t
    finance a property anchored by a gaggle of ne’er-do-well local shop owners who
    were a primary cause of the property’s previous failures.
    We have been down that road. Let’s learn from our mistakes.
    http://tenonline.org/sref/jc1bio.htmlChautin
    Former entrepreneur, commercial mortgage banker &
    business lender
    Currently, commercial real estate & business columnist &
    content blogger
    Volunteer http://www.score.org/ business mentor
    SBA’s 2006 national “http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060311/BUSINESS/603110687/1007” winnerReport

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  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    letmesaythis  Assume you are the developer and you know your success is directly related to the number of people visiting your development and how much money they have to spend..
    Are you going to focus on attracting 447,000 City residents with a median household income of $47,000, or are you going to include the other 5+ million residents in the Atlanta MSA with a median household income of $56,000? The City is 8% of the MSA population and has a 16% smaller median household income.Report

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  4. letmesaythis says:

    Burroughston Broch letmesaythis The 1989 redux of Underground failed because to much emphasis was placed on luring the suburb crowd back downtown to Kenny’s Alley party district. The forecasted crowds never showed, no party crowds, no shopping crowds and all of the mall centric stores closed.
    I do believe that the bulk of the updating should cater towards an existing downtown population of condo owners, business office workers and GA State Students. If the bulk of the redesign is executed wtih the mindset of luring mom, dad and the kids over from the aquarium for lunch…it aint gonna happen. …I LOVE Underground Atlanta……but I believe the critial mass of UA’s success is going to be found in making it functional for millenials, office workers, GEN X’s, urban gay population….
    If the redux fails to drop a -real grocery store- into the space…this redevelopment will fail.Report

    Reply
  5. JerryChau says:

    http://www.livefyre.com/profile/72975748/, says this ….drop a -real grocery store….

    So I say, a real grocery and a financially suitable long-term lease for a banker would be a Super Walmart. 

    I can feel your pain even though they might agree to some redesign features. But we need to see the success of Underground through the eyes of the money people.

    Ouch, I see the arrow coming at me. (-:

    PS. I’d rather see Whole
    Foods.

    Jerry
    http://tenonline.org/sref/jc1bio.html
    Chautin
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    and business lender
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  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    letmesaythis Burroughston Broch  I agree in part, but let’s look at 1990 and today, 25 years later.
    In 1990, the City’s population bottomed out at 394,000 after losing 20% of its population since 1970. Many of those who could afford to leave had left and saw little need to return for UA. The City’s population was still almost 13% of the MSA’s 3.09 million population.
    Today, the City has recovered about half the population it lost 1970-1990, but is still 10% less than its 1970 peak. The City’s population is only 8% of the MSA’s 5.52 million population. And the downtown resident population is only 27,000 – too small to support this project. So, luring people outside of downtown to UA will be a key part of its success. But UA is in an area that is rightfully perceived as being unsafe. The scene outside the 5 Points MARTA station often resembles “Mad Max” or the bar scene in “Star Wars”. Perceived public safety is an issue, and all of the posts on this development fail to address it.Report

    Reply
  7. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch letmesaythis

    Using “averages” is ridiculous, OK? First off, the “average income” of suburbanites doesn’t matter. It could be Silicon Valley’s $150,000 a year or similar averages that you will find in the financial districts of New Jersey, New York, Connecticut etc. but those people aren’t going to come no matter what you do to attract them if they A) hate the city, the people who run it and the people who live there … and a huge portion of the suburbanites do and/or B) if they have similar or better options in their own communities. Many of them do, and when the Braves’ fanplex opens in Cobb it will directly compete with downtown (well not really to be honest, but it will be one more reason not to go downtown). 
    Second, comparing the “average income” makes no sense: south Atlanta incomes are tiny. North Atlanta incomes are very high, indeed the highest in the metro Atlanta region (as Last Democrat In Georgia told you last year when you guys had your ridiculous argument over the huge amount of poor people in David Ralston’s district, and you claimed that his citing demographic and economic data from the federal and Georgia departments of labor as “attacking and demeaning people”) and the entire state of Georgia, including – yes – higher than in the suburbs. And downtown has a mix of high income people, a HUGE number of college students (again the highest concentration of college students in the state by far, and certainly higher than in the suburbs) along with a DECLINING number of poor people as downtown gentrifies. And the condos that the developer is planning to build as part of the Underground redevelopment project will increase that gentrification. So will the mega-complex that Georgia State is building to replace Turner Field: yes it will include a football stadium and athletics facilities, but it will also include student housing, classrooms and LOTS of condos also. 

    Now folks in Buckhead and north Atlanta aren’t likely to head down in that area: they have enough going on closer to them. But Georgia State students, Georgia Tech students, and folks who will be living in the condos that are going up all over downtown just might IF the developers get downtown just right, IF there is reliable transportation to and fro for people who would rather not drive, and IF whoever succeeds Kasim Reed as mayor makes police patrols in that area a high priority (as Reed has in other areas of downtown that his office has targeted for gentrification where you can’t sneeze without an APD squad car nearby to offer you a tissue). And yes, the city advertising another round of police hiring indicates that they are adding more areas of the city to their “protect and gentrify” list. And also, if Mary Norwood succeeds Kasim Reed (she will run and she has a better shot than many are willing to admit) she will pretty much continue what Reed has done for the past 8  years instead of trying to dismantle it.Report

    Reply
  8. letmesaythis says:

    atlman Burroughston Broch letmesaythis well said….perfect. The folks in the exo-burbs have choices close to them. The UA customer base for realistic success needs to be less than a 5mile radius. Students, 20 and 30 somethings, office workers, tourist, condo owners. Dropping a GAP in Underground will fail. Dropping a PUBLIX or KROGER will succed.Report

    Reply
  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    atlman Burroughston Broch letmesaythis  You are wasting your time trying to convince me. You should be speaking to the developers. I doubt they will agree with you.Report

    Reply
  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    letmesaythis atlman Burroughston Broch  Yeah, ask Kroger how their downtown store they closed about 10 years ago worked for them. As I remember, the problems were low sales and high pilferage/property damage.Report

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  11. Kenneth says:

    Unless that ghetto wasteland on Peachtree St. just south of Alabama Street is cleaned up, Underground Atlanta will never succeed. I don’t know why so many people cannot see that or perhaps they lack the courage to tell the truth. BTW, I’m black so don’t think this is related to race. It’s just honesty. The area is not clean, it’s not safe, it’s not attractive.Report

    Reply

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