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Proposed new storage facility at Atlanta BeltLine and Piedmont Park a blow to city’s urban design

Pedestrians, cyclists and people on scooters cross Monroe Drive where the Atlanta BeltLine meets Piedmont Park. Plans call for a new storage facility to built where a red and white building now stands. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

By Maria Saporta

You’ve got to be kidding.

That is my initial reaction to the news that a new storage facility is being proposed along Monroe Drive – steps away from a major node of the Atlanta BeltLine, Piedmont Park and the Virginia-Highland community.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden has orchestrated a deal to swap land that currently houses a storage unit facility along Westminster Drive near Piedmont Avenue with 1.67 acres of land at 1011 Monroe Dr. to build a replacement facility.

A design illustration for the proposed Public Storage self-storage facility in Virginia-Highland that is a key part of the Garden’s expansion plan, as shown in a City permit application.

The land swap is part of an ambitious expansion of the Atlanta Botanical Garden which aims to create a new gateway to the garden in an area across from Ansley Park. The project is estimated to cost north of $35 million.

While people are applauding the proposed expansion plans for the Garden, community leaders in Virginia-Highland expressed great concern about the impact a new storage facility would have at one of the most important intersections along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.

“A storage facility is not the best use or an appropriate use for land that’s so close to the BeltLine and Piedmont Park,” said Jenifer Keenan, a community leader in Virginia-Highland. “There’s already one unsightly storage facility in this area. Adding another one will further diminish the beauty and vitality of this section of the BeltLine, Piedmont Park and Virginia-Highland.”

The Atlanta Botanical Garden bought the Monroe Drive property – which used to house the Cantoni furniture retail store and previously Illuminations – in May. As late as early November, the Garden told SaportaReport it had bought the land for investment purposes and that it was “not aware of any specific plans” for the property.

Map shows the property where the new storage facility would be built according to the permit application.

The Virginia-Highland neighborhood was notified of plans for the new storage facility on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with a tight deadline of Dec. 6 to respond.

“We have had a lack of time to investigate it,” said Jennifer Graham-Johnson, who was still on her Thanksgiving holiday on Monday. The community is planning a meeting in the next several days to discuss the project.

Jack White, a resident who works on planning for the Virginia-Highland Civic Association, questioned why the Atlanta Botanical Garden didn’t communicate with the neighborhood after buying the land in May to work with the community.

“This seems like a terrible thing to have along the BeltLine,” White said. “It’s no secret that storage units are a terrible use of land along the BeltLine. Almost anything would be better than a storage unit facility.”

White questioned whether filing the application for a Special Administrative Permit on the day before Thanksgiving was a coincidence.

The new storage facility would be built on the land where a white and red building now sits in the middle of this picture, just feet from the Atlanta BeltLine. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“The first thing we’re trying to do is to have more time to reflect on this,” White said. “I find it infuriating that we have to act so quickly. We just need time to understand the impact it’s going to have on an extremely complicated part of the BeltLine.”

Tate Chalk, a resident who lives a couple of doors up Cooledge Avenue from the proposed storage facility, said the property could be used for “a million things” other than a building “that just sits there” for people to store their stuff.

“It’s a waste of space,” Chalk said. “Storage facilities provide no benefit to the community. I’m not a fan of the project, and I’m not a fan of the process. We are the last ones to know.”

Aaron Fortner, a planning consultant who works with the Virginia-Highland Civic Association, said a storage facility was not part of the vision for the BeltLine master plan. Originally, the BeltLine Overlay District — an area about a half mile on either side of the BeltLine — was supposed to restrict storage facilities, but that was taken out of the legislation at the last minute. The project still has to go before the BeltLine Design Review Committee, but that’s only an advisory gesture.

Fortner, however, is hoping to have conversations with the Atlanta Botanical Garden and other stakeholders to see if other ideas will be considered.

The Monroe Drive storage facility would be built on the site of the white and red building in the middle of this shot. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“My hope is that this great exciting future for the Atlanta Botanical Garden over on Piedmont wouldn’t be contingent on a not-so-great thing happening over here,” Fortner said. “I’m hopeful and optimistic that there is a way where there can be a win for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and for Virginia-Highland.”

Fortner hopes to appeal to the Garden’s civic nature. “They should be about the greater good, not just about the property on Piedmont,” he said. “This should be something the Atlanta Botanical Garden could be proud of.”

What’s most troubling to me is the city compromising its commitment to quality urban design.

The Atlanta City Design – championed by Tim Keane, the City of Atlanta’s former planning commissioner, and Ryan Gravel, who inspired the Atlanta BeltLine – was aspirational. It called for the development of a world-class city where urban design would spark an improved quality of life. We need to create special places with a “public realm” that invites  people to enjoy a live-work-play environment – a strategy already taking hold along the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail.

Plopping a lifeless storage unit facility at one of our most fragile intersections will not advance the quality of life we long for in Atlanta. Our civic leaders should do all they can to make Atlanta as vibrant a city as it can be. And that doesn’t include yet another storage facility at the critical gateway to Piedmont Park and the Atlanta BeltLine.

Note to readers: As I write this column, I’m fully aware of the powers-that-be who are championing the Atlanta Botanical Gardens’ plans. I have run into that buzzsaw before when I opposed the building of the parking garage in the middle of Piedmont Park. Although I realize the muscle of the people behind this proposal is powerful, I cannot in good conscience remain silent on such an important urban design issue for Atlanta. Civic leaders, we can do better than this.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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15 Comments

  1. Mike Michaels November 29, 2022 8:21 am

    No No No. Atlanta Botanical Garden is proving they are not a friend to area neighbors. Atlanta Botanical Garden is a friend only to Atlanta Botanical Garden. Hopefully the good folks in VaHi can fight this. Personally, I’m not even a fan of the proposed expansion on Piedmont. Losing more small businesses and restaurant spaces.Report

    Reply
  2. Lexi Manning November 29, 2022 8:58 am

    This is what happens when you have a CEO that only thinks about herself and her legacy. She could care less about the surrounding neighborhoods. This has been in the works for years and not one conversation with the neighborhood. We can only hope she has been truthful with the small businesses she is about to put out on the street.Report

    Reply
  3. Katherine Cummings November 29, 2022 9:40 am

    As a member of the Gardens, I am disappointed that this is their idea of stewardship. When they announced the purchase they included mention of a huge fundraising effort. I wonder how many large check writers will be in a hurry to make another storage facility a reality where green space was planned, not more concrete.Report

    Reply
  4. Anne H Farrisee November 29, 2022 9:51 am

    This is heart-breaking. It’s a travesty to put a large storage facility here, RIGHT NEXT to another AND a major intersection near the Beltline and Piedmont Park. I am sickened that the Atlanta Botanical Gardens would take this action, one that harms the Park that is visually and functionally connected to them as well as the nearby Midtown and Virginia Highland neighborhoods. Yes it’s lovely to expand the ABG but not at the expense of its neighbor and neighborhoods.Report

    Reply
  5. Dan DeNoon November 29, 2022 10:59 am

    I love the Gardens and, like most of us in the neighborhoods surrounding Piedmont Park, have been a member for years. We’re good neighbors to the Gardens — so why can’t the Gardens be a good neighbor to us? Plopping a storage facility in this location is a slap in the face to the Gardens’ neighbors.Report

    Reply
  6. Thomas Cassidy November 29, 2022 11:42 am

    Again, thank you, Maria Saporta!
    Storage facilities are like mausoleums for excess stuff. Blank walls to the sidewalk endanger the security of pedestrians and reduce the neighborhood’s walkability.Report

    Reply
  7. A. Scott D. November 29, 2022 2:54 pm

    That plus Beltline rail running across that intersection will also be “interesting.”Report

    Reply
  8. Neil S. November 29, 2022 5:45 pm

    Public storage owns the existing storage facility next to the Gardens. They are not going to consider vacating their current location without a replacement one in a comparable location. I am sure the negotiations involve some significant monetary compensation in addition to the land swap. The alternative would be for the City/Gardens to acquire the facility from Public Storage but I doubt they have the capital to do so since these facilities are very expensive given the current income they generate.Report

    Reply
  9. Steven N November 29, 2022 6:24 pm

    ‘One of out our most fragile intersections’? You’ve got to be kidding. It may be one of the busiest BeltLine crossings and be quite dangerous for bikers/walkers but ‘fragile’? Are you advocating for a park to replaces the tree on the Midtown lawn that were never in danger?

    When there were apartments/condos proposed at 10th and Monroe I’m sure these same folks complained about traffic and the development being too dense. Urbanists complain that neither options is dense enough. Others will protest that it isn’t affordable housing, but offer not way to pay for it. This puts a vacant site to use with minimal traffic. Customers are likely local so having it nearby reduces car miles. Oh and if the proposal was to move the facility south of Dekalb or I20 that would garner cries of inequity. ‘A blow to urban design’ or just not you personal preference?

    Kudos to the Botanical Gardens for having a vision for getting more folks access to the Gardens (and trees) and a plan for getting it done. A lot harder to be a doer than a critic. We could use more doersReport

    Reply
    1. Peter Tyler December 3, 2022 8:48 pm

      @Steven N Stop, haha, Public Storage is not local and 100% requires a ton of vehicular use/parking. How do you think people bring their stuff to store? This is not a good use at all, it is definitely NOT a use oriented to the local community, and it will be the worse type of traffic because larger vehicles like trucks and vans will be going in and out of the storage facility.Report

      Reply
  10. Michael Koblentz November 30, 2022 12:38 am

    Enough already with the storage facilities
    particularly in this location.
    It’s just not acceptable.
    It’s become the new urban blight, the way we used to view too much signage.Report

    Reply
  11. Deron Davis November 30, 2022 9:08 am

    Thank you Maria Saporta for speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, sometimes the “Atlanta Way” means doing what is in the best interest of a powerful few instead of listening to the wants and needs of the collective for the greater good.Report

    Reply
  12. Susan Hood November 30, 2022 12:29 pm

    The decision by the Botanical Gardens to keep this project secret and spring it on the community at the last minute is a major mistake. How many times must organizations learn the lesson that trust and goodwill die through this kind of behavior?Report

    Reply
  13. Alida Silverman November 30, 2022 1:55 pm

    Thank you, Maria Saporta, for speaking out about this proposed project in Virginia-Highland. It has a lot in common with the other project you allude to. So what about a “snapshot” of the “buzzsaw” you mention: give credit where credit is due.Report

    Reply
  14. Lindsey B December 2, 2022 9:59 am

    This is a ridiculous proposal. I truly hope ABG wasn’t expecting any donations from the VaHi community to pay for this expansion.Report

    Reply

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