By Guest Columnist SALLY FLOCKS, Founder and former president, PEDS
Nothing encourages walking more than the presence of other people and having places worth walking to.
Don’t get me wrong: sidewalks, safe crossings, and roads that are designed to discourage speeding are all essential to making a great place to walk. Yet for people on foot, land use matters most. When I’m heading to a coffee shop or hardware store, I’m not “going for a walk.” Walking is just an enjoyable, common-sense means to an end, something I do to get where I want to go.
I’ve lived near Colony Square in Midtown for over 40 years. Yet during the 1980s and 1990s, I rarely walked south of 14th Street. Why bother? Some 75% of the land in the Midtown commercial district was used for surface parking lots.
Not any longer. Beginning in the late ‘90s, Blueprint Midtown created the largest rezoning in Atlanta’s history and became a catalyst for compact, walk-friendly land use.
Amendments to Atlanta’s zoning code that are currently under consideration are nothing like the ones that were implemented in Midtown in the early 2000s. Nor should they be. High-rise towers are rarely appropriate outside of core urban districts.
Instead, the proposed amendments simply allow smaller lot sizes and setbacks, reduce parking minimums and increase flexibility in housing types. If approved, these changes will reduce car dependency, increase affordability, and make neighborhoods in Atlanta more inviting to people on foot,
As someone who relies primarily on walking and public transit to get around, I wholeheartedly support these amendments. Until recently, I lived in a single-family neighborhood with large lot sizes and where many homes were set far back from the street. Walking there could be a lonely endeavor. I often walked a mile or more without seeing another human being. No smiles, waves, or other chance encounters.
Walking in areas with few, if any, eyes on the street, often feels dangerous. If someone tried to mug me, would anyone intervene or call 911? And if I tripped on a broken sidewalk and landed on the pavement, how long would it be before someone saw me and helped me get up?
Atlanta’s historic neighborhoods are among the city’s greatest gems. Yet the current zoning code makes it illegal to build elements essential to their character, such as corner stores and small apartment buildings, even ones with just four to six units. It also requires lots to be far larger than what is characteristic of our historic pattern. This needs to change.
Proposed zoning amendments also allow small apartment buildings to be located near transit stations in areas that are currently zoned for single-family housing. Making housing near rail stations affordable to people who don’t have access to cars is a terrific way to provide increased mobility to Atlantans who rely on walking and transit as their primary transportation modes. Transit is the middle leg of two walking trips, and authorizing more housing near transit stations will also be a great way to help seniors maintain their independence.
What else outside the curb lines matters most to people on foot? The presence of street trees, together with buffers between sidewalks and the street. distinguish places you want to walk from places where you’ll walk if you have to.
Next time you’re out walking, make note of what’s outside the curb lines and what else you wish was there. Proposed amendments to Atlanta’s zoning code, which are part of implementing Atlanta’s City Design Housing, continue to evolve and will be considered by elected officials again during the fall. At times like this, speak up and make your voice heard. Together, we can make Atlanta a great place to walk.
Note to readers: Sally Flocks founded PEDS, Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety, in 1996. Flocks retired in 2019. PEDS merged with the Atlanta Bicycle Campaign in June.
The proposed zoning ordinances would not result in the charming, modest structures used to illustrate this column, or affordable housing. As the columnist knows, multi-unit construction along Piedmont Ave. near Piedmont Park resulted in the demolition of many charming small houses, some of which were rental properties, and the construction of townhouses that sell for well over $1 million. Here’s just one example: https://www.zillow.com/homedetails/1204-Piedmont-Ave-NE-2-Atlanta-GA-30309/2083015873_zpid/. Other examples abound near Edgewood and Krog Street. Forcing neighborhoods to allow developers to tear down existing houses, as of right, is against the spirit and purpose of the neighborhood planning units originated by Maynard Jackson. It is putting the force of law in service of private profit, over neighborhood objections and against neighborhood preservation.
I agree both with you and the author. What I’d like to see is these zoning changes implemented as an alternative to the massive apartment buildings going up. The 5-over-1 construction going up all over the city, and massive apartment complexes with huge parking podiums do a disservice to people both economically and aesthetically. Economically, they further the income inequality issue, further separating the landlord class and the renter class. They make it harder for bad landlords to fail and become renters, and good renters to save up and buy property, which they’d be able to do if we had more apartment buildings in the 2-10 unit range. Aesthetically, they take up the whole block, and you really end up losing the variety and diversity of architecture, retailers, and land uses that makes a city special. I think, even in the urban core of midtown, everyone would be better off if we had multiple smaller buildings side-by-side on a single block, with many local owners, rather than the Orwellian apartment blocks, owned by far-off billionaires and nameless corporations that have been eating up the city in the last ten years. Alongside that, keeping the historic single family neighborhoods intact is a must. Sticking a tiny house or renting out a garage on a single family lot is one thing, tearing down and changing the neighborhood house by house is another.
Looks great and 3 additional neighbors that can lend you an egg when you run out while you are trying to make brownies.
What’s not to love?
This is a complicated issue, and the currently written proposed changes are, IMO, way too much change for people who currently live in and own homes in the generally SFR areas intown. For example, the old, existing apartment building pictured above at 6th and Argonne in Midtown with the caption “A small apartment building in Midtown does not overwhelm its surroundings, according to the author. Credit: Sally Flocks” currently does not overwhelm the the neighbors because it is old and has existed before any of the neighbors moved in. However, if the approximately 8-10 single family homes or duplexes were demolished to make a lot this size, and then this building was built, it most certainly would overwhelm the neighbors, and not in a good way. ADUs, and small additions can really help owners pay the bills and increasing taxes, and add to affordable housing options. Large developments of 10+ units help loose the character of a neighborhood, and don’t provide meaningful affordable housing, at least so far.
Affordability in Atlanta is left to blighted areas. MR-MUs was a very good idea to bring a diverse group of income earners to the same neighborhood. This is truly the best way to bring diversity to our city. ADU’s and MR-MUs allow these smaller scale affordable housing, but it was strongly opposed by the “single family owner occupied” crowd. They rule these NPUs with an iron fist and have no interest in having “renters” and “low income owners” in their backyard…
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