Op-Ed: Decatur Provides Urban Model for Atlanta

David points to this op-ed on the Saporta Report by Atlanta-based landscape architect and urban designer Mike Morgan urging Atlanta to use Decatur as its model to “reorient growth to people”.  Here are a couple of interesting blurbs…

Fortunately, we do not have go very far to find a great example the results that can be achieved through a change of direction.

Decatur is the place, and it is right next door. Decatur made a radical choice to reorient itself to the realm of the pedestrian. They went on a road diet. They narrowed Ponce De Leon Ave. to two lanes. They replaced auto capacity with shady sidewalks, on-street parking, and bike lanes. They focused a vibrant living environment right on top of their fine downtown train station.

…Atlanta, to date, lacks a focused commitment to an urbane lifestyle. Look at the areas surrounding most of the intown train stations. While originally envisioned as community centers, policies were never put in place to make transit development desirable.

Stations are separated from users by blasted looking parking lots, high fences, atrocious urban design, dangerous roadways and sprawling commercial districts. The stations are not friendly to pedestrians or bicyclists. Is there any wonder that few people use them?

Related to these observations, does anyone with a deep MARTA history know why the North/South line runs close to, but not directly under Peachtree Street?

21 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Decatur Provides Urban Model for Atlanta”

  1. Construction of the MARTA tunnels involved the demolition or reduction of buildings in spots downtown because the blasting for the tunnels was going to compromise the safety of the buildings. Case in point is the Eisenman building on Peachtree, the facade of which was saved and preserved inside the Five Points MARTA station which the remainder of the building was leveled.

    My guess is that there were too many buildings on Peachtree Street in Midtown that would’ve been threatened by the tunnel blasting, so they aligned it to the west of them where there was less stuff of value.

    This quoted opinion piece is great, BTW, and I agree with it. Atlanta should take some bold steps like Decatur has taken in removing lanes and increasing pedestrian safety and improving the walking experience in many places.

    1. Thanks, I figured as much but needed confirmation. I know that Decatur sacrificed/moved a good amount of buildings and streets to accommodate MARTA, so it’s no big surprise.

      If it had been possible without destroying the urban environment, a Peachtree MARTA line seems like it would be a much more successful setup from an “urban” standpoint than the oddly “dead zone” stations one block off of Peachtree. They’re ALMOST on Peachtree, but the fact that they take up so much physical space themselves above-ground with bus turn arounds, etc makes them a lot less convenient and top of mind…to me at least.

  2. While I don’t disagree with much of what Mr. Morgan says, is it really fair to compare the two? Decatur is, what, 19,000 residents in 4.2 square miles? The city of Atlanta is exponentially larger, with half a million residents in 131 square miles (and the larger, more unwieldy government that goes with that size).

    I have no background in urban planning, nor much knowledge of city infrastructure or transportation, but it seems to me Decatur has been successful in this area precisely because of its small size and comparatively wealthy tax base of people who share similar goals. Atlanta has a far larger and more diverse population in terms of socioeconomics and ethnicity, and I would expect that the result is a greater variety of thought on the city’s future, making Decatur-like decision-making much more difficult.

    1. It is fair, when you consider areas around transit stations, for example, where Atlanta had the opportunity to make a fresh start with zoning and land use planning. Perhaps not for an entire 131 square miles, but certainly for neighborhoods that may more closely resemble Decatur in size and population. There are things like Neighborhood Planning Units in Atlanta, which can bring such issues and policies down to a manageable local level. It’s a matter of political will.

    2. You are correct that Atlanta and Decatur operate on a different scale, and I will acknowledge that achieving the Decatur’s success would be significantly more challenging in Atlanta’s politicized environment.

      Nonetheless, Atlanta would benefit from pursuing the keys to success that Decatur has demonstrated:

      1) Involve the community in defining a long term vision. While Atlanta’s vision will not be the same as Decatur’s, every Atlanta mayor since the 80’s has fretted about how to make Atlanta a more “livable” city.

      2) Define an action plan with milestones that will work towards achieving this vision (including changes to zoning, investments in infrastructure), then engage the community for feedback. Decatur’s scale make this easier, but I personally think it works here because we have professional city management and a mayor and city council that do not have an eye to higher office or padding their own nests.

      3) Stick to the plan! Review building permits with an eye to the vision. Request reasonable adjustments to development plans that would help to realize this vision.

      The examples that Mr. Morgan cites are concrete (pardon the pun) examples of this leadership failure to align stakeholders and follow through. Sadly, it appears (from the outside) that where Atlanta has found success in improving the city, it has come from leadership outside of city hall: see ’96 Olympics, GA Acquarium, Piedmont Park Conservancy, Midtown Alliance, etc.

    3. Point of clarification: City of Decatur was not so wealthy when it started planning for a more livable community. I can remember the pre-McCraftsman era when the northside was mostly middle class homes with a few, but not many, Druid Hills-ish historic homes, but also some “transitional” areas. The Great Lakes still had lots of tiny bungalows and fixer uppers. The southside had cheaper housing and some downright dangerous areas, but more upscale homes around Winnona Park and in the MAK district. Decatur did not have the aura or income levels of Druid Hills or Dunwoody or even Oak Grove. IMHO, it was the slow, deliberate, persistent community planning and fidelity to that planning that made a difference and attracted folks to Decatur. The kind of folks who like a livable community also like the idea of neighborhood schools and soon CSD benefitted from the city’s vision. Now, Decatur is a more homogenous, more upscale community but it wasn’t always so.

  3. I was out of town and picked up a copy of USA Today, this past Sunday. On the front page there was an article about how suburbs are reinventing themselves by creating small towns as their center of activity with a city hall, pedestrian friendly streets and creating housing apts./condos on top levels of retail stores. The article said people are realizing they have to build their neighborhoods for the people first and the automobile second. The article described it like it was some amazing new idea. How crazy people are and how unbelievable it is that the concept of a town/city which has been in existence for hundreds and thousands of years can be written about like it is some new creation. (It was USA Today). Also made me feel proud to be a 27 year resident of Decatur and how Decatur has continued to prioritize the (very old idea of a) town concept being built for the people that live in it.

  4. I remember coming to Decatur to go to the library in the late 1980’s and the place was a ghost town. It is nice to see it back to life.

  5. In my opinion, and I was around in the Seventies and Eighties, Decatur was never a ghost town, only one that offered different services than what we have now. If you think that having bars, restaurants, and chi-chil shops everywhere is an improvement, then Decatur is a vision for the rest of Georgia. But to steal a phrase from a country and western song, “bars on every corner mean bars on every heart”.
    Is there a better alternative? I think the CVS development, which the city fought against, allows a more diverse business environment that is not so dependent on alcohol. It has restaurants but plenty of parking and family friendly stores.

    1. The City did not fight the CVS development, only the configuration. The original plan would have had it back in the corner of the strip with a large parking lot totally exposed at the corner of W Ponce and Commerce. The City insisted on moving it up to the corner of the street where is is now. Imagine that corner with an expanse of parking lot and imagine the CVS without all the foot traffic it gets.

    2. Chris:
      I have to disagree with you on whether or not Decatur was a ghost town in the 70’s and 80″s. and the implications of that. I worked for the UGA Cop Extension Service from 1978 to 1982. My office was in the old Courthouse. While there were some open businesses, downtown, Decatur was pretty dead. For example, the only restaurants open after 5pm may have been the Huddle House. If you were to examine the tax revenue downtown property owners paid to the City coffers, then and now, to pay for needed City services, the rejuvenated downtown is certainly helping to improve the physical environment throughout the City.

  6. If anyone wants a firsthand account of the downtown Decatur’s turnaround they should read local author Mary Jane Mahan’s “Love at the Pub” http://www.amazon.com/Love-Pub-Craftsmanship-Conversation-Community/dp/1440170355 It’s about the rise of the Brick Store, which was part-and-parcel to the rise of downtown Decatur.

    Chris, all you have to do is look at property values. The market has spoken. You could buy a downtown property for $100k or less in the mid 90s. That same property today would likely cost you probably 10x the amount. Proves that the demand for what we have today is far greater than your “different services.”

    I was in Decatur in the mid 90s. There is absolutely no way that I would have let my children walk home from school back then, through the square, the way they do now. I’d say it’s NOW one of the more “family friendly” spaces in intown Atlanta.

  7. All you have to do is look at photographs of Decatur in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s to see how land use has changed Decatur to make it more urban, walkable, and vibrant place. This is not to say that the “old” Decatur was a bad place. There is no reason for Chris Billingsley to get all defensive about that.

    And, yes, what does “family friendly” mean? To me that is just right wing code language.

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