Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

There’s a bunch of new signs popping up around town. Or maybe not new, but new to me and to DM. And that counts. Here are some notables.

Retail Conversion?
When One Decatur Town Center was built in 1984, replacing the former Candler Hotel, downtown was pretty darn dead. Unless you count the hookers, that is. Or so I’ve been told. Either way, while the city’s vision called for development that would contribute to a new “Main Street” lined with shops and restaurants, the market economics of the day said, “no.” So, the building was built in such a way that the ground floor could be leased for office space until such time that the retail market improved, upon which the space could be retrofitted to assume its intended use. 25+ years later, we might finally be there.

At least that’s what’s suggested by this first picture. Any of our regular insiders know more? My personal assessment is that such a conversion would add even more interest to this stretch of Ponce, which has already assumed the role of one of our most charming downtown blocks. And there’s certainly historic precedent, such as the retail space that originally occupied the ground floor of the Pythagoras Mason Temple Building.

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Decatur’s Success is No Accident

It’s always nice when Decatur gets good press but there’s really nothing better than the sweet love of a piece that not only sings our praises but does so while contrasting us with other DeKalb towns choking on Decatur’s leading-edge dust.

Such was the case in Saturday’s AJC as local commentator (and retired furrier!) Bill York, in this op-ed, waxed fawningly over our little ‘burg:

“Decatur has been a runaway success. Others waited too long and moved too slowly.”

The real point of the piece is that, in these times of scaled back consumer spending, it’s the towns that previously invested in their commercial districts that are best surviving. Even thriving. He goes on to detail faltering efforts around the county and concludes with the assertion that, to be competitive, towns need to be prettied up and rents need to be jimmied down.

I don’t suppose I disagree with any of that, and it’s nice to see Decatur get some much-deserved props, but I do think a bit more ink could have been applied to just how difficult such ideas are to implement.

Bottom line, every city thinks they deserve to be great but few cities actually are. That’s because saying you’re great is easy. Being great isn’t.

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Street of Reams

Lemme tell you something about roads: They involve a lot of specialists working at all levels of bureaucracy who don’t always communicate with each other. And when they don’t–which is often–common sense is usually the first casualty.

The biggest problem is that the DOT, along with all the private sector folks suckling at their financial teat, see three types of roads: locals, which dump into collectors, which dump into the arterials that handle the heavy, through traffic. Works well enough in the ‘burbs, I guess, but not so useful in a place like Decatur, where streets of many sizes and configurations weave and connect their way through a variety of historic contexts.

The degree to which this three-sizes-fits-all thinking can undermine the joyful complexity of an interconnected, traditional urban place is, for a geek like me who obsesses over such things, extensive. And it’s not just me. Over time, all kinds of communities have gotten sick and tired of poorly designed thoroughfares being rammed through the places they care about most, with little regard for what makes them work or what makes them special.

Outcries drove the DOT to begin rallying, at least in their press releases, around the flag of “Context Sensitive Design.” They’re still not very good at it (they’ve always been much better at responding to the needs of cars than to the needs of people or the demands of place), but it’s been a veer in the right direction nonetheless. And now you hear a lot of talk about Complete Streets, which will push them even further into the 21st century. So there’s hope.

But I digress. For now, I want to point out what looks like some good, old-fashioned, specialists-in-silos craziness. Please join me as we tour East Lake Drive, just south of the tracks, where I speculate — from a reading of the clues — about what’s going on.

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Forecourt. By Marriott.

Be forewarned: This may get wonky.

I figure that’s okay. With DM working the daily, well-reasoned news and perspective angle, Daren staking out the purview of “hare-brained schemes,” and Andisheh reminding us that, boosterism aside, we’ve still got problems to solve, wonky is pretty much what’s left. Which is fine. It suits me.

Recent talk about the Holiday Inn to Courtyard conversion got me thinking. Most, if not all, of the comments so far have focused on, at the micro-level, the quality of the accommodations or, at the macro-level, the hipness factor and overall economic benefit to Decatur. But what about the space in between those two extremes — the day to day quality of life for the people who live here?

The Holiday Inn was considered a coup when it was built because it fulfilled a key goal of 1982’s Town Center plan and, I think overall, it has been a successful addition to downtown. Nonetheless, from a design perspective, it’s really worked in spite of its design rather than because of it.

It’s as though, when it was built, someone said, “Shame about the location” and simply shoehorned their standard, just off the interstate, hotel template into the site rather than embracing the street and Decatur’s vision for downtown. But perhaps the Courtyard conversion presents an opportunity to correct that.

That’s right. I’m talkin’ ‘bout terraces.

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