A Streetcar Named Opportunity
A few months ago, the announcement was made of a $47 million dollar investment in light rail in Atlanta by the Federal government. If leveraged correctly, this investment can change in-town Atlanta for the better and for good. There has been a lot of talk- both in favor and against- regarding the streetcar, so naturally, we just had to weigh in.
Now, for those of you out there who do not know, Atlanta used to have one of the most comprehensive streetcar networks in the country. The streetcar lines, which were built by private land developers, fueled the growth of the “Bungalow Ring”, or what is now the in-town neighborhoods. The streetcar effectively built Atlanta. And in true Atlanta fashion, they were all torn up in the late 40′s in favor of the bus. Awesome.
So, fast forward to today, we find ourselves with a $47 million dollar check from Uncle Sam (i.e. We, the People) and ask ourselves, “What do we do with it?” We could use it to widen a road, or to make a few intersections more pedestrian- friendly. It would actually go a long way to buy land for greenspace. So then, why spend it on a 2.5-mile streetcar loop that connects Centennial Park and the MLK historic district?
Because this is not just a streetcar – it’s a Streetcar Named Opportunity.
As is the case most of the time, many people miss the forest for the trees. Detractors say that a streetcar won’t help traffic. Well, maybe not in Cherokee County, but it will increase the walkability of Downtown, which is of great importance to us that make Atlanta our home. Not all transporation projects need to address making it easier for suburbanites to drive their SUV’s. Detractors say that the taxpayers will have to support it. Well, how do you like driving on those roads that apparently “just happened by magic?” Who do you think pays for the operation of them? That’s right folks, the taxpayers. And, while we’re on the topic of taxes, we here in the city pay taxes too, and we want something for them, just like you. We just want different things than you. We want a streetcar network so we don’t have to drive everywhere. This is the beginning of building that network, not the end.
This streetcar is an opportunity for us as a city to test our assumptions about streetcars and light rail, and how they actually fit within our urban framework. It is an opportunity to establish the operational infrastructure to allow for the implementation of the Beltline transit. It is an opportunity to support the current rejuvination of a troubled area, and to support the small-business owners and entrepreneurs that are forging a new neighborhood out of abandoned buildings. It is also an opportunity to establish a backbone that a larger system can grow out of; where we can figure this “light rail” thing out. This is not about the 2.5 miles that we are going to build starting in 2012, but the following 40-50 miles of light rail that we can build after that.
In true revision|CLOUD fashion, we have decided to not just tell you what we think, but show you what we mean. What follows is what we think should happen as this seed of a 2.5 mile light rail line should grow into. Our plan is based on the assumption that light rail lines cannot create economic growth- as most officials and proponents would trumpet- but rather can only SUPPORT economic growth that is already there. If you think that any governmental agency can create healthy entertainment districts or neighborhoods, I welcome you to visit Underground Atlanta, and to research the old East Lake Commons. Jurisdictional regulations and initiatives can only create an environment to support growth that has already started- usually from small-businesses and entrepreneurs (see Midtown Alliance).
As such, our plan does just that- it targets areas that need transit connectivity and places where flickers and the beginnings of economic vitality and growth are starting to emerge.
Connectivity to Phase 1 of the Beltline Transit
The most evident expansion for us is to connect the streetcar to the Beltline (which for those of you not from Atlanta, is a new parks and transit loop). Current proposed alignment diagrams show it coming within a mere three blocks of the Eastside portion. It has become pretty evident that the first part of the Beltline light rail will be on the Eastside, due to the required density of residents needed to support it. Given that stance, we feel that the currently proposed streetcar should be extended to link up with it- preferrably in the first phase of construction. This will accomplish a few things at once: 1) it will allow the Beltline to connect directly to downtown and MARTA (@ Peachtree Center), 2) it will open up an entire area to increased walkability, and 3) it will provide the maintenance facilities (currently proposed under the Connector) for the Beltline train, thereby dramatically reducing the start up costs. This extension will also help to support the new restaurant/ bar district along Edgewood. This area, fueled by places such as Soundtable, Noni’s, and Corner Tavern, have changes the face of the part of Downtown. This redevelopment occurred organically, with no “studies” or developers. Providing transit to this area would help to support and sustain this economic growth.
While we’re at it, let’s go ahead and integrate this phase of the Beltline into this project- and stop the Balkanization of transit planning and construction in this city. The Revision|CLOUD believes in singular cohesive visions.
This extension of the Downtown streetcar would open up the “streetcar neighborhoods” of Inman Park, Fourth Ward, and Virginia Highlands and give them access to MARTA (albeit in a roundabout way). Many of the residents of in-town neighborhoods work in-town, and so connectivity to transit would be a viable alternative. Again, remember, this is not about suburban commuters (from Cherokee County), but rather providing transportation alternatives within the central core of Atlanta.
Going to the Westside: Connecting to existing areas of economic growth
For many years, I wondered how Atlanta could best leverage light rail- much like Portland did with the Pearl District- to support (not create) economic growth within the city. It always seemed to me that one of the best places for transit would be the Marietta St./ Howell Mill corridor. Marietta street links the GWCC, the world headquarters of Coca Cola (have you seen that mess on North Ave. at rush hour?), Georgia Tech, and the Westside, as well as several loft areas. None of this is currently served by transit. Connecting to MARTA through Atlantic Station and adding transit along Marietta street would provide a “back door” to major job (and traffic) centers such as the GWCC, Coke, and GA Tech, thereby reducing traffic and increasing connectivity.
New, hip areas like the Howell Mill/ Marietta St. corridor, where the growth was already occurring, must be supported with our civic infrastructure. While self-sustaining, adding transit linkages would take this area to the next level. For those of you who don’t know, the Westside used to be the nothing more than the backside of Georgia Tech. Over the years, it has developed (organically, I might add) into one of the best areas in town. While not exactly a pedestrian’s dream (yet!), it has a wonderful mix of people and uses. It is home to two arts institutions, arguably the best restaurant in the city, and one of the top five taco joints in America. Even in the midst of a recession, it remains to be a thriving and growing neighborhood.
It seems perfect: a growing number of residences, bars, restaurants, and retail, and tons of depressed industrial land to redevelop. Transit options need to go where people want to go, and the West Midtown area is such a place. Extending the current proposed alignment westward would service many different potential rider groups. It would provide a transit link and backdoor to the Coca Cola campus, provide a transit connection to the west side of Georgia Tech, provide service to the Designer District on Huff Rd/ Howell Mill Rd., provide service to the Marietta Loft District, and finally establish the light rail service link to Atlantic Station- terminating at the Arts Center MARTA station. By basically creating a westside loop, the streetcar would link Coke’s campus with Freedom Park, and the High Museum with the King Center. By servicing these potential rider groups: residents, tourists, and corporate executives, the train would attract enough riders to make it economically viable.