One of the goals of the Atlanta Beltline is to spur transit-oriented development in the city's urban core. Think medium-rise buildings with apartments above shops and offices, like what you might find in Inman Park and Decatur, that are served by streetcars.
The difficulty of achieving that goal has recently been made clear thanks to a proposed development that would include a 177,000-square-foot retail center on Glenwood Avenue along the Beltline in southeast Atlanta. Current plans call for the construction of a monolithic, big-box retail center sitting in the middle of a sprawling parking lot.
This is certainly not the kind of development that local residents want — as nearby communities have made clear with a protest, petition, and letter-writing campaign. (Full disclosure: I started one such effort.) Nor is it what Atlanta needs.
But thanks to some loopholes in city land-use and zoning policies, developers can disregard the pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented vision of the Beltline, and instead continue to build according to an obsolete model of car-centric development that's a detriment to our city's vitality — much like what's been proposed along Glenwood Avenue.
The Beltline vision is about more than transit, trails, and green space. It includes revitalizing intown Atlanta, increasing density, improving walkability, reducing our dependence on cars, and redefining how we live, work, shop, and interact with our neighbors. And transit-oriented developments — not suburban-style developments — are critical to its success.
To achieve this vision, Beltline staff, neighborhood groups, and city planners spent months working together to create master plans for each of the project's 10 "subareas" to guide future development and ensure whatever's built reflects the unique character of each community. After a lengthy public input process, these proposed visions were approved by the Neighborhood Planning Units and adopted by the City Council. And now, with Fuqua's proposal, those plans face their first real test.
The area in question, near the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Bill Kennedy Way, is important to both the Beltline and MARTA's future transit plans along I-20. Major stops along both lines will be located here and will serve the transfer point between them. Glenwood Park, a model of new urbanism, the Enso Lofts, and Maynard H. Jackson High School are all located in the area, which features bike lanes. A vibrant mixed-use, livable community is already taking shape. This is precisely the kind of transit-oriented development the Beltline is supposed to serve and deliver.
Recently, Jeff Fuqua, a veteran Atlanta developer, announced his plans to transform a former concrete plant in the area into a retail center adjacent to the future Beltline stop. His firm has submitted plans to the city that are uninspired to say the least: 10 acres of parking lot with a big box retail store plopped in the middle.
This concept was not in the master plan, which called for mixed-use developments and a walkable street grid breaking up the parcel. Yet it could still become a reality.
Although the site sits inside the Beltline overlay district and is included in the area's master plan, which was adopted by the Atlanta City Council, its zoning was never changed. The property retains the industrial zoning that it had prior to the master plan.
As a result, Fuqua's firm can ignore any and all recommendations made by the public during that costly and time-intensive master-planning process. In order for the development to proceed, the city's planning department needs only to approve what's called a Special Administrative Permit.
This situation is not unique to the Glenwood site. When the Atlanta City Council adopted the Beltline subarea master plans, changing the zoning was not a part of that process. Properties inside the project's overlay district across the city remain zoned exactly as they were prior to Council's adoption of master plans, leaving the city without any legal enforcement mechanism to dictate what and how a developer can build along the project.
Without the zoning in place, the master plans are just pretty pictures and big dreams stored in a filing cabinet somewhere in City Hall.
The sole authority to decide what is or is not developed on Glenwood Avenue and elsewhere along the Beltline now rests entirely within the city's Office of Planning. The staffers there are professionals who do the best that they can, but they do not answer to the Atlanta City Council. Therefore citizens are not directly represented in this process. It is irresponsible — and undermines the public's trust in the process — to grant one office control over the fate of the most important public project that Atlanta has undertaken in decades.
So now we will see how committed the city is to the Beltline concept and its vision. The choices in the case of Fuqua's proposed development are stark: ignore the Beltline master plan entirely, or refuse the permit until he submits plans that comply.
If the city doesn't stand up for the vision of the Beltline at this crucial moment, we have no reason to expect they will do so anywhere else.
That is what makes the current debate over the proposed Glenwood development so important. It's an opportunity to settle this issue once and for all. There's no sense in fighting this battle every time a new development blatantly violates the Beltline master plan. We must complete the process of rezoning all of the Beltline subareas and have it adopted by the council into the city ordinance.
Doing so won't be easy. It would take development moratoriums and countless public meetings. However, it would ensure that the future of Atlanta isn't left to the whim of city planners or the retrogressive designs of suburban developers.
A few weeks ago, at the Atlanta Regional Commission's State of the Region Breakfast, ARC Chairman Tad Leithead asked the audience if Atlanta "was doomed to mediocrity." The answer he gave was an emphatic "Hell no."
Atlantans want transit-oriented development. Adding teeth to the Beltline master plan is the solution we need to protect the greatest urbanization project this city has seen in decades from the mediocre urban design of the past.