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What to do about English Avenue?

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In 2008, at the request of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association, I worked with a team of graduate students to assess the issues plaguing the long-neglected area.

English Avenue is a short walk from some of Atlanta's largest employers and best amenities: the Coca-Cola headquarters, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Dome, Philips Arena, the World Congress Center, the Georgia Aquarium, Centennial Park, the Atlanta University Center and new development along Howell Mill Road and Marietta Street. Despite this, the area suffers from a variety of problems that dwarfs what's going on in other parts of the city.

Our work revealed that more than 50 percent of the neighborhood's land was either vacant or littered with unoccupied structures. In some cases, we found blocks with few residents at all. We conducted our analysis prior to the start of the housing crisis, so the conditions are certainly bleaker now. Beyond the rough physical conditions, we found poor city services, unengaged social institutions, distressed and scared small business owners and residents with little access to services or hope of solving the area's problems.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed traveled to England last month and met with Prince Charles' Foundation for the Built Environment and their flagship project Poundbury. The foundation's previous work supports design-based solutions to revitalization. Many cities and developers have favored this approach for many reasons. Designers and developers simply have more to show for their work than advocates of policy that focuses on individuals and families. Unlike a physical overhaul of a street or block, success in social policy is hard to measure and often lacks immediate results.

Projects like Poundbury allow designers to construct entirely new places in central cities. Developers get to profit off fallow and undervalued land. Governments get to generate new tax revenue through property taxes, and new employment generated by firms attracted to new commercial office and retail spaces.

Mayor Reed is left to decide if we fix English Avenue to protect and enhance everything around it — or if we revitalize English Avenue to serve the residents themselves. Unfortunately, the neighborhood's physical problems are mere symptoms of the deeper maladies its residents are facing.

The mayor's willingness to travel such a distance to find a workable solution to English Avenue's problems is commendable. But if he uses Poundbury as a framework, he runs the risk of focusing on the fate of buildings and not the people who live there. Innovative design and new development cannot solve problems like drug-related violence, underperforming schools and unemployment.

The mayor appears to be interested in kick-starting the redevelopment of English Avenue by re-creating the now defunct Mims Park. Residents may welcome this much-needed amenity but wonder why this is the city's response to their problems. The key to the neighborhood future lies with the residents who already have invested their money and lives. The revitalization and transformation of English Avenue may take longer if we hold off on design-driven development — but if we do, we might get closer to a more durable neighborhood by making revitalization about the people who have been there all along.

Harley F. Etienne, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of city and regional planning and public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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