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What I Learned from Atlanta

09.23.2007 by André Natta · → 1 Comment

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Editor’s note: After reading my recent editorial and making a visit to Atlanta, Terminal contributor Charles Buchanan decided to type a few words about his most recent trip to Atlanta. He originally wrote this piece for his personal blog, Pop Goes the City. – ACN

Last weekend I journeyed to Atlanta for the East Atlanta Village Strut, a little festival/artist market in a regenerating area of the city, east of downtown and south of Interstate 20. It was a part of the city I hadn’t really explored before, and I was fascinated by the things happening there–things that might be a good fit for Birmingham as well.

Infill housing: In every neighborhood I visited, it seemed that abandoned houses and vacant lots were being wiped away in favor of new single-family homes, lofts, or condos. The new residences were sized and designed to fit their streets–nothing tall or styled like a French chateau. I’m a fan of the infill housing concept because it helps preserve communities, remove eyesores, and hopefully reduce some sprawl. Of course, it’s not without its problems; I would imagine that the lower-income residents of those neighborhoods get squeezed out by the newcomers, with no hope of affording the new houses.

Infill retail: I got in a traffic jam between East Atlanta and Five Points. The cause? A mini-Summit-style shopping center smack in the middle of town, with a Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and other familiar big box stores. I could tell it was a draw for people from miles around, yet it didn’t seem to be causing trouble for the independent stores in East Atlanta and Five Points, which were doing a good business the day I was there. Now I know Atlanta has more population density than central Birmingham, but this center demonstrated that big retail can work within the city. Perhaps the proposed Wal-Mart shopping center in Titusville could open the door for this type of development here.

Midtown Mile: This isn’t as likely to work here, but I like the concept: Atlanta is trying to create its own version of Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile”–a city street that becomes a shopping magnet, pulling big-name stores (Apple, Nike, designer clothing, etc.) out of the malls and into storefronts, with hotels and restaurants to follow. Atlanta is targeting Peachtree St. in Midtown for this makeover, and it seems that many building developers like the idea, because they’re planning towers with plenty of space for curbside retail. Like I said, it would be tougher to pull off here, but perhaps we could encourage more developers–particularly downtown and around the Railroad Reservation Park–to add streetside retail when they construct or renovate.

Transit: Atlanta was already way ahead of us on this one, but now there’s talk of two streetcar lines (with modern monorail-looking streetcars; nothing like the trolleys of old). One would run up Peachtree, from downtown to Buckhead, and the other would make a downtown loop. Planning is still in the early stages, but we should be taking notes on how to make such a system happen. (Another plus is that our streets are already wide enough to accommodate streetcars, unlike Atlanta’s.)

Birmingham loves to compare itself to Atlanta. We used to be envious. Now I think many of us believe bigger isn’t always better. But either way, I think we can look at our eastern neighbor and learn what works–and what doesn’t–at keeping a core city alive and well. What have you learned from your trips to Atlanta or other cities? What could work in Birmingham?

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Filed under: Alabama · Birmingham · Commentary · development


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