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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

CL's guide to Atlantic Station

"Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct. I'd flip through catalogs and wonder, 'What kind of dining set defines me?'" - Edward Norton's unnamed character in the movie Fight Club.

The June 29 opening of Ikea, a Swedish home furnishing store, will mark a major milestone in Atlanta's growth into an actual metropolis, like Chicago or Boston.

New Ikeas are very big deals. Slick design and affordability make Ikea beloved by hip, young, upwardly mobile types - people who look forward to defining themselves by their dining sets.

New Ikeas can also be very big nightmares. Last year, three shoppers were trampled to death at the grand opening of an Ikea in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And one man was stabbed, five people hospitalized, and 22 others treated for heat exhaustion and minor injuries at the midnight grand opening of a store in north London last February.

The opening of Atlanta's Ikea on the west border of Atlantic Station, the $2 billion mega-development rising on the west side of the 17th Street bridge, hopefully will be less traumatic. But its significance - and that of the wider Atlantic Station development - is a mixed bag.

The 138-acre project is a live-work complex whose size rivals that of a small town. When completed, there will be about 5,000 apartments, townhomes and condos, 6 million square feet of office space, 11 acres of parks, and 1.5 million square feet of shops, restaurants and other entertainment, including a 16-screen movie theater.

Despite the grand vision behind Atlantic Station, it's shaping up to be - Ikea aside - remarkably unremarkable. To put it kindly, Atlantic Station's mix of shops and its style of construction will render it virtually indistinguishable from a large suburban shopping mall surrounded by large Buckhead-esque condo developments sitting atop a large underground parking lot.

THE GOOD

Still, Atlantic Station is better than the abandoned steel mill it replaced. Consider:

Atlantic Station is the largest brownfield redevelopment project in the nation. Brownfield redevelopment is a fancy way of saying that construction crews demolished a rundown industrial wasteland and turned it into a shiny new development. What's more, developers removed 9,000 dump truck loads of contaminated soil and other materials from the site.

Atlantic Station's office buildings were constructed with environmentally friendly materials and are super energy efficient. And with 2,500 residential units finished at Atlantic Station by the end of 2005, and twice that number in a couple more years, there might be fewer people commuting to the city from the suburbs than there otherwise would be.

Atlantic Station developers went out of their way to make the project pedestrian-friendly and accessible by mass transit. A shuttle system from the MARTA Arts Center Station will travel to several stops inside the development. And bike lanes and a dedicated shuttle lane were added to 17th Street.

Most of the parking spaces are underground, making the retail and entertainment district pedestrian-friendly. Residents will be able to walk from their homes to shops, restaurants and the movie theater. Visitors can window-shop in an outside urban setting. And some of the streets will be pedestrian-only, with cobblestones.

THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

Underground parking will make the surface level more walkable, but that doesn't change the fact that Atlantic Station is a retail center bigger than most malls. Nearby streets will be flooded with traffic, according to Bryan Hager, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club's sustainable communities program. And Ikea will attract shoppers from distances much farther than intown Atlanta. "It's designed to capture suburban shoppers and commuters," Hager says of Ikea. "And that's the compromise [Atlantic Station] made."

Ikea is separated from the rest of Atlantic Station by a gargantuan parking lot. That means shoppers who park underground will have to get back in their cars and drive to Ikea. A trip to Ikea is likely going to require a car, regardless. "If you're going to go to an Ikea to buy furniture, you're going to leave that day with the furniture in your vehicle, so I can understand that criticism," says Derrick McSwain, chief financial officer for Atlantic Station LLC. "These big-box retailers are here to stay. They have to go somewhere, and the other option would be to have all the big-box retailers out in the suburban markets, where people who live intown have to drive 30 or 40 miles."

The mix of stores at Atlantic Station is hardly different from the mix at the Mall of Georgia, or even less upscale malls like Kennesaw's Town Center. Besides the Ikea and a couple of restaurants, Atlantic Station only offers standard suburban fare. When you add it all up, Atlantic Station looks more like Cobb County than Atlanta. Ikea will be Atlantic Station's biggest asset. But it may also be its biggest drawback, in that it'll suck cars from across the region straight into Midtown.

One possible solution, which didn't occur to Atlantic Station developers until they sold all their residential units (months ahead of schedule), would have been to build more residential units.

"I personally would have liked to see a lot more housing on the site," says the Sierra Club's Hager. "When you start adding more residents, you start to add [public transportation] riders and more people who spend [more of] their sales tax dollars locally in the city."

Michael.wall@creativeloafing.com