Could the Chattahoochee River become Atlanta’s waterfront?

Ambitious plan to build parks, towers along river takes shape

Atlanta is a rarity among big cities for its lack of a waterfront. Well, it has one in the Chattahoochee River, which forms a healthy chunk of the city’s northwest border. And that part of the vital waterway south of the popular Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area isn’t an area many people venture to in order to relax.

A massive plan is in the works to change that, however, by redeveloping a 53-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee south of Vinings as public parks and private uses. On May 7, a vision for this new River Park — including a line of towers to highlight the now-overlooked river’s course — created by Georgia Tech students was unveiled as inspiration for a planning process that will launch early next year.

“The Atlanta region does not know it has a river,” said Richard Dagenhart, an emeritus professor of architecture at Georgia Tech, presenting the students’ studio work at the Museum of Design Atlanta. He likened the river’s opportunity and potential to the Atlanta Beltline, which was also hatched by a Georgia Tech student.

Advocating for the river’s rebirth is Chattahoochee NOW, a Decatur-based nonprofit that has partnered with practically every government agency around; fellow big-thinkers like Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the PATH Foundation; and many real estate interests, too. Its board chair, Jodi Mansbach, is a vice president at development titan Jamestown, which in addition to Ponce City Market is creating the Riverview Landing mixed-use project along the river in Mableton.

The Chattahoochee runs from the Blue Ridge Mountains into Lake Lanier and through then western metro Atlanta. It ultimately ends at the Gulf of Mexico. The project’s target area is the long stretch south of the protected CRNRA to Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County. The main idea: a highly varied area of recreational and redevelopment uses along the corridor. The project would be relatively close to various existing parks, including Sweetwater State Park, and the equally ambitious Emerald Corridor that envisions revitalizing the long-polluted Proctor Creek with a greenway system that snakes from the river near Downtown.

Chattahoochee NOW came together two and a half years ago, but really geared up last fall with the hiring of Executive Director Shannon Kettering. It’s now fundraising for a full-scale river planning effort called “Vision 53” that aims to launch in 2016.

In the meantime, the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit that does work all along the river and another of the group’s partners, commissioned the Georgia Tech Design and Research studio project to spark imaginations. Judging by the applause from roughly 60 Chattahoochee NOW partners in the room at MODA, it did its job.

Dagenhart showed off examples of other river parks as potential models, especially the various parks and public spaces built along the Tennessee River in Chattanooga according to a similar master plan drawn up in the 1980s. But Atlanta has unique challenges. The river is about 10 miles from Downtown, and largely hidden behind a wall of such hulking sites as the Atlanta Industrial Park.

“How do you give identity to 50 miles of park?” Dagenhart asked. The students’ answer: “Maybe you build a tower.”

In fact, lots of towers that can show off the river and the city to each other, and give a sense of design unity. “Tower” can mean almost anything serving various uses: observation decks, water towers, sculptures, even just lighting up the smokestacks at Georgia Power’s plant in Newnan.

But how could people get to this tower-dotted river on the horizon? Accessibility, as well as assembling land for redevelopment, are big challenges. But, Dagenhart notes, many streets and bridges already provide public rights-of-way that are “low-hanging fruit” for expansion. And in a really big plan, the students envisioned MARTA extending light rail from the Bankhead and Hamilton Holmes stations to a 10-mile stretch of railroad along the river, where a new route could shuttle between attractions.

“Everybody, every kid, who has access to a bus stop has access to the river” in that concept, Dagenhart said.

The vision included specific redevelopment schemes for Atlanta Industrial Park and the Fulton Industrial District, making them mixed-use sites connected to public riverfront parkland. The sites would be built with ponds to filter rainwater and other watershed-friendly concepts.

Chattahoochee NOW’s Kettering tells CL that there will be no further public presentations of the vision, as the group instead focuses on its planning process. But, she said, the group is pleased with its inspirational value.

“This 53-mile corridor has the opportunity to increase value — through the attraction and retention of businesses and residents — while providing more access to nature,” Kettering said in an email. “The river has historically been a divide. These plans illustrate how it can be a unifying attraction for the region.”