The Last Word - Our Downtown home

CL has moved to the heart of Atlanta. How can we get more people Downtown?

Last Friday, CL staffers officially said goodbye to Atlantic Station, the former steel mill turned manicured mini-city that we’ve called home for two years. On Monday, we started our workweek in our new Downtown offices located in the historic M. Rich Building, home to arts nonprofit C4, experimental arts collective Eyedrum, and other creative organizations.

It’s the closest our publication has been to the heart of the city that we’ve been chronicling for more than 40 years.

The perks are too many to mention. We are now approximately two blocks away from City Hall and the Gold Dome, which makes attending public meetings easier than ever. Should we want to make our brains explode, the Fulton County Commission is literally across the street. Attending court cases and pulling legal documents no longer requires carving an hour or two out of our schedules. We can take rail transit to work and hop off at Five Points.

Most importantly, we’ll be able to play a role in a neighborhood that we’ve long loved and championed from afar. The historic hub of Atlanta is where the city’s first streets were constructed. It’s the birthplace of Coca-Cola, the Rich’s department store empire, and other fortunes. It has countless stories and just as many ghosts. And its vitality is just as important to the city as the excitement along the Atlanta Beltline or having the world’s busiest airport. Despite its strengths, stores still close their doors at 5 p.m., around the same time government workers flee and casual pedestrians notice that many of the street lights aren’t working.

Almost two years ago, as part of a cover story I wrote about the swath of south Downtown where our new offices off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive are located, I asked people what the neighborhood needed to once again become the bustling urban place captured decades ago in black-and-white photographs. The answer, from most, was simply “more people.” Some individuals I interviewed said that Georgia State University’s continuing takeover of Downtown would solve the problem. Others said that the community’s turnaround would have to wait until the long-planned multimodal passenger train terminal proposed for “the Gulch” gets built. That strategy has been talked about for decades.

Beyond its current makeup of moribund parking lots and rigid government buildings, absentee landlords are hindering the neighborhood’s progress. Many are understandably waiting and hoping for their property values to rise. In some cases, a son or daughter, long removed from Atlanta, has inherited a parcel from his or her parents. And the waiting continues.

The area has made some strides. It’s already home to thousands of students and people who have not just stuck around during the down times, but are attempting to revive the neighborhood with festivals such as Brighten Up Broad Street. The streetcar linking the King Center and Centennial Olympic Park, which should open for service next year, should only add to the neighborhood’s vibrancy.

But the question remains: How do you get more people to come to and stay Downtown?

A few months ago, nearly 30 stories above Downtown in the Georgia-Pacific building, Andrés Duany, the blunt and snappy architect considered one of the founders of New Urbanism, addressed a city task force that’s trying to wrangle Downtown’s various plans and proposals and prepare for a new stadium, the train terminal, and more. Among the people in attendance were Atlanta City Councilmembers and bigwigs from Georgia State, MARTA, and the Atlanta Braves.

He said that, aside from building the best school in the Southeast, the best thing the city could do for the neighborhood is make it accessible for young people who want to open a shop, a gallery, a nonprofit, or other venture. And not necessarily by dangling financial incentives in front of them — but rather by looking at what regulations are preventing people from taking that initial step. The recommendation dovetails with a new concept Duany and other architects are advocating called “Lean Urbanism,” which favors cutting red tape and reducing barriers to entry. In doing so, City Hall could encourage creative and ambitious young folks to start more projects in urban areas.

We’re seeing that kind of spirit in the city’s annual Elevate Atlanta arts programming Downtown. Recently, arts nonprofit Dashboard Co-Op took over a vacant South Broad Street storefront and two artists made it a living exhibit. There should be more of this activity in Downtown. It could be a place where business incubators are opening and more small shops are operating.

Duany’s proposal, which seemed to take some members of the task force by surprise, might never get past the conference room where it was broached. And it might only solve part of the problem. But it’s the kind of thinking that could attract more people who can help bring greater stability to Downtown.

With increasing interest from residents, developers, and businesses in the Beltline — Ponce City Market and the Eastside Trail could arguably become the new center of Atlanta’s attention for the next decade — it’s important that Downtown be more than a place where conventioneers frolic and grab a burger at Hooters between panel discussions about chickens, human resources, or other industries. Peachtree Street can’t be a place to just placate the masses who will come and go — and possibly never return. Downtown is a neighborhood. And it’s important that the area inside the emerald necklace the Beltline is envisioned to become — the hub of the wheel — is strong. CL can’t save the neighborhood itself, but we’re damn glad to play a part. And to be in the heart of Atlanta.