20 People to Watch - Amanda Rhein: The parking lot nemesis

MARTA wants to turn some of its barren parking lots into vibrant mixed-use communities. Can Rhein help the transit agency make it happen?

Framed Atlanta skyline prints hang on the walls of Amanda Rhein’s office inside MARTA’s Lindbergh headquarters. The shelves below hold historic records that would make a bus and rail nerd spasm with joy: a transit-oriented development (TOD) document from the 1980s; photo slides of early MARTA station renderings; and other treasures from the transit agency’s archives. But the Ohio native spends most of her waking hours thinking about something she can look at outside her office window: parking lots.

MARTA is entering its most pivotal year in decades. The transit agency, content simply to stay afloat for years, will begin launching bus and rail service in Clayton County and study two more expansion proposals in 2015.

But arguably MARTA’s most high-profile project in the coming year deals with something altogether different from trains or buses. Rhein, 35, will oversee the initiatives to build mixed-use developments atop lifeless parking lots and bring shopping and other concessions options inside the transit stations.

“Looking at larger cities that are fully built out, you don’t really have that opportunity to make an impact,” she says. “In Atlanta, there’s still so much undeveloped land. There’s a lot of room for improvement. To be a part of that here is exciting for me. It’s a great city but has the potential to be so much better.”

After graduating from Georgia Tech, Rhein worked at Central Atlanta Progress before spending 10 years at Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm. There she was in charge of building tax allocation districts, or TADs, to help redevelop blighted areas.

Last January she joined MARTA and picked up projects that her staff, whose praises she sings often, had spent years working on. In addition to overseeing a pilot program that could bring coffee shops and newsstands to platforms and other parts of rail stations, Rhein will lead the ongoing effort to partner with private developers to transform the park-and-ride lots of its Brookhaven, King Memorial, Avondale, Edgewood-Candler Park, and Oakland City stations into mixed-use developments.

“The ultimate goal is to have stations themselves become destinations,” Rhein says. “Hopefully they will become a gathering space over time. Not because people live there or are going to work, but they become some public space that provides a place for the community to spend time and interact.”

Both the concessions and TOD projects aim to build on MARTA General Manager Keith Parker’s goal of strengthening the transit system’s finances and improving riders’ experiences. The development projects could generate millions of dollars in lease revenue each year that in turn could help fund bus and rail operations. They could also help build a dedicated ridership, making MARTA more financially sustainable, and (one hopes) take cars off the road.

“The stars have really aligned for us,” she says. “With the leadership of General Manager Keith Parker, he came in and saw it was an opportunity, with the real estate market, and with demographic changes. Everything’s really coming together at the right time for this program to be successful.”