Tag Archives: urban planning

the many incarnations of Underground Atlanta

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here, but I’ve had this one in the works since this summer when serious talk began circulating about Underground Atlanta’s potential sale. 2 days ago Mayor Kasim Reed announced that sale to South Carolina developer T. Scott Smith “who plans to convert the struggling center into a mixed-use development with a grocery anchor [much-needed downtown] and apartment homes” towering above-ground. This is a significant departure from the tourist-centered plans that have governed Underground since the 1960s and it may be just what downtown needs but as with many big developments, the fate of our historic built environment is in the balance and it’s a big deal.

Us Atlantans, we all know Underground, it’s a place natives have been to a time or two in their youth but adult transplants have never and would never EVER be caught dead there. It’s the early ’90s all over again right? is it a theme park? a shopping mall?? Yes and no…

To be honest, besides an Unseen Underground walking tour a few years ago, the most time I’ve spent there was while I was in grad school, and that was mostly on the street above, so I took my camera one day for a quick walk-through. There’s a lot of history down there, let me tell you, and standing beyond the white glare of the shoe store, looking at the rebuilt curbs and sidewalks, well, honestly, you get a real feel for this crazy historic space. It may be a little Disney-fied but the “street underground” is a unique real-life urban planning phenomenon.


atlanta_georgia-the_commercial_centre-300x194good video version

As we probably all know by now, Atlanta owes its very existence to the railroad, and by the time of the Civil War it was the hub of commerce for the rest of Georgia and the South. Of course Sherman put a brief end to that in 1864 but the rail lines were soon back in business and by 1869 Atlanta was constructing the Georgia RR Freight Depot which still sits at the eastern end of Alabama Street. The freight depot sat to one side of what we today call “the gulch,” through which a slew of railroad tracks ran. The huge train shed seen in this image sits alongside Wall St. in the gulch and was catercorner to the freight depot whose now-gone front tower can barely be seen on the right.

The gulch, as you can imagine, was a traffic disaster. Horses and carriages, streetcars, pedestrians, trains, and ever-increasing automobiles all converged in this wide, largely unregulated throughway. By the 1910s the area had become so congested that the city built iron bridges over a few of the streets.

Beginning construction of the viaducts along Alabama St., view east from Peachtree with the freight depot at the end.

Beginning construction of the viaducts along Alabama St., view east from Peachtree with the freight depot at the end.

In the early 1920s, Atlanta architect Haralson Bleckley convinced the city to replace the haphazard iron bridges with a unified system of concrete bridges over all the streets in the area. The original grade of Wall Street, which ran alongside the train tracks of the gulch, pretty much disappeared while the low-lying blocks of Alabama Street were submerged with the buildings intact.

1886 Sanborne map of downtown Atlanta, gray shows the elevated roadways built in the 1920s, pink areas should orient you to the layout today.

1886 Sanborne map of downtown Atlanta, gray shows the elevated roadways built in the 1920s, pink areas should orient you to the layout today.

Consequently, the businesses that had been located at the original street level moved up to what was then the second floor and the new street level. Some of the old storefronts below were boarded or bricked up and became basement storage while others became speakeasies during Prohibition. Cofer quotes Blues legend Bessie Smith’s “Atlanta Blues”:

Down in Atlanta G.A.
Underneath the viaduct one day
Drinking corn and hollerin’ hoo-ray
Piano playin’ till the break of day

After Prohibition ended, the underground speakeasies were no longer needed and within a few years, the 12 acre, 5 block stretch of Alabama street was completely forgotten.

Underground ATL 1970s Postcard.jpgIn the 1960s, the original storefronts were rediscovered and many architectural features from a century earlier had survived intact including decorative brickwork, granite archways, ornate marble, cast-iron pilasters, hand-carved wooden posts, and gas street lamps. Two Georgia Tech graduates, Steven H. Fuller, Jr. and Jack R. Patterson, begin to plan a private development there to restore and reopen “the city beneath the city” as a retail and entertainment district (wiki). In 1969 the first Underground Atlanta opened. “Liquor by-the-drink” sales regulations kept Underground classy for a time but as alcohol sales relaxed Underground got seedier. The district was reincarnated as the mall we know today in 1989 and spruced up again for the 1996 Olympics.

The construction of MARTA in the late 1970s razed several historic buildings both above and below the viaducts, which must have been a motivating factor in getting Underground Atlanta listed as a National Register district in 1980. Despite redevelopments so far, much of the historic fabric remains. By my estimate, at least half of the storefronts on the 2+ block stretch of Lower Alabama Street date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The upper portions of many of those same buildings, however, have been dramatically altered or rebuilt.

Although very intriguing in its own right, the tourist-tied reincarnations of Underground Atlanta have never been lasting successes. On the brink of another redevelopment, there has been talk of “razing” Underground (Fuqua), although in later discussions, Mayor Reed seems cognizant of the significant history of the district. The other day he acknowledged Underground as “the place where Atlanta started” and, in an 11Alive interview several months back, he seemed to indicate that the historic environment of Underground was safe from destruction.

Mayor Reed is not developing Underground though and, like a good preservationist, I have to ask WHY is it NOT protected, this super significant piece of Atlanta’s history, preserved here by unique bit of urban planning that few others can claim?? I’m sure there’s an answer, follow the money.


– look here for great pictures of the viaducts in the mid-20th century
– from the Atlanta Preservation Center with a link to the NR form
– lengthy and captivating history by blogger Jim Cofer

on streetcar vs. bicycle

The Atlanta Streetcar is ALMOST HERE. That is to say of course, it is here, it’s been here, the boarding platforms are complete and the tracks are all down, we know, because we bike and, well >> warning-streetcar-tracks

Our friend K I’m sure is not the first one whose bicycle has run afoul of the new streetcar tracks, but she can tell you from experience that it ain’t pretty she’s lucky the most un-pretty it got for her was a big blood blister leading to a very nasty bruise on her thigh.

So naturally there’s been some discussion, inevitable disgruntlements, complaints and dire predictions of lawsuits and doomsday to come thanks to “poor planning.”

I looked into a few other city’s streetcar vs. bike experiences to get some perspective and came up with a number of lawsuits primarily in Seattle where the plaintiffs seemed primarily to be arguing “poor design” or lack of design for bicyclists. In these cases there was no separate bicycle lane or, in a recent issue, the bicycle lane was blocked by pedestrians getting on the streetcar resulting in a decision by the cyclist to enter the roadway where she wiped out on the tracks. One Seattle author asked, what do cyclists seek to gain with these lawsuits? and her point is valid.

My concern is that while bikes are a crucial piece of the transit puzzle, so too is public transportation, and I’m not sure how much good can come of one form of alternative transportation getting mad at another in a city that’s struggling (but really trying) to get out automobile gridlock. There will always be transportation choices, there need to be, so for our transit to work all modes have to coexist.

Coexisting usually means following the rules and here’s the way to do it in Atlanta. DO NOT RIDE ON THE SAME SIDE AS THE STREETCAR! In Atlanta, since streetcar traffic goes east on Edgewood and west on Auburn, bicycle traffic does the opposite and to reinforce the plan, bicycle lanes, sharrows, and signage only exist on the recommended riding areas so that cyclists are not at all encouraged to ride alongside the rails. In fact I think the handy signs above were recently installed.

Granted, we cyclists, hovering in a lovely free zone between vehicular and pedestrian traffic, are hard to discourage. But this is serious, tracks are hazards, but they are known hazards and you don’t wanna tangle with em, K can tell you.

Yours truly, following the rules on Auburn Ave.

on Olmstedian curves

> they are all well and good for automobiles and park-like vistas, but for trying to get from point A to B, the Olmstedian curves of parks and parklike subdivisions only frustrate and delay! (:

I’ve been biking to work more and more lately thanks to the October Bike-to-Work challenge. My most bike-friendly route takes me straight through Piedmont Park followed by the neighborhood of Ansley Park which spits me out perfectly across the street from Rhodes Hall. This would be fine, but getting through these circulinear paths and streets puts me in straights almost every morning as, going against logic I turn away from my compass to get to my destination, lose my compass entirely, and throw my hands up to come out on the other side (hopefully) where ever that may be. No big deal, but when you’re commuting you usually aren’t out for a leisurely ride.

ansley park map 1911 tracks

Grading the wide streets of Ansley park, this is Peachtree Circle with Rhodes Hall in the background

Ironically, the neighborhood’s book, Ansley Park: 100 Years of Gracious Living calls Ansley park “a textbook example of ‘New Urbanism,’ …places where people can live, work and pla without getting in a car.” But Ansley Park’s parklike streets were actually designed FOR cars (or maybe cotton pickers?), and unless you’re jogging, it’s highly unlikely you’ll make it beyond your neighbor’s house without a car. The streets are large and unweildy, giant football fields of pavement rolling onward, this way and that until you don’t know up from down. It’s great for cars, you just sail through the streets, yielding here and there to an adjoining road, biking here is frustrating with the unnecessary number of hills, and pedestrians wishing to get anywhere have to sprint across the wide roads hoping a vehicle doesn’t suddenly appear. So ultimately, maybe my biggest complaint with Ansley Park is width of the streets even more so than the circular patterns they make.

I mean, biking here would certainly be enjoyable but it is not efficient.

Automobiles came to Atlanta in 1901 when bicycle dealer William B. Alexander introduced the first three motorized buggies and as a 1905 Atlanta Constitution article touted, Ansley Park was the first Atlanta suburb built with the automobile in mind: “In the very near future those who own homes in Ansley Park are going to sit on their verandas and see among their neighbors the best people in Atlanta and on the boulevards before their doors everybody who rides, drives, or ‘motors’ an automobile, for all roads must lead to these, the only driveways in Atlanta.” The prediction would come true, in 1910 there were 106 households, in 1920 there were 458, and in between there, in 1915, half of all Ansley Park households owned cars.

But this curvilinear, parklike idea urban planning really began before cars were even a dream. The Garden Suburb idea was part of the late 19th century urban reform aimed at providing remediation of the ills of the industrial city. Houses were set back against sweeping lawns, trees towered above curving streets (well, maybe not at first) and parks were set as gathering places for neighborly interactions. Ansley park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s chief surveyor, and is based on Olmsted’s plan 1869 plan for Riverside, Ill., one of the first planned suburban communities with this aesthetic. Even though the suburb is set within a larger urban context (and notably a part of it, not cut off like cul-de-sac subdivisions of later periods) the neighborhood still manages to secure its own little oasis.

Piedmont Park, the other bane of my commute, was designed by the Olmsted brothers (post-Frederick Law) based around an existing racetrack and the remains of the 1895 Cotton State Expo (which, following close behind the Chicago Columbian Exposition was also born of the City Beautiful Movement).

This morning I opted for a different route. I cut through just a corner of Piedmont (gosh I hope I can remember which path!), struggled up 12 St. road along the ridge of Peachtree St., the backbone of this city, for the next mile to work.

Traffic vs. Olmstedian curves? I’m leaning toward traffic right now.



it has taken me a surprisingly long time to get down to Serenbe. V too, the two of us kept saying let’s go! and never going, goodness knows why, it’s barely 40 minutes from our houses! So on Saturday, just days before she moves to the Netherlands, her, J, me and N went to visit this little dream community in the country.

the MAP

A New York Time article in 2009 touted Serenbe as “the new south” really, a sort of new new new south, but in essence it seems pretty true. new development with a little green, or a lot of green consciousness thrown in, southern home-cookin’, organic farming, farm animals and woods—and all this with your shirt tucked in. By living here you are doing good!

Serenbe was begun as an idealistic and hopefully realistic answer to the ever increasing suburbanization of the huge metro Atlanta area. From a 2004 article in USA Today:

As the nation’s metro areas expand ever outward, the forests and farmlands at their edges are rapidly disappearing. From 1982 to 2001, the amount of developed land in the USA increased by 45% to 106 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Brookings Institution, a research organization in Washington. and About 70% of residential and commercial construction is still occurring in woodlands and rural areas instead of areas that are being redeveloped.

At the same time, homebuyers increasingly are expressing a desire to live in a way that protects the natural landscape, and developers are responding. One of the fastest-growing segments of the housing industry is conservation subdivisions, which usually have compact lots clustered together and open space that is shared by all homeowners. These developments are designed to accommodate the maximum number of homes while protecting much of the adjacent farmland and natural resources.

Steve and Marie Nygren saw this happening and took it to heart. They did some really revolutionary work in their community, getting neighbors together to discuss what they wanted for their community in the future. Something done less in rural than in urban areas, but definitely needed in both.

Serenbe’s beginnings in the 1990s were, if not humble, at least somewhat organic: wealthy Atlantans bought land which became their home, then a B&B just in time for the ’96 Olympics, (she being the daughter of Mary Mac’s co-owner presumably meant good food was in the equation at an early date), more guest houses were added and eventually, in the early 2000s, this experiment in suburban planning.

If there is all this good, why was my first impression that, pleasant a place as it was, it felt all wrong??

Serenbe_residencesSerenbe feels manufactured, like a movie set, everything, EVERYTHING feels fake. Even at the farmhouse (which has some historicity buried in the walls that haven’t been removed)—I had a vague feeling of walking into a set, were we all participants in a play? Later on I would feel that the shop proprietors must receive a paycheck from “Serenbe, Inc.” like working a store at Disneyland, probably managers, not business owners (note: I don’t actually know for sure how this works but I’ve seen that the details of most establishments are in the plans long before they exist).

We didn’t take any pictures until we were about to leave, and I realized we needed to document. The manufactured-picturesque landscape had not been inspiring, CREATED to be photogenic, like Miss America on stage, it didn’t need me to capture it’s beauty. In the end I took a picture of the map, which saysit all, because ultimately Serenbe is just one big plan, a stage, and we’re not talking Shakespeare here.

There are other communities like this in history, Sunnyside Gardens, Radburn, and Atlanta’s own East Lake Commons. I’ve been trying to figure out what they have that’s different, accessibility, interaction with their surroundings, even if shops are part of the community its commercial space that’s not dictated by the creator but by an entrepreneur. Idealism is tough, and perfection comes in many forms.

Maybe it simply hasn’t grown into itself. The economy downturn occurred shortly after liftoff which may account for the lack of residents? maybe they were just all inside their fab [environmentally friendly] climate controlled houses on this rainy day, maybe they were… I have doubts, this community has nothing for the average homebuyer, and the more I think of it the more it frustrates me, with all the talk of affordable housing in the community the only thing one woman who works in the village was able to afford was a 900 sq. ft loft space WITHOUT A KITCHEN, without a KITCHEN?? I used to live in a 600 sq. ft brooklyn apt WITH a kitchen and that was roomy.

But still, all the businesses cater to tourists, there was nothing real about them. I mean, what town actually needs 5 boutique shops with local or handmade-by-African-women-and-children-in-need scarves, coasters, vases and jewelry? and that’s about it for general retail. You can also go to the Bosch showroom which may be the most useful commercial space, or MAYBE the General Store where you’d run for one or 2 ingredients if you lived/stayed at Serenbe but impractical for actual grocery shopping, plus, you’d deplete their supplies in one go. I assume residents grocery shop at Whole Foods in Atlanta, because goodness knows they wouldn’t be caught at Bradley’s Big Buy or DJ Grocers in Palmetto.

But that brings us around to the inherent anti-environmentality of a secluded subdivision that is not supporting itself (despite dreams). At least you only use a little gas to get around in the village, maybe none if you use your golf cart. On fun days you might pull out a bike, but we didn’t see any of those in action.

It was weird, I mean REALLY WEIRD. I’m hoping a second trip on a sunnier day will yield better results, and a chance to visit the farm (which I suspect is cool no matter what), some real people, and a chance to really enjoy my favorite part: the in-ground trampoline in the park!!

Now I better go see how N’s cookie-making is going (they’re for V, but maybe we’ll get some?).

lessons on Urban Sprawl

This book really got my gut, maybe that was the point. I can’t stand fear tactics (although this stuff does actually keep me up at night) but I also can’t stand the attitude that we have had rampant consumption so far and the world hasn’t ended so let’s keep going! I tried to shorten my paper for your enjoyment but I’m afraid it’s still long, so skip to the end if you must:

A REPORT ON: Sprawl: a compact quashing of the anti-sprawl debate (damn affluent hippies)

I nearly threw Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: a Compact History on the tracks of the subway about fifty times. My fellow passengers probably thought I was a bit nuts making scoffing “ha!” sounds and scrawling in the margins every thirty seconds, but I plugged on, thinking maybe I better hear out this “rational account.” For I agreed with a quote on the back cover, that we do indeed need a realistic look at our growth patterns and ideas on “better ways to manage sprawl” rather than the infinite ‘solutions’ to sprawl. Population growth and thus urban growth is inevitable, and because we are who we are and because we can what we can sprawl may be inevitable too. However, I do not agree with an infinite number of Bruegmann’s counter arguments to the anti-sprawl debate which strike me as infinitely unreasonable even though they are oft-heard arguments in America today.

To begin at the beginning though, Bruegmann does offer a fine brief history of the growth patterns of American cities. Briefing his readers on the expansion of the urban environment from a sharp delineation of rural and urban (think of the walled city) to the earliest moves out of the city, a softening of that boundary as an “exurban” area is created and how this was made possible through developments in transportation and communication. Transportation developments in particular brought a new way of living to the city, commuting and escape from the density of the urban core were possible at first for those who could afford the transportation and development occurred along transportation corridors (look at NYC’s commuter lines and streetcar suburbs elsewhere). This would change with the automobile, which rather quickly became widely available to all classes, and so has been considered “the great equalizer.” A large part of Bruegmann’s opposition to anti-sprawl is that he sees anti-sprawlers as a bunch of affluent elitists, trying to keep down the lower and middle classes and force their own ideas of civilization onto them to ultimately to serve their own ends (he says anti-sprawlers promote public transportation just to free up the roads for their own use… um, no? I don’t want to drive my car, i want public transportation to work for ME).

When in doubt, Bruegmann can always pull out a card to destabilize his opponents, but this is merely the mark of a good debater, and that tactic works both ways.

After a few short chapters his “brief history” has broken down. Chapter four disputes traditional ideas about suburban sprawl in the 1950s and chapter five covers the 1970s onward in which he points out that earlier subdivisions are already being gentrified, and old buildings are being replaced with newer, bigger ones. Then he suggests that this should please anti-sprawlers—though why they would be pleased with a ranch house holding 4 people replaced with a McMansion holding 4 people is a bit confusing but there is no time for questions for by this point he is so worked up that he uses that brilliant point to suggest that anti-sprawlers are just scared of change! Ouch.

In the course of Part II after reducing the amount of sprawl post-WWII to peanuts, “suburban development of the postwar decades actually occupied very little of the total land mass of America,” he manages to sneer at the concept of ‘sustainability,’ imply that an endless supply of land and resources exist for us to use, and vindicate the automobile from its role as a polluter and perpetuator of sprawl among other things. It was these points which almost landed his words, ironically, on the tracks of a public transit line in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia.

Bruegmann has lost me and I am analyzing his writing for tactics now, unable to put much faith in his figures. For instance, he uses statistics as appalling as his opponents’ are (he says), to galvanize their arguments and in doing so he also galvanizes his own by successfully demonstrating the ability to use any statistic to your own advantage:

…automobile manufacturers have been so successful in boosting fuel efficiency [they have?] and reducing emissions, and public transportation in the United States today carries such light loads, that even with only 1.5 occupants per vehicle in cars, most new automobiles generate little or no more pollution per person per passenger vehicle mile than the average bus.

Despite my many quarrels with this statement (Priuses vs “average” buses or fuel efficient CNG buses?), what I ultimately find most interesting is that Bruegmann obviously views this as a reason to just go ahead and drive your own car, rather than a reason to get more people on the buses so as to tilt the equation the other way. Proof that, in the end, despite all the reasoning we can do, most of us who are strongly situated one way or another will be able to support our own separate arguments from the same data and sound equally convincing. As he so rightly says later on: “the ‘solution’ to any given problem depends on the vantage point of the person doing the proposing.”

For all the quotations on the back cover about Sprawl being a “sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living,” Bruegmann has let his light shine and comes across time and again as an idiot who is as much against change as his opponents. While anti-sprawlers may be afraid of change to the built and natural environment (for many reasons and rightly so), Bruegmann speaks for himself and a multitude of patriotic Americans, in that they are even more afraid of any change to their lifestyle, particularly if that change might perceptively “cramp” their lifestyle.

Here is the take-home from my soapbox:
For my part, I don’t care if you dream of a house made of ticky tacky and 1.5 hour commutes alone in your car but why would it ever be a bad idea to conserve? God made this world right? We should treat it with the respect and care it deserves, use what we need but only what we need and preserve its beauty. But even so, whether you believe God has provided an infinite supply of fresh water, clean air, and amber waves of grain or if it is at least just going to last to the end of your life, why would it be a bad idea to go ahead conserve those resources anyway? Just because there IS a whole tray of cupcakes in the fridge does that mean you should eat them all before the kids come home? Just wondering.

Istanbul progress

PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a plan. Istanbul is going to be the financial capital of the world. It could a blip in the translation, but my version says “THE financial capital,” forget New York, London, Hong Kong, think: Istanbul. But this capitalism won’t come cheap for Turks. Their capital city is taking a hit of uber-modernization as it (unrelated to the PM’s worldly aspirations) grows it’s way to being a megalopolis and the current PM and money hungry developers are no help. In fact, it seems that the historic preservation regulations that have been in place for decades are no help either!

Haribo Towers I

This was brought to my attention this morning by a story on npr which i subsequently looked up and learned about a very interesting documentary featuring Istanbul called Ecumenopolis (I’ll save that discussion for another day).

Meanwhile, I am in the middle of reading a book for class titled Preserving the World’s Great Cities in which Anthony Tung says of Istanbul that already “the skyline that was once made up of domes and minarets of mosques is now dominated by looming and massive modern hotels.”

Similar to the reconfiguring of cities that went on in Paris in the mid-1800s, and the general flattening of blocks and blocks of existing buildings for the sake of a few 1960s high rises and a multitude of parking spaces, Istanbul is reconfiguring herself to fit the deep pockets of her middle and upperclass guides. Maximization of commercial space/income-producing properties is a priority. Developers are seizing greenspace and the PM is scheming to direct traffic into the last of the metropolis’ forests while locals are suspicious he plans to convert an architectural gem of a public train station into a shopping mall. Meanwhile new developments and gated communities spring up for the wealthy and the poor are crammed into high rise projects to maximize land value and revenue.

One particularly creative twist on the part of developers involves a city park mentioned in the npr story. There has been a park here since the 1940s when an Ottoman army barracks was abandoned and demolished. After years of coveting this prime real estate, someone finally got the brilliant idea to use Turkey’s law of preserving historic buildings to develop it and so, says the director of the Ecumenopolis film, “in order to protect this already-demolished building, they’re rebuilding it… They’re saying their preserving” something that is already gone, making a reconstruction which will, actually, serve as a shopping mall. Oy vey.

What will happen when these capitalist hogs wake up though and find there are too many malls in the historic shells of once-useful buildings, too many to meet the small demand of the few who can eek their way into a city by car or bus on the overpacked roads where not a green thing is in sight. what then?

inside Haydarpasa Station: I can see why developers want it but how about retaining your beautiful historic resources as they were built to be used?