Putting a lid on the Downtown Connector at the Urban Labs luncheon

Talk about power lunching. At yesterday's Urban Labs lunch, at St. Luke's Church, a few minutes' walk from the Hilton, those of us at Table 1-A finished off our box lunches and then within about an hour sketched out a possible solution to a vexing problem of downtown Atlanta - the Downtown Connector.

We proposed "putting a lid" on the Connector, or "capping" it - covering it with a deck that would transform what is today a wasteland of concrete and asphalt into a potentially pleasant public space. We also sought to connect Peachtree Street with the Civic Center MARTA station. And for good measure, we suggested a street car rolling up Peachtree Street and connecting with MARTA.

The idea behind the Urban Labs lunch was that each table would address together one of five major urban design issues identified as of interest to Atlantans. In about an hour of working with large-scale aerial photographs, maps, reference documents, tracing paper, and markers, each group should be able to come up with at least a rough idea of a solution to the problem, the theory went.

When the party broke up, organizers of the events collected notes sketches, and other artifacts of this very quick-and-dirty planning process with the ideas of sharing them with people who could use the ideas contained therein.

Our group consisted of Dan Reuter of the Atlanta Regional Commission, attorney Chuck Palmer of Troutman Sanders, developer Katharine Kelley, landscaper and urban planner Neil Sullivan, Georgia State professor Robert Kirkman, who specializes in urban ethics, and me.

The model we kept coming back to was Tech Square, on the Georgia Tech campus, a block of Fifth Street between the Downtown Connector and Spring Street. It's been hugely successful as a part of the revitalization of its part of the city, and has helped give the area more street life, making the student population more visible.

What does downtown Atlanta need? we asked ourselves. Gathering places!

We came up with two projects, two separate caps or lids: A deck to connect the MARTA station with Peachtree Street, and another deck to cover an adjacent stretch of the Connector, the block to the east, between Peachtree and Courtland.

A key question: What about building in the air rights space? Would it be too hard or expensive? Our first thought was to go for some light-impact, lightweight construction - a farmer's market shed, a park with some relatively lightweight landscaping.

But one of our group, attorney Palmer, shot a quick message to one of his developer contacts and got word that yes, the economics of a serious for-profit construction in the space over the highway could work. A key point, though: The air rights would probably need to be conveyed to the private developer; no 99-year lease, and no cash sale. Either would be enough to drive a developer elsewhere. Even a casual glance at the big aerial photograph of the area we had to work from made clear that there was plenty of underutilized land (read: parking lots) in the vicinity.

These two projects would both require creative uses of new design and building technologies, and public/private partnerships.

Question: Would a separate "authority" need to be created to get this project done - so that there would be someone who would be focused on it as his/her main job?

Another suggestion: Is the area in question in a tax allocation district? If so, increased property tax revenue that would be generated by the "lids" project (property values increased, etc.) could be allocated to pay for the cost of the infrastructure.

As a demonstration project that could be accomplished in the near term, what about doing something to green up the intersection of Courtland and Ralph McGill. Could it take "real" landscaping - trees and the like, something beyond the stressed-out trees in tubs on the bridge over Peachtree?

We covered a lot of ground in just an hour. On paper, at least, we covered at least two blocks of expressway.


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