Thursday, February 26, 2009

Decatur St. Streetscape Starting Soon!

Some astute readers might have noticed the addition of Joe Martinez to the "contributors" section on the side bar. Joe is a classmate of mine in the GSU MBA program, and will be writing the occasional post here at Terminal Station. He has a background in architecture and construction. I hope you guys like his contributions! -bk

, two years after this project was supposed to be completed, the Decatur Street Pedestrian Improvements in downtown Atlanta will be starting soon.

The project was awarded to JHC Corporation back in December 2008, for a cool $1.5 million. Work will take place on the half-mile stretch of Decatur Street between Peachtree St. and Jessie Hill Jr. Drive. This is right through the "heart" of Georgia State University.

The scope of work is quite nice:
  • East of Pryor St., Decatur St. will be narrowed to one lane in each direction, with turn lanes.
  • Sidewalks will be widened to finally accommodate the volume of students (no fancy paving, just broom-finished concrete).
  • Tree planters will be added and planted with Crepe Myrtles. (I don't see any plans for street furniture, i.e. benches, etc, not sure if they plan on installing any.)
  • New roadway lighting will be added, and existing lighting will be painted CODA green (same green that Central Atlanta Progress and Midtown Alliance uses on everything.) Pedestrian-scale lighting will be added.
I am under the impression that the pedestrian lights are going to be the standard "Atlanta Resurgens" streetlight created for the 1996 Olympics. (Am I the only one getting sick of seeing the same "1996 Olympics" street lighting everywhere in the city? Could we not do something a bit original/creative for the GSU campus?)

Also, being an avid cyclist, I would have like to seen bike lanes added, but seeing as this wasn't mentioned in the "Imagine Downtown" plan, not much else I can say about it.

In talking with people familiar with the project, I was told that the only thing holding up the project from starting is a "Letter to Proceed with Construction" from the GADOT. Apparently this letter has been delayed for a couple of months.

To find out what the holdup was, I first called the Division 7 office of GADOT, and they had no record related to the state project number (STP-0004-00(465)) assigned to the project
(somewhat concerning?). I then called Mark McKinnon, who handles Public Relations with the GADOT. He assured me that the letter to proceed was to be issued within two weeks.

Not sure if this is moving again due to today's firing of Commissioner Gena Evans who had "slowed road spending to a trickle." According to a source inside the DOT, there is quite a backlog of projects waiting to be approved there.

Once the letter is issued, expect construction to last 7-9 months. I'm waiting for some renderings from the design architect. I'll post them as soon as I get them.

For more information or to look at the plans, visit the project information page.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A glimmer of hope, followed by more stupidity

It is pretty easy to just complain all the time. Reading Terminal Station, you might even get the impression that "blogging" is a synonym for "constant bitching". So I try to highlight the positive things going on in the city when I can. Sure, that isn't that often, but for once the Georgia Legislature did something that made sense - finally give MARTA complete control over its own budget:
The bill, which passed 39-9, would lift a current restriction in state law that limits MARTA to spending no more than 55 percent of its sales taxes on operating expenses.

The rest of the money has to go toward capital costs.
This makes me much happier than the news that the statewide transportation sales tax in the House includes funding for ridiculous $5 billion double decker underground highways connecting 400 and I-20. At first I freaked out and wrote a "omfg, wtf!!1" post. Luckily, I did not post it, and in light of today I read the actual bill that includes the double decker tunnels. The grand list of transportation projects in the bill is subject to this qualifier:
...prioritized based on the date of final permitting and approval by the authority
As I read it, that means that the DOT still has to approve the actual project. The projects on that list have no price tags - in fact DOT hasn't even studied the tunnel project. I'd be that if you added them all up, they'd amount to well over $25 billion, since the tunnel itself would cost one-fifth of the entire budget.

The list of projects on the bill seems more of a guideline for the areas the sales tax can be applied. I don't see any reason why DOT would agree to abrogate their power to decide what gets funding, which is what my initial reading of the linked CL implied. A project of that magnitude would still have to go through public commentary, agency approval, etc. So freaking out now is a bit premature - although that post I deleted was a wonderful rant I half wish I'd saved.

Still, the project's inclusion is another example of how tone-deaf and ass-backward state transportation leadership is. Remember that the sponsor of this bill, Vance Smith, was Speaker Richardson's choice for GDOT commissioner. I wonder who Richardson would appoint to the STA board if that restructuring bill gets passed? More than anything, the list of projects in his bill can be seen as pork-barrel sweeteners to get support for the bill, so if he ended up on a new board it would pretty much be business as usual for transportation funding.

I started this post out by saying I wanted to highlight the positive and not just complain all the time. Oops. One step forward, two steps back. Just like our state legislature!

h/t on tunnel story: dknowles

Monday, February 23, 2009

The expectations game

This is why I love blogs - Maria Saporta's recent post on Perdue's transportation plan starts off:

Gov. Sonny Pedue’s proposal to restructure Georgia transportation bureaucracy is analagous to a surgeon performing a hip replacement when a patient needs a heart transplant.
Refreshingly candid, and only really possible on the Internets.

Maria goes on to blast Perdue's restructuring, mostly making the point that what the Atlanta region needs is not restructuring, but funding for and commitment to solving major transportation problems like MARTA funding, commuter rail, traffic congestion solutions, and gas tax reform. She's not happy that Perdue is using the regional or state transportation sales tax as a bargaining chip for this, either. Finally, she's concerned that a new organization would be helmed by leaders from outside the Atlanta region.

All very valid concerns, and I think Maria is right that Perdue's plan doesn't address the root issue - funding. However, I do think that GDOT is a mess and I'm cautiously optimistic about a structure which makes elected officials more accountable for what goes on at GDOT.

The fundamental problem with funding is that state-wide leaders at both GDOT and the Capitol are unwilling to tackle metro Atlanta transportation issues. This is in some ways unavoidable given the political structure of the state and how the region has developed. How much voice can the region have when it is made up of a million counties, cities, and towns, and the rest of the state controls the Capitol?

The problem is an issue of personnel, and the current cast of characters (Perdue, Cagle, and Richardson) is part of the problem. I don't know how legislation can fix that - it is an electoral issue. Restructuring makes the Lt. Gov and the Gov more responsible for what happens transportation-wise. I'd love to see the metro region get more autonomy for what happens, but it just won't ever happen. We currently have regional representation in GDOT, and it hasn't done much for us.

The best chance might be putting the onus on statewide officials and then using the metro region's voting power to elect a governor and lt. governor who promise to do something about transportation. I'm willing to give it a shot. I'm tired of rural legislators the public knows nothing about pulling the strings at GDOT. At least Perdue's plan gives us a scapegoat we can go afterwhen nothing happens. I'm just as cynical as Maria when it comes to who Perdue, Richardson, and Cagle will put in charge, but that doesn't mean that the structural change isn't worth trying. Seriously, can things get worse?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Some good news for once

Amid all the problems with the police department, the city's finances, MARTA going broke, the library shenanigans, and BeltLine snafus, it is nice to get some good news. Atlanta Public School's superintendent was named best in the nation. I think that is nice and all, but what I'm more pleased with is why:
When she arrived, fewer than half of the district’s fourth-graders passed state reading tests and fewer than one-third graduated on time. The latest results show that 86 percent of fourth-graders passed the test and 72 percent of the students graduated on time.
I also like the "how":
She required schools to implement academic reform programs. She replaced 89 percent of principals. She closed about 15 small schools and upgraded other campuses.
My favorite might have been the bit about her detractors:
The qualities Hall’s supporters find so admirable are the traits her critics find so repugnant.

They said Hall’s autocratic style alienates many teachers and parents.

While test scores have improved, they said most of the gains occurred in elementary schools.
Oh noes! Don't focus on the elementary schools! Don't focus on the area that influences future achievement! Obviously you'd like to see improvement in middle and high school scores, but won't those improve as the kids who learn more in elementary school get older?

As a former student in APS schools for 10 years, it is good to hear some positive news for a change. APS has been a laughing stock for years, nevermind that I had APS classmates who got in and did quite well at Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Northwestern, and other top-tier schools. I've felt that two big issues holding Atlanta back are the police department and the public schools. Most of the population growth over the last decade has come from childless households, and if Atlanta is going to ever be a real, first-class, global city it needs to attract families. Beverly Hall is doing important work that affects all of us, whether we have kids or not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Szabo coming around on Central Library?

Via Thomas Wheatley comes this interesting piece from an architectural magazine's take on Robb Pitts' Central Library meglomania:
Even John Szabo, the director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library System, who enthusiastically promoted Pitts’s vision for a new central branch when advocating for the bond referendum, now seems inclined to renovate the Breuer building. “It has a number of attributes functionally for us, in addition to being just a really fabulous building architecturally,” he says.

Those attributes include its considerable space (280,000 square feet); its large and relatively flexible floor plates; and its location at a Metro­pol­itan Authority Rapid Transit (MARTA) stop. Among the improvements Szabo wants are retail or restaurant spaces and better vertical movement. (There are just two stairways, but they’re memorable: an opposing set that only connects levels two through four, and a big, airy rhomboid that goes from the basement to the second floor. Coupled with a main elevator bank that does not reach the top floor, they hamper circulation.) There is also a rooftop terrace, which is currently inaccessible—and virtually unknown—to the public. “Wouldn’t this make a cool coffee bar?” Szabo muses. “If we were to do a respectful renovation of this building, we could give it some of the appeal that our residents currently don’t see.”
Robb Pitts is also a little clearer that he has no problem tearing down the existing building, which I recall he claimed he had no intention of doing when the initial bond vote was being debated:
The current building would also have to be sold to help fund the new one, and though it would ideally be repurposed, Atlanta has a poor record of preserving worthy buildings. With its central position near MARTA, this is a potential teardown. Pitts calls the site “a great location for some other use,” without explicitly calling for the Breuer building’s demolition. “The access to transit is huge, let’s say, for a hotel or an office tower, where from an architectural point of view you’re looking up instead of at four sides of concrete.”
I hope Robb Pitts is trying to use this as a platform for a run for mayor - that way, he can lose again and get out of public office. It really bothers me how much his opposition seems to be about the fact that the simply doesn't like the building's architecture. There are plenty of buildings I wish hadn't been built, but that I recognize need to stay because of their economic value (most of John Portman's work being on this list). It is one thing to be a critic, and another to waste taxpayer money because of aesthetics. If I can make peace with AmericasMart, surely Robb Pitts can make peace with the Central Library...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Just blow it up already

I frankly haven't had the energy to wade into the whole GDOT-Beltline mess. It seems on its face patently ridiculous what GDOT is up to, but it is also the sort of thing that requires significant research to prove wrong. I'd mostly likely just end up spluttering in anger and looking silly if I tried. Luckily, Maria Saporta has talked to transportation and railroad experts:
In the 1920s, there were as many as 325 passenger trains passing through Atlanta every day. As late as the 1950s, there were more than 100 passenger trains a day serving Atlanta.

And, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, none of those trains used the BeltLine path to get downtown.

Let me repeat that. The BeltLine rail corridor only served industrial users, not passenger trains. All passenger trains reached downtown through other lines.

So it is a total falsehood to say that the only way downtown Atlanta can get commuter rail, high speed rail and/or Amtrak is through the BeltLine corridor (also known as the Decatur Belt)...

In talking to several railroad experts, it is clear that it is technically feasible for Amtrak, intercity passenger rail and commuter trains to serve downtown. Some tracks downtown would need to be restored between Armor Yard, the Howell Junction and the multimodal station. That would permit trains to easily turn at the station, which would take about the same time as the BeltLine detour.

This whole thing seems so ridiculous that I have to pinch myself. Is GDOT seriously trying to derail the largest, most ambitious transportation iniative in the largest city in the state? A project that is necessary to prepare Atlanta for the projected population growth of the next 25 years? GDOT is trying to kill a massive transportation project when reports are coming out showing that Atlanta (and Georgia) is losing out on billions of dollars in investment because of traffic congestion? GDOT is doing all of this after not saying peep for years, after the city has spent millions of dollars? At a time when it will jeopardize millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds?

Really? WTF? My mind reels. I cannot for the life of me see the angle here. Maybe GDOT is trying to use the BeltLine as leverage to get urban Dems to oppose Sonny's reorganization proposal?

Sonny: please continue with your plan to blow up GDOT. This is one of the things I used to fantasize about when I worked at the Capitol. Seriously, I remember standing in the hallway outside the Senate after GDOT screwed a piece of legislation I was working on over territorial/power issues. I stood there fuming, wishing someone, anyone, would be willing to take on GDOT and at least bring some accountability to the place.

I could be forced to re-evaluate Sonny's term as governor if this thing goes through. I'm still quite wary, because it may be a situation where they shift power around to the Governor, Speaker, and Lt. Governor, but nothing really changes. I mean, at least two of those folks are accountable to the public and would be more responsible for what goes on, so that is a plus. I'm not really sure if this reorganization would be a good thing for Atlanta, though. It's not like a Democrat or anyone from the city will get into those top positions any time soon, so we'll probably just keep getting screwed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mayoral update - I am not a fan of Mary Norwood

Mary Norwood has a poll out showing a massive lead in the mayor's race:
The poll shows Norwood is favored by 39 percent of city voters, state Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta) finished second with 9 percent, city Councilman Ceasar Mitchell was third with 7 percent of the vote and attorney Jesse Spikes was fourth with 1 percent.
Huge caveat - this really just measures name ID. For example:
[Reed] Campaign officials noted Franklin trailed then-City Council President Robb Pitts by a 38-16 margin in one poll eights months before she won the 2001 mayoral election.
I'm still hoping that some more candidates jump into the race. Honestly, the thought of Mary Norwood as mayor is kind of scary. I don't think she would be a bad mayor, per se. But her time as a council member seems to be me to have been mostly about getting attention with whatever the cause du jour is. I'm not really sure what her actual vision for the city is, what her driving principles are.

Among the ideas she has proposed that seemed to display a bit of a tin ear and opportunistic streak:
  • A moratorium on infill houses in only well to do east and north side neighborhoods. Predictably, west side councilmembers pitched a fit and the moratorium was lifted.
  • Making it illegal to build high rises which blocked views of resident in neighboring buildings. Never mind that it would essentially stop new development...
  • Blaming an increase in crime on the mayor's furloughs. Seriously, the causes of crime go way beyond how many police officers are on the street, and started years before the furloughs. But hey, it makes good news copy.
I'm not saying she hasn't accomplished anything, but her bio has lots of phrases like worked with, recognized, advocated, surveyed, and realized. Words that are rather vague and ill defined, and rely entirely too much on things other people have done.

I also don't thinks she could be a mayor for the entire city. She has focused her City Council career on the concerns of east and north side neighborhoods and high-rise Midtown residents. While she sees herself as Atlanta's post-racial Obama figure, I'm not sure that the rest of Atlanta will agree with her. I don't think she comes across as genuine when it comes to issues outside the natural constituencies mentioned.

I'm probably being quite unfair to Mary Norwood, and I'm going to try and keep an open mind. Ha, obviously I have a lot of work to do! She just rubs me the wrong way, I guess.

Perdue's transportation reorganization plan

Political Insider has the governor's outline for a new State Transportation Authority. Basically, GRTA and SRTA get combined, and the new STA moves into a hierarchy above GDOT. The new STA sets appropriations criteria and disperses funds to "GDOT or other entity", heh. I presume that means GDOT (or other entity) would be left bidding and managing projects. I'll bet it is a lot less fun when they don't have any say about which projects get approved...

The obvious piece to notice is that this is a major power grab for the governor. The governor's office would get to appoint 3 of the 7 seats on the STA, as well as the Chair and the Chief Executive. I assume the Chair is one of the board member appointees, and that the Chief Executive would be a separate position, like Commissioner is now. It is worth noting that it isn't really a power grab for this governor, since he'll be out of office pretty soon.

I think the jury is still out on whether the plan is good or not. I certainly need to let it sit and percolate a bit.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Downtown pics

A few pictures I took while getting to and from class over the last few weeks:
  • The new pedestrian bridge over Courtland. Lots of stupid conventioneers get hit crossing here because they can't wait for the crosswalk. I normally hate these sorts of things, but it's not like those two hotels are going to re-do their street fronts or anything.

  • Woodruff Park today, with people eating lunch near the "reading room". CAP has done a great job with the park, btw. It feels like a real downtown!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kudos to Atlanta Time Machine

I'm just going to completely agree with everything Decatur Metro has to say about Atlanta Time Machine. Atlanta Time Machine does indeed rule, and you shouldn't go there unless you have at least an hour to spare.

Some related historical links (mostly thanks to the lovely Aria):
  • Three historical panoramic views of the city: 1871, 1892, and 1919. You can view the pics in the viewer, but you'll need to download a viewer if you want to save the whole picture.
  • An 1877 Map of Atlanta via the Georgia Secretary of State
  • Historical Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1886 to 1922. If you've never checked out a Sanborn map, they are lots of fun - they let you know what business occupied a particular propety, such as this image from the intersection of Luckie and Forsyth in 1922 showing the Piedmont Hotel and the Rialto Theater:

Monday, February 9, 2009

Less than serious blogging resumes

It is usually difficult to get back into posting after having taken a little time off, like I did for the ULI competition. I have a number of stories that I've been meaning to dig into, but haven't had the time. What I do have time for is to link to a neat little project the AJC featured - a model of historic Atlanta that used to be housed at Underground. How can I pass on something that has a model of this blog's namesake?

I would actually love to see this place find a home. Whenever I find myself at the CAP offices, I get totally engrossed in the little model they have of downtown. I don't know why I love this stuff, but it is the same obsession that leads me to play with SketchUp for hours.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Good news from city council

The City Council's Public Safety Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the APD's legislation to amend the Citizen Review Board. I was unable to go because I had to work the job that pays for grad school. (Seriously, how many people are going to get to City Hall at 10am on a Wednesday on a day's notice? I know they have to have hearings some time, but wtf?)

The good news is that the Public Safety Committee doesn't seem interested in doing anything with the legislation:
“I cannot support something that will dilute (the board’s) power,” Atlanta City Council member H. Lamar Willis said. “There’s nothing to discuss.”...

All five council members present — Willis, C.T. Martin, Cleta Winslow, Ivory Lee Young and Felicia Moore — said they oppose changing the current system.
My favorite part of the linked article is the Mayor's chief of staff's explanation for the bill:
At Wednesday’s hearing before the city council’s public safety committee, Greg Pridgeon, Franklin’s chief of staff, and two assistant city attorneys said the change would bring the process in line with the Georgia Open Records act. The aim is not to limit public review, Pridgeon insisted.
I wonder if he said that with a straight face. Also, I've seen folks have to stand before Felicia Moore when she is interested in obstructing a bill, and it looks pretty painful. I'm sure Mr. Pridgeon had fun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

ULI madness

I have been absent from here and the Metblog because I entered the ULI Urban Design competition with some teammates from Georgia Tech.  You get two weeks to come up with a financially feasible development plan for a real site.  The site this year was the Denver Design District, an aging big-box power center and interior design showcase center (kind of like ADAC).  We had to come up with a development plan which kept all of the existing tenants (including KMart, Sam's Club, and Pep Boys).  We post marked the project at about 10:30pm Monday, about as close to the deadline as possible.

One team member was Aria, who has posted here before and who hopefully will do a post for me later on the urban design aspects of our project.  Right now I just want to post some great renderings and neat phasing images which show how our team approached the project.  

We decided to keep all the existing big box stores and build in a street grid around them.  We also added liner buildings to help integrate the buildings into our re-built street system.  We have some mid-rise office buildings near a light-rail transit station, with a large esplanade running from the transit station through our main activity center and connecting the site with existing neighborhoods.  We also have a large movie theater to anchor a second activity center south of the main drag.  You can see the existing site here on google maps.  

Our overall "vision" was to try and harnass the tension between the divergent forces not only in our site but with American society.  I mean, I love seeing bands in venues like the Earl, but I buy my jeans at Target.  A friend of mine always tempered my new urbanist rants with "hey man, people gotta buy cheap clothes somewhere."  I think we've reached a point where people are a lot more comfortable with mixing independent and corporate cultures (well, at least I have).  Part of this is because corporate machinery has gotten so good at taking over things, of course.  

Anyway, the project was about reconciling these tensions through urban design, and finding a way for big box stores and independent culture to co-exisit.  So we hid the parking, preserved traditional in-line stores along on edge of the site, and used the big boxes as draws for a lot of the new in-line retail spaces.  We kept the building heights as low as possible because the neighboring areas have reacted poorly to the actual property owners' attempt to build 12-story buildings on the whole site.  We have 2-3 stories of retail infill on the areas bordering these neighborhoods, keep most of the buildings 5-6 stories, and have a few 8-10 story buildings near the transit station.  These buildings would also have great visibility from the highway, and awesome views of downtown Denver and the Rockies.  

Clicking the pics will take you to my picasa album where you can see larger versions of the pics and click through to see the phasing pretty easily. 

My piece of the project was officially the financial feasibility and pro forma - all the pretty pictures were whipped up by the other (fantastic) team members.  Keeping the density relatively low meant that our model utilized things like Low Income Housing Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits to fill in the gaps.  Because the project is pie-in-the-sky ULI stuff, we had to bump up our construction costs with for LEED/green building stuff like the rooftop gardens we want to put on top of our big-box stores and the green parking decks.  

I still have a lot to learn, but overall I am pretty pleased with how the pro forma (and really the whole project) turned out.  Also, I probably had more fun on this project than I have in a very long time.  Sure, the rest of my school work suffered tremendously and I didn't sleep at all last weekend, but it was a blast.  We had a great team that worked very well together, we laughed a lot, and put out a great project in only two weeks.