Everything’s waiting for you

I was reading Terminal Station’s post on his experience downtown after a Thrashers game and how Atlanta felt finally like a “real city” in that context. Oh yes, I’ve felt the thrilling rush of city life with all the tall historic buildings and shining lights and plazas whatnot. But still downtown is completely baffling to me. I have complained here what feels like many times about how developers have built up new residential and commercial districts in Atlanta outside of the city center but disregarded downtown. There are finally people moving into lofts and condos downtown now – even in its heyday, downtown was never residential – but what do they do once they live there? Nothing’s really open after 7 or 8 p.m. on weeknights (the photo above was taken around 7:30 on a Thursday night), and I don’t have a clue what’s open on the weekends in terms of basic amenities – drug stores, cafes, neighborhood bars, etc.

Georgia State University continues to expand downtown, but there’s less to do in the downtown of the region’s largest metropolis for college kids – or for anyone, unless you are a homeless guy looking for a place to sleep – than there was in the six blocks of downtown Athens. Georgia State has been downtown for decades and really helped it develop back from the days of white flight, but there’s still so far to come. I recently read something praising ASU for recently moving part of its campus to downtown Phoenix. Well, I really think GSU is the model for this kind of thing, thanks to former president Carl Patton. I just wish they would hurry up their plans to get rid of all those bridges that connect campus buildings above the street and build street-level entrances instead of charging me an extra $100 per semester for a football team.

Then I started working in midtown and taking a class at Georgia Tech, and I am just as confused by midtown as I am by downtown. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the sidewalks of the part of Peachtree Street that runs between Ponce and 10th Street are completely vacant. The Midtown Alliance has packed in luxury condos, restaurants, retail, greenspace – and yet not much is open on a Saturday, or after 5 p.m., unless you are up for fine dining or Halo. Where are all the people who live in these giant buildings? Do they just enter and exit through their underground parking garages and never step foot on the sidewalk? I don’t want to get all Jane Jacobs-y here (or maybe I do), but really – where are the people? At least in downtown I know that not that many people actually live there, relatively speaking. Does anyone who reads this blog live along Peachtree Street? Can you attest to the neighborhood social life that I am apparently missing?

First of all, I question the Midtown Alliance‘s retail strategy because there just seem to be a bunch of expensive furniture stores – very nice window displays – and not a whole lot else. Stores seem to have a hard time surviving, except for the CVS. And the Midtown Alliance has sought out mediocre national chains and franchises, like Starbucks, instead of encouraging independent or locally-owned businesses with high-quality products (besides the pricier restaurants). Maybe they were trying to be the anti-downtown, where there are lots of family-owned greasy lunch joints. But there’s no real reason to go to Peachtree Street during the day on a weekend. Therefore, midtown lacks the greatest amenity a city can offer – people on the sidewalks and streets.

This brings me to my next, and almost last point – a post I read on the ridiculously named CoolTown Studios blog. They contrast natural cultural districts with corporate cultural districts. That’s relevant, because we have so many weird corporate cultural districts being built up around here lately – including the thorn in my side, Atlantic Station. Did you hear? Property values at Atlantic Station are dropping. Oh, sorry for the schadenfreude. I mean, property values are dropping everywhere, so I shouldn’t immediately blame this on all the things wrong with Atlantic Station like the questionable water supply and terrible stucco and the really shitty Gap and the abrasive voice inside the thing that gives you your parking card and that you have to drive there if you live anywhere else in Atlanta besides Atlantic Station.

The characteristics of the two different cultural districts are interesting to behold, if not kind of obvious already. My gripe is that the post features photos of a cobblestone street in Dublin (interestingly, its mostly tourist district Temple Bar, although the post says corporate cultural districts are the ones that attract tourists) and some retail development in Washington, D.C. Oh no they di’nt!

Now I can’t take anything CoolTown Studios say seriously. This is my pet peeve, when people compare any European city to any U.S. city and act like we are total dumbasses in the U.S. for not building awesome cities like Madrid. Uh, you can blame that on the Cherokee and Iroquois people then, because Madrid was founded in 900 A.D. I just finished Health and Community Design (co-written by former Tech planning professor Larry Frank) and got a little pissed off that they kept extolling European cities as great models of dense development favorable to pedestrians. There was one part that contrasted a photo of Buford Highway with Bath, England. These two areas were built almost two millennia apart. NOT AN EFFECTIVE POINT. Buford Highway sucks, but you can’t say, “And now, look what those crafty Romans and Saxons came up and how walkable this is!”

Even when people (in my urban policy planning class! aurrrggghhhh!) complain that Atlanta has a terrible car addiction and why can’t we be more like New York City, etc etc etc, it is a deeply flawed comparison. New York City came of age long before the invention of the automobile (and had way more modes of public transit than they have today that moved around even more people)! You guys, most of our U.S. cities were built around the wonderful invention of personal transportation vehicles! We can’t solve our transportation problems by whining we’re not more like Manhattan and Paris or looking to old cities with heavy rail as models in mass transit. Those days are over!

I’ve been getting enraged over Georgia’s (read: Sonny Perdue‘s and the DOT‘s) many failures in transportation and infrastructure. Can Roy Barnes please run again for governor in 2010?

Okay, I really try not to get too wonky here because that’s what I spend all my academic, professional, and social time doing, but that mention of downtown triggered this backlog of semi-related thoughts.

(Terminal Station also references this new development 180 Peachtree, which I didn’t know anything about. Upon visiting their website, the words “signature retail opportunity” popped up on the screen and my eyes rolled into the back of my skull. I am so fucking sick of “signature retail opportunities” in Atlanta. Anyway, this development is basically a mall inside the old Macy’s. That’s great! That building is beautiful, and such development uses the space as it was originally intended in the golden age of downtown Atlanta. But I also don’t understand why all this luxury residential and retail development is still going on when we are in DIRE STRAITS here in Atlanta and Georgia, people! Who is making all this money to shop?)

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