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Atlantic Station: Live Work Master Planning in Atlanta

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, July 05, 2007, at 10:39PM
Atlantic Station - September 17, 2006 Karsh [Flickr]

Ever since moving Downtown, trips elsewhere have become a chance to check out what other cities are doing and look at what lessons we can bring back here to LA. Kathy and I spent last weekend in Atlanta visiting my uncle, who just happens to be a real estate agent and was able to tour us around and give us a pretty comprehensive look at what's going in the city.

Atlanta has a lot of interesting development taking place -- I was particularly blown away by the number of high-rises going up in the Buckhead area -- but one project that I thought had particular relevance to Downtown is the Atlantic Station development going on in Midtown.

A massive project spanning 138 acres, Atlantic Station was built on the site of a former steel mill just north of Downtown. In all it has 5,000 residential units, a hotel, office space, a mall and movie theater. The most urban part of the project is "The District", site of the mall, office space, grocery store, and 600 apartments and condos. In true mixed-use fashion, the residential sits above retail and multiple levels of below-ground parking.

Yet despite all it offered, I couldn't imagine living there. Much more after the jump...

Photo above by Karsh.

Often we get caught up in wishing for our favorite big-name retailers. We want Target, Ikea, a grocery store, etc, and each gets named as a part of what's needed to "fix" Downtown. Atlantic Station has each of those, with a Publix filling in regionally for Ralphs. In fact, the retail names at Atlantic Station compete well against any upscale mall. There would be a lot of happy people if Downtown could count those same chains in its tenant list.

What's the result, though? Living at Atlantic Station would be very much akin to living at the mall. The shops have great name recognition and clout, but very little character. Nowhere in The District did I see something that felt like Pete's, or Banquette, or Woodspoon, or Old Bank DVD.

The developers of Atlantic Station probably got exactly the restaurants and retail they wanted. Kathy and I ended up there to see a movie, and the complex seems well-used for shopping and dining. It's a great drive-in destination for the growing Atlanta population.

The developers of Atlantic Station have put a lot of energy into selling the idea of their development as a city inside a city. I would argue that this notion fails because they didn't account for the idea that a city and a community have to grow organically. You can't flip a switch and make it happen.

Underground Parking Even the geography of The District is artificial. Much like parts of Downtown LA, The District's "ground level" is a sham, a fake creation on top of three levels of parking. Stairways styled after subway entrances take you down to the massive expanse below.

I'll close with one anecdotal story that I think sums up my opinion on Atlantic Station. Before our movie Kathy and I were checking out the food options and ended up deciding to go to Cafe Au Bon Pain.

We checked out the menu in the window, and then tried the front door only to find it locked. It was 8:30 on a Sunday night, and the hours on the door said they were open until 10pm. There were people inside, and it didn't seem closed, but the door was definitely locked. We were already walking away when a customer came and opened the door to let us in. Kathy asked the guy behind the counter if they were open and he said they were, so we went ahead and ordered.

We sat eating and watched as several people came to open the door, only to find it locked. The guy working behind the counter just stood there, acting like he didn't notice and going about his business. Even one of the employees got locked out and Kathy had to go open the door to let him in. After one last group asked if the place was open and then pointed out the hours on the door, the guy running the place simply walked over there and scraped the 10pm closing time right off the door.

Clearly the guy running that cafe has no investment in the "neighborhood." Can you imagine one of the fun food spots Downtown simply ignoring customers at their door (when they're supposed to be open)? I can't.

Second photo by paytonc.

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