Atlanta plans for more green space and a new 'city' to replace military base

Atlanta's planning director says while the city has fallen behind in green space, sewers and development around the ballpark, it's leading the way in other areas, including getting a 'room full of grandmothers' to understand zoning at a closing military base.

When the U.S. Army hands over Fort McPherson to the city of Atlanta in September 2011, the city will inherit 488 acres, and Charletta Wilson Jacks, director of the Atlanta’s Office of Planning, knows exactly what she wants to do with it.

The base, which opened in 1889 and was used as both a general hospital and a prisoner of war camp, will be “our own little city between Atlanta and East Point,” Jacks said.

Other exciting news in Atlanta: The Georgia Department of Transportation recently announced that it will hire a developer for Atlanta’s Multimodal Passenger Terminal, which will serve as a hub for bus and rail service radiating from the city.

I spoke to Jacks last week about the base closure, Atlanta’s BeltLine and how she got a room full of “grandmothers” to care about zoning and special permits.

Tell me about the $2.8 billion Atlanta BeltLine that will circle downtown.

It’s one of the largest projects the city is going to see for some time to come. It will link Atlanta together utilizing existing railroad tracks, for 22 miles, through all four quadrants of the city. We call it an emerald necklace. Atlanta is a little behind the nation in terms of green space, and this will set the stage for more transportation options. Some of the trails have already been completed, and there’s a huge park being built. Right now, BeltLine Incorporated is looking at the different transit alternatives, such as light rail, which will coexist with trails along side it.

The goal is twofold: to help those who already live in the city but also to increase residential and commercial areas. When you bring in the residents then you stimulate commercial development.

Fort McPherson, just south of Atlanta, is closing next year under BRAC [Base Closure and Realignment Commission]. Tell me what’s planned for that base.

Oh, this is close to my heart. It is going to be the most exciting project that Southwest Atlanta has seen in 20 to 50 years. It is scheduled to close September 2011, and 488 acres will be available to the city for redevelopment. It’s a 20 to 25-year project that will jumpstart economic development in this area. It’s located between two MARTA stations, so we’re going to focus on pedestrian-friendly development. We envision the Atlantic Station of the south--our own little city between Atlanta and East Point. It’s an area that has been overlooked for too long.

We are talking about the center of the base being an employment center for bioscience and green industries. HOK is doing the master plan. We’re taking a huge amount of acres that will be devoted to green space, with an amphitheater. There’s a hospital there now, which will remain, and we’ll have a school, library, new single family homes, apartments and housing for the homeless. There’s an 18-hole golf course; we’re looking at reducing it to a nine-hole course.

The historic homes on base date back to the 1800s. These have been houses for generals. Colin Powell lived in one at one point. We envision making it more like the old Western main street, where you can live in a historical home, and you have boutiques and restaurants close to you.

Why is this project close to your heart?

My father was in the military. I came to Atlanta in 1978 as a graduate student, and at one point, this part of town was booming. Now there’s a lot of underutilized land, very old zoning and liquor stores on every corner. It is in need of development, so the base closure has the power to transform this area into a booming economic engine.

Also, I educated a certain segment of society that has not been engaged in public policy. By the end of the day I had the little 80-year-old African-American lady who doesn't know what zoning is about, interested in what was going on. By the time I ended the six-week community engagement process, they knew about special permits. These people [from the surrounding neighborhoods] who may not normally know the process understood the process. I had a room full of my grandmothers. My point to them was, “When you see the bulldozers, it’s too late.” They understand now that they can come in and make a wish list and make their voices heard.

Are you using any base closures around the country as models?

The queen of them is Lowry Air Force Base in Denver [currently a mixed use community]. We have also looked at the technology campus environment at University Park at MIT, which has bioscience research and office facilities, street-level retail and restaurants, a hotel, and mixed-income residential units. It has become an important part of the neighborhood.

I was able to go to Orlando [in November] for the Defense Community Conference [where state, community and military leaders shared best practices for BRAC transition] to meet with others who have gone through this process. I learned that Atlanta is far ahead of the game in partnering with the community. We actively go out and deal with the community before the legislative process begins. We’re into educating our people about what zoning really means.

We anticipate first quarter 2011 we will have regulations in place for zoning and land use of the base, so when it’s turned over to the city, the development rules will be in place.

I lived in Atlanta before and during the 1996 Olympics, and I remember there was a mad rush improve infrastructure before the Games. Fourteen years later, what’s the impact of all that?

I was with ACOG [Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games] for six years, as a project engineer in the construction department, from the beginning to the closing of the stadium. When you talk about infrastructure, you’re talking mostly about facilities. The most lasting infrastructure is the Braves stadium [Turner Field]. We’re still trying to work on the development around it. There was some, but you would think there would be a thriving neighborhood around it, and we’re not there yet. In terms of colleges, Georgia Tech did well with the swimming venue, and Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University were left with arenas

Overall, the Olympics were good for Atlanta. We were the spotlight of the world. And you’ll see a surge in population, and people realize now that we really are an international city. The population has continued to increase, and as it increases, Atlanta really has to take an assessment of its infrastructure. What do we need to do to upgrade our streets, install more sidewalks and do some catch-up. The city didn’t expect this development; we’re really behind the eight ball on that. The previous mayor [Shirley Franklin] dubbed herself the Sewer Mayor. She was committed to upgrading our sewers. She got a lot done, but there’s still a lot to do.

Image: City of Atlanta

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