During this past week’s frenzied news cycle, both locally and nationally, and in the midst of the Gulch development debate, many of you may have missed a notable but obscure local news story. The Zero Mile Post, the symbolic and physical beginning of Atlanta, was moved from nearby Underground to the Atlanta History Center, with little notice or fanfare. I will not debate here whether that was the right or wrong thing to do, but the fact that it happened reveals a great deal about our community. To me, the marker is much like the Gulch: forgotten and neglected since the last passenger rail station was torn down many years ago, and all because not enough people have cared about this tangled web of properties to change the status quo. In fact, you can make the case that much of Downtown was neglected for generations, as new developments and populations fled to the northern suburbs. But things began to change just before the Olympics, and the central city has been on a gradual, albeit slow climb ever since. But, there are still many miles left in the journey.
As a longtime city advocate and observer, I’m compelled to make a personal plea for all of you to begin caring about the Gulch. During my almost forty year career in Atlanta, I, like many, have worked hard to keep Downtown in the running. Despite the primary obstacle of a grossly underutilized tax base (approximately 30% of Downtown property does not pay property tax), we are making progress but our northern neighbors continue to attract significantly more development capital to their markets.
The Gulch has long been identified as a major hindrance to the City’s economic and equitable growth. The case for its redevelopment dates back decades and finally in 1999, almost 20 years ago, the Westside TAD Redevelopment Plan identified the Gulch as a “major tear in the urban fabric, dividing the area and acting as an obstacle to investment” and a “ravine...that has visually, socially, and physically divided the area.”
Further, the Plan goes on to reiterate the very limitations of the site that we are grappling with today, advising that, “Due to the physical obstacle created by the raised roadways and the railroads, government assistance will most likely be essential for any development to occur.” These excerpts from a Plan dated almost twenty years ago strengthen the argument that the “time to do something is now.”
The Gulch redevelopment is an opportunity for the City to redefine its image and catalyze our next wave of growth, particularly in an area that can and should accommodate new residences (20 percent are promised to be affordable), office space, and businesses that are necessary to drive our economy. All at a site that is served by two MARTA stations and can preserve future commuter rail access.
It may be decades before another developer puts forth the time and resources to solve one of our city’s greatest economic development challenges. We can’t afford to wait that long, as Downtown is the dividing line between the wealth of North Atlanta and the economically-challenged neighborhoods to our south and west. It is time to close that gap, both physically and spiritually. It is time to do something for the southern half of our city.
We should all ask ourselves: What kind of city do we want Atlanta to be? This is not about the former Mayor, the current Mayor, or any other elected official. This is about a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I, like so many of you, am eager to prove to future generations of Atlantans that when the time came, we did the right thing for our community…that we cared enough when it really counted. Together, let’s create a new “mile marker” that will stay put for generations.
As public-private partnerships go, I truly feel that it doesn’t get much better than the one before us. Nothing in the world is perfect, but we will be kicking ourselves if we do not seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair this hole in our City.
President of Central Atlanta Progress and Atlanta Downtown Improvement District