Across the street from Lindbergh Plaza, next to MARTA's Lindbergh Station, BellSouth has constructed two office towers where 2,000 employees now work. The point of the MARTA/BellSouth project was to increase transit use and put workers near essential shops so they wouldn't have to drive to the store on the way home.
The task force studying Lindbergh Plaza was charged with coming up with zoning laws that would complement the BellSouth towers. Specifically, Atlanta City Council told the team to write new zoning laws ensuring that the intersection of Piedmont Avenue and Lindbergh Drive would be a place "where people can live, work, meet and recreate." Just like in a real city.
But the redevelopment plans that ultimately were approved for the area, in October 2003, will bring more cars and traffic than ever before.
The Sembler Co., the largest strip mall and big-box development firm operating in metro Atlanta, is building a Target, Home Depot, Best Buy, and about 250 apartments in Lindbergh Plaza.
Some of the people who helped forge the zoning laws for the area are furious that big-box retail stores are going on the exact plot that they were trying to make more neighborhood-esque. One of them, Peggy Whitaker, an architect who's worked with the city's planning department for 25 years, is so ticked that she's sworn off ever working for the betterment of the city again.
The Lindbergh zoning laws were "written to be a mixed-use, urban scale development, to encourage live, work, and play, to encourage grocery stores and neighborhood restaurants and your neighborhood watering hole," Whitaker says. "And then what happens is, it goes downtown and turns out to be something a whole lot less than we citizens of this city would like to see, and I'm tired of it.
"It's my last attempt to participate in something like this."
To many longtime intown residents, big boxes like Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart and Target are the building blocks of wide-open suburbia -- and have no business in a tight, urban environment. Because such stores are built in a pattern that's replicated thousands of times across the country, the boxes homogenize neighborhoods where charm and a sense of pride still exist, big-box detractors say.
Not to mention that the enormous blacktop parking lots that accompany the box stores are the antithesis of pedestrian friendly.
A close look at the Lindbergh zoning laws that Whitaker helped fashion, however -- as well as Sembler's own plans -- shows that Lindbergh Plaza will incorporate some positive, smart growth qualities.
Lindbergh's big boxes will be set behind smaller shops and homes with doors that open to the street. There will be 15-foot-wide sidewalks. And the parking lots, which will be behind the buildings, will be smaller than those found in typical big-box developments.
Sembler also will include these urban design elements in its redevelopment of the old Atlanta Gas Light grounds, just south of Little Five Points. In fact, all over the city, new zoning rules are forcing developers to place storefronts street-side, to put parking lots in back, and to build wider sidewalks.
But banning big boxes is something that city planners just won't tackle. Enrique Bascuñana and Caleb Racicot, two city planners who worked with Whitaker on the task force that wrote the Lindbergh zoning laws, say it was never anyone's intent to block big-box retail from Lindbergh Plaza.
"It was something that never came up," says Racicot, who now works for Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates, the firm hired by Sembler to design parts of the Atlanta Gas Light project. "I say, sometimes you've got to go to Home Depot."
Large, mixed-use developments with big boxes also serve a function when it comes to reducing traffic, in that when they're built intown, intown residents are able to drive fewer miles to reach them. For that reason, mixed-use projects, even with big boxes, are promoted by the metro region's planning super-agency, the Atlanta Regional Commission.
"If you do have services and housing concentrated in nodes so that you can work shop, and play, then you're building more self-sufficient communities, where people can walk, get on a train, or some other alternative to the car," says ARC spokeswoman Julie Ralston. "All of that helps with air quality and greenspace preservation."
The question, though, and the crux of the whole debate over big-box stores, remains: Even when big boxes are dressed up to look like smart growth, will they actually behave like smart growth?
"With the type of tenants they are going to have, the development is going to be a draw," Bascuñana says of Lindbergh Plaza. "The difference is the way this is designed. I know when we told the neighborhood, they weren't happy about having big boxes coming in. But we're going to end up with a much better product. It's not the perfect product, but it will be more walkable."
But while Sembler's redevelopment of Lindbergh Plaza might make it smarter, it won't necessarily be smart, according to Whitaker.
"We have the opportunity in this city to do fabulous things," she says. "But rather than negotiate effectively with these real estate developments, the city planning department caves in every single time. Now we're going to get another huge open sea of a parking lot at Lindbergh."
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