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Train terminal silliness 

GDOT's most important project — and the city — deserves better

This past Monday, the Georgia Department of Transportation decided which of three competing development teams would transform "the Gulch," that vast, lifeless asphalt pit near Philips Arena, into a new urban landscape - complete with a grand train and bus terminal, mixed-use buildings and public spaces - that could reshape and revitalize downtown Atlanta. That's in addition to serving the commuter rail trains that should've chugged through the state decades ago.

Unfortunately, the public wasn't given the chance to play a role in which team's vision would be selected for this public-private project. (Surprise: The winning team included politically connected firms Cousins Properties and the Integral Group.)

Sure, the public will be given the obligatory 30 days to submit comments on the selected plan. The contract must still be approved by the GDOT board but, for the most part, the deal's gone down.

GDOT, which in the last few years has commendably tried to shake its longtime image as being "all roads, all the time" by working with the Atlanta Beltline and exploring high-speed rail opportunities, appears to have treated the downtown train terminal as if it was just another repaving contract or interchange repair. Sure, the agency requested proposals and followed normal protocol. But the overhaul of the Gulch is not a normal project.

The successful development of the 100-plus acre site has the potential to inject the same city-changing excitement into the beleaguered downtown area that Atlantic Station did for the now-booming Westside.

Curious members of the public would've been disappointed with what GDOT posted on its website last Friday. The agency limited firms to describe their complex proposals in three pages, leaving little room to clearly describe their visions for the site or explain how they should be paid for. Of the three top-notch teams that vied for the project, only one - which included local firms Perkins + Will of Beltline fame and Jacoby Group, which successfully turned a brownfield into Atlantic Station - included a rendering for viewing on GDOT's website.

If the project gets off the ground - it's been a political football for nearly two decades - it will effectively create an entirely new live/work/travel district in the heart of downtown. While trains and buses pick up and drop off passengers below street level in what is now an unsightly rail yard and parking lot, people will gather in plazas, raise families in high-rise homes, and do business in office towers.

Should the public have been given an up-or-down vote to choose which firm would handle the complicated financing plans and technical details needed to build a multimodal station? No. But Atlantans should've had more of a chance to review the concepts and weigh in prior to a bureaucratic decision. And GDOT should understand that this new addition to downtown, to be successful, must be embraced by the community. So far, the project isn't off to a good start.

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