Over the last 15 years, Atlanta's Westside has been transformed from a drab industrial area into a neighborhood boasting upscale restaurants, haberdashers, and enough art galleries to create its own Westside Arts District. As a result, it became a place where people wanted to live. The housing market nosedive tapped the brakes on the area's progress, but now, much like elsewhere in the city, development's picking up.
In addition to being a vibrant and growing neighborhood, the Westside is home to some of the city's most congested streets. These roads not only serve people coming to shop and dine, they're also major thoroughfares that carry downtown and Midtown office workers, Atlanta Falcons fans, and other motorists from I-75 and Cobb County, and vice versa. Woe is he or she who sits behind the wheel and stares at the long line of cars at the intersection of Howell Mill and Huff roads during rush hour.
In the coming years, nearly 700 units of new housing and at least 23,000 square feet of retail space are planned for the neighborhood. That could mean as many as 1,000 more residents and a hefty influx of customers. The City of Atlanta and a Georgia Tech professor are looking at ways to ease the congestion while also making the Westside friendlier to the people who live there. But to make transit solutions a reality is going to take funding — something that's hard to come by in metro Atlanta.
The good news is that these dense developments will bring more people to the neighborhood — and that their designs could help create a more walkable community. Perennial Properties' proposed mixed-use project along Howell Mill Road, in the parking lot of the Optimist restaurant, would include brownstone walk-ups and 6,000 square feet of retail that pushes up to the street. In addition, the owners of the Westside Urban Market might demolish the restaurant Osteria del Figo at the corner of Howell Mill and Huff roads to build 14,000 square feet of retail.
The bad news is that options are limited when it comes to transit. Sure, MARTA runs along 10th Street every 30 minutes or so, but not a single bus operates alongside the estimated 25,000 cars and trucks that travel on Northside Drive every day. The Atlanta Beltline's proposed streetcar would potentially travel near the neighborhood, but there's no timeline on when that will happen.
Without transit, the neighborhood "doesn't work — it ultimately collapses," says Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning professor and former Atlanta planning commissioner who is collaborating with the city on solutions. "The spine of that is Northside Drive."
Since last summer, the professor and his students have conducted a study — with financial support from the city, state, and Midtown and downtown boosters — re-imagining Northside Drive between I-75 and I-20 as a "grand transit boulevard," with a landscaped median to make the wide road more pedestrian-friendly and separate lanes for cyclists and buses. The project is in the final stages of sifting through data and proposals; students will seek public comment and present the results this spring.
Were buses to run along Northside Drive, as Dobbins has envisioned, residents of nearby streets would live only a few blocks from being shuttled to Midtown and downtown. Georgia Tech students staying in Westside apartments wouldn't have to pray before crossing the street. Bus service would increase as the area grows denser over time.
There are reasons to be optimistic about bicycle, pedestrian, and transit plans for the area. The city is looking to designate Northside Drive as a "transit corridor," which would make it eligible for transportation funding from the state and feds. And transportation officials such as Joshuah Mello, the city's assistant director of transportation planning, and Tom Weyandt, Mayor Kasim Reed's senior transportation policy adviser, are pushing to retrofit the city's streets.
Mello says the City plans to spend $2 million in the area and is currently conducting a study on what kind of bicycle facilities the area needs, informed in part by data generated by users of the city's cycling app. Federal transportation funding for the area is being spent on studying bus rapid transit along Northside Drive. Dobbins' study will help decide what happens next, Mello says. On Monday, the Atlanta City Council approved spending $2.5 million on bike projects throughout the city, including bike lanes that would help Westside pedalers access Midtown and downtown. Midtown boosters and developers and city officials are also in early talks about a shuttle linking the Westside to destinations across the interstate.
These are huge steps. But it'll take more cash to reduce the gridlock in the neighborhood and help people get to — and move through — the Westside.
State lawmakers from Fulton and DeKalb counties are said to be interested in drafting plans for a smaller version of the transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST, that failed in metro Atlanta last July. A Cobb County lawmaker has also introduced a similar plan. That proposal faces an uphill battle, as it calls for repealing the T-SPLOST law in the three regions where voters approved the measure. In addition, there's talk under the Gold Dome of allowing fractional sales taxes to be spent on any purpose, which could include transportation. According to state revenue estimates CL compiled last year, Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton counties could generate an estimated $3.1 billion if they partnered and passed a 1-percent sales tax. That's enough to beef up MARTA to run more frequently, build bus and rail lines, and construct all the bike lanes our hearts desire.
Yes, you read that right. In addition to the bond packages and wishes for federal funding, it'd require a tax to fix a mess that's rooted in white flight and poor planning, caused by commuters and out-of-towners clogging our city streets, and made worse by state lawmakers who refuse to directly address transportation funding.
But it's worth it. The Westside was a diamond in the rough that took off because people were drawn to its authenticity. It should be prepared to handle the influx of new residents — and survive the daily onslaught of automobiles — so it doesn't become another example of good things gone to waste.
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