When city planners and strip mall developers got together two decades ago and made it their goal to rid Atlanta of its charm, many a naysayer said it couldn't be done. They claimed that one day downtown would bounce back. They said the character of the city's neighborhoods would persevere. They hinted that there were too many rolling hills to flatten, too many oaks and pines and crepe myrtles to cut down.
Boy, were they wrong! It took a lot of work, but Atlanta now sits near the top of every list that ranks the unattractiveness of American cities.
Atlanta's out-of-control growth devours 50 acres a day, replacing forests with Wal-Mart Supercenters, Home Depots and 300-home golf course communities where yards are the size of postage stamps and houses cost a million dollars (that's six zeroes, pal). As a result, we're the fourth most sprawling metro area in the nation and home to two of the 10 ugliest streets in America, according to a group of urban designers.
When it comes to the lowest percentage of park space in major cities, Atlanta ranks at the very top. Less than 4 percent of land in the city of Atlanta is devoted to parks. The national average is just under 9 percent. Well-planned cities like San Francisco have devoted close to 20 percent of city land to parks. Wonder what that's like.
In May, The New York Times Magazine asked Martha Schwartz, owner of one the country's most prestigious landscape design firms and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Design School, what she thought was the least attractive city in America. "Atlanta has got to be on top of the list," she answered. "It is so sprawling. And 60 percent of surface area downtown is surface parking."
Hell yeah! Congratulations developers, you did it. And a special thanks to county and city officials for not getting in the way. Wouldn't Sherman be proud?
Whether it's strip malls or subdivisions, cheap uniformity in the outlying suburbs has been mass produced like Yugos coming off a hyperactive assembly line. The trouble is that the city itself is now falling victim to the very same, um, sameness. The suburbs are coming to town, and they're bringing their disposable incomes and dismal chain stores with them.
But even in Atlanta's sea of mediocrity, some buildings, streetscapes and places are so heinous that they stand out like a Target in Little Five Points.
Creative Loafing has enlisted the help of our readers, as well as a distinguished panel of ugliness experts, to track down and expose the worst of the blight, the blemishes and the bad designs that have wrecked this town. We scoured intown and the 'burbs, commercial and residential, the misguided and the intentionally offensive, to narrow it down to these seven god-awful eyesores.
Check 'em out. They're really, really fugly.
Is it art? Is it crap?
Sol LeWitt, the artist who thought up the cinderblock rendition of a big city skyline pictured on CL's cover, is famous the world over for his minimalist, highly conceptual art and, um, stuff.
Anyway, CL reader Carol Christman calls it "the ugliest artwork in America" and "an embarrassment to our beautiful city."
Ouch. We theorize it's actually a monument honoring the ugliness of our constantly under-construction city, so of course LeWitt had to make it out of bare cinderblocks. Genius!
Some artsy-fartsy people actually praise this piece in the Old Fourth Ward, called "54 Columns" because you can walk through it and feel like a giant walking around downtown, you know, like Godzilla.
To that, R. Land says, "Oh, brother! I played that game when I was in elementary school with cardboard boxes. If Sol wanted to be more accurate in representing Atlanta's current architectural trends, he would've made those towers out of particleboard and that fancy faux stucco. But at least it doesn't challenge the sewer system, that's for sure."
CL: Now you're defending it.
R. Land: "Alllrrright! I LOVE IT!"
CL: No, we must burn it down.
R. Land: "Yeah, soak them in kerosene.
CL: Would that work? Kerosene?
R. Land: "No, you can't burn it."
Boulevard to consumerism hell
It's ironic and shameful that Jimmy Carter Boulevard, the Gwinnett County waking nightmare of suburban sprawl, is named after Georgia's king of country living and wide-open spaces.
Block after block of fast-food chains and big box strip malls have turned this ribbon of asphalt into one of the nastiest streets in the country. No, really. Some members of the New Urbanism movement got together earlier this year and named Jimmy Carter Boulevard one of the "10 Worst Streets in North America."
In fact, they named Atlanta the "Worst Streets Capital of North America" because of our abundance of "ugly, car-choked suburban streets." They singled out Buford Highway, too, and said Jimmy Carter "is Buford Highway, only with lousy restaurants."
Besides the visual diarrhea that plagues streetscapes like this, there are human consequences when you plan cities with automobiles in mind and not people. Atlanta is the 12th most dangerous city for pedestrians and the second most dangerous city for bicyclists.
Oh, and just in case you want to know what's around the bend in this photo, it's something like: Wendy's, Arby's, Jiffy Lube, CVS, McDonald's, Eckerd, Wendy's, Arby's, Jiffy Lube, CVS, McDonald's, Eckerd, Wendy's, Arby's, Jiffy Lube, CVS, McDonald's, and then an Eckerd.
Attack of the billboards
When the trial of mankind begins -- probably sometime in the year 2047, after the Saturnians have landed and begun excavating our post-global warming civilization -- this photograph, taken of a stretch of I-75 just south of I-575, will be exhibit A in the argument that humans didn't deserve to inhabit Planet Earth.
The Saturnian lawyer will say, "See? See ladies and gentlemen of the jury? They cut down their own oxygen source and ruined their finest views just so they could put up a bunch of big, ugly-ass signs!"
To which the surviving human lawyer will respond, "I object, your honor. These accusations are an outrage! Without the economic growth that these, quote, ugly-ass signs, unquote, spurred, humans would never have been able to afford SUVs, golf club memberships, and satellite TV with triple sports packages."
Although they'll be dead by then, here's what friends of Earth alive right now would say if called to testify:
"That is a public space, and we, as a public, have every right to specify what we want it to look like. I am all for regulation of billboards." -- Scott Ball, architect and executive director of a community housing nonprofit.
"Anything that has Viacom or Clear Channel on the bottom of it is evil -- and ugly." -- R. Land, artist and Atlanta-lover.
The America's Mart of solitude
Bow down. Bow before the might of America's Mart. Submit to the impenetrable fortress, the enormous brown block.
Believe it or not, the America's Mart building was designed by Atlanta's most famous architect, John Portman. It therefore stands as proof that fame and ego can overpower an architect's intellect. Portman's design completely disregards the building's connection to the rest of the city.
CL reader Kevin L. had this to say of the America's Mart building: "Concrete monoliths have no place in a downtown. Same goes for block-wide loading dock bays. Downtown's 'visionary' re-developer, John Portman, sacrificed any sense of vibrancy or human scale in this development."
Damn, Kevin, why are you such a hater? But you're basically right, according to the head of Georgia Tech's College of Architecture, Ellen Dunham-Jones.
At first, Dunham-Jones was a little reticent to trash Portman's building. She said, "John Portman is a grad of this program. I don't know how much I should comment on this."
Then, she talked a little about how great Portman was, because he used some of his own money to finance the America's Mart building while people and businesses were streaming out of downtown in the movement now dubbed white flight.
But, eventually, CL wore Dunham-Jones down with ingenious and insightful questions.
"Do I really love those buildings?" she says. "No. I wish they contributed more to a vibrant street life. The buildings are somewhat fortress-like, especially at the ground level. It's reflective of the time and the fears of the city."
The (redneck) Renaissance
Let us introduce you to the Renaissance, a development of 25 European-style estates starting in the $700,000s off Sewell Mill Road in Marietta. One would think that, if you paid anything near one-friggin'-million dollars for a house in a treeless subdivision with lots the size of postage stamps, it would at least have brick on all four sides, right?
Nope, just three. But at least your house would look like a casa that Michelangelo would have called home, right? Wrong again. What it really looks like is a Disney Euro-land home outfitted with ye olde cheap bells and ye olde cheap whistles.
See those reproductions of famous Renaissance art on the concrete walls enclosing the subdivision? That right there, ladies and gentlemen, is absolute proof that under no conditions does money buy taste.
One of the murals pictures Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in front of a naturalist-style American landscape including what looks like a great river in which to catch you some bass.
You know you're a redneck when this is your idea of opulence.
When CL visited the Renaissance on a recent sunny afternoon, a woman strolling by offered her opinion of the still-under-construction development. With a real European accent, she said, "It's ridiculous to me."
Our expert Goldberg, with faux-European snootiness, describes the Renaissance as "a stunning local exemplar of the subdivision al-fresco movement"; "a literal godsend to prodigal pedestrians who may blunder past"; and a real treat for "passing motorists [who], catching a glimpse of old Sienna in the side-view mirror, rejoice at the subliminal evocation of a quality of urban existence that, though withheld from them today, once was real."
He does have one gripe, though.
"While the Renaissance is a prodigious achievement on some level, I am afraid that I've caught the developers at a wee bit of historical inaccuracy," Goldberg notes. "While the marketing for this 'lavish homeowner's retreat' promises homes from the 700s, the Renaissance period usually is dated from 1450 to 1600."
The CityView apartments and condos have one thing going for them: Residents there have a great view of Atlanta's skyline.
Too bad the stucco monstrosity at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway blocks out chunks of the view for the rest of us. To add insult to injury, CityView's design makes it look like a cheap-ass hotel on the strip in Panama City Beach.
CityView is just one example of the new breed of apartment, condo and faux-loft developments popping up in intown neighborhoods. Most of the new arrivals are made from particleboard and corrugated sheet metal (for that modern, tin shed look) -- some of the cheapest construction materials money can buy.
Of these developments, CityView "is especially bad," says Scott Ball. "It's a celebration of EFIS, exterior foam insulating system. It's the industry term for synthetic stucco over Styrofoam."
Dunham-Jones says half-assed attempts by builders to include pitched gables, half-arches and other architectural details are out of whack: "I'm really glad to see new urban housing, but it is a shame that a lot of the new buildings -- and I'd say CityView, exactly -- are not building on the traditions as well as they could."
CityView designers "are just slapping [accents] on in a way that is so nonstructural. They are so clearly fake pastiches that they insult the architectural intelligence of what these forms derived from: real structural conditions where they've framed significant spaces."
R. Land calls CityView "an example of how rock-bottom this kind of development is. Check out that little balcony situation up there, which isn't even 6 inches wide. It's flush to the building, so basically you just open your door to a guardrail. There's not a place to even put a plant. This is like a whole new level of crap. It's ShittyView."
The 'burbs in Buckhead
There are, believe it or not, guidelines on how to build suburban strip malls. First, put a huge, asphalt parking lot in front. Then, make it inconvenient for pedestrians to navigate. Finally, make all the stores look like identical boxes. And voila! You have made garbage.
Metro Atlanta has plenty of big-box shopping centers with even wider parking lots and plainer storefronts. But the tragedy here is that the developers could have built a walkable block on one side of Peachtree Street in the middle of Buckhead instead of re-creating the suburbs.
The geniuses who designed this particular abomination put 10-foot-wide concrete planters filled with thick monkey grass across some parts of the center's sidewalks. This boneheaded move forces shoppers to take an unnecessary detour that renders the sidewalk obsolete. The lack of thought that went into this design is staggering, according to Smart Growth America's David Goldberg.
"If you happen to be walking along from where you got out of your car, every 15 feet, you're diverted either back out into the parking lot or under the concrete awning, being careful not smack into one of those brick columns," Goldberg says.
The wide sidewalk actually is quite nice. If you leveled the planter hurdles, it would in fact be perfect in another part of Buckhead -- say, right next to the street, where sidewalks traditionally have been found.
But back to the strip mall itself.
"The main thing that's wrong with it is it's a suburban shopping center in the middle of what ought to be a walkable, vibrant downtown setting," Goldberg says. "It's got all the flaws and inconvenient features that any of them would have in that [OTP] setting."
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I'm glad these guys are getting their deserved hype but seriously.... 'Is art the new…
No X 2
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