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Will fish-spawned urban rebirth happen here? I walked around the aquarium neighborhood after the groundbreaking. It's a mixed bag. Centennial Olympic Park is pretty -- and pretty empty. Urban pioneers are building housing -- but I wonder how the residents will react if, say, the fish tank unleashes thousands of car-borne tourists into the neighborhoods.
Other blocks are classic urban blight. The more outstanding landmarks are a Life University outreach clinic that looked as down-at-the-heels as the school's reputation; and the Lucky Spa, where I'm sure many customers have had happy endings to their massages.
Marcus' idea is that 5,000-6,000 people a day are going to hop into cars and jaunt to the aquarium and the World of Coke (where, I'm sure, there will be a Tooth Decay Display and an Obese Children Exhibit). After getting down with the fish and high with Coke, they'll do ... Well, it's not clear. Marcus said something about sports events, but after a baseball game, there aren't many people up for trudging around an aquarium.
When the crowds leave, all that will be left is a vacuum -- no humans (other than the homeless), just concrete and glass. Soon the novelty will wear off and civic entropy will begin re-wastelanding downtown.
In short, Marcus might have to rename Deepo something that's more appropriate -- say, Deepo-Sixo.
Charles Brewer, dressed in wrinkled chinos and a faded yellow shirt, waved to some massive construction wreckage and invited, "Hey, have a seat on my piece of concrete." He then pointed across Glenwood Avenue and said, "There's the train."
"The train" is a collection of old railroad tracks that encircle Atlanta's intown neighborhoods. City Council President Cathy Woolard and a troop of civic activists are pushing the concept called the "beltline," a streetcar system running through Atlanta's densely populated neighborhoods and connecting with MARTA.
Atlanta's transit system was conceived as a hub and spokes. The beltline would encircle the inner city, connecting the spokes as a wheel might.
Brewer, after exiting EarthLink, opted to become a developer -- but he had something else in mind than adding to greater Atlanta's sprawl.
"It's as if we gave up," he says. "We love old walkable cities. But we were duped into believing we can't do that anymore."
So, his Green Street Properties purchased 20 acres and began creating an old-style neighborhood. There will be a town center, stores and offices, homes, condos and apartments.
You won't need a car for the neighborhood -- and if the beltline becomes reality, you may not need an auto very often at all. (Despite some erroneous reporting elsewhere, the beltline was not one of the train projects axed by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Its planning funds remain in the current regional transportation plan.)
Even more important, there are about 4,000 acres of unused or underused industrial land -- much like what Brewer is building on -- connected to the beltline. Housing for 100,000 people -- maybe more -- could be built along the system. Atlanta would begin to work like one of the truly great cities where the car is an accessory not a religion.
An underpinning of Brewer's philosophy is that, if you bring people back into the city, decay and blight will be pushed out naturally by the facilities and amenities folks want. It's the reverse of the "build it and they will come" Big Bang.
But here's the catch: The 22-mile streetcar system will cost, oh, $500 million. Maybe a billion. Most of it will be in federal and state dollars. But there will have to be a local commitment, derived in large part through taxes on the properties that will benefit from the beltline.
However you slice the civic pie, dollars are limited. Over at Marcus' fish tank, every one was beaming at his generosity. The spin was no public funds.
Not quite. Marcus wants hefty city and state financial commitments (read: your money) for "infrastructure." He wants the city to clean up the area. And what billionaires want, they usually get. Already, the legislature generously larded special tax breaks onto construction materials used at the aquarium. (Think your home addition rates the same sweet favors? Ha, ha, ha.) And Marcus' phalanx of downtown boosters are demanding $30 million in precious public cash for street and sidewalk improvements -- so that all of tourists can quickly drive downtown and then, just as quickly, get the hell out.
Thus Atlanta, lacking a defined blueprint for its future, is allowing one billionaire to dictate the city's priorities. No mass citizen effort to come up with a vision for Atlanta, no debate or dialogue, no spirited adventure as citizens sketch a city for tomorrow. Instead, one guy who wants to be remembered in a big way will stamp our city with his monument.
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