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We need to change Atlanta's 'Big Idea' mind-set 

Atlanta can realize progress for all with incremental goals

Atlanta has long been a city whose business and political leadership has been enthralled with the next Big Idea.

From building the world's busiest airport to the Olympics, from Atlantic Station to the Atlanta Beltline, this striving for bigger and better has defined the city and contributes to its reputation for dynamism and its claim as the primary growth engine of the New South.

But, too often, the Big Idea is hailed as a solution before a consideration of what Atlantans really want — and how, if at all, the Big Idea addresses the problems.

Many of Atlanta's Big Ideas have profited the investors and developers who put together the deals, the attorneys and consultants who craft the plans, the contractors who build them and the businesses that expand their markets. Few, though, are geared on the modest, incremental, doable steps that make the greatest difference for most of us, such as ensuring that we live in neighborhoods where property is properly maintained, the sidewalks don't trip you, street lights provide security, transit is an option and parks are mowed. Improving the places that people live, work and travel is what builds the trust and creates the pride that marks a great city. So the Big Idea shouldn't get off the ground without showing how it will benefit surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.

The newest challenge on Atlanta's plate is Fort McPherson, the 488-acre Army base scheduled to be vacated Sept. 15. Then, a state-chartered redevelopment authority takes over the management and redevelopment processes.

This body developed a plan in 2007 for the creation of a major biomedical treatment, research and development center. The plan had some merit, but it didn't address either the immediate or the long-term interests of the people who live or have businesses near the base.

Here's a remarkable piece of public property with dozens of perfectly functional buildings and outstanding park and recreation facilities that could be used to revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods. Jobs in maintenance, security, construction, housing rehab and on-site management could provide a win-win for everyone.

Instead, this choice real estate could be heading down a path of dereliction and deterioration. Even after the soured economy has all but scuttled its plans for a biomedical center, the authority refuses to let go of its Big Idea.

As is happening across Atlanta, development sharks could begin circling a decaying Fort Mac carcass, waiting to dart in and pick it up for pennies on the dollar and work their connections to — what? Promulgate the next Big Idea while ignoring the community-building potential of the property.

Neighborhood activists, who for years have unsuccessfully tried to persuade the authority to address their concerns, now seem to be making some headway. To bolster their position, Georgia STAND-UP and Georgia Tech planning students have helped them put forward a community action plan.

Where the authority's plan conceives of the base as a bastion of profitable, Big Idea development, and views the neighborhoods as a detriment, the community plan looks at the problem the other way around. The authority plan doesn't consider how the assets already on the base could benefit the larger city. The community plan does. The authority plan doesn't include an immediate action plan to conserve these assets and put them to use. Again, the community plan does.

The neighborhoods do not see their effort as competing with the Big Idea. They seek only to complete the picture, to bridge the time between now and when something big might actually happen. Sometimes it's better to settle for singles, scratch out some hits, than to always attempt a home run (which means more if the bases are loaded, anyway).

Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech professor of urban planning, is a former Atlanta planning commissioner.

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