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Welcome To Piedmont Parking Deck 

What the two sides of the parking deck debate won't tell you

In a perfect world, traffic planners, park designers and environmental engineers would spend months, maybe a year or two, studying the best way to provide more parking for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Piedmont Park.

They'd look at every alternative to clear-cutting trees, digging up greenspace and constructing a multistory garage in the park. Using computer models, they'd evaluate whether the current proposal - to build an 800-space deck on a one-acre slope - would alleviate traffic in the park or make it worse.

Before making up their minds, they'd solicit the public's ideas and review other options, including building a deck on nearby, unused land owned by the city. They'd find out whether office garages in surrounding neighborhoods could be used for park visitors on weekends, and whether it would be feasible to run a shuttle system from remote lots to the park and the garden.

In a perfect world, the powers that be would spare no expense, take as much time as needed, and look at every conceivable option to make sure that Atlantans' best interests were served.

This is not a perfect world.

In perhaps the most heated intown dispute between the Atlanta establishment and grassroots activists in nearly a decade, the powers that be have opted for the bulldozer approach: Crank up the political-influence machine, grind it out full-speed ahead, and yell "we can't hear you" to anyone who objects to the predetermined plan.

They've held crucial votes in secret meetings, withheld documents, dismissed state open records and open meeting laws, and hired high-priced lobbyists to sell the deck to neighborhoods and City Hall. And they've insisted all along that theirs is the one and only proposal that could solve the park's parking problem.

Neighborhood activists have responded in kind, with yard signs, protests and furious flurries of e-mails pronouncing the latest rumors and intelligence about the deck deal.

The surprise in that predictable scenario is this: The high-handed elitists - with their contempt for open processes and their naked use of power and hired guns - have come up with a plan that could improve Piedmont Park, and the real challenge for park lovers lies not so much in defeating the deck as in ensuring that the promised improvements are fulfilled.

Between May and December of last year, the Atlanta Botanical Garden looked like a psychedelic alien planet. Seattle-based artist Dale Chihuly was contracted to install hundreds of his colorful and bizarrely shaped glass sculptures among the garden's flora.The exhibit broke all records. Overall garden attendance for 2004 rose to 400,000 - more than tripling combined visitation from two years earlier. Finally, garden officials could argue that the garden - a private nonprofit housed, thanks to a sweetheart lease, on city land carved out of Piedmont Park - belongs on the upper tier of the city's cultural institutions, alongside the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum and Fernbank Museum.

There's just one catch. The garden's tiny lot has space for just 120 cars. Special events, or simply sunny spring days, send scores of drivers into nearby neighborhoods in search of parking spots. At times, the garden has been forced to make arrangements to send its own guests to nearby commercial lots.

"During Chihuly, we spent over $100,000 running four shuttle buses, running all the time," says director of operations Ben Bradley. "It was great, and exciting, but we've got to give all these people a place to park."

Parking is even worse for the park itself. Its 146-space lot near Magnolia Hall is too small for the multitude of visitors, causing neighboring streets to overrun with cars almost every weekend. Obviously, visitors who choose to drive to the park or the garden would find it more convenient if there were room for their cars.

The notion of a deck was first broached in 1998 by three blue-blood institutions: the garden; the Piedmont Driving Club, a private club adjacent to the park; and the Piedmont Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that operates the park under a memorandum of agreement with the city.

"We started talking about how we could do something collaboratively between these three organizations in the same proximity and build one parking solution that served all three of these organizations," the garden's Bradley says.

At one point, conservancy officials backed out of the negotiations, declaring they didn't need more parking, according to Bradley. The garden and the driving club talked for another six months before club officials decided they could accomplish what they wanted on their own property.

"So at that point, the garden started looking at what our alternatives were within our lease line," Bradley says. "While we were in the long process of doing that, the conservancy came back to us and said, 'Let's rethink this one more time,' and that's how we got to where we are with this particular proposal.

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