What does Decatur have in common with San Francisco's Chinatown, the tony Chicago enclave of Evanston, Beaufort, South Carolina and a forward-thinking hamlet outside of Minneapolis? All of the above were named top 10 "great neighborhoods" in the United States last week by the American Planning Association, an independent nonprofit that pushes for smart community development. While Top 10 lists are a dime a dozen, it appears the APA did their homework on Decatur, our city-within-a-city that's been called "Berkeley Of The South." On the topics of Decatur's character and foresight in planning to ward off the soul-sucking effects of suburbanization, the APA was laudatory: "Constantly changing and evolving, downtown Decatur's character comes from the successful marriage of historic and contemporary buildings and uses," researchers wrote. "The emergence of downtown as a dynamic and prosperous neighborhood spans more than three decades and is a story of planning, commitment, patience, and investment."
The scope of the APA's focus was a 100-acre area, all within a ½ mile of Decatur's Old Courthouse Square. They cite a 1982 Decatur Town Center Plan as the cornerstone of the neighborhood's vitality. "More than a half dozen subsequent plans — streetscape, transportation, strategic — built upon this vision," the APA writes, "ultimately returning downtown to the prominent role it played in the 1950s, before the rise of suburbanization."
Among those plans was a 1995 streetscape initiative that put downtown on a "road diet" — meaning lane widths were reduced and sidewalks widened. What's more, the streetscape was injected with 400 trees, public art and "upgraded street furnishings." But the true feather in Decatur's cap, according to the APA, was the completion of MARTA station upgrades in 2007. "The station — which connects Decatur to Atlanta and lies beneath Old Courthouse Square, the neighborhood's living room — had been an aesthetic concern since it opened in 1979," the APA writes. "During the past 25 years, the city secured more than $10 million to improve the station and enhance the surrounding streetscape." What's more, the APA tabulated more than 150 unique, locally owned restaurants and businesses in downtown Decatur.
It's all very interesting, and that MARTA station initiative sounds familiar. Where else in Atlanta might benefit from following Decatur's lead?
[ABOVE: Downtown image via decaturga.com]