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To Hell With Beautifying The Connector — Let's Cap It!

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You may have seen news recently about spicing up one of Atlanta notable features: the Downtown Connector. That's gotten us thinking: Why stop at lighting the bridges and similar piddly efforts? Let's go whole hog and do a complete makeover of the Connector. In fact, let's cap that baby.

Before you start complaining that we already have enough unfinished big ideas like the Beltline, the Streetcar project or even just getting the 285/400 interchange fixed, think of most major world-class cities. The majority have some defining natural feature. They are located on oceans or lakes or perhaps even have a river flowing through the middle of them. These features help define these cities. They focus growth and provide character. And if you are Cleveland, they even occasionally catch on fire.

Atlanta's defining natural feature is the lack of any defining feature. We are in no danger of having a body of water as a natural signature unless the 'Hooch hooks up with some melting glacier or perhaps the Summer of Deluge continues on its present course. The mountains are a ways off. There is Stone Mountain but, well, we went and put Confederate war heroes on it.

It may not be natural, but Atlanta does have a particular physical element that has substantial impact on the growth and character of the City, and unfortunately it's an ugly, gray, noisy gash cutting through the heart of the city. Paris has the Seine; Atlanta has the Connector.

The time has to come to remedy this urban wound. Let's cap the Connector. Let's build a concrete cap, layer over it a linear park and morph it into a green river running from roughly from the Capitol north to the 17th Street Bridge, thereby turning one of Atlanta's biggest liabilities into an amazing asset. We have no idea if that is technically or economically feasible but those are details we'll leave to the Beltline crew after they finish that enterprise. Let's explore the idea of building the Connector Park.

Most of the Connector is sunken and under-grade, just begging for something overtop. The 5th Street Bridge provides a small example of the big idea. It features wider greenspace adjacent to the road portions of the bridge. Imagine, the 5th Street Bridge stretching in a steady stream of green with walking and biking paths and small meadows from the start of Downtown to the northern tip of Midtown. It would be a linear park similar to the Mall in Washington, D.C.

There is precedent for capping interstates. Seattle did it in the 1970s, and Portland is working on capping part of I-5 that similarly divides portions of that city. Louisville has a grassy, seven-acre park above I-64. Other cities have created greenspaces and other structures over interstates, but none have turned a gray dividing line into a green connector.

A Connector Park would provide a dramatic catalyst to development and growth which would drive tax revenue. The Beltline in its early phases is already proving this effect. Midtown and Downtown are already fairly developed and dense areas (especially for Atlanta), but there is room for further growth and density. Currently, land abutting the Connector is the least desirable land among Atlanta's core. (Next time you drive through Midtown on the Connector look up and see what types of buildings are immediately adjacent to the highway). Replace a noisy interstate with a green swath of parkland and you instantly turn a long stretch of underdeveloped properties into highly desirable, prime real estate akin to the buildings that surround Central Park (some of the most expensive real estate in the world).

A capped Connector would give Atlanta the distinguishing feature it lacks, but this should not be read to dismiss the importance of the Beltline. The Beltline is a massively important project that would provide similar benefits but has a slightly different goal: The Beltline is designed to move people and connect neighborhoods; the Connector Park would also help reconnect the divided halves of the city but its role would be less to move people than to give them a place of respite and, in the process, provide a focal point for growth within the Beltline's circular boundaries. Together, the Beltline and the Connector Park would create a comprehensive natural framework for Atlanta's growth.

A Connector Park would be a massive expenditure of time and resources. We're not that Kool-Aid drunk here. It may not happen in the next 10 years, 20 years or ever, but there is an exciting opportunity for Atlanta to bridge an unhealthy gap that literally divides the city and replace it with a signature green space befitting any world class city. Making it happen would require leadership, a touch of audacity and a boatload of money. Someone call Ted Turner.

— By Curbed Atlanta contributor Lee Kolber