Editor's note: Today, Atlanta architect Garfield Peart (MBA, AIA, NOMA, LEED Green Assoc.) concludes a three-part series for Curbed about the Cascade area of southwest Atlanta, tracing its current status as a hub for dignitaries, its controversial history and plans for future enhancements. He writes:
Cascade Heights is a southwest community that is more than meets the eye and can boast many of the same amenities — location, picturesque parks and green space and rich cultural history — that mirror other vaunted Atlanta neighborhoods. Home to Atlanta movers-and-shakers like former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, Cascade Heights traces its history back to the 1920s and prominent Atlanta landscape architect William L. Monroe, Sr. The neighborhood which helped stem the tide of segregationist planning practices — and permanently transformed Atlanta with the Peyton Wall Affair— has the opportunity to once again step up to fight today's threatening forces of disinvestment, blight and gentrification by writing the next chapter of its own transformation.
But what are the key elements to starting that transformation process? A 2014 Georgia Tech study by the School of Architecture, Urban Form + Community | identity, place development, commissioned by a dedicated group of neighborhood residents and local Atlanta city councilmembers, provides the definitive blueprint for the future of the Cascade Heights Commercial District. The study notes that "though residents hold great pride in their neighborhood, they are still disconnected" and cites the need for more active community engagement and creation of a clear identity as crucial for the district to once again become a regional destination.
The Bigger Picture
Mostly a single-family residential community, Cascade Heights, like other affluent southwest neighborhoods, has seen social engagement historically through parties and gatherings in private homes — a trend that appears to exist from the segregationist period when blacks were not allowed in many public venues.
Today, successful communities like Inman Park and Virginia-Highland benefit from a more vibrant commercial district of restaurants, retail and active streets that bring neighbors together and attract visitors from all over the metro area. The same group of dedicated neighborhood residents that commissioned the Georgia Tech study serves on the board of the newly formed Cascade Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC).
The CDC understand the trend and are now trying to create a similar experience in the Cascade Heights commercial district.
Formed in 2014, the Cascade Heights CDC "is providing the structure and necessary voice to instigate the change and actions needed," according to CDC member and architect Danita Brown. Another CDC member and notable community activist, Corliss Claire, recalled that the commercial district "looked like a third-world country 15 years ago ... but things are much better today."
Brown, Claire and other residents like famed architect Oscar Harris have made significant progress even before the formation of the CDC. The group was the driving force behind the Atlanta City Council approval of the Cascade Heights Neighborhood Commercial District Ordinance in 2008. The legislation was co-sponsored by Atlanta City Councilmembers Keisha Lance Bottoms, District 11, and C.T. Martin, District 10, who also help fund the Georgia Tech study.
Claire beamed at the success of the legislation and stated that this was one of the "first steps in controlling appearance of neighborhood." Recently updated in 2015, the ordinance is an essential tool in promoting more balanced pedestrian-friendly uses to support a vibrant and sustainable commercial district.
During a tour of the commercial district this past summer with Claire and Brown, the two women saw the vacant buildings and parking lots not as blight but as opportunities for development. The Georgia Tech study concurs and outlines a host of "occupy" initiatives aimed at taking advantage of the inactive streets, vacant buildings and parking lots to encourage social events and interaction. Short-term solutions like facade improvement programs, food trucks, farmers markets, King of Pops popsicle stands, coffee carts and temporary uses like art galleries have all been successful in bringing neighbors together and fostering a sense of community in many intown Atlanta neighborhoods.
Properties like the now-vacant Life Essentials Whole Foods Store near the intersection of Beecher and Cascade roads was a cornerstone of the community for more than 25 years, with a reported annual revenue of $500,000 to $1 million, according to Manta.com.
According to the Cascade Patch, Life Essentials, a former member of the Sevananda Cooperative, "served as the Cascade community's main health food store ... It was a teaching institution, offering classes on herbs, yoga and the Martial Arts; providing tutorials and movies for children, and tie & dye classes for adults."
The business closed its doors in2015. But the CDC asserts that the spirit and support for community-based businesses like Life Essentials lives on, and reusing the vacant building and property as potentially a short-term farmer's market or vendor expo to showcase local and regional businesses can be the catalyst for more long term revitalization.
Activating streets, vacant lots and buildings can also help create a new identity for the neighborhood. New signage, site furnishings and art murals can create vibrant streets and buildings that reinforce the culture and history of the neighborhood. In addition, present-day assets like Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, planned access to the Southwest Atlanta BeltLine Connector through the Lionel Hampton Trail and established regional favorites like the Beautiful soul food restaurant give Cascade Heights a solid foundation for a walkable, sustainable and economically viable commercial core.
Cascade Heights remains largely African-American, but the neighborhood can benefit from a socially and economically diverse demographic to foster more community engagement and help shape its new identity. According to U.S. Census data illustrated in the Georgia Tech study, the neighborhood had a population of 32,218 in 2010. The highest resident age groups were 15-24, 25-34 and 45-54 which made up approximately 40 percent of the population. Economically, the neighborhood employment rate was 79 percent with over 5,200 households earning between $25,000 and $74,999. The diverse resident demographic, along with the more affluent movers-and-shakers of the neighborhood, are key factors in helping Cascade Heights reach its goals and realize its potential.
In a recent interview for this article, Councilmember Martin discussed the importance of Cascade Heights as a "holding ground [against] some of the gentrification going on in the city." The neighborhood has a history of civil activism that has enriched both Southwest Atlanta and the entire city for decades. The recent Georgia Tech study, led by a strong group of residents and local public officials, provides the blueprint for needed revitalization of the commercial core, which is key to promoting neighborhood pride and attracting local Atlantans and visitors.
The longtime neighborhood of Atlanta's black elite appears to be ready for the next phase of its own transformation. However, it must now draw upon the expertise and resources of the entire community to ensure the plans are fully realized and the neighborhood continues to be a destination for the next generation of Atlanta's movers-and-shakers.