Memorial Drive stretches straight eastward from downtown Atlanta, extending beyond the edge of the city to the Perimeter. While the corridor has long been a hub of industry, the character is quickly changing as developers leverage the area’s proximity and accessibility to the heart of the city—and attractions such as the Atlanta Beltline.
So it’s imperative that someone helps coordinate all of the development. That person is Greg Giuffrida.
Giuffrida has served as the Memorial Drive Corridor Executive for Central Atlanta Progress for 18 months, helping set the vision for how Memorial Drive moves forward.
An on-again, off-again resident in Atlanta since he was six years old, Giuffrida has a master’s in City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech and has lived in Reynoldstown and Ormewood Park for nearly a decade.
We met up with Giuffrida to get the lowdown on the Memorial Drive corridor for this installment of Field Note Fridays.
CURBED ATLANTA: Memorial Drive is rapidly transforming, with an array of new mixed-use projects and housing going up along its length. What has the process been like since you got involved?
GREG GIUFFRIDA: Extremely busy. I first became involved as a graduate student working on the “Imagine Memorial” study commissioned in Fall 2014 by Councilmember Natalyn Archibong and led by former Atlanta Planning Commissioner Mike Dobbins. I stayed involved after that study was completed and worked with various stakeholders to create a full-time role to carry on the work.
One thing some folks don’t realize is how far back ideas for the Memorial Drive Corridor go. Much of what’s happening right now is being built on decades of organization and advocacy by residents, business owners and elected leaders like Councilmember Carla Smith. The combination of the real estate recovery, the Beltline, and some wider demographic trends have accelerated development, but the framework has been in place for at least a decade. Now we’re trying to make sure we build a safer, more effective corridor that supports this growth.
CURBED ATLANTA: The growth is changing the character of the corridor immensely, with many industrial spaces that have been in the area for generations being forced out. What are the consequences of this?
GIUFFRIDA: You would have to ask each property owner whether they felt “forced out.” Some of the properties have been vacant or underused for years, waiting for the right offer. Some are making a straightforward economic decision to sell for a profit and relocate. Keeping industrial jobs within the city is essential to having a diverse economy with good-paying jobs for a range of people. That’s where tax abatement, grants, loans, job training, and other tools from Invest Atlanta and other agencies can be useful. But those tools can’t always change the math. Some property owners are going to sell.
CURBED ATLANTA: And are you working to preserve any of the current uses, or is this transformation only complete when the area is focused on walkable residential and commercial?
GIUFFRIDA: What we really want to prevent is existing businesses feeling forced out by quality-of-life issues (noise, deliveries, aesthetic appearance, etc.) as the corridor changes. This has always been an industrial corridor, and there are plenty of examples worldwide where these kinds of uses can coexist. One example is more flexible zoning and land use regulations like live-work categories that allow some light manufacturing. The city is working on that. Others are coordinated delivery schedules, noise abatement, or design requirements that help different uses look more compatible.
One guarantee: Nothing in a growing city is ever “complete.” I don’t think we can, nor should we, predict some sort of final outcome for how this part of the city functions in the future. Great streets have some pretty fundamental characteristics that form the spine on which cities build over centuries. Ryan Gravel articulates this far better than I can. The street should serve a variety of modes, act as a public social and economic space, and it should be adaptable for different uses over time. We’re still missing some of those fundamentals on Memorial and elsewhere in the City. We need sidewalks. On both sides.
CURBED ATLANTA: So far what have been some of the biggest successes on the corridor?
GIUFFRIDA: One of the main problems we identified through “Imagine Memorial” was how it has always been a boundary physically, mentally, and bureaucratically. It’s a state route with eight neighborhoods, four NPUs, two counties, two council districts, and two local historic districts. And that’s all before the Beltline. So I think the biggest success has been getting all the different communities, agencies, and elected officials to recognize this and work more closely together.
I think we’ve also been successful in putting together a scope and organization that allows a better working relationship with Georgia Department of Transportation. From their perspective, Memorial is part of a regional transportation network and the impact of any changes need to be viewed that way. GDOT worked with the Imagine Memorial transportation committee to scope and pay for a traffic study to collect data and explore alternatives to improve safety and efficiency on Memorial. That work is still in progress and it will take more time to implement what comes out of it, but it speaks to their engagement and accessibility.
We’ve also been able to revive interest and support for the Memorial Drive Greenway between Oakland Cemetery and Downtown. The community and city have been investing in this park for years, but progress slowed during the recession for a few reasons. Park Pride has stepped up to lead a community visioning program that is wrapping up in February.
CURBED ATLANTA: And some of the biggest learning opportunities?
GIUFFRIDA: It became clear early on that we bit off too much for one person. I work from a mission statement developed with stakeholders that is pretty bold. I was mistaken in how much I thought I could accomplish in a year and a half. Some parts of the mission are moving forward, others are on the back burner. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some extremely committed residents who volunteer their time to help guide this work.
CURBED ATLANTA: What precedents do you look at, both in Atlanta and globally?
GIUFFRIDA: In Atlanta, I obviously look to work by the CIDs in downtown and Midtown to make better streetscapes and street activation. Outside Atlanta, I look to cities in the region with similar political context that have made some good urban places. Asheville, New Orleans, Charleston, Richmond, Memphis, Little Rock, Montgomery, and others all have great blocks that need to be expanded to make great corridors.
CURBED ATLANTA: What would you like to see as the transit future for the corridor?
GIUFFRIDA: We will have higher-frequency transit options, even if it’s initially just improvements to existing bus service in the next few years. Beyond that, we will have high-capacity, fixed-guideway transit serving the area, both in the form of I-20 Bus Rapid Transit and Streetcar/Light Rail.
I don’t think autonomous vehicles are a magical solution to urban mobility, but I do think ride-sharing, community circulators, and flex routes will be part of how we get around, whether autonomous or driven. Where possible, public right-of-way needs to prioritize transit. We’re incredibly fortunate to be near existing MARTA heavy rail, but the experience and wayfinding to the stations needs to be better.
CURBED ATLANTA: The urban environment in Atlanta is quickly changing, with Memorial Drive being a key part of the densification to the east of downtown. What do you think Atlanta should look toward as attainable goals in the continued development in the city, and what are you most concerned about losing as Memorial Drive transforms?
GIUFFRIDA: There’s no question that my top concern is losing the people who made these neighborhoods what they are, especially if it is forced. Some change happens naturally. People pass away, retire to Florida, move in with their children, or into assisted living. They should not be forced out by rapid tax increases, home repairs, lack of in-home care, or predatory business practices.
I’m also concerned about the lack of housing options in our neighborhoods: It’s mostly single-family homes or medium-rise multifamily, largely because our zoning makes it that way. I’ve lived in a lot of cities, and I always gravitated to older neighborhoods where I could find an apartment in the basement of a home or a small four or eight-unit courtyard building. Anything we have in Atlanta like that is grandfathered in. Otherwise it’s pretty much illegal.
CURBED ATLANTA: What will Memorial Drive look like in five years?
GIUFFRIDA: Some of it is Cities 101: We will have fully ADA-compliant sidewalks, ramps, and crosswalks. We will have an at-grade intersection with the Atlanta BeltLine Eastside Trail surrounded by active uses. We will have dozens of new retail, entertainment, and workplace options. We will have a network of pedestrian and bike facilities running parallel to both sides of Memorial, and across Moreland Avenue.
CURBED ATLANTA: And in 25 years?
GIUFFRIDA: Oakland Cemetery will be there. Memorial Drive will be the signature street for Southeast Atlanta, with modern infrastructure but an unmistakable sense of place and history that can’t be replicated in Atlanta or anywhere else.
CURBED ATLANTA: Finally, what places in Atlanta do you love the most?
GIUFFRIDA: Can I count the bus? I’ve been a daily MARTA bus commuter for almost nine years and it helped inspire my decision to change careers. It’s my favorite place to watch people and observe the city. Mobile apps make the system much easier to use now. There’s a weird blind spot to buses that even some transit-friendly Atlantans have, and they need to get over it.
- Field Note Fridays, the roundup [Curbed]