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Memorial Drive redevelopment plan draws neighborhood ire

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Plans for the “park-oriented” Harp Transmission adaptive-reuse project anger some who are advocating for greenspace

A three-story glass structure, floating above an open court on slender columns, with a large flat roof structure above.
A rendering for the project.
Square Feet Studio

Earlier this month, a snazzy rendering of a relatively small office development along Memorial Drive offered a glimpse at what could one day replace a vacated transmission workshop.

Then, last week, it was revealed that developers would seek to move forward on the project as early as next year, assuming a rezoning for the site could be secured at a meeting this Thursday.

Of course, it seemed logical the project would move forward, given the improvement that it represents for the site, located next to Oakland Cemetery. This week, however, a wrench was thrown into the equation.

The land in question has been identified as future park space in the master plan for the Memorial Drive Greenway.

In Atlanta, these are visions for transforming Memorial Drive’s westernmost reaches.
Proposals for the Memorial Drive Greenway.
Park Pride

A plan years in the making, the greenway is envisioned to stretch from the Capitol to the front gate of Oakland Cemetery. To make the plan happen, the city has been acquiring land for the last several years but had not purchased the Harp Transmission site.

Folks who’ve supported the greenway since its inception are pretty miffed at the idea of the new office and retail proposal.

In a lengthy statement on Facebook, the Friends of Memorial Drive Greenway expressed collective disapproval of the plan, citing the decades of planning that have gone into the creation of the greenway.

Here’s a portion of the argument against the development, edited for clarity:

The design is certainly compelling, perhaps even exciting, compared to the bones of the old Harp Transmission building today. It is also being billed as “park-oriented development.” In reality, this rendering does not at all reflect the community’s Vision Plan for the park (a four story structure in the middle of a park), nor does it meet zoning laws meant to thwart such developments (because this parcel was meant for park space, not a multistory office building).

The Friends of Memorial Drive Greenway Group is opposed to the current rendering of the Harp Transmission site and invite the community to stand up for its original Vision Plan for the following reasons:

  1. Long-term vision: This property sits in the middle of land the City of Atlanta has been steadily acquiring over the last decade. More than $7 million has already been invested, with more acquisitions pending. We have legitimate “Park-Oriented Development” on either side of the park on MLK Jr. Drive and Memorial Drive; This proposal is quite literally “On-Top-of-The-Park Development.” It will effectively build a large private wall spanning the greenspace, blocking public views between the Capitol and Oakland Cemetery’s front gate.
  2. Public vs. Private Ownership: This is a private, for-profit development project on a property that has always been intended for public ownership. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea to have some small-scale commercial uses in the park, such as a café or beer garden. The question is about property ownership. Where there is development on the park, we are advocating for more public than private ownership, so the rent from businesses helps support the operations and maintenance of the park. This is a well-proven model in Atlanta and many other cities.
  3. Zoning: The developers of this project are attempting to modify and get around zoning that was specifically written to protect the existing businesses while discouraging higher-scale redevelopment. If this property is rezoned, it could increase the value of every other property needed to build out the Greenway, ultimately killing the potential for the entire park. Furthermore, this same developer is in the process of buying another property needed for the park … this rezoning would allow them to develop a similar project soon after this one.
  4. Parking: This project also seeks a variance to have no on-site parking. This is commendable from an urbanism perspective, because the site is close to a MARTA station and many cities are rightly reducing parking requirements for a number of positive reasons. But not everyone sees it that way. Oakland Cemetery is a major regional attraction that relies on their parking lot and the surrounding streets for parking... particularly during major events. By allowing an intensive multi story commercial development to have no parking like the one proposed, surrounding residents and businesses will bear the burden. Once again, granting this variance would set a precedent for all the other properties. There are many good reasons why parking requirements as a whole should be lowered throughout the City. In this case, it’s a self-serving request that would harm one of the city’s most important destinations.

The missive goes on to call the proposal “short-sighted.”

Greg Giuffrida, the Memorial Drive Corridor Executive who oversees community engagement and pending development, offered his thoughts to Curbed Atlanta in a written statement:

Through our work with all the different community residents, elected leaders, nonprofits, and property owners along the Memorial Drive and MLK Jr. Drive corridors, it’s clear that there are major concerns about this rezoning. The Friends of Memorial Drive Greenway group feels strongly that this proposal threatens the long-term potential of building the park.

This entire area has a unique zoning category called SPI-22 that was developed through a collaborative community process more than a decade ago. It calls for higher-density mixed-use development along Memorial Drive and MLK Jr. Drive, oriented to a linear park connecting the Georgia Capitol and Oakland Cemetery. Several of the longtime area residents who helped create this zoning feel that this proposal violates both the spirit and the letter of the zoning when it comes to creating a quality greenspace that will serve generations to come.

Ultimately this decision is up to the respective community organizations, city staff, and city council. We support any project on this site that respects the priorities established in SPI-22 and by the residents and stakeholders who participated in the Community Visioning plan released this year. Active uses in the right scale and context can be a valuable addition to an urban linear park of this type.

We need to ensure that the longterm interests of the public are protected, not the short-term interests of one private development project or another.

At the Harp Transmission project, plans call for a future hub of activity on Memorial Drive. Square Feet Studio

Meanwhile, the developer for the project—Jesse Clark—weighed in, hoping to dispel misconceptions about the rezoning.

He notes, in part:

Some folks think we are rezoning from park land to commercial, or to build a bigger building than what's currently allowed. This is incorrect.

The current zoning is SPI-22, Subarea 2, which allows a building height of up to 64 feet (5 stories) and a variety of commercial uses. The Harp Transmission project is currently designed at 56 feet high (4 stories), below the max allowed. The rezoning application is for allowing office as a permissible use on the upper floors instead of the other commercial uses currently allowed. Additionally, a parking variance will be submitted at a later date to delete the required off-street parking spaces.

To address the swirling questions, the development team has added two sections to their website, including answers to frequently asked questions and information related specifically to the zoning and planning request.

Clark also was quick to add that the design team welcomes any constructive conversation on how to best serve the neighborhood interests with the project.

The zoning meeting tonight is shaping up to be a doozy, with the Friends of Memorial Drive Greenway vowing to come out in full opposition.

For those interested in expressing an opinion, the meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Zoo Atlanta.