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Editorial: On the eve of leaving Atlanta, aspirations for a city I love

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Thank you, Atlantans, for caring about the city. Great things are in store here

A hideous, ghastly headshot with the skyline of Atlantic Station in the background.
It’s been a pleasure, ATL.
Rosser International

Tomorrow evening, I will be leaving Atlanta to move to Sydney. As a native Atlantan and lifelong resident (less five years spent in New Orleans), the decision to accept a job on the other side of the world was a tough one. I love this city.

When I started as Associate Editor of Curbed Atlanta back in October 2014, I never could have imagined that I’d still be at it after more than 2,000 articles. But sharing the energy, excitement, and potential of Atlanta has been a rewarding (and challenging) chapter that I am going to miss.

I’m an architect, by trade, and have practiced in Atlanta since I finished school. To say that I have high hopes for the city is an understatement. And so, in my final post as Associate Editor, I wanted to share some thoughts on what most excites me about Atlanta’s potential, and some of my aspirations for the city in the years ahead.

Here goes...

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to cover issues close to my heart. Advocating for preservation, viable transportation, and good design are all issues that have become more prevalent in Atlanta in recent years. Overall, I’m encouraged by the direction all of these things are headed.

Thanks to many groups, there continues to be a growing preservation movement in a city that, at times, is still seemingly hellbent on erasing our built history. The success of Ponce City Market proved that developers can monetize preservation, and similar projects have followed. While we can’t bring back treasures like the Loew’s Grand Theatre, Terminal Station, or the original Equitable Building, we can continue to advocate for the adaptive reuse of important structures that remain.

Aside from the historic legacies these buildings represent, many contain detailing and scale that aren’t found in design today. Incorporation of older buildings into the future of built Atlanta will provide a tangible link to where Atlanta has come from. Also, by giving old buildings new life, we can keep waste from landfills and save the energy embodied in the structures.

Arguably the biggest adaptive-reuse project in the history of the city is the Beltline. The protracted timeline for the development of the full loop has proven an obstacle, but the success and investment that the completed sections have brought to neighborhoods is nothing short of incredible.

Neighborhoods such as Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park are some of the most sought-after in the city. And on the city’s southwest side, Adair Park, Capitol View, and others are being infused with new residents and life.

Of course, investment along the Beltline will continue as the loop gets built, and those who’ve called historic neighborhoods home for generations are at risk of being pushed out. Affordability is a major component in that discussion, and the success of providing an array of housing options in the city will ultimately dictate the success of the city in general.

A photo of Historic Fourth Ward Park in Old Fourth Ward.
Historic Fourth Ward Park transformed a needed water retention facility into one of the most popular greenspaces on the Eastside Trail.
Curbed Atlanta

Beyond a magnet for investment, the Beltline is part of Atlanta’s larger transportation network, weaving together intown neighborhoods in crucial ways. In the coming years, public transit—including bike infrastructure and future expansions of MARTA and the streetcar—will be paramount in keeping Atlanta competitive.

With funding being lined up for a regional approach to transit, I’m heartened by progress the city’s made within just a few years. However, it’ll take much coordination, cooperation, and investment to bring about the major infrastructural additions needed to allow the region to continue to grow without traffic restricting Atlanta’s success. New heavy rail, BRT, streetcars, bike paths, and multi-use trails are all vital pieces of the puzzle.

Finally, and most excitingly, with all of these factors, Atlanta is seeing a renewed interest in the business core of the city. Midtown and downtown are thriving as people move back into the city to enjoy walkability, easier commutes, and the growing vibrancy of Atlanta’s urban core. You can feel it. And it feels like it’s just getting started.

The trend shows no signs of slowing, and while this development cycle may not support continued development at its current, feverish pace, one day downtown will see the investment Midtown has seen as land becomes scarce to the north.

With a healthy historic core, the entire metro region will thrive.

Atlanta has many spectacular buildings, new and old, that are at risk.
Michael Kahn, Curbed Atlanta

While there’s much potential for greatness, there’s also great risk for things to go wrong.

In this historically robust development cycle, too many buildings have gone up that detract from Atlanta’s ambitions of walkability and connectedness.

It’s imperative that Atlantans urge developers to think about the legacy their projects will leave here. For decades and decades. Be good stewards. That means better design that extends beyond the building; the impact of a new structure doesn’t stop at the property line.

And that means encouraging active streets through the incorporation of not only retail, but office space and residences along sidewalks. It means building density near transit stations. It means caring about the quality of materials and design choices that will stay with a building long after a speculative developer has sold it.

Not every building has to be an architectural masterpiece. But as the city’s planning lead Tim Keane says, we must focus on the “meat and potatoes” buildings that make up most of what is constructed. Good design is not slapping a 10-story mural on a blank wall and calling it architecture.

The first step toward encouraging good design is understanding the impact it can have.

In my opinion, one of the blander additions to the skyline in recent years.
Michael Kahn, Curbed Atlanta

Through advocacy by groups such as Historic Atlanta and the Georgia Trust, and educational programs such as Open House Atlanta and Phoenix Flies, Atlantans can gain more knowledge about their city—our city.

And through knowledge comes pride.

As city leaders such as Keane and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms work with key organizations, including Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress, Atlanta can begin to craft policy that reinforces good design.

And with developers who care about their work-product—and are held accountable for the impact their projects will have in the longterm—better results are far more likely

Atlanta: a city of potential.
Michael Kahn, Curbed Atlanta

Ultimately, Atlanta is on a great track, but it will take the public’s continued interest and advocacy to maintain the positive momentum. I look forward to returning to see the changes.

It’s been a pleasure and privilege to cover development and other aspects of the built environment in Atlanta, and I’ll miss the city while I’m away. Although, with friends and family here, the city will always remain a home—regardless of what the coming years bring.

Until next time,

Michael Kahn