Trying to recall the Atlanta of a decade ago—when about one in 10 people were unemployed and nary a construction crane graced the sky—can seem like looking back on some other city. A more stagnant landscape. Because, in many ways, it was.
But underestimating Atlanta’s prowess for pulling itself out of ruts (thanks, Sherman) or concocting fantastically big ideas (looking at you, Coca-Cola, CNN, and the Centennial Olympics) is an exercise in foolishness. When it comes to ambition, a can-do spirit, and sometimes detrimental preposterousness, the ATL excels.
Between 2010 and today, amidst a resurgent economy, the city has witnessed preposterous ideas come to fruition that would have been inconceivable a decade ago—for better or worse.
Let’s recall a few highlights—or lowlights—as 2020 nears...
Electric scooters: changing Atlanta’s built environment and urban mobility
Not since Hitchcock have a flock of reckless little Birds caused so much disruption. Imagine someone telling you 10 years ago that competing tech companies—Bird e-scooters being the first in May 2018—would carpet-bomb the intown landscape with cellphone-controlled mobility options that would spur city leaders, at least in theory, to rework non-vehicle infrastructure, potentially tripling Atlanta’s protected bike lane network. “No way,” you might have said, “those sound like overgrown toys.” Way.
A vintage-style amusement park on a 90-year-old rooftop
Back in 2010, mentioning “Ponce City Market” would have drawn blank stares from even the most in-the-know Atlanta development nerd. That all began to change the following year, when developer Jamestown Properties, having made a name for itself with Chelsea Market in Manhattan, bought the ailing City Hall East complex for $27 million and began reworking the colossal, circa-1926 former Sears, Roebuck and Co. distribution center.
The highly anticipated crowning piece, Skyline Park, finally arrived in the summer of 2016 with a colorful, engaging, and creative use of the vast, formerly barren rooftop. Forking over $10 per adult (plus game fees) lends access to Midway-style games, a three-story slide, a plethora of bars, and the all-encompassing skyline views Atlantans have longed pined for.
Atlantic Station, a bastion of... country music?
In what can pass for one of Atlanta’s most bustling, urban, and walkable (albeit manufactured) districts, double-takes abounded several years ago when the twang of country music routinely played from ubiquitous speakers planted around Atlantic Station’s retail core. (One local scribe likened it to a social experiment in a hip-hop mecca like Atlanta.)
North American Properties—more recently of Avalon fame—had bought the beleaguered mini-city in 2011 and began a spruce-up that infused more local retailers. And Toby Keith. National developer Hines purchased Atlantic Station in 2015 and commenced an overhaul for various aspects of the 138-acre property—including the playlist.
A downtown Ferris wheel becomes (kind of) iconic
That slow-pan blimp view of downtown Atlanta’s SkyView Ferris wheel during this year’s SEC Championship game was hardly the luminous attraction’s first national exposure. It’s a mainstay on virtually every national telecast from Atlanta, a pretty backdrop for the splashy Fountain of Rings.
At the start of this decade, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus was taking meetings with powerful developers in hopes of building an exact replica of the London Eye near Centennial Olympic Park—standing 450 feet, at a reported cost of about $200 million. Obviously, that idea fizzled. But Atlanta’s tourist district did get SkyView, which stands about 200 feet tall and has emerged as a defining structure and generally cool thing, especially at night, to point out to guests. Starbucks holiday gift cards (Atlanta editions) have even raised hackles by featuring the wheel more prominently than the city’s true architectural landmarks.
Self-storage—with sweeping skyline views!
From Lindbergh to Glenwood Park, this past decade was no stranger to the often controversial, largely suburban-style developments of industry veteran Jeff Fuqua. But the most Fuquaian move of all may have come in West Midtown. That’s where a long-dormant lot—considered crucial real estate and a gateway to Atlantic Station, with some of the city’s most comprehensive skyline views—was replaced not with dense housing or architecturally intriguing office stacks but a large self-storage facility (plus Kroger, Chipotle, Verizon, and surface parking). It’s an instance of fashioning a developable site that could have been inimitably Atlanta into what looks and functions like the outskirts of anywhere.
Carving windows into Marcel Breuer’s final architectural work
At least the more preposterous idea—bulldozing the last design of famed Brutalist architect Marcel Breuer for a gleaming new downtown library—was nipped in its nonsensical bud. But despite a lengthy process of pushback from local preservationists and Breuer admirers, his circa-1980 Central Atlanta Library is being renovated (defaced, some would argue). It’s part of a $50-million update that’s creating new windows as a means of letting the light in.
Creating a park—over Buckhead’s busiest roadway (TBD)
This place-creating green space idea for park-starved Buckhead might not technically exist yet, but it’s trending that way. Described by well-connected project leaders as an urban crown jewel and the country’s first transit-oriented park, the HUB404 concept has established a conservancy, completed complex site studies, refined branding, and officially launched fundraising as of October, its backers say.
It would total 9 acres and link with an existing MARTA station, with a price tag last estimated to be north of $200 million. Engineering work is expected to conclude in 2021, with the full park debuting sometime in 2025. A preposterous idea for Atlanta? Maybe. But analyses have shown it to be possible.
RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom becoming an instant worldwide smash
Okay, okay, so this preposterous idea—perhaps the most preposterous since Atlanta thought itself worthy of hosting the Centennial Olympic Games—actually didn’t happen. No, the old Turner Field area is not the world’s largest lagoon (with houses!) But the proposal was real, once the Braves had announced they were leaving and city leaders began fielding big ideas for the franchise’s replacement.
Lord of the Rings meets Hurricane Harbor and The Truman Show apparently didn't pass muster. But RitaWorld Pearl Kingdom has gained something of a cult following, consisting of at least a half-dozen people, each ensorcelled by its sophomoric, WTF majesty. As Atlanta magazine discovered, developer Okey Isima Jr.’s dream would have created as many as 10,000 housing units and required that Peoplestown, Summerhill, and part of Grant Park be flooded with imported ocean water.