If the 1990s are remembered as Atlanta’s Olympics decade, and the aughts the era of homegrown music cementing itself on a world stage, the teens of this young century could leave a legacy of physical changes—how Atlanta’s built environment began to rapidly become something else, and how the world started to notice.
As part of our End of Decade coverage, we reached out to a spectrum of Atlantans who’ve helped shape the city the past 10 years, from alley walls to high-rises and the halls of higher education.
The goal was to capture viewpoints from interesting VIPs, city and neighborhood leaders, innovators, architects, artists, developers, madmen, madwomen, and more. Responses were limited to 242 words or less—one for each neighborhood officially recognized by the City of Atlanta. The one simple question was this:
“What’s your take on Atlanta’s decade that was?”
Not everyone responded. Atlanta ambassadors in entertainment such as Killer Mike and Big Boi (a hat-tip to their friends and reps for trying), along with influential locals like Cathy Woolard, Shirley Franklin, and Blondie... well, the door’s open to expanding this story if they can find the time.
What’s represented below are perspectives covering a large swath of Atlanta, beginning with input from the city’s planning czar himself, the only respondent to not follow the 242-word rule. But with historical context like this, he gets a pass.
City of Atlanta planning commissioner
“This past decade was a hugely significant one in terms of the direction of Atlanta and the region. After the catastrophic recession slowly diminished, beginning about 2010, people’s expectations about lifestyle and homeownership began to change, perhaps forever. As a result, the City of Atlanta’s population began to increase substantially for the first time in 60 years.
Between 2000 and 2010, the region added 1.6 million people, and the City of Atlanta only 3,529—or less than half of one percent of the region’s growth. Ten years later, we’re experiencing a much different scenario; in each of the last two years, the city added 10,000 or so new residents. The City of Atlanta now issues more residential building permits than any other jurisdiction in the region. We have experienced a shift in where people want to live, which has the potential to remake the city and region as significantly as low-density suburban development did over the last generation of growth.
The City of Atlanta’s population density in 1940 was about 8,500 people per square mile. Today it’s about 3,600 people per square mile. There remain vast amounts of underused property in the city—including downtown and in proximity to our high-capacity transit stations. The potential for growth in the city is enormous. The good news is that a growing city center helps with the most vexing problems we face as a city and region; particularly challenges related to mobility, affordability, and sustainability.
This growth can make a better city if we are intentional about it. A place where people of all economic means can thrive and where we create a public realm that supports a more urban lifestyle. So, this past decade in Atlanta was one where a new trend blossomed, which in my assessment, holds great promise for our future.”
King of Pops cofounder, owner
“In 2010, I remember regularly being the odd one out when exuding pride for living here.
It now feels like we’ve pushed this huge boulder up to the top of the hill, and it’s starting to roll faster and faster back down. The changes are coming constantly, and they aren’t going to stop. We have to work to make sure the things that make Atlanta great aren’t overrun by unbridled momentum.”
Architect, owner of Xmetrical firm
“Many parking lots died in the last decade, buried by new infill developments while old buildings were brought back to life, some with amusement parks on the roof! My take… Atlanta grew and not just by the numbers, but it also feels as if we’ve matured, from a development perspective. If you start to glance around the city, you can begin to see how Atlanta has weaved the gaps in the urban fabric. There is a connectivity that’s starting to present itself.
Howell Mill Road, Memorial Drive, as well as many sections of Midtown and downtown are becoming a lot more pedestrian-friendly. Smart private developments and civic projects, like the Beltline, have connected the dots, pushed Atlanta forward and raised the bar architecturally. Some have also employed a modern aesthetic that does not pretend to be held hostage by the design and construction limitations of decades past. From our high-rises to our homes, Atlanta looks a bit different today.
Unfortunately, the successes of the last decade further exposes some of the failures of our past. Our roads are more congested, and our housing is less affordable. New zoning updates at city hall provides additional tools to address these issues by discouraging driving and encouraging density. However, Atlantans must also be onboard in considering alternative transportation and having an appetite for smart developments. We need the sensibility, and we can’t afford to lose the socioeconomic and cultural diversity that makes us Atlanta.”
Livable Buckhead executive director, driving force behind PATH400
“This decade was a time of tremendous growth and change for Buckhead. An entirely new neighborhood has formed in the commercial core as high-rise residential towers have gone up, and that has brought a demographic shift to the community.
We’ve now got a younger population that values sustainability and wants to live and work in a community with parks, trails, and good access to transit. PATH400 in Buckhead is nearly 80 percent complete, and other segments in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody are on the drawing boards as well. It’s pretty amazing to realize that none of this green infrastructure was underway at the start of this decade, and even more amazing to realize that by the time the next decade rolls around, Buckhead will be the nexus of a complete regional trail network!
Housing costs have risen astronomically in Buckhead over the past decade, which is exacerbating our ever-present traffic problems since 98 percent of the workforce commutes into the community each day. But the good news is that we’ve developed several innovative strategies that will allow more of the people who work in Buckhead to live in Buckhead as well.
All in all, the 2010s were an excellent decade for Buckhead, and all of the elements are in place for us to continue as a vibrant community where people want to live and work for many years to come!”
Owner of Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium, artist
“Zooming in to zooming out, I was bartending at a friend’s bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue where I was unknowingly learning to run a bar.
Fate and fortune aligned. I finagled a harebrained, desperate leap of faith and said, ‘Fuck it!’ to renting a commercial space on Edgewood Avenue to open my own bar.
Leaving the area of an abandoned old Sears building as a suckling, and landing like an eagle in yet another derelict spot contiguous to the MLK Center, smack dab in the middle of a ‘real’ Church zone, for some reason didn’t seem odd to me. I was too dumb and desperate to listen to the fears and cheers of those watching my moves.
In 2010 at the grand opening of Sister Louisa’s Church, I called Lenox Taxi for a ride for someone who had come to Church. ‘Sorry, sir, we don’t go near Edgewood.’
Fast forward to 2020 and Edgewood has bike lanes, Uber and Lyft are hovering like hawks, scooters litter the streets, like chicken bones, that now share the lanes with walkers and joggers who are puddle-jumping construction barriers building five-star restaurants and hotels the likes of the new Motto by Hilton.
Hopes and dreams are high that the current giggle of a streetcar will one day connect to the unimaginable Beltline that is now the lifeline connecting intown communities that have skyrocketed in value in the past 10 years. Beltline Rail Now.”
Managing partner with North American Properties, developer behind Avalon and the reimagining of Colony Square
“As predicted in Richard Florida’s The Great Reset (published April 2010), the past decade was characterized by rapid reurbanization, the rise of a renter class, and introduction of new forms of infrastructure. Metro Atlanta saw an influx of residents and employers to its most dynamic urban district (Midtown), increasing employment by 82 percent and population by 42 percent, growing at 4.5 times the citywide rate.
We also saw the introduction of the region’s first ‘urbanburb’ at Avalon, offering suburban residents an urban experience and the amenities of the city. It was followed by a handful of ‘city centers’ (Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Lawrenceville). Albeit drive-to-urbanism, each has proven successful in quenching suburbanites’ thirst for walkability and energy.
Tens of thousands of multifamily units have been delivered in urban districts and urbanburbs, reflecting the preference of millennials and their parents. As predicted by Florida, many Atlantans have eschewed homeownership in favor of lock-and-leave living in fully amenitized walkable communities.
Mobility options have contributed to these lifestyles, offering new technologies (Uber, e-scooters) along with established transit systems to lessen our dependence on cars. And our region’s leadership has responded by introducing legislation that reflects these preferences as we seek to densify our communities and ease our commutes. The formation of The ATL and initial proposals for MARTA’s expansion into Gwinnett are indications of what’s to come: increased support for transit expansion to serve an urbanizing region that has historically clung to the single-occupancy vehicle.”
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.
Spelman College president
“For decades, Atlanta’s West End has been a valiant community, especially in the arena of education. Schools in the Washington cluster have re-invented themselves. Principals and teachers dedicated to the success of their students are slowly but surely seeing improvements in reading and math scores. The Atlanta University Center campuses have renewed their collaborative efforts with the community.
With support from the public and private sector, the AUC is making investments in the community to improve health services, educational excellence, and the physical rehabilitation of the neighborhood. Students from all of the campuses have been at the forefront of change. They volunteer in the neighborhood. They patronize the small businesses. And many have laid down roots in the community after graduation. We are working for change that supports longtime residents and supports growth.”
HENSE (ALEX BREWER )
Painter and international muralist, former graffitist, Grady High alum
“I miss some of the historic buildings that have been torn down and small businesses of Atlanta pre-2010, but I also understand the positive aspects of progress and change.
It’s exciting to know what the city offers now to both residents and visitors, although we need to work on preserving our history while also having an eye for the future.
The past decade has brought significant growth and development to our city, and it would be great to see more projects that embrace and speak to Atlanta’s identity.
I’m hopeful we will think more about the preservation of our city in the coming decade and continue to make Atlanta a great place to live and visit.”
Cofounder of JPX Works development company, creators of Midtown’s lilli tower
“The decade started off not as one had hoped or planned, but by 2011 we were starting to gain momentum—not only in Buckhead and Midtown, as was previously the case—but this decade has also seen interesting, unique development on the east and west side neighborhoods. The boom hasn’t stopped since. There’s been incredible growth in the more established submarkets, in addition to the activity in other neighborhoods that help make Atlanta a special place to live.
This decade developers have been focused more on creating places as opposed to building the simplest project. My colleagues in the industry have become more thoughtful than we were in the last cycle, as more data has become available to us. New technologies have changed the way we build and operate buildings.
These changes resulted in the completion of a lot of great projects, there have been an incredible amount of jobs added, and Atlanta’s growth and economic indices are all strong. There has been a significant amount of foreign capital invested in Atlanta, which wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Atlanta used to be a transient city, but there are now many reasons people come here and say, ‘Wow, this feels a lot better than my last city; this is a place I want to call home.’ As we see that growth continue to impact the built environment, Atlanta will seem more like a gateway city.”
Brandon Ley and Johnny Martinez (joint statement)
Co-owners of Edgewood Avenue establishments Georgia Beer Garden and Joystick
“It certainly feels like the last 10 years have been the beginning of a new chapter in the city’s history. Atlanta has not been immune to the global trend of urban growth, with the population swelling throughout. Atlanta is now more demographically diverse, but there is a clear economic divide—one that is still growing.
A lot of the growth taking place seems to be happening at the large developer level and not organically. Why sell many small lots to multiple people and small businesses when a corporation will purchase entire city blocks? The city has seen a growth of wealth but concentrated disproportionately. That complicates things for those of us in the middle, putting greater influence in fewer hands. This creates challenges for the city and its infrastructure in the present day, but it also sets up a precarious future.
The other side of that coin, however, is that over the past 10 years more people have become civically engaged. They are actively working to make Atlanta a healthier, more culturally rich, and equitable place. Watching people of all descriptions organizing and making their voices heard is one aspect of Atlanta that should never change.”
Buckhead Coalition founding president, former Atlanta mayor
“The last decade for our Buckhead community gave more of the same, in a positive measurement. Most particularly, this index was in multifamily rental development, providing increased housing for an increased labor market for increased businesses. This is the cycle that cements fiscal fitness and satisfies our stability, building our brand as ‘The address of choice.’
We admit that the price we pay for this success is increased traffic; however, even that continues to be processed by both business and political leadership.”
Legendary graffiti writer, commercial artist
“I moved to Atlanta when I was 9 years old in 1985. Upon arrival I entered a town becoming a city. Yet uber rich in culture. I was in culture shock to say the least. But I was instantly adaptable.
There was barely any authority seemingly present; a bit of a Wild Wild West climate. Tremendous feeling of freedom. Unique privately owned restaurants, stores, and businesses. Tons of flavor in the old brick and cement city structures, swallowed by trees, nature swallowed by kudzu.
I feel blessed at all moments to have experienced such a pure and innocent place. To experience being part of a culture that changed the world, much like hippies in the ’60s and punks in the ’70s. For me, it was Crunk in the ’90s.
As heartbroken as I was over the extreme changes, I once again have become adaptable and pride myself on being a part of Old Atlanta and adapting to the new. Everything has a shelf life. If I could go back, I would. But I can’t, so I won’t even fathom. Here’s to today!”
Georgia Tech College of Design professor, Gamble+Gamble architect behind the Hotel Clermont’s recent revival
“From 2010 to 2020... A healthy, livable city is what residents and leadership collectively imagine and make—through debate and design. Atlanta is going through a profound transformation. Atlantans did a good job in the last 10 years to:
Recognize that infrastructure is driving cultural formation, e.g. parks, trails, public amenities along major boulevards allowing for multiple publics to appear and interact. Atlantans now know that healthy public infrastructure creates strong democracies.
Rethink zoning to allow for greater density, even in residential districts; attract even more diversity through the creation of new industries, in technology, health, film; lead in the imagination and creation of innovation districts that attract young talent from across a spectrum of disciplines
And our challenge for 2020 to 2030...
Give everyone an option to build financial equity in the place in which they live; we need radical thinking own how everyone can own shares of our neighborhoods.
We need to focus on maintaining local economies and quality of neighborhoods; Cloud services are reshaping urban retail; we have to balance virtual convenience with our visceral, spatial needs.
Continue to conserve and preserve our natural and historic environments. Elevate imaginative thinking. Create grand challenges—and go for it!”
Creator of Atlanta Beltline concept, architect, president of urban design consultancy Sixpitch
“The last 10 years have been sobering for Atlanta—in a good way. Following the first decade of this century, which seemed to be intoxicated by a post-Olympic euphoria that included previously-unheard-of population growth in the urban core of the region, this last decade seemed a little more honest about the challenges that come with that growth.
Today, we can no longer ignore the threats of economic and cultural displacement that have come alongside our new urban prosperity. And while more growth is coming whether we want it or not, if we learn to better manage it, I think that growth will be good for us.
Atlanta has an enormous capacity for more people, more businesses, and more social and cultural opportunities. We just need to make sure that that growth includes everyone—that it lifts existing communities, rather than displacing them. Fortunately, this past decade has prepared us for that work.
The Atlanta City Design lays the groundwork for translating Dr. King’s concept of the Beloved Community into tangible plans and policies capable of delivering a city for everyone. And Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms’s vision for One Atlanta brings the political commitment needed on the toughest issues to make sure Atlanta grows into a more affordable, resilient, and equitable city.
Looking ahead, with a more sober view toward the tsunami of growth and change headed our way, Atlanta is better positioned to survive and thrive in a new decade of shared prosperity.”