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Downtown leaders weigh in on Connector-capping ‘Stitch’ project

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The potentially $400 million plan could bring life to property otherwise reserved for cars

an early rendering of the proposed project
How downtown’s Stitch project could activate space near the ailing Medical Arts Building.
Central Atlanta Progress

When talks resumed earlier this month about the mammoth Downtown Connector-capping Stitch project, some Atlantans wondered if resources could be better allocated to accomplish goals of the Downtown Atlanta Master Plan.

Officials with Central Atlanta Progress, however, told Curbed Atlanta this week the Stitch concept presents less of an either/or decision than a both/and opportunity.

“The important, necessary, and intentional effort to implement a plan must include immediate, smaller scale actions, as well as the courage to think big and longterm,” said Jennifer Ball, CAP’s vice president of planning and economic development.

The Downtown Atlanta Master Plan—abbreviated as DAMP—highlights the Stitch project, which would bring 14 acres of new construction and green space atop a half-mile stretch of the Interstate 75/85 Connector, as a means of enlivening the neighborhood.

The Stitch, in fact, would be “a fundamental objective of the plan,” Ball said.

The result of the potentially $400 million Stitch, she added, would be a colossal live-work-play community above a traffic tunnel that utilizes otherwise underutilized—save for vehicle traffic—property between the Civic Center MARTA Station and Piedmont Avenue.

A photo of downtown Atlanta’s the connector.
Imagine these lanes topped with buildings and parks.
Jonathan Phillips, Curbed Atlanta

This week, the project is undergoing an Urban Land Institute evaluation. Results are expected to be publicly unveiled Friday.

CAP has also tapped DaVinci Development Collaborative to take on roughly 15 months of pre-development work related to technical and funding feasibility, implementation recommendations, and communications, according to a spokesperson

It’s also worth noting, Ball said, that “a fundamental strategy to fund the public infrastructure proposed by the Stitch plan is to ‘capture the value’ of new investment attracted to the parks.”

Funds used to build the Stitch would be repaid in part with future property taxes collected by the developments created by the project.

Of course, before CAP throws its full-throated support behind the proposal, more community input would need to be analyzed.

CAP and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District are “committed to seeing the plan implemented while acknowledging the respective roles they each play along with many other stakeholders to make that happen,” Ball said.

An early rendering of the proposed Stitch project.
Central Atlanta Progress

The Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association’s former president, Stephen Krauska, has a different take on the Stitch.

“Taken on its face, the ‘both/and’ idea is okay. However, there’s been way too much ‘shiny object syndrome’ in Atlanta development lately, particularly downtown,” Krauska told Curbed, nodding to projects such as the $27 million pedestrian bridge over Northside Drive.

The success of a project as large as the Stitch, Krauska said, is contingent upon proper land use surrounding such development.

Essentially, he said, building a 14-acre pedestrian-friendly community space doesn’t work as well if the nearby environs are all designed to accommodate cars over people.

“I can be forgiven if I’m dubious of how public funding gets swished around for something like the Stitch when we have the horrible failure of the Northside Drive pedestrian bridge gleaming over our heads, which stole already thin TSPLOST funds,” Krauska said.

A rendering of the new Mercedes Benz Stadium bridge at night.
An early rendering of the expensive Northside Drive pedestrian bridge.
Courtesy of CPL

Krauska believes downtown needs more “nuts and bolts” upgrades—pedestrian improvements, bike lanes, dedicated right of way for transit, etc.—before it welcomes “more flashy projects here with grandiose promises.”

He wants to see more “decidedly unsexy but absolutely necessary improvements” not just downtown, but on the streets that link to downtown.

“Case in point: the questionable future of a truly complete DeKalb Avenue,” Kruaska said. “If we continue to optimize for car travel throughout Atlanta by not rethinking our streets, downtown will remain short of its potential.”

Kruaska emphasized that he is not opposed to the Stitch project, but he said, “It’s vitally important to me that we build a downtown for all.”

That means not just infrastructure improvements, but affordable housing, too.

“Sorry, but I don’t see the massive costs needed to cap a freeway lending themselves to real affordability,” he said. “Perhaps the bogus 80 percent AMI affordability that we’ve seen elsewhere, but we need to be much more aggressive than that, especially if we are already talking about public money going this project.”

Urbanist blog ThreadATL also posited that the Stitch project is “commendable,” but that other goals of the DAMP deserve more immediate attention.

Goals from the Downtown Atlanta Master Plan that ThreadATL posits need attention and priority now.
Downtown Atlanta Master Plan, via Curbed Atlanta

Of course, the Stitch plan is far from a shoo-in.

CAP President A.J. Robinson previously told WSB-TV that it could be tough to tackle without disrupting Atlanta’s already treacherous traffic, suggesting the development would need to be completed in phases.

If carried out, however, the Stitch development could rake in between $1.1 and $3.1 billion in economic value for the area, according to its backers.

It could also inject $21 to $58 million in new revenue and boost the city’s bonding capacity by $308 to $847 billion “by increasing the value of existing properties and catalyzing the redevelopment of underutilized properties,” according to CAP.

But is the Stitch a must-have, and now?

This story was updated on February 26, 2019 at 1:56 p.m. to indicate that the ULI review is taking place this week, and that the DaVinci Development Collaborative will be conducting more than a year of pre-development work for CAP.