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Advisory panel says highway-capping ‘Stitch’ project could cost $452M

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Planning and development experts say the time is now to launch fundraising efforts

A photo of downtown Atlanta’s the connector.
Could the Downtown Connector be covered in the next decade or so?
Jonathan Phillips, Curbed Atlanta

After roaming around and studying downtown for a week, the Urban Land Institute’s advisory services panel provided Atlanta leaders with recommendations on how to move forward with the colossal proposed “Stitch” project.

On Friday, ULI, which conducts land use research for cities around the globe, suggested the time is now to partner with local elected officials and philanthropic organizations to get the ball rolling on fundraising efforts for the potentially 14-acre project that would install a massive park and new construction above the Downtown Connector.

But in order to be competitive for public and private funding—panelists expect the highway-capping project could cost upwards of $450 million—neighborhood leaders will have to map out plans to ensure the finished product spurs equity not just for downtown residents and businesspeople, but for those in neighboring communities.

The Stitch plan calls for a massive park to be built above a portion of the interstate between the Civic Center MARTA station and Piedmont Road, which panelists—architects, city planners, transportation experts, and developers—say could pay in tremendous dividends for stakeholders, such as health and wellness benefits.

The “world-class park” that would anchor the development, panelists say, should probably span about five of the 14 acres identified for capping, and it should be one of the first parts of the project addressed.

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

After all, good green space can greatly enhance the value of nearby real estate—a boon to the local economy that could help perpetuate the other goals of the Stitch project and the Downtown Atlanta Master Plan.

Additionally, some areas in and around downtown—and especially Midtown—are what panelist Glenn Smith, founder of Washington D.C.-based landscape architecture firm PUSH Studio, called “park poor.”

And considering Atlanta is part of the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, which endeavors to create green spaces so everyone lives within a 10-minute walk of a park, plopping down some five acres of parkland would, ahem, stitch together some lacking areas.

One of the main objectives of the Stitch project is, of course, fostering connectivity in downtown and its surrounding environs.

And while a big new park can serve as a hub of connectivity, other infrastructure improvements would be needed to ensure the Stitch acts as a conduit, rather than an obstruction, said panelist Kathryn Firth, an urban designer with Boston’s NBBJ.

“Some of these streets, I would argue, could really go on a diet,” she said, nodding to the “road diet” concept of ditching an automobile lane to make way for pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

Should this project progress, Firth said, “complete streets” projects could help maintain the flow of people during the years of construction.

The Stitch project also presents plenty of transit-oriented development opportunities, especially around the Civic Center MARTA stop.

a rendering of what could become of the downtown connector
Another rendering shows a prospective bird’s-eye view.
Central Atlanta Progress

During the Friday presentation, some ULI panelists, such as Firth, frequently evoked the success of Dallas’s Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre highway-topping green space that includes a restaurant, reading space, and playgrounds, among other amenities.

The Stitch, of course, would be similar, but far larger, due to the plans for new buildings sandwiching the proposed park.

Firth suggested the pre-development work for a development of such stature, could take about four years, after which would be another six years of construction.

Before all that, though, the project needs cash flow.

Panelist Sujata Srivastava, principal at San Francisco-based Strategic Economics, said when wooing those monies, “Building political support is going to be super essential.”

Right now, she added, there doesn’t appear to be much interest from the State of Georgia—which owns the highway—so it’s unclear how much the government will be willing or able to chip in.

An early map shows the area that could be redeveloped.

According to the panel’s findings, though, the project would call for between $6 million and $25 million from the federal government, between $20 million and $40 million from MARTA and TSPLOST funds, and up to $45 million in Tax Allocation District bonds.

The prospective use of TSPLOST funding is sure to ruffle some feathers, as the sales tax program is already projected to produce far less than initially expected when voters approved it a few years ago, meaning many important projects promised could already be underfunded or nixed entirely.

The park alone, panelists predict, could cost $185 million.

The ULI advisory council recommended officials from CAP and the City of Atlanta move to establish a 501 (c)3 nonprofit that would design, develop, and operate the Stitch, and that the fundraising campaign for an initial $10 million investment should be launched as soon as possible.

Panelists also suggested project leaders should begin applying for right-of-way approvals from the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.