The recent Glenwood Park opposition to Jeff Fuqua’s development proposal shows the changing dynamics between city officials, resident, and developers and highlights the need for a solid transportation plan. Jeff Fuqua’s proposed development along Glenwood Avenue and adjacent to part of the Beltline, was met with strong opposition from Neighborhood Planning Unit Chairman Edward Gilgor as well as many neighborhood residents this past October. According to Gilgor, Fuqua disregarded the goals of the Beltline Master Plan by continuing to insist on ample surface parking and ignoring various zoning restrictions. As with his midtown Walmart Proposal, Fuqua is being met with fierce opposition and this should serve as a wake-up call to in-town developers. As more and more young, educated people move into Atlanta developers are not going to simply be able to place their traditional suburban-style shopping centers into in-town neighborhoods. This new generation of residents is demanding the ability to move around their city without the use of a car and any development that not only maximizes surface parking but also disregards the city’s plan for the area will be met with strict opposition.
The Edgewood Shopping District on Moreland Avenue seems like just the type of development city residents would like to prevent in the future. This is a great example of an attempt by a developer to mimic sustainable development and new urbanist practices without actually doing it . Whereas new urbanist principles would promote the creation of a street grid, a mix of residential and retail, sidewalk space, and limited parking, Edgewood creates a grid of about two streets, is almost completely retail, and is covered with empty surface parking. The vast parking lots are an impediment to safe walking and the narrow streets and speed bumps are an impediment to drivers. This is an example of the type of hybrid development that has been occurring in this country for the past couple of decades. As people have become more urban and have shown less interest in living in an auto-centric community, developers have slowly started to change by creating open-air shopping centers that have sidewalks, but retain vast surface parking. This was acceptable development in suburban areas because residents still wanted to maintain the essential nature of suburbia while throwing in a few aspects of urban living. This is not an acceptable form of development in urban areas where residents have already decided they want less cars and more walking. Developers have not quite realized that they cannot simply place their suburban developments into urban areas. For too long city officials and residents have let developers get away with it because cities were in desperate need of development, but now that cities are driving new development opportunities and have seen an influx of young people, officials and residents have much more power to push back and enforce the type of development they want.
This is precisely what residents and officials in Atlanta are beginning to do. The Edgewood Center is a waste of a great piece of property located within walking distance of a MARTA station. By allowing so much surface parking the city has created no incentive to walk, bike, or ride MARTA – the development creates more user automobile trips, which increases traffic tremendously, while attempting to offset this by putting in sidewalks that of course are only used by people who drove there. The major push in most major cities today is to create less auto-dependency by promoting new forms of development. Though Atlanta was late to the game, residents and city officials are not squandering the opportunity they have now to prevent future development of Edgewood-esque centers. The fierce opposition to Fuqua is a wake-up call to developers that they can no longer get away with traditional development in this city. Due to the increased migration of young, educated individuals and families into cities, the dynamic between cities and developers has changed: developers need cities and they better begin to understand what cities demand.
With this said, our general lack of any transportation plan creates tough decisions for developers. As long as a development is successful, why does a developer care if its covered with surface parking or if its a completely walkable development fully integrated into the existing street system? With the lack of an organized and guaranteed future transportation plan, developers are left at a crossroads. The Beltline is going to dramatically increase the ability to get between neighborhoods without the use of a car if streetcars are actually built – and this is a big if. If no streetcar is built, neighborhood connectivity is reliant upon bike trails and the existing Atlanta street system which requires parking. The bike trails are a definite improvement, but its likely that fewer people are going to bike along the trail for shopping and entertainment purposes than would ride the streetcar. Though we all want more walkable neighborhoods and less surface parking taking up valuable property, the ability for people to get around without a car is dependent on the government taking some action to put in place a plan for transportation so it creates some type of reliance. Its risky to spend millions on a new development and limit parking if no streetcar ever arrives – this center will likely lose business to a center with parking.
Perhaps this burden is significant enough to warrant a variance. A variance to the existing zoning requirements should only be granted if the owner bears such a substantial burden from applying the zoning to his property that he can make no reasonable economic use of it. If profit cannot be realized without all of the demanded parking spaces, then it shows the inability for the city to achieve the neighborhoods we want without the presence of adequate transportation. I doubt absolutely no profit could be realized, but that’s for the city and future lawsuits to determine. The good news is that Atlanta currently seems less likely to cave to developers on this issue (see Fuqua’s failed Lindbergh Walmart attempt). Most cities install their transit or at least have guaranteed funding for it prior to putting in place stricter zoning requirement because without this the zoning requirements are not practicable. Adequate parking is needed based on our current reliance on cars, so if zoning restrictions are put in place that severely limit the number of parking spaces to the extent that one could not operate a successful business this would be a government taking and would either require a variance or compensation. To avoid this, transportation either needs to be funded or constructed prior to zoning restrictions to allow people to get to a business without a car. Fuqua also seems to think the city should grant a permit to build if he agrees to build part of the trail, but what allows the Beltline to be so revolutionary is the streetcar – the real people-mover, not the bike trails. Atlanta really needs the streetcar and we shouldn’t let a developer undermine the plan by building something inadequate. The point is that the zoning restrictions we all want are only feasible if the transportation infrastructure required is realized. We have conflict because we have no plan, which makes the failure of last summer’s transportation referendum such a significant impediment to realizing the walkable neighborhoods we are all demanding.