If Buckhead’s the Jewel of Atlanta, Why Does it Feel So Dull?

The tall buildings, subway stops, and fancy stores might lead one to believe that Buckhead is a dense walkable urban center. Upon taking a closer look, however, one would quickly realize their mistake. Vibrant walkable areas clearly have different elements than those listed above; elements that the affluent Atlanta neighborhood has largely failed to attain. The area is in desperate need of a re-design as its suburban infrastructure not only fails to promote walking, but actively discourages it. As of 2016, 98% of Buckhead employees commuted from outside the area with most, presumably, doing so by car.

As young professional Americans, along with their potential employers, continue to state a preference for dense walkable areas and less auto-dependent commutes, Buckhead would be wise to welcome reformation.

Small blocks, narrow roads, good bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, maximum (as opposed to minimum) parking requirements, and adequate mass transit terminals are some of the key elements of a vibrant walkable area. Since people generally avoid walking in deserted urban areas, an adequate number of potential walkers is needed to make the elements of walkability meaningful. 

Miami’s Brickell neighborhood and Virginia’s Tyson’s Corner could offer some guidance to Buckhead. Like Buckhead, Brickell started off as a wealthy enclave consisting of mansions and large estates. Over the past several decades, Brickell has been dramatically upzoned to allow for taller buildings and more residents. The neighborhood has maintained its wealth and become one of the largest financial districts in America all while transforming into a dense vibrant urban center.  The upzoning has, by some accounts, allowed surrounding neighborhoods to avoid gentrification and remain relatively affordable. A similar story can be found just down the road from Buckhead in Atlanta’ Midtown neighborhood. 

Brickell, though, has a natural advantage over Buckhead in that it’s directly adjacent to downtown Miami. This allowed for a strong street grid with relatively small blocks to be laid out years ago, which made adding more residents and less parking a much more viable plan. Buckhead, on the other hand, was originally a far-flung suburb of Atlanta and, like much of the area, never had the benefit of a good street system. Consequently, the area is plagued by suburban-style development consisting of wide roads, dangerous intersections, myriad parking lots, and large blocks (see map below). 

Tyson’s Corner, Virginia is a suburb of Washington, DC and is best known as the classic example of an “edge city.” Its poorly laid out street system, lack of mass transit, abundant surface parking, and few residential units make Tysons a traffic nightmare. Despite having a daytime population of 100,000 people and being one of the largest employment centers in the country, only about 20,000 people call it home.

In an effort to modernize the area and stay competitive, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors passed a massive plan in 2010 to make Tyson’s a denser, vibrant, and more walkable area. The plan calls for zoning height restrictions to be eased, parking requirements to be reduced, higher density levels, the elimination of surface parking lots, and a new street system to be put in place to reduce block sizes. Upending the status-quo for suburban rail stations, the Board provided no parking spaces for four new Metrorail stations (DC’s subway) in the Tyson’s area. Despite wealthy area residents objecting to the density, the Board pushed ahead with the plan realizing that the area’s livability and competitiveness would suffer without dramatic changes. In 2011, the Tyson’s Plan received the Daniel Burnham Award from the American Planning Association for advancing the science and art of planning.


This map highlights the sharp contrasts between Buckhead and Brickell. 
Buckhead (top) has the classic “leafy suburban” look with its lack of a street grid system and numerous dead-end streets while Brickell (bottom) has a strong, structured street system. While Buckhead is largely a singly-family area, even the built-up commercial areas around Peachtree Road have very low density levels. Brickell, on the other hand, has many block groups with density levels above 54,000 people per square mile.

Councilman Howard Shook and Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, who represent Buckhead on the Atlanta City Council, recently introduced a bill to reduce parking in parts of the area to levels found in downtown Atlanta. Mayor Reed, in turn, signed an executive order placing a moratorium on all new development permits while the bill goes through its review phase. This would undoubtedly make walking more enticing and less dangerous, but additional steps need to be taken.

While Buckhead is much more developed and urbanized than Tyson’s, its walkability and vibrancy isn’t anywhere close to that of Brickell’s. This is predominantly due to Buckhead’s auto-centric infrastructure and lack of widespread density. Peachtree Road, the main thoroughfare, is largely a high-speed suburban-style highway. While some pockets of Buckhead are dense enough to provide an abundance of potential walkers, the road deters pedestrian activity. In too many places, pedestrians are asked to walk on narrow sidewalks along busy multi-lane roads. Even when adequate sidewalk space is provided, walkers are often required to cross vast parking lots, cross busy intersections, and dodge turning vehicles to get to their destinations. All of this results in an unenjoyable, if not highly dangerous, walking experience.

More through-streets need to be added, parking lots need to be eliminated, intersections need to be safer, sidewalks need to be expanded, and housing needs to be added. Extending the streetcar along Peachtree Road through Buckhead could allow residents and visitors to travel shorter distance than what is provided by Marta rail service. Though improving bus and shuttle service in the area may be a better, cheaper, and quicker transportation solution. Such improvements could increase the potential density of the area, reduce the number of cars, and help create a more comfortable walking environment. 

Back in August, an updated Master Plan of Buckhead entitled “BUCKHEAD REdeFINED” was released to the public. While it includes many necessary actions such as pedestrian paths, streetscape improvements, and exploring ways to increase housing diversity, it fails to include many of the more fundamental changes that need to occur. BUCKHEAD REdeFINED is certainly less grand than the 2010 Tyson’s Corner Master Plan, though it does include many of the same “placemaking” strategies employed in the Tyson’s Plan.

We’ll have more commentary on BUCKHEAD REdeFINED in a later article, but the plan does, at the very least, push the area in the right direction by offering positive guidelines for future development. Many of the more fundamental improvements will have to be further studied and could only be implemented through changes to city ordinances.

Without strong support for the inclusion of pedestrian-oriented infrastructure and increased density, Buckhead could find itself becoming more congested and less livable. It could also find itself solving the congestion problem via irrelevance as potential residents, businesses, and visitors seek out other places. Both outcomes are clearly undesirable.


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