The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

CSY at Forbes: Atlanta Goes Big

The Atlanta skyline.  Source: visittheusa.com

(Note: As always, work and life catch up to me.  However, as I work on something much larger that will be a Corner Side Yard-only production, let me republish two posts recently published at Forbes regarding Atlanta’s big plans.  In many respects, I see Atlanta as making the right investments at the right time.  Read through and see what I mean.  -Pete)
Perhaps the most important things cities can do is invest in infrastructure that enables its economy and residents to develop to their fullest potential.

Most people know about the industrial and manufacturing explosion that took place in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, creating new products and offering jobs for millions. Less well known, however, are the investments cities made that enabled the economic explosion. New York’s expansive subway system opened in 1904, providing millions of people with the ability to easily access all parts of the city. Chicago famously reversed the course of the Chicago River in 1900 to ensure access to an abundant supply of clean Lake Michigan water. For better or worse, neither city would be what they are without the infrastructure investment. This kind of investment is the foundation for economic development.

Cities that saw their rapid growth phases occur later are now faced with the same dilemma — is it still possible to grow our city by being a low-cost, limited-infrastructure alternative to larger cities, or should we make the necessary infrastructure investments to spur growth? Atlanta has made its choice, and it’s gone big.

Atlanta will soon embark on a $300 million infrastructure project that will solidify clean and safe drinking water access for its residents and businesses for the next 100 years. The city’s Department of Watershed Management, which provides water to 1.2 million users in the Atlanta area each day, will establish a reservoir in the former Bellwood Quarry northwest of downtown. The quarry will be filled through a five-mile-long tunnel that will connect it to the Chattahoochee River, the city’s primary water source. The new water reserve will mean that Atlanta will significantly enhance its water supply — the city will go from having a 3 day supply of water today to having a 30 day supply at the project’s completion. With an estimated impact of $100 million each day in the case of water disruption, the project virtually pays for itself in its first week of operation. Earlier today, the city held a press conference at the quarry to announce that the tunnel boring machine to be used for the project will be named “Driller Mike”, a play on the name of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. Drilling starts later this month, and the project is expected to be completed in 2018.

The Bellwood Quarry was inactive for years and is familiar to many in the Atlanta area as a teen hangout. It’s also familiar to many outside Atlanta as a filming location, featured most recently in TV’s The Walking Dead and Stranger Things. The City of Atlanta bought the site about ten years ago with the intent of utilizing it as a way to secure water access.

I spoke with Watershed Management commissioner Kishia Powell about the project, and she is thrilled about what this means for the region. “Two-thirds of the state of Georgia is in a severe drought, and the City must take the necessary actions to provide the services our residents expect and deserve,” she said. She believes that climate change has revised Atlanta’s infrastructure priorities, making such projects crucial. “We think about resiliency in every project we do, and we’re constantly monitoring our ability to improve our resilience.” To that end, Atlanta is working on the implementation of its Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan, and one of the outcomes so far is that Atlanta has developed the largest permeable paver retrofit programs in the nation.

Atlanta’s famously sprawling land use pattern made traditional reservoir ideas, where a stream or river is dammed and water builds up behind it, impossible. A great deal of Atlanta’s land had already been devoted to other uses — residential, commercial, business, industrial — and there simply wasn’t the space to accommodate conventional water storage. In addition, the city had to cross legal hurdles as well. The Chattahoochee River’s flow is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and water use is shared by the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Atlanta maintains that the new reservoir will not exceed water use allotments monitored by the ACE. Upon completion, Atlanta will have a 2.4 billion-gallon reservoir, some 400 feet deep, served by a tunnel that will be the deepest in the state. It will be surrounded by a 300-acre park that will become the city’s largest when it opens.

And that leads to another important aspect of the project — its economic development impact. The project does not exist in a vacuum, solely to meet the region’s water needs. It will take place in a neighborhood adjacent to recent revitalization, with the hope that this can be the catalyst for even more development. It will take place in the context of a much larger infrastructure/economic development/recreational strategy that Atlanta is putting in place. I had the opportunity to talk with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed about how this project fits into a much larger strategy, and that will come in my next post.

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In 1850, New York City, consisting of just Manhattan at the time, held just a third of the 1.6 million residents who live there today. At about 515,000 people, mostly clustered on the southern end of the island, New York quadrupled in size over the previous thirty years. It surpassed Philadelphia to become America’s largest city and established itself as the center of a growing metro area containing almost 700,000 people (that is, the four other boroughs that currently make up New York today). The congestion at Manhattan’s southern edge presented city leaders with a clear choice at the time — they could advocate for the implementation of the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, which would extend the city’s grid system without interruption, or answer the call from some activists and ordinary residents to develop a public reserve that would be a natural refuge and easy getaway from the chaos of the city. New York chose the latter. The 840-acre Central Park was opened to the public in 1857. A reservoir to aid the city’s water supply was added in 1862, which also added to the park’s aesthetic amenities.

It took some time, but the economic — as well as recreational and social — benefits of the park became clear. Central Park, and the train stations that were constructed just south of it, facilitated the development of Midtown as one of the nation’s premier commercial districts. It’s fair to say that the park was able to turn previously nondescript lands adjacent to it into the highly desirable Upper East and Upper West sides.

As cities grow, infrastructure investment becomes more critical to their future viability. The right kind of infrastructure development by cities can pay off with fantastic returns.

As I said in my previous post about Atlanta’s Westside reservoir project, such investments do not exist in a vacuum. Leaders like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed keenly understand this, and that’s why he’s linked this necessary infrastructure project to a wide-ranging community revitalization project that ties together economic development, transportation and recreation activities throughout the city. The Atlanta BeltLine is the kind of project that could have a long-lasting positive impact on Atlanta.

Developed as a master’s thesis concept by Georgia Tech graduate student Ryan Gravel in 1999, the BeltLine unites 22 miles of largely abandoned and underutilized rail lines that encircle the city as a network of trails and recreation space interspersed with rail transit. The BeltLine connects more than 40 Atlanta neighborhoods and serves as a catalyst for a new era of more urban development in a city better known for its sprawl. When complete, the BeltLine will add more than 1,300 acres of park space to the city, add as many as 5,600 new units of affordable housing, and lead to as many as 30,000 permanent jobs for Atlanta residents. In all, Atlanta anticipates as much as $10-$20 billion in economic development from the BeltLine. When the Westside reservoir project is complete, the park surrounding it will become the largest park in the Atlanta park system.

I spoke with Mayor Reed about the project, and of course he’s ecstatic about the reservoir and the broader BeltLine project. He noted that there’s been “ten years of steady progress” in addressing the city’s water needs in the face of federal consent decrees and climate change. In an era where water availability is less certain than in the past, the city has worked hard with residents to reduce water consumption — dropping it by 20% over that ten-year timeframe. But he seems most pleased about his administration’s efforts to educate residents about the importance of water security and the need to fund it adequately. Said Reed, “We’ve taken water projects, traditionally constructed behind the scenes, and made them part of the life of the city — one of the many levers of economic development.”

Linking this effort with the BeltLine was a no-brainer. “The area around the Bellwood Quarry was largely industrial over the years, but explosive residential growth nearby has led us to seek ways to beautify the westside corridor of the city,” said Reed. He said he expects the reservoir project to have an impact similar to Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park project, just east of downtown, which led to millions in residential investment there.

It appears that Atlanta has chosen wisely, in the way that successful cities do. As it matures from fast-growth magnet to stable metropolis, it must make the necessary investments to help business thrive, move people around, and keep pace with amenities that make the city attractive and sustainable. So far, so good.

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