Feb 18, 2013 | Atlanta, GA
Imagine Northside Drive and you probably see a street that you’d rather steer clear of lined with dilapidated buildings and overgrown weeds — or at least that’s what the students in Mike Dobbins’ studio envisioned when he mentioned the street to them.
“At first, they couldn’t understand why I wanted us to examine Northside Drive; they said ‘there’s nothing on it,’” said Dobbins, a professor of practice in the School of City and Regional Planning. “Until they realized that there is.”
Northside is actually a diamond in the rough when it comes to the role it could play in improving transportation and providing development opportunities in Atlanta. The street serves as the west frame of Atlanta’s downtown and midtown core, connecting Cobb County to Atlantic Station, Georgia Tech, the Georgia World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta University Center, West End and points south.
“Northside should be a grand transit boulevard, a seam between east and west, not the divide that it is,” Dobbins said. “Our goal is to help change that.”
Dobbins became familiar with Northside’s potential while working as commissioner of planning for the City of Atlanta from 1996 to 2002. For the studio, he partnered with Emory McClinton, a board member of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), to develop the studio program.
“A lot is happening in the Northside corridor,” Dobbins said. “The State Road and Tollway Authority’s strategically located site at 17th Street is up for sale without conditions that would serve transit connectivity. Tech is seeking to establish better programs and physical linkages with its westside neighborhoods. The multimodal passenger terminal could be built in the future. A new stadium is in play. Why wouldn’t now be a good time to plan comprehensively?”
So during fall semester, with funding from the GDOT, the city, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, Midtown Alliance and Tech, city planning and civil engineering students in Dobbins’ studio took on the challenge of creating a plan for Northside Drive.
Some of the recommendations include:
- Creating a consistent well-lit, tree-lined boulevard, from I-75 to West End, that would accommodate cars, transit, bicycles and sidewalks suitable for serving a mixed- use, higher-density development future.
- Establishing planning and zoning policies to shape the boulevard’s development trajectory to support the goals of its many stakeholders, including neighborhoods and the Atlanta University Center to the west, and Atlantic Station, Tech, Midtown and Downtown to the east.
- Untangling the street’s many confusing and disorienting intersections.
- Introducing a pedestrian park and street crossings to connect Tech and Marietta Street.
- Providing bicycle, pedestrian and possible streetcar connectivity over the Means Street bridge.
- Creating programs that link pending new developments, such as a multimodal passenger terminal or a new stadium, with tangible support for neighborhood jobs, infrastructure and other development.
- Increasing green space.
The main purpose of the plan is for Tech to establish an active, lively face on Northside, welcoming the new development and older neighborhoods across the way.
“The plan also provides suggestions on how the city, GDOT, Tech and Coca-Cola can collaborate to achieve shared goals,” Dobbins added.
Before the end of fall semester, the students shared their findings with stakeholders including the GDOT, city, other agencies, neighborhood and other civic leaders, and developers — and the stakeholders listened.
“The unique thing about a student project is that there aren’t the biases that can occur when an interest group initiates the research,” Dobbins said. “So I think leaders are more open to suggestions.”
But, Dobbins also said that people tend to underestimate what students are capable of.
“It has been an interesting reaction,” Dobbins said. “People didn’t think the project would be as useful as it has been in terms of providing information about what can be done.”
Although the studio is finished and the students have moved on, the project is not. Dobbins will now share the plan with the 150 people on his stakeholder list to get feedback.
Regardless of what happens next, the project has already accomplished two of Dobbins’ goals: getting people who are normally suspicious of others’ motives to come together in the same room and communicate, and getting the city to recognize that Northside Drive needs to be formally designated as a transit corridor.
“The ultimate goal would be to have a transportation system serving emerging development patterns based on what the students are proposing,” Dobbins said. “The city and GDOT would use the information in the plan to update their plans and funding priorities accordingly. We’ll just have to see what happens next.”