(Joey Kyber on Unsplash)

While Atlanta has grown rapidly in the last decade, the downtown area lacks green space. A ULI Advisory Services panel was asked to study a proposal to build a highway lid that would provide park space downtown.

The panel of nine national experts in real estate, land use, design, transportation, and finance visited Atlanta in late February to give advice on the funding, planning, and development of the proposal for “the Stitch.” The panel presented its recommendations in March at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. (View the presentation.)

“The quality of experience of downtown—our human experience of place—is an incredibly important piece of economic development strategies,” said James Lima, chair of the panel and president of James Lima Planning + Development of New York City. “Your opportunity and almost imperative in thinking about the Stitch is to imagine it as an equitable and resilient community, anchored by a world-class park and, in doing that, creating a district that is economically resilient, socially resilient, and environmentally resilient.”

The panel’s visit is part of the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, a national movement to ensure that residents in cities across the United States have access to high-quality parks within a 10-minute walk of their neighborhoods.

The proposed highway cap would better connect Atlanta’s downtown to surrounding areas while providing other benefits to the community.

Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), a community development nonprofit organization, initiated the Stitch plan. The concept envisions building a three-quarter-mile (1.2 km) freeway platform, spanning the Interstate-75/85 Downtown Connector, to connect the downtown area. It would also add 14 acres (5.7 ha) of green space. The Stitch’s platform would extend from the Civic Center MARTA rail station to Piedmont Avenue.

The panel proposed concentrating on the Stitch’s park from the Civic Center on Piedmont Avenue to the MARTA station. This cap is projected to cost $185 million, with the entire Stitch costing $452 million. The panel recommended first focusing on the cap, which has more manageable funding goals. The initial project has a proposed schedule of four years for pre-development and six years to build out the Stitch.

Many panelists compared the project with Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, a park built over Woodall Rodgers Freeway, that opened in 2012.

As downtown Atlanta develops, having connected infrastructure is important, said Wei Huang, one of the Advisory Services panelists and founder of Novus Real Estate in Glendale, California.

“There’s a lot of things going on in downtown,” she said. “However, during this growth momentum, is the downtown ready? There needs to be [improvements on] a lot of the infrastructure to make it a more walkable and livable and more connected city.”

With the Stitch, the Civic Center MARTA station has the potential to become a transit-oriented development, helping to fill these needs.

“It needs to be a place, not just a station. It needs complete reconfiguration,” said Kathryn Firth, another panelist and director of urban design at NBBJ design firm in Boston.

Cross streets near the Stitch area—such as Courtland Street and Ralph McGill Boulevard, and Piedmont Avenue and Baker Street—could become greener.

“Those could become places with far less upfront investment as they become sort of land bridges,” Firth said. “Within this area, let’s really intensify and start to make what’s essentially a green network.”

Some of Atlanta’s neighborhoods have an extensive tree canopy (though development can threaten that), but downtown’s tree cover is sparse. The Stitch could add needed trees in order to mitigate urban heat island effects, Firth said.

The project would also increase park access. Gia Biagi, a panelist and principal of urbanism and civic impact at Studio Gang Architects in Chicago, said that Atlanta needs more parks, especially in the area of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

She added that this project would help create places for people to get around the city safely by walking and cycling.

“That’s about mobility and movement—making it as easy as possible for people to not only enjoy a neighborhood and visit a neighborhood but work in that neighborhood and get to it and get home,” Biagi said.

Panelists recommended that the “front door” of the Stitch should be the Civic Center MARTA station, a regional bus hub in addition to having city rail. But right now, it is not an effective bus transfer location, said Rick Krochalis, commissioner for the Seattle Design Commission. He suggested looking to examples in other cities such as Boise, Idaho, which built a downtown bus transfer center underneath a building.

The Stitch also needs to keep all residents in mind. About half of downtown Atlanta’s housing will need to cater to low-income households, according to the panel.

Atlanta should take lessons from the BeltLine, a multiuse trail surrounding the city’s core that didn’t deliver on some of its affordable housing goals, said Sujata Srivastava, panelist and principal at Strategic Economics in Berkeley, California.

“Learning from that, what can we put into place to create a more inclusive community that serves people with a variety of different affordability challenges?” Srivastava asked, saying the city could look at a community land trust model to create longer-term affordability in the Stitch area.

The panel recommended establishing a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity to design, develop, and operate the Stitch.

The panel spent part of their time in Atlanta interviewing about 70 stakeholders on issues ranging from politics to culture to engineering. But a shared vision for the Stitch is needed, said Glenn LaRue Smith, panelist and principal and cofounder of PUSH Studio in Washington, D.C.

“Beneath [the Stitch] lies a great history of people, of neighborhoods, of leaders, of churches. And we feel that that is something that can add richness and three-dimensionality to a design project like this,” LaRue Smith said. “There is richness here that can become a part of public art, a part of the story that’s told and how the project is designed.”

He suggested using art to tell stories or revealing lost history. For example, the Stitch could incorporate the history of Buttermilk Bottom, a black neighborhood razed in the 1960s to make way for the Civic Center.

“The Stitch should reflect Atlanta and Atlantans,” LaRue Smith said. “Today, so many projects around the country are just rubberstamps of what has happened in another major city, and we think that what happens in Atlanta in terms of design of a project should be about Atlanta and should reflect Atlanta.”

Access past Advisory Services panel reports and more at ULI Knowledge Finder.