By Michael J. Thompson
More than 100 people packed the Atlanta City Council chamber on May 5 to discuss the pros and cons of the billion-dollar plan to give the Peachtree Street corridor a major facelift.
It was the first public hearing held by the city after the contentious plan was unveiled in March by the blue-ribbon task force appointed by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. The meeting presented the opportunity for proponents and foes of the plan to speak.
“I think this plan will help usher in a new era for Atlanta and will help continue to bring about the dramatic changes that are reshaping Atlanta as a global destination,” said Trey Matthews, who lives and works on Peachtree Street.
“As it becomes more expensive to live in the suburbs, overhauls like this to make Atlanta more attractive for families will go a long way in keeping people in the city,” he added.
Present at the meeting was one of the key architects of the plan, Mayor Franklin, who listened as those who signed up to speak offered their observations.
Franklin has been a major catalyst and driving force behind the makeover plan that would create a 14-mile boulevard with wider sidewalks, housing and retail, ample amounts of green space, and—the most controversial aspect—streetcars.
The plan also calls for a special tax district to be implemented to encourage housing and retail development along the corridor.
“Who wouldn’t want to jump aboard a street car and get to work in that manner,” Matthews asked rhetorically.
The plan is for $500 million to be budgeted for the implementation of streetcars. They would roll with other traffic, generally in the far-right lane, with stops about every quarter-mile. Trolleys would run every 10 minutes.
While the corridor would be widened in places to accommodate medians, turn lanes and wider sidewalks, at present, no additional lanes are planned along either of the two proposed streetcar lines — a 14-mile stretch along Peachtree and a 2.5-mile downtown tourist loop.
The streetcars’ top speed would be about 30 mph. But, with stops and traffic flow factored in, the vehicles would move at about 10 mph.
The Peachtree corridor is considered one of Atlanta’s most congested, as Peachtree Street is Atlanta’s main connector thoroughfare for downtown, Midtown and Buckhead, which draw tens of thousands of people each day to work, shop, eat and drink.
Opponents of the plan comprised half of the audience, and wore matching green T-shirts with the words, “Yes Peachtree Home” written on the front. The organization is dubbed H.O.M.E (Housing Options Meant for Everyone) and its stated goal is for the city to require “affordable, below-market-price housing,” for those who can’t afford the projected housing costs in the corridor.
Atlanta resident Rosa Harden Green, a member of H.O.M.E and the Atlanta Neighborhood Developmental Partnership, voiced her concern for the proposed Peachtree Corridor Task Force’s final report.
“I’ve been displaced so many times in the last four years because of the growth in Atlanta,” said Green.
Although the group does support a major overhaul of Peachtree Street, the caveat and addendum in their support is affordable housing.
“Housing needs to be affordable for all mankind, not to degrade us but to promote and uplift us,” Green said.
Atlanta resident Sam Dickson, who owns properties throughout Atlanta, said, “The idea that affordable housing will be included in this plan is preposterous. The city can’t dictate housing costs, only the free market will dictate where the prices go.”
More importantly, Dickson said, “Whether the city likes it or not Atlanta will continue to see gentrification and the displacement of those like the group members of H.O.M.E who are adamantly opposed to the dramatic changes in this city.”
Mayor Franklin sat in the front row and listened to Green and others who signed up to speak. She also asked those in attendance to forget about the short-term problems of construction and increased congestion and consider the implications and benefits this project could have on the city in the long-term.
“Let’s really aspire to a long view and find a way to put the politics behind us,” Franklin said. “The question really is how will people who are not here now look back on what we did?
“If we allow questions of zoning and the potential problems of one-year of construction to blind our long-term view and instead only make superficial changes to Peachtree, then we have failed future generations that live here,” she said.
Under the plan, Peachtree would be just that, with the words “street”and “road” dropped from the name.
The corridor would include a side loop going from the King Center to Centennial Olympic Park.
“I love the idea of connecting from Brookhaven to Ft. McPherson and having one Peachtree,” said Councilwoman Mary Norwood.
Norwood said she supports the concept but worries about the cost of the Peachtree Corridor Plan, since it includes the creation of a special tax district along Peachtree that could increase property taxes by as much as 10 percent on homeowners as well as business property owners.
“We have never done taxation on just residents because you happen to live somewhere,” Norwood said.
Franklin assured the crowd that the plans are not final. “We’re still in the early stages of reading and looking over the report and working to decide what will be our next step,” Franklin said, without mention of a time line for the project.
“Thankfully, the Peachtree Corridor Final Report that was finished in March is the perfect starting point for dialogue,” she added.
The plan still has a long way to go until it gets approval and possibly approaches reality.
In the coming months, city council members will begin considering key issues involving funding, transportation and rights of way. Businesses, special interest groups and concerned citizens will also play a major role in the final rollout of the Peachtree Corridor.