A new Ga. 400 interchange on East Paces Ferry or Lenox roads was among the latest “big ideas” in the “BUCKHEAD REdeFINED” master plan that got the crowd talking at a Jan. 19 meeting.

Dozens of ideas for improving connectivity and open space in Buckhead’s commercial center were presented at the meeting, held at Atlanta International School. Other notable examples were a Lenox Road linear park with a “boardwalk” and a new loop pairing bike paths with a dedicated lane for the Buc shuttle bus.

Consultant Andrew Kohr of Stantec, left, offers advice as residents give input on possible open space and other improvements around Lenox Road during the Jan. 19 “BUCKHEAD REdeFINED” master plan meeting at Atlanta International School. (Photo John Ruch)

But two 400-focused ideas—the additional interchange and rebuilding the existing Lenox Road interchange as a “diverging diamond”—seemed to get the most eyebrow-raising and chin-rubbing from the crowd of about 100 people. District 6 City Councilmember Alex Wan, a candidate for council president, later said those items were “freaking me out” as he heard them.

“We’re going to push you a little bit,” Eric Bosman of Kimley-Horn, the company contracted by several civic and business groups to conduct the master plan, told the crowd at the beginning of the meeting as fair warning about the thought-provoking nature of some proposals.

Bosman emphasized that the master plan’s ideas are not set in stone; one of his slides had a movie-rating-style “C for conceptual” label on it. The meeting was a follow-up to an initial public input gathering in October and a series of surveys, and there will be another such meeting on Feb. 27. The process is set to wrap up with solid recommendations and an “action plan” in April.

Bosman gave an overview of the challenges the planners are trying to address. On connectivity, the big issue is the “extremely limited number of options” for moving traffic through the neighborhood. Only two streets go east-west across 400, and he estimated only about five streets take people outside the area. Improving streetscapes to encourage travel by means other than cars is a matter of “when and how,” not if, Bosman said.

Eric Bosman of lead master plan firm Kimley-Horn explains “big ideas” to the crowd at the Jan. 19 meeting. (Photo John Ruch)

One idea planners already discarded, based on input from the master plan’s stakeholder committee, was creating many more streets, via existing alleys or parking lots, to build a grid-like network. Virtually any road-widening is also off the planning table, except possibly on the northern stretch of Piedmont Road.

On open space, planners said there is too little green space, and what exists is often unusable—parking lot shrubbery or private, decorative corporate entry plazas. The planning strategy is to seize the opportunity to create public spaces in future redevelopments by using existing open-space requirements in zoning to do more than landscape buffers. In terms of programming, such spaces, as well as underused parking lots, could be made lively with public art, street performers or farmers markets.

One previous big idea that was folded into the master plan process had no significant updates: a park capping 400 between Lenox and Peachtree roads. Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, the business group that proposed the park, said the concept is still being tweaked, with a final draft coming around May.

After a presentation, audience members gave input by speaking to consultants at several stations around the school auditorium and drawing on overview maps or placing stickers on items they liked. The presentation will eventually be posted on the master plan website at buckheadredefined.com.

Some of the key ideas included:

Lenox/400 diverging diamond

An illustration of the diverging diamond interchange proposed for Lenox Road at Ga. 400 presented at the Jan. 19 meeting. (Photo John Ruch)

A diverging diamond is an intersection design where traffic switches sides of the street to speed traffic flow; an innovative example in metro Atlanta is the Ashford-Dunwoody Road/I-285 interchange in Dunwoody, which opened in 2012. Planners said it could improve traffic flow and making pedestrian crossing easier, and the park over 400 could overlap with it.

Bosman said a diverging diamond “has some benefits and has some challenges as well.” More importantly, he called it a “short-term solution” to traffic congestion there. The real issue, he said, is Lenox’s limited capacity to handle ever-increasing traffic. That led to proposing another 400 interchange in central Buckhead as a pressure-reliever.

A new, additional 400 interchange

A bigger traffic-flow idea was the new 400 entry point at either East Paces Ferry or on Lenox a few blocks south of it.

The East Paces Ferry concept is the “gentle” version of the new interchange, Bosman said. It would have traffic enter and exit on East Paces Ferry just south of Lenox Square Mall and alongside the Lenox MARTA Station.

Another concept puts the interchange on Lenox near Crane Road and alongside the Brighton Gardens senior residences.

A third concept puts two ramps on Lenox: one at the same Brighton Gardens spot, and another at Canter Road, where it would wrap around the new Pine Hills Park.

The obvious issue with any version of the concept, Bosman said, is it “starts to bump into neighborhoods.”

“Right now, it’s a line on a piece of paper,” Bosman said, and some attendees made it clear they’d like to erase it. One woman immediately approached the consultants asking how it would stop the existing cut-through traffic pushed into Pine Hills by people using the wayfinding phone app Waze.

Lenox streetscape and park

The Lenox Road boardwalk in an illustration presented at the Jan. 19 meeting. (Photo John Ruch)

Lenox Road streetscape improvement is another existing project that was folded into the master plan. Andrew Kohr of the planning firm Stantec, one of the master plan consultants, said that the public surveys found people prioritize pedestrian improvements on Lenox: sidewalks, lighting, crosswalks and lower car speeds.

“We want to make Lenox Road a signature street,” Kohr said. “The reality is, Lenox Road is a corridor in severe pain,” he continued, adding that part of it “looks like a highway.”

One concept is a “signature linear park” with a “boardwalk” between Peachtree and East Paces Ferry, along Lenox Square Mall, for pedestrian use. Another idea: altering or removing the often confusing ramps beneath the driveway connecting the Monarch Center and the Phipps Plaza Mall.

Bicycle and shuttle loop

A bicycle path making a rough loop around the commercial core could be created with minimal effort on largely already available or vacant spaces, Bosman said. In addition, a dedicated lane for the Buc shuttle could be paired with the route, which would include both major thoroughfares and such neighborhood streets as Mathieson Drive. Bosman called it a “big opportunity,” but also a big concern to neighborhoods that would see shuttle traffic.

District 6 City Councilmember Alex Wan and Sally Silver, an aide to District 7 Councilmember Howard Shook, chatted during the Jan. 19 Buckhead master plan meeting. Wan was among those surprised by some of the Ga. 400 connnection ideas. (Photo John Ruch)

The path could be used by pedestrians as well, but there were few other walking-specific “big ideas.” However, the master plan team also brought in Dan Burden of the Walkable & Livable Communities Institute in Washington State to offer suggestions. Burden did a long walk through the area the morning before the meeting and offered a few off-the-cuff suggestions, such as adding diagonal on-street parking on Pharr Road.

“There’s 20 things wrong with this intersection,” he said while displaying a snapshot he took of the Peachtree Road/Highland Drive crossing.

Burden reviewed what he considers to be good design principles for streets that are pedestrian-friendly and encourage people to get out of their cars. Narrow travel lanes and sharper turns are among traffic calming tactics, and pedestrian-oriented building types are more important than sidewalks alone, he said. The overall point is to support local, not regional, trips.

“The idea is to reward the short trip….The neighborhood comes first,” he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.