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The Gulch: Atlanta’s Cultural Capital for Sale

The fire sale of public assets continues, and this time it’s the very heart of old Atlanta. For nearly fifty years, a gaping hole has marked an unresolved problem in the downtown: the devastated site known as the Gulch, where three railroads once converged from the south, east, and north. The train stations that, here as elsewhere, served as focal points and urban set pieces in the nineteenth-century city have long since been demolished, but the dead space left by Atlanta’s historical train lines remains an unresolved urban wasteland to this day.

The State of Georgia recently issued a call for bids for a large chunk of the Gulch, which lies between Five Points and the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. It has now received a $15,000,000 bid for the site from developer CIM Group. If sold, the Gulch would become the latest item on a long list of properties, including Fort McPherson and the Civic Center, where valuable land held by the public has been auctioned off to a private buyer or corporation, accelerating the process of privatizing public space in Atlanta. As in the case of the Civic Center, this decision reflects a failure of vision and leadership that could transform this site into a prime civic asset. In this case, it is not Atlanta but the State of Georgia that proposes to sell off culturally important land to private bidders who will surely aim to maximize their profits irrespective of historical value. To add insult to injury, the city announced that it would use tax dollars from the Westside Tax Allocation District to help fund development of the newly privatized district.

This sale will put an end to the hope of realizing already articulated aspirations for Atlanta’s future. In taking this step, the State is discarding a series of planning documents that envisioned a multi-modal transportation system located in the Gulch--including Imagine Downtown and The Green Line by Central Atlanta Progress, Downtown Atlanta 2041 from Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture, and Atlanta’s own Downtown Master Plan. The plans promised to revitalize downtown by drawing from Atlanta’s history as a railroad town to develop a future vision centered on a sustainable version of new transportation services. Plans for an integrative transportation center including an Amtrak station held out the prospect of high speed trains connecting to the larger cities in the Piedmont Mega-Region and cementing the city’s position as a leader in transportation that links cities in the southeast and the world via highways, train stations, ports, and airports. This infrastructure investment would have received substantial funding from the federal government.

Now, the possibility that this site might be used to intrigue Amazon to move its HQ2 to Atlanta appear to have overturned all existing planning processes and circumvented public debate over the future of the newly valuable Gulch. Instead of receiving money for downtown

development, the city may wind up sending a one-billion dollar incentive package toward Amazon.

Civic revitalization of the Gulch hinges on successful scenographic performance: it calls for an imaginative visualization and creation of a narrative that engages Atlanta’s urban geography and culture in ways that parcelized bureaucratic planning and privatized development generally do not. The Gulch is a complex urban area, an in-between space that defies urban thinking in a default street grid. As such, it is a difficult site to develop, with a highly uneven shape that does not easily lend itself to mapping streets and orienting buildings.

This location, where the descendants of the three train lines that intersected to form the heart of the historical city still run, exemplifies a key dimension of Atlanta’s transportation conundrum: how to create a meaningful interaction between streets and rail. Three different historical street grids framed by the three rail lines converge in the Gulch, which is also surrounded by elevated streets, adding another level of complexity to the site. Finally, the Gulch is a historical district of sorts, one that still serves as the dark reminder that there was once a bustling historic city center in this location. This complexity calls for a vision shaped by political will, a concerned public, collaborative developers, and imaginative architects. The fact that the State of Georgia decided to discard the results of the planning processes thus far and offer the site for sale signals that these have been in short supply.

To be sure, it is a formidable challenge to develop a visionary plan for the Gulch. The outlines of a vision presented in Atlanta’s 2017 Master Plan are very broad and provide little excitement. For example, the proposal to extend Alabama street west and create new streets to subdivide the area for mixed-use development may appeal to the standard practices of

today’s developer. But it does not involve a civic and architectural concept that could catalyze Atlanta’s downtown by creating a space with efficient and exciting interactions between commercial density, cultural institutions, and light rail service. Even the idea of a multi-modal station fails to break with old conceptions of transportation: consolidating bus stations and connections that already exist today would further exacerbate Atlanta’s current traffic mess.

The proximity of the site to two large sports and entertainment venues, Mercedes Benz Stadium and Phillips Arena, adds further urban planning challenges for the Gulch. Both sports venues are the expressions of old-style sprawl and anti-urban concepts that create barricades to overall urbanity, and their presence appears to have discouraged the creation of another large public space that would have a function other than providing mass entertainment. In building them, the city has allowed a great deal of affordable housing to be destroyed, trading occasional high density at sports and concert events for the regular activity that urban traffic and commercial development is supposed to create. It is easy to see why the team owners would prefer the new blueprint for a “mixed-use” neighborhood designed to feed the entertainment district that both arenas offer.

After the sale of the Civic Center and Underground Atlanta, the redevelopment of the Gulch is Atlanta’s last chance to create a significant, palpable and visible, public space in the downtown area. In today’s global environment, cities do not advance if they ignore their cultural capital and fail to deploy it as leverage in the international scene. Transportation—the railroad, the highways, the airport, the BeltLine—is the city’s key narrative, and the downtown has taken its shape from it. It is only logical to design the Gulch in a way that embraces rather than erases this heritage. The public needs to advocate against selling off a shared urban and cultural environment and insist on a site concept that produces a narrative and a visually compelling outcome that makes that inheritance productive: a civic and cultural destination that is also a workable point of connection between different historical layers and geographical parts of the city.

The Gulch is the place to inscribe Atlanta’s history instead of, once again, burying it. A new site plan should foreground the shape defined by the original train stations and incoming rail lines and evoke the vocabulary of a transportation hub. The Atlanta airport--like many airports and train stations around the world--has successfully shown how to build a miniature city consisting of shopping streets and other economic and cultural spaces wrapped around a transportation concept. The Gulch offers an opportunity to build a central downtown area that celebrates railroad heritage with a modern architectural language and inscribes crossroads and vertical levels as, for example, in the new Berlin Central Train Station, which offers spaces for urban services, restaurants, and entertainment as well as internal connecting streets. Atlanta should take inspiration from the design for the Transbay Transit Center that is currently transforming San Francisco’s downtown and hire an architectural firm as such as Pelli Clarke Pelli that has credentials in the creation of successful scenographic performance that can integrate the technical, aesthetic, and historic dimensions of such an ambitious project.

Working with an invocation of the original train stations as an architectural narrative and structural form has multiple advantages. First, it can include both a train station and miniature city in one building on different vertical levels. A large and visually expressive architectural concept that provides a public destination and inscribes a narrative of arrival and departures from different directions would provide a counterpoint to the private Mercedes Benz and Philipps Arenas. A complex of buildings or a hyper-building that encompasses the large site would create an urban context for offices and shopping streets, hotels and residences, a plaza and greenspace, galleries and cultural institutions.

Like the BeltLine, the Gulch is an enduring reminder of Atlanta’s historical and cultural capital that should be leveraged for revitalizing downtown. The city should take an interest in the compelling story that framing architecture and public spaces can create. Given the current economic constraints on US cities, the invocation of the train station at a transportation hub that is both function and narrative would provide the opportunity for public and private cooperation. Properly developed, this site can enhance connectivity for MARTA and the BeltLine and establish high speed rail infrastructure for the region while improving livability intown and providing opportunities for private companies to develop an abundance of commercial spaces. Ultimately, the success of any urban solution in activating the empty space of the Gulch will depend on managing complex forms of density and orchestrating Atlanta’s historical, social, economic, and aesthetic forces to create an architecture that performs visual excitement and civic identity publically.

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