Heading east on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, through downtown Atlanta, offers some of the best views of the cities oldest and most beautiful architecture. The Fulton County Courthouse completed in 1914, The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception completed in 1873, and the State Capitol building, completed 1889, are all on stunning display along this historic thoroughfare. There’s just one problem. This 5 lane behemoth of a road is one way only. One of Downtown’s widest streets, MLK has become part of a network of streets exclusively designed to serve rush hour traffic and only rush hour traffic. These streets do very little to make downtown livable, walkable, and they do very little for small businesses or neighborhood development.
Take comfort in knowing that overbuilt, one way streets are not just an Atlanta phenomenon. As suburbs began to threaten the vitality of inner city employment centers, city planners and traffic engineers across the nation proclaimed that moving suburbanites in and out of the city was the answer to “save downtown”. This lead to faster driving and to streets that no one wanted to “be in,” rather, people wanted to “get through.” However, across the nation this mind set is changing as well. Janette Sadik-Khan, former NYC transportation commissioner, is a big proponent of “modernizing” our city streets, to make streets useful for many transportation modes, not just one. In a recent interview she describes the current state of our streets as being in “suspended animation for past 50 years.”
City planning is a field that evolves, goals change and some methods fail. If our goal today is to create a livable downtown, then “surface freeways” is something that doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, and doesn’t belong. The next evolution, Complete Streets, streets built for many modes of transportation with an emphasis on active transport, such as walking and biking should be next and now.
As it turns out I’m not the only
genius one who’s thought of converting more downtown streets back to two way. Central Atlanta Progress’ Imagine Downtown plan lists the conversion of Spring Street to two way as a priority project to “foster connections to Centennial Olympic Park.” The plan goes on to recommend several other two way conversions including MLK and Mitchell St. Additionally, the City of Atlanta’s 2008 Connect Atlanta plan calls for conversion of MLK, Mitchell, Spring, Courtland, and Piedmont Ave. among others.
A two way Mitchell Street has several positive advantages. It would encourage business development near Pryor St., and increase access along the historic hotel row between Forsyth and Spring Street (in my opinion, the best part of Downtown). A two way Mitchell St. would improve access for cyclists heading to and from South Downtown from Castleberry Hill and surrounding SW Atlanta areas, such as West End.
It’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to cycle or walk in South Downtown in its current state. It’s more likely that someone is looking for a place to park, as parking is the dominate use on these streets today. But the faded billboard, pictured below, shows us that Pryor St. was once a proper area for businesses. In early 1900’s Atlanta Pryor St. was a commercial street. Kimball House faced Pryor. The Jefferson Hotel and many of the businesses in Underground faced Pryor. This was before the motorization of Pryor which restricted its uses. Put simply, if you build a street for cars, it’s cars you’ll get. Because building a street for people and for businesses attracts businesses and people, the conversion and modernization of Pryor St. would have a substantial effect on its potential simply by creating an environment in which other potentials are possible. Potentials other than parking and driving.
Pryor Street is also of particular interest because of its proximity to Underground Atlanta and Georgia State University. Not only would a two way conversion would create an iconic intersection with the view of Downtown at Underground (Alabama Street), it would improve access to the Wall Street corridor, and GSU core campus buildings as well.
Between Wall Street and Edgewood Ave, where Ebrik Coffee is now, Pryor St. is clearly overbuilt. But the demand for Ebrik’s authenticity is incredible. Nearly overnight it became a GSU hot spot and a place for forward minded office workers to seek bohemian respite from the brutal landscape of Downtown. By encouraging more small businesses and neighborhood scale development, a two way conversion would expand the impact of pollinator businesses, such as Ebrik Coffee, from Trinity to Edgewood Ave, the entire corridor. Its positive impact could not be overstated.
As a final thought, people will often say, “This isn’t New York” when talking about street upgrades. So why the similarity between Pryor St., MLK, Courtland St. and many others to 6th Ave. in New York? Why do we have a downtown network of streets with a “New York” capacity?
This is Atlanta and I believe we ought to build for Atlanta’s scale. It’s been proven that more streets and more lanes only lead to more cars. Something most Atlantans would agree we don’t need any more of. So let’s retrofit our streets by painting a yellow line down the center and advocate for a calmer traffic environment. It’s the south, stay a while. What’s the rush to get through? Let’s hold our city accountable for the plans it made. YES! Let’s Connect Atlanta and advocate for a two way MLK. Besides, there is a silver lining to overbuilt streets, they leave plenty of room for improvement.