An enthusiastic crowd of intowners is keeping alive the dream of a sleek new transit station in the derelict part downtown known as “the Gulch.”
Unfortunately for those dreamers, there’s a reason the Gulch has been used as a backdrop for “The Walking Dead.” The Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal project is leaderless, penniless and all but lifeless — a $1.5 billion project that doesn’t have $1.5 billion.
All this despite 40 years of conversation, millions spent on developing a master plan and massive public interest in such a terminal. And this a part of downtown that, despite the fact that it’s experiencing some of the most significant investment in nearly two decades, is still reeling from the Braves’ flight to Cobb County and trying to find a private buyer for Underground Atlanta, the Gulch’s next-door neighbor.
Far from having a high-ranking champion, the Gulch terminal has skeptics at the highest reaches of government who continue to distance themselves from it.
“You’ve never heard me talk about the multi-modal in a serious fashion,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said after an Atlanta Committee for Progress meeting in March. “I don’t believe there’s the will to support it and achieve it. And when you have a finite amount of time like I do — eight years — when you see there’s not a will to achieve an objective, you move on to things you can achieve.”
The city’s and state’s backing is crucial, because the financing plan says that taxpayers would cover 88 percent of the project (47 percent from state and local sources, 41 percent from the federal government).
The state Legislature didn’t cough up any money for the project in the fiscal 2015 budget it passed less than two weeks ago. Contrast that with the state’s enthusiasm for deepening the Port of Savannah. Gov. Nathan Deal has championed that project through bureaucratic traumas and funding shortages to amass amass $266 million in state funds to back the project. And the state is considering eventually pumping in another roughly $400 million to float the entire cost if the federal government doesn’t help.
But Deal isn’t going to be leading the charge for the multi-modal project, though, according to his spokesman Brian Robinson.
“We see it as a locally driven decision,” Robinson said.
The public, especially intown Atlanta residents, seem to have a great deal more enthusiasm.
A video appears: ‘Wow. Mind blown.’
A video of the grand concept design that circulated on the Internet in recent days generated buzz anew around the terminal, displaying sleek, eye-popping depictions of skyscrapers and a futuristic-looking multilevel transit hub.
If built as envisioned, it would be the “Grand Central Station” of the South, a transformative project for 119 acres of downtown that would weave together MARTA with commuter rail, buses and regional train service. At the same time, it would spruce up the vicinity with a melange of new green space and high-rise office towers.
The Gulch is a ground-level area criss-crossed by rail lines and bordered by parking decks and several elevated streets — Spring Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Centennial Olympic Park Drive.
The master plan for the project includes an area bordered by Peachtree Street on the east, Marietta Street on the north, Centennial Olympic Park Drive on the west and Trinity Avenue and Peters Street on the south. It’s adjacent to Five Points Station and Underground Atlanta, two other sites that are also in need of a facelift.
The video of the project elicited dozens of comments ranging from “I am LOVING this,” to “Wow. Mind blown,” to ‘This is a beautiful, wonderful pipe dream” on Curbed Atlanta’s website.
Abbas Hasan said people were skeptical but excited about the project in public meetings he attended to update various community, civic and government groups around the state. Hasan was the coordinator for the private development team FIC (Forest City Enterprises, The Integral Group and Cousins Properties), which was awarded the $12.2 million contract to provide the master plan.
“At every level of folks that I met, I did not hear anything bad about the MMPT,” Hasan said. “We got nothing but well-wishes and good hopes that things would progress.”
‘It’s to some extent a misrepresentation’
With all the excitement, it has sometimes been difficult for the state to keep public expectations in check.
Soon after links and comments about the concept design video sprouted up on news websites in late March, the Georgia Department of Transportation contacted Hasan. The department wanted the link, posted by FXFOWLE architectural firm to tout its work as subcontractors on the project, to be disabled.
A GDOT spokeswoman, Karlene Barron, said that it was because the link had been reposted on the Internet without any context, causing confusion about what the state planned to build and when. Barron said the department got “very aggravated” at the situation.
“It’s to some extent a misrepresentation,” Barron said. “It was putting out there that this is what we’re going to build.”
DOT officials have said the best strategy may be to identify smaller chunks of the project that can be accomplished in increments.
The plans are still going through a federal environmental approval process, which should be complete in 2015. Even if that hurdle is overcome, another monumental one awaits — financing. So the plans are likely to be shelved indefinitely.
With Underground Atlanta still floundering and Turner Field on its way to the history books, the loss of the ambitious redevelopment project is a serious blow to downtown revitalization efforts.
“If it doesn’t move forward, there is going to be a void there that will diminish the greater potential impact that the Falcon’s stadium has, and will diminish the potential impact that a revitalized Underground would have,” said David Marvin, founder and president of Legacy Property Group, which has developed three hotels downtown and is owner or landlord of 15 restaurants. “It leaves literally a hole in that progression.”
‘This project will happen at some point’
But a downtown Atlanta booster pushed back on the pessimism, saying the area will soon be benefiting not only from the new Falcons stadium but from the continued growth of Georgia State University and the addition of the new College Football Hall of Fame, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum and the Atlanta Streetcar.
He said the master plan for the terminal has provided a clearer picture than ever before of what could be built at the Gulch, and how.
“A project with this kind of logistical importance and rebirth of an urban area is going to happen at some point,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “I’m optimistic that sometime in the next few years, this project will gain speed.”
He might have added that the Atlanta Hawks are now among those with their eyes on the Gulch. In an interview published Friday in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, Hawks management said was in looking at the Gulch as a site for a possible mixed-use development, potentially with a casino.
Like most proposals for the blighted area, this one comes with a big caveat: Casino gambling is illegal in Georgia and would require a change in the state constitution.
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that the concept can always be resuscitated. The idea for a station that would unite several forms of transit has been circulating for more than 40 years, since Atlanta’s Terminal and Union train stations were demolished in 1972.
Gil Carmichael, Federal Railroad Administrator from 1989 to 1993, remembers traveling to Atlanta in 1991 to announce a $65,000 grant to study a multi-modal transit station that would handle Amtrak trains, buses and MARTA rail cars.
At the time, there was money set aside in the federal budget to encourage development of intermodal stations.
About 130 cities applied for grants to build new stations or renovate old ones. Georgia didn’t receive any funding at the time because it trailed other states on studies and funding processes, said Karlene Barron, a spokeswoman for GDOT.
Staff writers Katie Leslie and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this story.