Unofficial business: Can metro Atlanta make bridges cool?

Cities trying gussied-up spans as economic development tool

All of a sudden, metro Atlanta communities are about to get jazzy with how their highway bridges look, hoping to entice you with a little eye candy.

They are betting that new designs — from twinkling lights and funky alternating colors to decorative fencing — will brand their communities and perk up economic development.

The idea of a fancy bridge craze is a little weird. But I get it. It’s just like those wild new color schemes on Coke bottles. Everybody wants to be seen as interesting and chock full of personality.

Of course, that’s a lot to ask of an interstate overpass.

From Midtown to Kennesaw, north Fulton, Gwinnett, Buckhead, Downtown, south Fulton and the Cumberland area, you’ll soon see more lit-up-at-night bridges with wrought-iron, faux stacked stone and arches (some of which kind of look like the tusks of mammoth elephants).

None, though, may turn out to be as boldly overachieving as what Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett has contemplated.

An early design option includes bunches of taut cables and towering sword-like points jutting up at angles. It’s not what I’d expect from a quiet suburban community with 38,000 residents. Which is why I like it.

That’s easy for me to write, because I don’t hang there much, so I’m not the one who would have to pay for the project through sales taxes. (There isn’t a cost estimate on it yet.)

“You want people to go, ‘Wow!, that is a cool place to live and to be,’” Mayor Mike Mason told me. “It is really for economic development…. We are trying to create a sense of place. The bridge is one element of it.”

Actually, Peachtree Corners officials are hoping the span will become THE landmark for the community. They want it to portray the two marketing words the city has chosen for itself: “innovative” and “remarkable.”

It would span Peachtree Parkway, a suburban highway that isn’t even an interstate. The bridge wouldn’t even be for cars. It would serve pedestrians strolling on a trail network connecting to an expected town center of restaurants, homes and a park.

A bridge bandwagon

Peachtree Corners’ big dreams convinced me to find out how many other communities are jumping on the pretty bridge band wagon.

I was surprised. I counted more than a dozen image-makeover projects recently completed or expected to be in the next year or so. They include Gwinnett’s Jimmy Carter Boulevard bridge over I-85, with metal work that’s supposed to represent the Eastern Continental Divide. And a Cobb project that includes lights that constantly change colors at night. And Peachtree Street bridges over the Downtown Connector, with a design incorporating the name of Atlanta’s most famous avenue.

I can sense heart palpitations from state engineers who usually provide us with bridges that have beauty best described as “load bearing.”

Maybe that’s as it should be when taxpayer money is being used.

Most of the state’s bridges are stunningly bland: concrete and metal painted drab green or brown and often topped with chain link fences, a material homeowner associations ban as unsightly.

At one time, boosters in Midtown Atlanta hoped the state would awe motorists with an architecturally impressive bridge over the Downtown Connector at Atlantic Station.

They pictured big cables and towers. The state Department of Transportation pictured unnecessary costs, falling ice and a view that might distract drivers.

It went with a simpler design, instead, though with extra lighting treatments and a metal span painted yellow, like a big banana stretched across the interstate.

Now, though, businesses are taking on what most governments have resisted doing themselves.

Self-taxing districts

Unlike the Peachtree Corners bridge, most of the other local bridge projects rely largely on millions of dollars from commercial real estate owners who voluntarily pay through self-taxing community improvement districts (shadow governments, in my book).

More than 20 of these districts have cropped up in metro Atlanta in recent years. Owners in the districts agree to pay more in property taxes, which the districts then spend on improvements in the immediate area.

Many added landscaping around interstate interchanges and fixed sidewalks in years past.

Improving the look of bridges is the next on their lists, along with creating more pedestrian areas and smoothing traffic, such as with new “diverging diamonds” (those shifted lanes that have us driving on the wrong side of the road over interchanges).

“It’s worth that investment,” said Malaika Rivers, the executive director of the Cumberland CID. “The market wants more than just a traditional office building and a parking lot.”

As head of the Gwinnett Village CID, Chuck Warbington pushed for the bridge work recently completed at Jimmy Carter Boulevard. The lighting and aesthetic treatments alone cost $1.7 million but Warbington told me it will help continue to change public perceptions of an area he said was once considered “the armpit of Gwinnett.”

I’m sure bridge designers and builders are delighted.

“Everybody,” Warbington said, “wants to have the next biggest and greatest bridge.”