Adventures of the Perimeter Pedestrian

Hey, walkers: Hoof it to one of these Perimeter restaurants for lunch:

Tin Lizzy's Cantina: 121 Perimeter Center West, Atlanta. 470-514-1050,

Portico: 111 Perimeter Center West, Atlanta. 770-396-6800,

Nordstrom Cafe: 4390 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Atlanta. 770-394-1141,

Chuy's: 118 Perimeter Center West, Atlanta. 770-351-7777,

Alon's: 4505 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Atlanta. 678-397-1782,

McKendrick's Steak House: 4505 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Atlanta. 770-512-8888,

Since The Atlanta Journal-Constitution moved its headquarters to Dunwoody three years ago, I’ve joined the roughly 120,000 Atlantans who commute into Perimeter Center.

We are a diverse bunch who arrive daily by bus, bike and train, but mostly by car. We pull our microchip-coded IDs from the lanyards around our necks to raise the mechanical arms into our parking lots. We look for shaded spots in summer and close-in spots during rainstorms.

We work for a few hours before deciding it’s time for lunch. Some of us brown bag it and some look no further than the company cafeteria.

But the rest of us who like to consider the scores of nearby options have an uneasy choice: drive or walk.

This dilemma is faced by anyone who works in a so-called “edge city” — a collection of office parks and shopping malls that initially were laid out with only mechanical conveyance in mind. A growing number would like to walk, because it is the better choice. Better for the environment and better for personal health. When the day is sandwiched by two highway commutes, the thought of not having to get into a car appeals.

Yet those of us who’ve tried to find the walking paths through edge cities know the drawbacks. There may be few sidewalks on our route. The sidewalks, when they exist, often offer no shade or environmental protection. Most restaurants are offset from the street inside strip shopping centers. To get there, you’ll have to walk through deep parking lots, no fun during Atlanta’s sticky-tar summers.

Then there’s the issue of The Mall. Is Perimeter Mall the life-giving nucleus of the neighborhood or the energy-sucking black hole? That depends whether or not you like walking through the Nordstrom shoe department and the food court on your way to a restaurant.

In order to get a handle on these issues, I decided to turn myself into the Perimeter Pedestrian. One late morning and early afternoon I spent about 4 hours walking in and out of every restaurant in the near environs of Perimeter Mall, leaving in my wake a trail of perplexed hostesses. It was a fascinating exercise, with these take-aways:

  • We're a club! Walk the streets of the Perimeter area at lunchtime and you will find other like-minded souls outfitted in loose cotton clothing and soft-soled shoes.
  • Unofficial walking paths abound. If you see a hedge of bushes alongside a parking lot, you will find a break for the cut-through.
  • Small nature trails hide in plain sight. If you find a small stand of trees, there will be a path running through it.
  • There are no easy or attractive ways to walk around Perimeter Mall. The best way forward is through.

After this experience, I began walking everywhere, trying to find the shortcuts and the “good” sidewalks where I could pass under shade trees and perhaps hear a songbird or two. But I wanted to hear what the professionals had to say. So I called up the Dunwoody city planning office and asked if anyone would be interested in going for a walk with me.

A small posse from that office joins me one morning at Alon’s in the Park Place shopping center, and off we go. Where I see typical mall-periphery scenery, they see potential.

“Over the past 20 years, the model has shifted from suburban design to urban design,” says Director of Community Development Steve Dush as we approach a small drive-through bank occupying a large corner lot, separated from the street by a wide barrier of pine-straw-covered earth. “Now, we have to look at ways to design streets and infrastructure that allows you to walk. We have to ask, ‘What’s the journey like?’”

This particular lot lies in an existing entitlement zone. It is zoned for a hotel, fitness center and restaurant space — one that will open its door right to the sidewalk should a deal ever get cut. Other such entitlement zones ring Perimeter Mall, though no major development has happened since the beginning of the recession in 2007.

Our walk takes us past a street that has been put on a “road diet” to add a bike lane and a sidewalk widened so two people can walk abreast.

Then we walk through Terraces, the office park, on a path that leads us on a bridge over a pond. Once marketed for its seclusion, Terraces now attracts new tenants because of its walkability. Follow the path and it soon dumps you on the edge of Perimeter Place, a retail development with a number of low-price dining options. There’s no crosswalk and no sidewalk to greet you, but you’re there — a quick asphalt hop away from lunch.

“We’d like to make the entire district walkable,” Director of Economic Development Michael Starling says, “but what we’re getting, for now, are these nodes.”

As one sign of success, Starling points to the new location of intown favorite Tin Lizzy’s Cantina. The restaurant chose to retrofit the ground floor of a SunTrust bank branch, and its patio spills a welcome energy onto a street corner that has begun to feel more pedestrian-friendly.

Likewise, the newly reflagged Le Méridien Hotel has opened Portico, a restaurant that hopes to draw locals for business lunches during the day and craft cocktails at night.

But the message to newcomers so far seems to be this: Drive. No sidewalk or walking path connects the secluded, wooded setting of the hotel to the massive shopping mall, right across the street.

Wanna know the back way in? Look for the stand of trees between Terraces and Le Méridien. Follow it to the small stream that has a well-trod footpath running alongside. It’s a lovely walk, filled with chirping birds, that will eventually deposit you at the back of the hotel, right by the employees’ entrance. It’s a nice way to spend your lunch hour.