The interior of the Atlanta City Studio office in the Cascade Heights community of Atlanta, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta’s “pop-up”city planning team is leaving Cascade after two years

Oscar Harris, a retired architect, has worked on several of Atlanta’s well known sites, such as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Centennial Olympic Park and Underground Atlanta. After his retirement, he had more time to focus on the development in his own neighborhood of 25 years: Cascade Heights.

His and others’ efforts brought the Atlanta City Studio to the area in 2017. The dark blue storefront on Cascade Road is an extension of the city’s Department of Planning, and was described as a “pop-up urban design laboratory” in the press release announcing its arrival. The team is moving to south downtown soon, but the effect it has had on the Cascade community is permanent.

“We’re very, very, very, very grateful for your spirits and your talents, and you put it together and you brought the right people here,” Harris said in remarks Saturday morning, at an event marking the studio’s relocation.

Pat Clemons has lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years and said it has “really been a plus” to see the changes studio staff have made.

In the past two years, the planning team added a shelter to a popular bus stop, revitalized storefronts, added murals and bike racks, helped secure a historic designation for the area and promoted the use of the Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, and other parks, through guided walks and education.

The studio had a budget of around $877,000 during its time on Cascade Road, for personnel and operating costs. It has secured nearly $640,000 for fiscal year 2020, which will include its first year on Broad Street.

The Atlanta City Studio first operated out of Ponce City Market in 2016, and was there for under a year. Soon, there was high demand to move its base to Cascade Heights.

The team went in with few specific plans. They were guided by principles outlined in the department’s 2017 book, “The Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to the Beloved Community.” But ultimately, their projects were executed based on residents’ input.

“That should be an ongoing conversation that’s public in nature, and shouldn’t be tucked away in city hall or just in libraries,” said Kevin Bacon, Jr., the assistant director of the Department of City Planning and the studio’s director. “It should be able to happen anytime it needs to.”

A central theme to the design was balancing growth with the conservation of structures, history and green space.

In community meetings, staff members would encourage residents to write their thoughts, questions and ideas on whiteboards, Clemons said. “They’re here for the community and they keep us informed.”

Bacon said the residents gave them a warm welcome, and joked that at budget meetings there should be a metric for “number of baked goods delivered to us by community members.”

The studio is moving downtown to Broad Street to help accommodate the growth there, but longer-term projects that were drafted in southwest Atlanta will still be carried out in conjunction with other departments, once appropriate funding is secured. Some of the projects include multigenerational and affordable housing, and revamping Beecher Street, which connects the commercial and residential areas on Cascade Road.

Councilman Matt Westmoreland helps approve the department’s budget every year. He has attended several of the studio’s community meetings and said there’s always a good crowd.

“It’s really important for me to support city planning,” he said, adding that “There’s a long history of not enough attention being paid to the southside, and the city not ensuring that the proper investments are made south of I-20.”

For Harris, the city is moving in the right direction. The studio’s work is the first of many steps to the Cascade Heights he envisions, he said, but he is appreciative of the progress the department has made in such a short time, and will always consider the team at Atlanta City Studio family.

“We’re going to miss you, but always remember something — we want this to be your home,” he said. “I know y’all are going downtown with all the big folks, but remember us here.”

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