The redevelopment of downtown Atlanta’s weedy tangle of parking lots and railbeds known as the Gulch may be closer to reality than ever, but the grand vision for a new central transit terminal there appears to be all but dead. At least for now.
Representatives for the California development team planning a mini-city stretching between MARTA's Five Points station and Philips Arena said in a public meeting Thursday their plans don't include a new rail and bus hub. Developer CIM Group, founded by the brother of Atlanta Hawks lead owner Tony Ressler, has crafted a plan for a live-work-play community near the arena, and the land, currently served by two MARTA stations, is one of dozens of sites said to be part of Georgia's bid for Amazon's second headquarters.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, meanwhile, said her agency’s study of a potential terminal complex found the concept for the Gulch lacks a local owner and operator, funding and shared access to downtown freight rail tracks to make the project possible. If answers to those challenges can be found, she said, “the project would theoretically be able to move forward.”
Boosters touted the Gulch terminal concept for decades for its potential to reinvigorate downtown and provide alternatives to Atlanta’s long commutes. And it remains in the region’s long-term transportation plans.
But prospects for a central terminal blending MARTA rail, future commuter rail and buses in the Gulch appeared to be teetering for years. Though space near the Five Points MARTA station has been identified, permanent funding never was.
The project suffered a significant blow in 2013 when railway Norfolk Southern wrote a letter to state transportation leaders asserting it did not have space on its tracks to spare for commuter rail service.
“In addition to lack of a financial sponsor and a governance plan, shared use of the commercial rail line was a vital component to the Gulch being a successful location for a Multi Modal Passenger Terminal,” GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said in a statement. “Unfortunately, (shared track use) was found not to be an option.”
Asked if any discussions regarding those challenges were ongoing, Dale said GDOT ended its role as the lead agency on the development plan in 2014.
MARTA Chairman Robbie Ashe, meanwhile, said the terminal isn’t part of his agency’s active future plans, though MARTA is negotiating for track usage rights in Clayton County for future rail there.
GDOT said it continues to support a multi-modal terminal concept in metro Atlanta, and a terminal “could be a successful addition to public transit options in several other locations throughout the metro area.”
Lee Biola, president for Citizens for Progressive Transit, said the Gulch terminal never had concrete funds, but it would be a mistake not to plan for a future station.
“We do think preserving the rail capacity and the option to have a terminal is a reasonable investment for everyone involved, even the developers, to get the most value out of the property,” Biola said. “Leaving the option open creates opportunities for themselves and the city.”
State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee, said GDOT has also told him the project is not viable without funding. But the Gulch is not the only option.
“A lot of people think Doraville is actually a better location,” he said. “We had just been working on the Gulch for so long. Some of the conceptual drawings were just phenomenal.”
If in fact the concept of a central terminal in the Gulch is dead, it comes at a rather ironic time. Georgia lawmakers are grappling with ways to provide state funds for public transit for the first time, and downtown development is booming at a pace not seen since before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.
Mercedes-Benz Stadium opened last year, new apartments are springing up around Centennial Olympic Park and developers have targeted Underground Atlanta and dozens of historic buildings in south downtown for redevelopment.
“It’s an incredibly dynamic time for Downtown,” Central Atlanta Progress CEO A.J. Robinson said in a statement. “What’s viable with the Gulch terminal today is drastically different than what it was five years ago. We concur with GDOT’s statement that one day all three boxes will be checked and the Gulch terminal will become a reality.”
In 2011, GDOT hired a development team for a $12.2 million study to determine whether transit and real estate on the site could work. The planning effort produced a slick video and detailed report, but the project went nowhere.
Development firm CIM Group, which has proposed a giant live-work-play community in the Gulch, presented concepts of their master plan during a Thursday development review committee meeting for Special Public Interest District 1, which represents downtown.
Though project designers touted its transit-oriented features, including plans for new entryways to adjacent MARTA stations, no new terminal was shown.
“We are here to present our vision … and right now we are not designing for the multi-modal (terminal),” said Laurel David, a partner with the Galloway Law Group, which represents CIM.
The conceptual plan calls for more than 9 million square feet of office space, 1 million square feet of retail and restaurant space, 1,000 residences and 1,500 hotel rooms.
For perspective, the proposed office space is greater than what is being sought by Amazon for the project known as HQ2.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported the Gulch project was included among dozens of sites in the metro Atlanta pitch for HQ2. Transit access is one of Amazon’s demands for the $5 billion, 50,000-job project.
CIM’s designers touted its transit bona fides and planned links to other downtown neighborhoods.
“The vision is for this to be a vibrant, urban environment that is walkable and connected to transit,” said Chris Sciarrone, a planner with Atlanta design firm Perkins+Will.
But it also would rely on a network of private streets that caused some heartburn among design review board members concerned about how access to the public will be ensured.
Kyle Kessler, encouraged the developers to include accommodations for a future terminal given the revived interest in transit development by the state and many local governments.
Mike Jakob, who owns downtown’s Elliott Street Deli and Pub, in a building that dates back to the 1840s, raised concerns about existing traffic and site plans that showed limited access to the proposed project’s parking decks, which could cause bottlenecks.
Developers plan 8,000 parking spaces, far fewer than maximum allowances, as they expect workers and residents to use transit.
After the meeting, Jakob pressed Sciarrone to include the possibility of a downtown passenger terminal.
“We’ve been planning it for years,” he said. “It was on the books, off the books, on the books, off the books.”
Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech city planning professor and former commissioner of planning for the city, said he was perplexed by the idea of dim hopes for a future central terminal.
“Especially after saying for 25 years this was a great spot from a technical perspective,” he said.
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