Torpy at Large: Another lonely night on the Ghost Train, er, Streetcar

Saturday night on the Atlanta Streetcar, as photographed by urbanist Darin Givens.

Saturday night on the Atlanta Streetcar, as photographed by urbanist Darin Givens.

Every now and again, I'll jump on the Atlanta Streetcar and ride the 2.7-mile loop around downtown. Usually, I'm a lonely boy.

Terms like "fiasco" and "boondoggle" follow Atlanta's $100 million loopty loo, but I've always rooted for it to work.

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My gramps worked on streetcars a century ago and regaled me with stories about Chicago’s clickety-clack vibe. It would be terrific to see crowds jumping on and off the car going to shows, shops, cool bars or wherever one goes when a city space is happening.

Downtown ATL is not that place.

Recently, an intown enthusiast named Darin Givens wrote in his blog ATL Urbanist about riding the streetcar one Saturday evening a couple of weeks ago. He found himself — once again — to be lonely, too.

He wrote: “The common complaint about the streetcar is that it ‘doesn’t go anywhere,’ which exposes a major flaw in land use. There should not be three miles in the original street grid of our historic city center that can ever be described as ‘nowhere.’ The fact that it can is proof of a failure that needs correction.”

At first glance, it's puzzling — the streetcar runs between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Historic District, connecting our city's Olympics and civil rights legacies. But normally you'll find its ridership to be a couple of residents, a confused tourist or two and a homeless person looking for free A/C.

I met Givens downtown at the SkyView Atlanta Ferris Wheel to ride a couple of loops — of the streetcar, that is.

We walked a block east to the former Spring Street, now Ted Turner Drive, a road that cuts from south downtown to Midtown and has no there there.

A collection of surface parking lots and ratty parking structures greets a tourist exiting the streetcar at Luckie Street and Turner Drive.

“The streetcar is like a thermometer for downtown Atlanta,” said Givens, “and it came up cold. There should not be so much dead space in the center of a major city. It’s dead at night and it feeds upon itself. You live downtown but have to go elsewhere.”

Normally, he and his family will wander east to the gentrifying Old Fourth Ward for entertainment.

Givens is the kind of resident that downtowns across America are dying to attract. He’s a techie who has lived with his wife and kid in a condo in the historic Healey Building for seven years. He even has a monthly pass for one of those blue rental bikes the city has planted all over.

He bought his condo after the real estate crash, hoping to have a front seat to downtown’s revival. But it’s slow-going. It’s been slow-going, in fact, for 50 years.

“This is what the streetcar passes,” Givens said as we rode, pointing to the parking lots and nondescript, often empty buildings. During our two loops on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, maybe a dozen people got on and off our car.

“It bugs me. We do such big things to get things done,” he said. “We moved two churches to build a stadium and we organized the Olympics. It’s like the city views downtown only for events.”

Darin Givens, a downtown resident who writes the blog ATL Urbanist, stands in front of what holds downtown back from being what it can be.

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Givens wants foot traffic; he wants life after sunset. He bragged about a Walgreens that opened up at Peachtree Street near Five Points, how it breathed some life into the area.

“It sounds silly to be glad to have a Walgreens,” he said with a grin. “But it creates foot traffic and brings life to the street.”

City leaders and downtown boosters say the streetcar is helping to fire up development downtown. Stuff is happening — or fixin' to be happening. There's the new zillion-dollar Falcons stadium, and the planned rebirth of the forever forlorn Underground. There's German money buying up a destitute patch of south downtown. Construction cranes loom over every other block of Midtown, and neighborhoods are gentrifying left and right. Just not necessarily downtown itself.

Downtown’s “Dead Zone” — parking lots (shown without color) near Centennial Park. 

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I don’t blame the city for taking the streetcar from the feds. Everyone loves free stuff, even if they don’t need it. If someone offered me a free unicycle, I’d say “Sure!”

Last month, Michael Kahn, a young architect and downtown resident who runs the informative Curbed Atlanta blog, wrote a story called "Atlanta's streetcar: transit boon or economic development scheme?" In it, he pointed out renovations of several old structures, including the Hurt Building and Candler Building, as well as the budding bistros and bars on Edgewood Avenue.

The Atlanta Streetcar makes its way up Peachtree Street in March.

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

"Of course, some will continue to argue the investment was coming regardless of the streetcar, given the current economic boom Atlanta's experiencing," Kahn wrote, taking the words straight out of my head. "Despite the never-ending chicken or the egg conundrum, one thing is clear: The neighborhoods along the streetcar line have experienced major investments since the line was first announced, and more projects are planned in coming years."

I’d argue that if the streetcar were working, then folks would be riding it.

Kahn expects more development to come downtown when Midtown gets built out. He sees the current streetcar path as a “placeholder” for an expanding system that will actually go somewhere.

“If it stays a 2.7-mile loop forever, then it’s a failure,” he said.

Matthew Garbett, co-founder of ThreadAtl, a blog that frequently rails about "drive-to urbanism," called the streetcar a fiasco.

“Streetcars work when they connect high-density housing to high-density employment,” he said. “We built a streetcar that connects low-density residential to tourist attractions with parking all along the way.

‘The fact is, no one’s using it. There’s no reason to use it.”

Maybe the sales tax hike approved by voters last year, $2.5 billion over 40 years, will help expand the streetcar. Maybe the growth happening around downtown will transfer into downtown.

Givens said he wasn’t dumping on the streetcar. “I just want people to look at downtown with different eyes. I want them to see the possibilities of what could be here.”