Build on our history, not over it

What’s more detrimental to the development of a city: tearing down something significant, or building up something regretful? They’re both bad, and as we journey through a new year Atlanta finds itself in an alarmingly precarious position.

I’ve lived in and loved Atlanta for over 20 years. I am a husband, a father, and a radio show host dedicated to community-building and coffee drinking. I’m also a real estate developer who’s seriously worried about Atlanta’s development. We are irresponsibly littering our city with poorly built, unattractive, multi-family apartments as we stand by watching historic properties tumble (via the wrecking ball) and crumble (thanks to demolition by neglect) into piles of rubble. We’re not only losing historically valuable, financially promising, and culturally enriching structures while erecting monstrosities, but also threatening the history, culture and community identities of which they are a part. This reckless direction hangs our character, promise and appeal perilously in the balance, as well as invaluable assets that once lost may never be regained.

Over the past 5 years I’ve interviewed more than 270 educators, artists, architects, city planners, preservationists and civic leaders on Sidewalk Radio, a show exploring life in the modern city through the lens of history and the context of community. We’ve ventured from the Fabulous Fox Theatre to The Clermont Hotel, traveled down Peachtree and up Stone Mountain, talked the ravages of Civil War and experienced the sweetness of Auburn. In the process we’ve learned much and met many. With more than 400 transcribed pages, we’ve been composing an open and audible love letter to the city.

But, recently I’ve found myself conflicted. On the one hand, I adore our city and want only to say good things. On the other hand, I am concerned about the course we’re charting and want to illuminate our missteps so that we may all do our part to protect our future.

This Leon Krier quote expresses my feelings well. “To keep silent in the face of the destruction of these grand works means to subject ourselves and the coming generations to the production and consumption of an environment of futile objects.”

It’s time to stand up, Atlanta. Right now.

Pride in catalytic projects, like the Atlanta BeltLine, is also being paralleled by what’s sure to be a bubble of mediocre, multi-family product manufactured with sawdust and chewing gum.

Granted, there have been a handful of exemplary projects recently recognized by Urban Land Institute, the American Institute of Architects, and the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.

However, we’re at a crossroads of what we want to be, and the world is watching. We need to take into consideration the consequences of our actions. We need to think about the scale and quality of new construction, find environmentally friendly ways to combat traffic, put into effect plausible and practical approaches to our parking issues, and address the hazards of income inequality that comes with our growth.

We need to explore our history as our future and do so in a positive direction. And we need to define and then design what progress means if we truly want to be great.

We can do it. Attend neighborhood meetings and share your voice, support local preservation organizations and lend your talent.

And if you are a developer, please consider the impact your project has beyond the bottom line. Together, let’s build up our history, not over it.