Midtown site could become transit hub to serve region

Staff writer Nisha Giridharan contributed to this article.

A mega hub for commuter rail, MARTA and other transit services has been a decades-long dream for downtown Atlanta.

But where the city might get its first taste of a new transit hub could be a quiet patch of land three miles north in Midtown, near the giant IKEA store at Atlantic Station.

A state authority has announced its intent to award a contract to an Atlanta developer who will acquire state land and build a terminal that could combine Amtrak rail and Greyhound bus services at 17th Street and Northside Drive, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

The push to build a smaller terminal while plans inch along to build a mega terminal downtown highlights the region’s continuing struggle to build more convenient and connected transit in a car-dependent region. A lack of political will and a steep price tag — by one measure up to $1.6 billion — have deterred progress on the downtown hub, a mixed-use project near the Five Points MARTA station and the CNN Center that is known as “the Gulch.” The proposal to link commuter rail, MARTA trains and buses, and other transit options remains in the early planning stages and is still seeking funding sources in a fragile economy.

The new Midtown option could be much quicker. The state notice means the State Road and Tollway Authority has made its pick of a developer, the commercial real estate firm Carter, to negotiate a purchase of the property and build the station.

No state funds would be involved in the development, and it would likely be cheaper than the downtown terminal, though financing isn’t clear.

Plans for the 12.5-acre Midtown site, which is partly owned by the state, are expected to include retail and, potentially, residential spaces with a bus and rail terminal. Amtrak has selected the site for its future terminal, and officials have held discussions with Greyhound about moving into the proposed terminal.

Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, a group that supports rail transportation, said a Midtown terminal could help revitalize an underdeveloped stretch of Northside Drive between Buckhead and Georgia Tech.

It also might be a catalyst for a long-discussed, though unfunded, MARTA rail connection to the area.

An expansion of MARTA to Cobb County was part of the regional transportation sales tax program, called TSPLOST, that failed last year.

Penelope Cheroff, chairwoman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit for the area, said she could not give her opinion of the plan because it could come before her board. But leaders have long known the potential for redeveloping the site into a transit station.

But she encouraged the state and its developer to meet with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods so they can understand the project.

“We are customers and potential sources of knowledge,” she said.

A new Amtrak and Greyhound station would replace older and less inviting locations.

Amtrak’s historic Brookwood Station along Peachtree Street was never designed to be a main terminal. It sits precariously at the junction of the Downtown Connector. The Greyhound station on Forsyth Street near the Atlanta jail was always seen as a temporary site.

Mayor Kasim Reed, who is not involved in negotiations for the development, said he approved of linking the two entities at one hub.

“We’ve needed to solve this Amtrak problem for some time, and I think that is the right site for it,” Reed said. He said he has met several times with Greyhound about finding a permanent home for the bus line, including Atlantic Station.

An Amtrak spokeswoman confirmed the site selection and said plans for a new station would provide “a long-term solution” to boost ridership.

A Greyhound spokesman said the line “is exploring several options for a more permanent facility that would fit our needs and be a prime location for our customers.”

“Our ultimate goal would be to relocate to (a long-planned downtown terminal) inside their intermodal facility,” the Greyhound spokesman said.

Rickey Philpot, a 46-year-old Monroe resident who has ridden Greyhound since his teens, supports joining rail and bus in one hub. He’d also like to see improved access for the disabled and additional retail and dining options to give riders more to do between transfers.

“I’d like to see a joint venture like that,” he said. “It would help the transit system.”

The proposed downtown and Midtown projects are likely on vastly different scales. And proponents of the Gulch say it would transform not only the city’s core but the way metro Atlantans commute.

Supporters of a blended Amtrak/Greyhound terminal say it would be a vast upgrade over the current Amtrak and interstate bus stations.

The SRTA’s marketing of the Atlantic Station site and Amtrak’s commitment to it suggests the Midtown terminal is closer to reality than the redevelopment of the Gulch.

State officials awarded the job of master developer for the Gulch to a team including Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises and Cousins Properties a few years ago.

A still down economy and the likely need for private, state and federal funding has hindered development of the downtown terminal, which would connect commuter rail, MARTA, light rail, streetcars and buses.

The SRTA announced on its website a “notice of intent to award” the land near Atlantic Station to Carter, the developer behind Midtown’s Campanile Tower and The Banks, a high-profile redevelopment near the pro baseball and football stadiums in Cincinnati.

The notice essentially provides Carter with a window to assess the property and begin to put its plans together.

It is not a final contract, SRTA spokeswoman Malika Reed Wilkins said. Final approval would not be completed for several months and require a vote of the agency’s board, she said.

Carter officials declined to comment, citing confidentiality rules of the ongoing negotiations.

Robbins, from Citizens for Progressive Transit, said the Midtown site would not compete with the goals of the downtown terminal. It would be prohibitively expensive to link Amtrak to the Gulch, where it currently does not run.

The nearly century-old Brookwood Amtrak station was designed as one of many metro stops, not a main hub for passenger rail. But it became Atlanta’s main terminal after the city’s last downtown station was demolished in the 1970s.

Though Amtrak ridership has grown in recent years, it’s currently accommodating only about 300 passengers per day from Brookwood — fewer than many Delta Air Lines jets.

The station offers few parking options and can create a hazard along busy Peachtree Street. A nearby bridge and parking structure was shut down for being unsafe, and work at the site has temporarily closed Deering Road.

“It’s on the verge of being condemned,” Robbins said. “It’s a very old station.”

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