OPINION: Fancy rooftops for Atlanta’s highways. Are the feds buying it?

The Stitch is the massive deck proposed to cover a stretch of the Downtown Connector. It recently got a boost from the Atlanta City Council when it hit up the feds for $10 million to help make the project happen.

The ask, if successful, would propel this project from the crazy pipe dream category to castle-in-the-sky status.

The plan would ultimately cost $700 million to smother and cover three-quarters of a mile of the Connector from Ted Turner Drive to Piedmont Road. Supporters call the project “transformative,” a term that gets tossed around in Atlanta like Lions Club members flinging candy from a parade float.

The Stitch would be a 14-acre “greenspace corridor” of elevated parks, plazas and new streets. It would draw happy people to frolic, bike, promenade and relax along that stretch of reclaimed land if the artists’ renderings are to be believed.

As it turns out, “Downtown Connector” is erroneously named. “Atlanta Divider,” or even the “Downtown Isolator” might be more appropriate.

Interstate 75/85 is a concrete moat that separates the hyper-growing Midtown and the long-lagging (but they sure keep trying) Downtown to its south. Imagine, Downtown backers say, if we were somehow “stitched” together with Midtown, some of that area’s good fortune might rub off on us.

The Stitch name popped in 2016 but existed in theory even before that. Atlanta is seeking $10.5 million in federal funds to draw up engineering plans for the plan. The grant money would be combined with $10 million, drawn mostly from the Eastside TAD (a tax allocation district that collects real estate taxes for projects). The federal program, run through the U.S. DOT, is designed to help areas where highways devastated low-income or marginalized communities generations ago.

It’s a worthy thought, although most of those residents affected back then have either long moved away or are looking down from the heavens.

The Stitch is not the only highway-topping game in town. Buckhead boosters are pushing a plan to cap Ga. 400 from Lenox Road over the Buckhead MARTA station to Atlanta Financial Center, which already straddles the highway. It would cover almost half a mile of highway and create nine acres of green space. The estimated cost is $275 million.

Credit: MCP Foundation

Credit: MCP Foundation

The other grandiose plan is in Midtown, just north of The Stitch, one that would cover about .8 mile of interstate from North Avenue north to 10th Street. That would create 25 acres of greenspace and cost between $800 million and $1.2 billion. Taylor Morison, head of strategery for the foundation pushing Midtown’s plan, said that group is promoting a first phase, a 15-acre chunk from North Avenue to 5th Street costing a slimmer $450 million.

Stitch backers say their plan has the most upside and would create more new development because the land adjoining the Midtown and Buckhead plans is already built out.

Bodacious dreams like these are almost always contingent on humongous checks from the federal government. One could argue it’s the government spending hundreds of millions of dollars it really doesn’t have for something we really don’t need.

But, then again, the feds will probably spend the cash, so our politicians’ initial response is, “Why should someone else get it?”

Congresswoman Nikema Williams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have dutifully written letters in support of the Stitch. Warnock’s was a masterpiece in using enough buzzwords — “equitable-development,” “environmental justice,” “affordable housing” and “heavy rail” — to warm the hearts of any Democratic administration.

There’s an opinion circulating around town that the city council, by seeking the $10 million for The Stitch, is backing that project over the others. Au contraire, counters Atlanta Councilman Amir Farokhi, head of the city’s transportation committee. We love all our children equally.

“I don’t think this application for federal funding shows government preference for one project over the other. Both are important,” Farokhi told me. He represents both the Stitch and Midtown segments. “The Stitch is at a right moment in its planning and prep to be competitive for that federal awards program. A lot of life is about timing. That was the case here.”

Both the Midtown and Buckhead folks assert they are locked and loaded to receive federal funds. Morison, from the Midtown project, said his group has already spent $12.5 million, mostly on designing and engineering. “For us, that work is already done,” he told me. “We know what we’re talking about and we know it can be built.”

A recent story in Urbanize Atlanta said the Midtown effort has “quietly secured almost $100 million in private funding” for that project. Chick-fil-A mogul Dan Cathy is a bigtime supporter. One hundred million bucks is like 25 million spicy chicken sandwiches.

The groups all insist they are not competing with each other because that is what dutiful civic boosters always say. It’s hard-wired in their brains.

But can you imagine what other cities might say if Atlanta snags two (2!) highway topper projects? It wouldn’t be good.

So let the Highway Rooftop Sweepstakes begin!