OPINION: In stitches over crazy, competing Downtown Connector plans

A sketch of a park that would cover the Downtown Connector in Midtown. (Photo credit: From the MCP Foundation)
A sketch of a park that would cover the Downtown Connector in Midtown. (Photo credit: From the MCP Foundation)

Credit: From the MCP Foundation

Credit: From the MCP Foundation

When a plan for putting a roof on Atlanta’s Downtown Connector was recently released, my first reaction was, “They’re still pushing that nutty plan?”

The proposal calls for a big park, walkways, bike paths, interstate improvements and reconnecting long-dissected streets. But upon researching (aka Googling) it, I discovered this was not what I thought. This was a different, bigger, nuttier plan.

What I originally, and mistakenly, was thinking about is something called “The Stitch,” which would be a three-quarter mile deck built over the I-75/I-85 Connector, stretching roughly from the Civic Center MARTA station on West Peachtree Street to past Piedmont Road. It would create 14 acres of new green space and “stitch” together areas torn asunder when the interstate was built some 60 years ago.

The Stitch “is unique in its scope and opportunity,” according to Central Atlanta Progress and its sister org, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, which has been kicking this around for years. It would cost somewhere between $300 million and $450 million.

Well, the folks in the insanely hot real estate market of Midtown saw that plan and said, “Move aside, ‘Lil Buddy” to their downtown neighbors to the south.

The Midtown proposal would cover the interstate (they call theirs the “Midtown Connector”) between North Avenue and 10th Street. It would create 25 acres of “community greenspace, replacing a river of concrete in the heart of Atlanta,” according to an online presentation. It would connect the new gleaming towers of Midtown with the campus that produces engineers, as well as a football team that routinely gets stomped by the University of Georgia Bulldogs. (In other words, Georgia Tech.)

Overview of before and after covering the Downtown Connector in Midtown. Courtesy of the MCP Foundation
Overview of before and after covering the Downtown Connector in Midtown. Courtesy of the MCP Foundation

Credit: MCP Foundation

Credit: MCP Foundation

The plan would also:

  • tie Midtown and Tech together with four or five surface streets that were disconnected during the interstate’s construction.
  • build parallel distributor streets along the highway to relieve some of the Connector’s traffic.
  • eliminate two exits from the tunneled interstate, that is, the southbound ramp to North Avenue and the northbound ramp to 10th Street.

The removal of those ramps would stop the commotion that occurs when drivers in the left-hand lane realize they suddenly must careen across three lanes to make their exit. The proposal estimates the changes would reduce interchange crashes by half.

As you might suspect, to do all that is pricey — $800 million to $1.2 billion. How that would happen is anybody’s guess, but it would probably be some mix of philanthropic sources, local building owners taxing themselves, as well as federal, state and local funding.

Now, those behind the plan are not evident quite yet. Let’s just say they are “Midtown fans,” as in those trying to improve their already healthy lot in life. There is something called the Midtown Connector Transportation Improvement Project, a nonprofit that is doing a feasibility study. I called and was told they aren’t quite ready to let the cat out of the bag regarding their plans. They intend to make a public splash in the coming few days by releasing more about their grand proposal.

The idea seems to have been hatched in 2018 when Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s CEO, came up with a plan to cover part of the interstate near The Varsity (that’s North Avenue). He talked with state economic and transportation officials and the idea apparently grew legs. You know, in Atlanta we make no small plans. Billy Payne, anyone?

When poring over the sketches created for this project — you see people enjoying a sunny day in a park with thousands of speeding cars underfoot — I had two thoughts: this would be like a Beltline for Midtown, and this is a real-estate play, a scheme to make already valuable property intensely more valuable.

The first thought makes sense because the fellow heading up the effort — it’s called the MCP Foundation — is none other than Paul Morris, who headed the Beltline until he got squeezed out in 2017 because of a dearth of affordable housing being built along that trail.

Proposed street grid in The Stitch concept that would connect Midtown and Downtown via a “deck park.” Rendering by Jacobs.
Proposed street grid in The Stitch concept that would connect Midtown and Downtown via a “deck park.” Rendering by Jacobs.

And my second assumption is borne out by some proselytizing by the downtown Stitch folks, who once wrote that their plan “could result in $1.1 to $3.1 billion in value creation.”

Imagine how much more valuable those big Midtown towers might be if you could wander a nearby interstate park? It would make the notion of “West Midtown,” a moniker dreamed up by folks in real estate, sort of an actual thing.

Near my deadline, Morris released a statement, in part saying the MCP Foundation will soon “begin a robust community engagement rollout, including a multi-part community conversations video series at ABetterConnector.com.”

Atlanta City Councilman Amir Farokhi, whose district includes both plans, disagrees with my skepticism. “It’s not a crazy idea; it corrects one of our great historical tragedies: gashing our city in half with two highways,” he said. “But the devil is in the details and we need to first put money into delivering better services to people.”

Now, covering up stuff in Atlanta is nothing new: The Underground was born covering up railroad tracks. The Gulch, the multibillion-dollar plan near the CNN Center, may also do the same thing thanks to tax breaks worth a couple of billion dollars. The city is finishing up a fancy hood over the terminal entrances at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. And even the movers and shakers in Buckhead have discussed building a park over Ga. 400.

Another conclusion I had was that the Midtown Connector project might ultimately smother and cover The Stitch, which is just down the road from it. With competing crazy plans, it’s hard to see the Stitch getting the same kind of juice as the Midtown plan.

AJ Robinson, who heads Central Atlanta Progress, said their plan has been studied and it “can be done; there’s no show stoppers.” Well, other than coming up with the loot to make it happen. For starters, they’d like to get a chunk of it finished.

Atlanta Downtown Connector on February 15, 2021, when all southbound lanes were shut down for most of the afternoon after a tractor-trailer wrecked on a bridge and dislodged several yards of chain-link fencing. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Atlanta Downtown Connector on February 15, 2021, when all southbound lanes were shut down for most of the afternoon after a tractor-trailer wrecked on a bridge and dislodged several yards of chain-link fencing. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The Stitch, he said, would “unleash the development potential” of that area. It’s right around where the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter used to be.

The difference between values in Midtown and downtown is vast. Shaneel Lalani, a 31-year-old businessman, recently bought a 30-story tower downtown at Peachtree and Marietta streets for $12.75 million and the 10-acre Underground Atlanta site cost him perhaps $20 million. Conversely, a 1.1-acre lot at 12th Street and West Peachtree recently cost a reported $25 million.

So, if you’re going to cover something, the upside is better downtown, which has languished compared to Midtown, which has already gone bonkers pricewise.

On the other hand, there’s much to do in Atlanta before you go building parks on highways. There’s Underground Atlanta, there’s the unfinished Beltline, there’s crumbling roads and sidewalks. And there’s trash everywhere to be picked up, for starters.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News