To cap or not to cap the highway?
The Update - 3/16/23
Welcome to my freemium newsletter by me, King Williams. A documentary filmmaker, journalist, podcast host, and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a newsletter covering the hidden connections of Atlanta to everything else.
1. What is a highway cap?
A highway cap (sometimes called a freeway lid) is a covering that is built on top of an existing highway to provide new space. These caps are typically built to open up new environmental, social, and/or economic opportunities for in-town residents, businesses, and visitors. Highway caps are also built to circumvent many of the issues brought by freeways that bisect cities such as loss of economic mobility, loss of in-town foot traffic, and the pockets of poverty that are caused by bisected cities.
Most of the highway caps that have been built are public parks and connective transit thoroughfares. Other cities across the country such as Dallas, Seattle, and Boston have all recently completed highway capping projects. These projects have been successful at attracting new residents to the city and relieving congestion caused by freeways.
1b. Why is there a highway cutting through the middle of the city in the first place?
TL/DR: Racism. Racist planning.
The reason why the highways cut through the middle of Atlanta is racism. Seriously.
From The New York Times - How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam - 8/14/2019
In Atlanta, the intent to segregate was crystal clear. Interstate 20, the east-west corridor that connects with I-75 and I-85 in Atlanta’s center, was deliberately plotted along a winding route in the late 1950s to serve, in the words of Mayor Bill Hartsfield, as “the boundary between the white and Negro communities” on the west side of town. Black neighborhoods, he hoped, would be hemmed in on one side of the new expressway, while white neighborhoods on the other side of it would be protected. Racial residential patterns have long since changed, of course, but the awkward path of I-20 remains in place.
By razing impoverished areas downtown and segregating the races in the western section, Atlanta’s leaders hoped to keep downtown and its surroundings a desirable locale for middle-class whites. Articulating a civic vision of racial peace and economic progress, Hartsfield bragged that Atlanta was the “City Too Busy to Hate.” But the so-called urban renewal and the new Interstates only helped speed white flight from Atlanta. Over the 1960s, roughly 60,000 whites left the city, with many of them relocating in the suburbs along the northern rim. When another 100,000 whites left the city in the 1970s, it became a local joke that Atlanta had become “The City Too Busy Moving to Hate.”
All three highway capping projects seek to reconnect Atlanta's east and west sides that have been split for decades. The reason for this split through the city was a way to stave off the growing Black population in Atlanta via the (ahem, racist) construction of Interstates I-20, I-75, and I-85. Initially started its planning during the late 1940s and its construction lasted from the 1950s to 1970s. Since that time, Atlanta is a region defined by its car-induced sprawl, sprawl that is causing problems that can’t be fixed by more roads or wider lanes.
1c. Okay, but why is there a push for three different highway caps now?
This project could be a jump in the right direction for the type of new ideas needed to address a growing city, a growing region car-dependent for decades. Metro Atlanta is poised to gain 2.9 million people, the entire metro area of Denver by 2045. The metro is projected to be at 8.6 million people by that time, putting it firmly in the top-7 of all US metropolitan areas.
The highway caps are needed to stop those in-town car trips, hopefully leading to a greater reduction in vehicle congestion within the city. The city can’t expand highways, roads, or do anything else outside of trying new ideas to get people out of cars while in the city.
Metro Atlanta reached the peak of diminishing returns on building new highways in the 1990s. But considering GDOT has simply expanded roads versus solving for congestion. While most efforts to expand mass transit in metro Atlanta have failed.
2. Highway cap updates: Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead
All three highway cap projects are still working to become a reality. Each of which has a series of new updates, challenges, and changes to their respective plans. All three projects seek to be new boosts to development and be the missing connective tissue.
Downtown - The Stitch
Estimated cost: $700m
The Stitch is a proposed downtown public park/ commercial development in downtown Atlanta. It is currently still in the pitch phase and speculation phase. The Stitch is looking to build a public park as the intermediary anchor between new office and residential buildings downtown by the Civic Center MARTA station.
What are the chances of this happening?
While the organizing forces behind The Stitch are much further along than the other projects. The problem is that the costs associated are still nearly as high as the Midtown Highway Connector Project. Funding for a project like this won’t come without a large source of tax-based financing (bonds could also be factored in) + a large infusion of cash from the federal government.
Atlanta has a good relationship with the Biden administration, it has pitched to them for funds to complete the project should it get off the ground. That may be the best route due to the State-level Republican’s control who’ve been relatively unmoved by Atlanta’s needs. The best route is likely to need to be attached to a bill on the Congressional level to get the funds needed otherwise, it’s hard to see this project getting the full amount it needs.
Chances of this happening: 30/70
Midtown - The Midtown Highway Connector Project
Estimated cost: $800m - $1.2 billion* (no update on recent cost changes)
Midtown’s highway cap project has recently changed some of its parameters. A new proposal has scaled the site from 26 acres (see below for the original) to 16 acres. The project seeks to build the connective tissue between a booming Midtown and the burgeoning Westside markets.
This highway cap has the most potential to solve a current transit issue (thousands of people each day can’t cross east to west without a car) and be the catalyst for securing an economic one—a unified Midtown. Unifying Midtown is the next phase of economic development in the area. An area that has been challenging Buckhead as the economic center of the city for the last decade. Midtown benefits by anchoring Georgia Tech and Atlantic Station, alongside the nearby Howell Mill Corridor.
What the Midtown connector currently looks like:
What the Midtown connector hopes to look like:
The money is in Midtown
Anchored by increased development in Midtown, as identified in yesterday’s newsletter, the biggest gap holding back the area’s potential is residential and commercial connectivity.
A door-to-door walkway from Tech Square to Georgia Tech could be worth millions yearly in new productivity. Adding in the ability to walk across the street from Tech Square to Turner’s Headquarters, the Home Park neighborhood, and Atlantic Station could be the boost of economic activity wanted to bridge Midtown to the Westside.
The increased foot traffic between these locales could give Atlanta its own potential ‘Midtown Mile’, a southern version of the pricey Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Midtown Mile, anchored by a corridor of connectedness from North Avenue to 17th street east-to-west is too good to pass up.
What are the chances of this happening?
Due to the size of the project, even at a reduced 16 acres, it is still bigger than both Hub 404 in Buckhead and The Stitch combined. Even by scaling back this early, it’s a sign to would-be leaders/lawmakers that the project may not ever reach its loftiest goals. And like The Stitch, this project is in need of a large number of federal funds + likely a tax financing system to make it work.
Chances of this happening: 10/90
Buckhead (north) - Hub 404
Estimated cost: $270m
Buckhead’s highway cap project, now called Hub 404 has also reached out to the Biden administration for potential federal funds. This half-mile greenspace aims to put another public park as a highway cap in Buckhead, a place lacking greenspace.
Buckhead is also desperately needing a free public third space. The Beltline has been such an anchor for ongoing economic growth and rebranded identity, that civic leaders realize they are now trailing other portions of the city for the first time.
North Atlanta is finally getting public-facing trails
North Atlanta is getting a lot of connected trails completed soon and Hub 404 could be the most public-facing of the bunch. The potential of a more walkable and interconnected Buckhead-Sandy Springs-Brookhaven, three of the wealthiest enclaves of the entire metro Atlanta area is too good to pass up. Even if GDOT will never expand mass transit in that region, at least these proposals loosen some of the car dependency of the north.
What are the chances of this happening?
Hub 404 due to its relatively small size and costs makes this project the most plausible of the three highway caps. Buckhead also has the residential profile needed, if necessary to engage in some sort of special tax-based financing to make this happen if all other options do not pan out. Considering that Buckhead is staying in the union, its smaller footprint, the demographics, and lower costs, it’s a higher probability.
Chances of this happening: 50/50
1B. All three of these projects are not unified, this is a mistake
In a puzzling move, the three projects have not (at least publicly) joined together in presenting a unified case for funding. The state of Georgia has several billion dollars in funds still available via strong tax collections and covid relief from the Biden administration. All three sites in a unified bid could advocate to state lawmakers and/or to the governor for funding support.
While Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also visited Atlanta to see sites that could benefit from aid from the Biden administration. Considering the favorability of US Senators Warnock and Ossoff, it’s likely that if these three get some economic support, it will have to be with the help of Georgia’s two US Senators.
1C. Will GDOT actually support a project?
While GDOT, the most powerful and continually well-funded transit org has not stated anything on the matters. Should GDOT actually support this initiative, it could be seen as a step into the 21st century as the org has typically not supported mass transit, parks, sidewalks, or multi-modal projects—the org just expands and maintains state highways (also bridges) despite receiving billions of state dollars each year to address transit issues.
GDOT doesn’t support parks or transit, this is a problem
Due to the nature of these three projects being built on top of an existing highway, it’s 50/50 if GDOT cooperates. But considering the senior leadership of GDOT, the close connections to Governor Kemp, and the organization’s historic lack of support for MARTA or any non-highway/roadway endeavor, Atlanta may have to move on their own. Add in the cronyism of donors to the GOP, who in turn keep getting GDOT contracts, it’s a possibility they shut it down without their own inclusion. GOP donors to (ahem, GDOT) Georgia GOP/Kemp range from construction/demolition, real estate, and other adjacent industries.
In the case of GDOT, an antiquated leadership organization that’s been coasting on doing the bare minimum for decades, this could be the first time they become innovative. Or they could just be the same haters they’ve always been.
Other red clay news:
The Atlanta City Council has decided to award $500,000 towards police housing.
The Atlanta City Council has decided to divest from private prisons.
A Tyler Perry exhibit is opening in Macon.
The EPA has awarded Atlanta $50 million to address lead contamination.
A new 400-unit apartment complex is coming to the Beltline’s Southside trail.
The Lenox Marketplace across the street from Phipps Plaza in Buckhead is getting a rebrand "The Block at Phipps" and a new European-inspired layout.
Downtown Decatur has launched a program to beautify/maintain its storefronts.
Highway caps may be a start in the right direction but it needs to be a part of a larger puzzle of connectivity in Atlanta. Hopefully, all three happen.