This is a post on reflections and lessons learned, and an effort to provide insight and guidance to the Reynoldstown community as they negotiate with Jeff Fuqua on the rezoning of the Leggett and Platt site. It is also a chance for me to collect and organize my thoughts on one of the most transformative urban redevelopment projects in my neighborhood (Edgewood) fifteen years in.
Before I dive in, I feel the need for an important disclaimer. I had no involvement in the Fuqua/Grant Park negotiations. From an outside perspective, it seems there were certain circumstances that led to a very acrimonious process for all involved. I can only talk about my experience with Edgewood Retail District (ERD).
As a bit of history for those that weren’t around for the negotiations of ERD, the Edgewood and Reynoldstown communities negotiated the zoning for ERD for over ten months with The Sembler Company, primarily with Jeff Fuqua as their project leader. I was involved in negotiating on the Edgewood neighborhood side for the first eight months, but went out of the country for final negotiations, so I can’t take credit for the hard work done to bring the deal to a close. Several dedicated folks from the community helped to get it to the finish line.
ERD has taken a lot of flack over the years as a sloppy and failed development; however, I want to point out that this development directly followed the Whole Foods/Home Depot development on Ponce de Leon. That development is so obviously subpar that no one criticizes it. There is no point. ERD represented an effort by the community and the developer to balance the needs of big box stores and intown design desires to make something better. It was not a success by many measures, but it was not the overwhelming failure of Ponce. Leggett + Platt has a chance to be significantly better than both the Glenwood and ERD deals.
CREATING THE RIGHT KIND OF CONNECTIVITY
At ERD, much of the neighborhood debate focused on connectivity or the lack thereof as an appropriate solution. How connected should a residential community be to a regional power center? How should the streets cut through and engage? I was one that fought for more connectivity instead of less, even though that meant many more cars on my street, every day. We’ve also seen a tremendous increase in pedestrian and cycle traffic on our street (which is rarely noticed or mentioned). I couldn’t imagine having to drive a mile through a busy arterial to get to a store two blocks away. Solving this lack of connectivity was a prevailing desire in most neighborhood discussions. It was also probably the cause of much of the failure of the Ponce development.
Part of the failure of ERD’s streets was due to lackluster planning, but also to the requirement to accommodate tractor trailers. Stores like Kroger, Target, and Lowes require tractor trailers to deliver inventory several times a week. Much compromise was made to the walkable main street component to accommodate these trucks. This is a higher priority for planners (and their retail clients) than accommodating , cyclists, and walkers, and it is a reality. Hiding from that reality will not keep the trucks away – they have to be considered and designed for, or you need to prohibit big box stores, period. Relegate the trucks to the equivalent of alleys, and keep the main streets for people. Don’t blend the two.
The design compromises for trucks take the form of very wide radius curbs. The wider the curve, the greater the walking distance at the crosswalk for pedestrians. The main intersection at Caroline Street is an uncomfortable hybrid that tries to accommodate both trucks and pedestrians, and it generally fails for both.
Understanding what makes these retailers tick is a big deal. Many of them, particularly grocers, demand a center number of parking spaces, extra wide, directly in front of their store. The world might end if they don’t get this. For the Leggett and Platt site, it is important to recognize that the Sprouts grocer is most likely the most important tenant in the whole deal. The initial site plan and rendering shared at the zoning committee seemed to reflect this level of importance. It seems like this specific tenant is desired by the community, so it is not a discussion about the merits of a Sprouts, but how to create the best place for people that tempers a suburban use as the centerpiece.
PUSH FOR MORE DENSITY, NOT LESS
It’s important to understand what matters more to the developer and in what areas they have flexibility. The challenge is that the area they are least flexible with is the grocer. This is also the biggest issue to solve for. One solution to completely surprise a developer is to push for more density on the site and not require the associated parking that might be expected to come with it. The more density, the more value possible, and the more flexibility the developer has to accommodate other requests from the neighborhood.
Ask to add density, but be sure to engage to make sure it is handled in a civically responsible way by ensuring quality public space. Make sure the streets through the development are treated as streets – they should have on-street parking, wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and ample and abundant street trees. It is okay to ask for 4” caliper street trees – 3” is the norm, but larger street trees have an outsized impact on a place from day one.
Having 3-4 stories of building along Memorial Drive is important. These upper floors would best accommodate residential uses, which will be a benefit to the development. There is nothing wrong with commercial uses either, frankly. Keeping the development porous with some spread out one-story buildings as a mechanism to keep visibility to a “hidden” big box store is a failure. I was told this was to provide visibility to the Sprouts. Suburban retailers may not quite get it, but if there is an affordable organic grocery in town, everyone will know, period. They will know because they are informed, not because there is a sign next to I-20 – the street visibility is not a critical issue. Adding more “stuff” at Memorial is a rational development and design decision. There is also flexibility in how Sprouts is located as well in order to get them more visibility, but more visibility with a large parking lot directly in front of the building is a big problem.
Another important point to make is that in 2001, retailers were just starting to gain an understanding of the benefits of urban markets. They were just beginning to learn that there might be value in bending their rigid playbooks to find ways to work in these places. Fifteen years in, there is a full awareness of these benefits. There are now examples from around the country of how retailers have been pushed to do atypical things to make a project work. The fun and ironic thing is how quickly the retailer forgets the fight they put up to change, and how quickly they co-opt the story to show how smart and accommodating they are to communities.
ADAPT THE BIG BOX TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND
David Green led a studio at Georgia Tech to look at a redo of ERD at an alternate site. One of the tricks they employed was to put a walkable street in front of the store and a parking lot on the other side. This is pretty crazy stuff for the retail world, and one might be skeptical that it could be done without the world stopping on its orbit. But take a look at the streetview of the Kroger in Savannah: it works completely fine. There is little difference between the typical fire lane required at the front of one of these stores and a well designed street.
Most neighborhoods try to negotiate down the density of a project, not because they are actually worried about how tall things are, but out of fear of expected increase in traffic. I find a really helpful thought experiment is to imagine what you would want on this site if you didn’t have to worry about traffic: how much stuff do you think is appropriate at a site that is on the Beltline, access to transit, direct access to a major interstate the least used interstate of the three we have), and located on a major arterial street? A site with that much existing connectivity screams for higher density.
Reducing the required number of parking spaces on-site is a worthy effort, and ERD provides a great lesson in this. The only reason the underground deck was built was to appease the retailers. This is a significant amount of very, very expensive parking that is significantly underutilized (being polite here). That waste of resources could have been much better directed to so many other areas. It also is a great counter example to how many parking spaces are needed instead of wanted for a development. I’ll also suggest that many people complain about ERD being a nightmare and a hassle to shop at. I suspect that these comments really come from a place of how hard it is to find a parking space. It’s actually pretty easy to get around on a bike in the development and park in front of what ever store you want. Another way to look at reducing parking is to hold the number of spaces shown as a constant, but require more office, restaurant, or residential use to be provided.
That brings me to another key element of this project. One of the most important things I see for Reynoldstown is a reconfiguration of Memorial Drive, which needs to be slowed and narrowed to encourage pedestrian and cycle use. DOT generally sucks when it comes to understanding that roads aren’t just for automobiles. It might completely suck, but I’m sure somewhere, there is an example of them doing the right thing. At least once. That said, Greg Giuffrida, Memorial Drive Corridor Executive, is working hard to improve the corridor. On this issue, Fuqua and the neighborhoods have aligned interests.
While it is somewhat out of his control, leaning on Fuqua to lean on DOT for the reconfiguration of Memorial is completely reasonable and worth the effort. Making it pleasant to walk and bike to this development means being able to safely cross Memorial. This is critical to the development’s success. I get to walk or bike to ERD whenever I need; it is a lot less of a hassle than having to drive there. The absolute bummer is that having a sea of parking right in front of your store directly conflicts with good walkable urban development, and accommodating a backside that requires significant truck access does not make for a pedestrian-friendly site plan.
DON’T HATE THE MIDDLE MAN
The next topic I’m going to dive into is probably the more controversial: Jeff Fuqua. He is not a loved man in this town. I find the animosity against him to be misplaced and a distraction. I see him as a very determined man that creates value by finding ways to provide a place for suburban style retailers in urban environments, within close proximity to the demographic numbers that represent the Holy Grail for these retail companies. His is simply a middleman. This dynamic was very apparent in the negotiations for ERD. The neighborhood would take a position, Fuqua would listen, and respond with the need to take it to the retailers and see what they would accept. It was a very useful tool on his part. I’m sure he used it to his advantage, but it is important for neighborhoods to understand the power these retailers have in the deal, the stubbornness they have in their worldview, tempered with their absolute desire to be near all the rooftops with the income earning that in-town Atlanta possesses. Fuqua’s role is to find a way to make things work, not to be a jerk for being a jerk’s sake.
Part of understanding Fuqua’s role is that he is caught between two masters. There is that which the retailer wants, and that which the neighborhood wants. He understands that both sides have rational and irrational desires. He wins if he can find a way to overcome the irrational concerns to create a more valuable development. This means more buildings and more leasable space. There will be times where the neighborhood can take a stand to demand more walkability, more buildings, and more leasable space, which may go counter to the grocer’s desire. This gives Fuqua the chance to use the demanding neighborhood as leverage when dealing with the retailers. In this case the neighborhood gets the features they want and Fuqua gets more leasable space – everybody wins. On the other hand, he can also do the exact same thing the other way: tell the neighborhood that a particular component is impossible to include because it conflicts with the needs of the retailer. Those are the pressure points that allow the neighborhood to negotiate the best deal possible. The thing is, that will probably be the deal that makes Fuqua the most money. My best advice is to get over it, and to identify the things that will bring the highest value to the neighborhood, and push for those.
FIND VALUE IN THE OLD AND UNCONVENTIONAL
I’m sad that we as a neighborhood didn’t push for office space at ERD. There was a chance to save the AGL five story office building, but no concept of office use was viable over here at the time. That may have been right then, but the fact remains that we currently have a significant shortage of office space on the East side of town, and I encourage folks to prioritize that. Office users are daytime users of dry cleaners, restaurants, and stores. They do not have to follow typical commute patterns, and help utilize parking spaces for more hours of the day.
I heard a pitch for a rock-n-bowl for the site, and I think that is a legitimately good idea. There is a lot of topography on the site. There has to be a basement somewhere that could be an aging hipster bowling alley. This is an example of a way to push for more density.
In my perfect world, it would be great to save at least one or two of the old warehouses and convert them to new uses. They will add texture and context in a way that new construction can’t. Saving the Shoe Factory at ERD was fine; I wish we had saved the five story building too. This may be impossible at this site in terms of existing building location and topography, but if you don’t ask for it, it will never even get considered.
Folks often have a kneejerk reaction to request a park or plaza. I’m not opposed to that, but if you want to request greenspace, make sure that it is meaningful and usable, and not just a token. Also, be absolutely sure to prohibit any transformers or other utilities in the greenspace. That was a huge miss at ERD. I challenge you to count the utility boxes in front of Shoe Factory. It’s a lot.
Ultimately, making a concerted effort to significantly prioritize bike and pedestrian access and comfort will go a really, really long way. If these things are considered, the entire development will benefit. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. Don’t let your hatred of Fuqua get in the way of negotiating the best deal for the neighborhood.