Better Block 2

 Sep 14, 2010  by Jason Roberts

Amid the wonderful smells of smoked barbeque, and just beyond the music, we managed our second “Better Block” project, where we took a gray, concrete, and car-focused block and converted it into a more humane space that placed people first. First off, big thanks go to SWA Group, and Metheney for providing us with amazing landscaping plans and with 42 trees and 100 shrubs which were strategically placed throughout the area.  We started with the 1300 Block of West Davis: 
 
The area is filled with 1920’s – 1940’s structures built to the sidewalk with one exception…a gas station set back that breaks the people-friendly form.  The businesses built in the area received a large portion of their foot traffic from the streetcar which ran along Seventh Street and turned onto Edgefield. Once the streetcar was removed in 1956, the block was retrofitted over time to push people aside for cars. As sprawl developed and zoning laws changed, businesses that could survive in these spaces had a hard time managing Dallas’ post-war transition.  Lanes were widened creating faster traffic patterns, landscaping was uprooted to allow for more parking, and building windows were filled with mirrored glass, making the space unusable for window-shopping, and allowing little light to pass through. Though it took half a century to devolve, we were able to revive the space in under 24 hours: 
 
 David Thompson at SWA Group was instrumental in helping us walk the block and outline a plan of attack. First, we had to bring landscaping back. Dallas is hot, and people want shade…seeing these old buildings tree lined dramatically improved the area.  The middle turn lane, which is only needed at the intersections but runs the entire length of the block, was reclaimed with 100 shrubs that gave an extra layer of safety for families crossing the street. 
 
To make a space feel more humane, and inviting to people, we looked at all of the obstacles facing us. Intersections were the most glaring with little to no cross walks. Here, we recreated our own Abbey Road. 
 
Mid-century lights, which had burned out years ago were painted lively colors and given a second chance at life. When looking at what is necessary to bring people out in a community, perception of safety ranks as the highest priority. Lighting is a key element, and an easy way to revive an area is to begin changing burned-out/broken light bulbs. 
 
An abandoned telephone pole sat waiting for some kind of treatment. We decided to do our own version of the Nasher pole in downtown Dallas. 
 
As the morning unfolded, two construction vehicles went to work lining the street with 42 trees that were set to be installed at another client site the following week. The landscaping group, Metheney, pulled off a coup by letting us install them on our block before they were set to be planted. As we watched each of the trees roll out of the semi-trailer, you could feel the block coming back to life. 
 
We worked with local vendors and asked them to bring their merchandise outdoors and to the block to help draw life and activity to the street.  This tienda had just opened a few weeks prior, but the owner said business had been slow…at the end of Better Block he said, “We needed this!”.  
 
On the North East corner of the 1300 Block sat a glass building that had been covered in mirrored tint, and was vacant for over a year. We immediately removed the tint to open the space and allow window shopping and light to permeate the space. This light adds to the perception of safety in the area at night as well. We worked with local artists to bring out as many products highlighting the talented crafters of OC. 
 
(photo by Karla Garcia) 
At the gateway to the Better Block, we coordinated with one of our favorite muralists, Kevin Obregon, to help bring color to the bare white walls of Chango Botanica, and to allow the theme of the store to be highlighted outside of the building.  Our area botanicas bring a mixture of spirituality, culture, and folk art that help identify Oak Cliff. 
  
The most simple, but important element to the Better Block project was just giving people a comfortable, shaded place to sit and linger. In Copenhagen, the city measures its quality of life improvements by the number of outdoor cafe seats that open up each year. Not a bad metric for Oak Cliff to follow. 24 hours prior, there were cars filling this area. The small ice cream shop, which only has two parking spaces, now wants to create seating instead. 
 
The landscaping performed the same element of slowing traffic as with our first Better Block. A main street should be slow and feel safe so that people can see the businesses clearly, and stroll comfortably along the block. When the lanes were widened and cars sped through the area, people felt less inclined to walk with strollers along the sidewalk. Cars that entered the area respected the new lines and commerce was able to increase. 
 
When I was beginning to study urban planning, mentors would regularly tell me, “It all starts with the street…if you get that wrong, everything else breaks.” I didn’t understand that early on,  but as I’ve helped organize these projects, it’s become incredibly notable. Simply put, if you build a wide 6-lane road, you’re going to get a big box styled development with high speed roads and little pedestrian foot traffic. If you build 2 lanes, slow and landscaped, with wide sidewalks and any other multimodal transit options (bike lanes, streetcars, etc.), you’ll get small shops and places that people love to spend time in. 
 
The Dallas Morning News wrote about our city’s pending Bike Plan, and ironically, one of the blog commenters cited the weekend as an example of how it’s “too hot and humid in our city for people to take bicycling seriously”…apparantly Oak Cliff didn’t get that memo. The reality is that all communities face challenges with climate. In Portland it rains 1/3 of the year, in Copenhagen it’s freezing cold 1/3 of the year. Creating safer ways for people to walk and bicycle in an area creates more eyes on the street and adds to an areas feeling of safety as well as creating more life in a community. 
 
In the end, it’s all about the people and giving families young and old a safe, comfortable, and dignified area to live in. When we build for cars only, we make things fast, unsafe, and less humane…we adopted an 8 and 80 rule, where we should look at our community from the eyes of an 8 year old and the eyes of an 80 year old. If it feels safe for those two age ranges, it will be safe for everyone. Our city needs to refocus its priorities and think about what it is that people really want in a community. For the price of a single Calatrava bridge, we could have built a thousand Better Blocks…and made them permanent. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

About the author

Jason has lived in Oak Cliff for 10 years, and when not playing guitar in the Happy Bullets, can be found bicycling throughout the neighborhood searching for old trolley tracks.

Varsity Jr. Closes

Jane Rawlings, President
Lindridge Martin Manor Neighborhood Association
 

Jane Rawlings, LMMNA President

As most of you are probably aware Varsity Jr. has closed its location on Lindbergh Drive. Much rumor and speculation exists surrounding this development and I want to present the facts. 
As background, beginning in 1999 the Cheshire Bridge Task Force was formed to examine ways to improve the corridor.  From this effort a study was completed, and, ultimately, the corridor was rezoned. While the details of the zoning are complex, the overall net desire and effect of this rezoning was to create a more pedestrian friendly environment. Many area neighborhood associations, businesses, and residents participated on this Task Force including but not limited to LMMNA and Varsity Jr. 
Fast forward 11 years when Varsity Jr. submitted an application for a Special Administrative Permit or SAP with the City of Atlanta Planning Department on February 8, 2010. As is required the Planning Department reviewed the application and plans and documented its comments. The city pointed out aspects of the plan that were inconsistent with the zoning regulations for the parcel. The Varsity Jr. property was “grandfathered” i.e. was granted legal non-conforming status when the Cheshire Bridge Corridor was rezoned as a result of the efforts of the Cheshire Bridge Task Force. Given the scope of the renovations planned (> 60%) the new regulations would have gone into effect. You can visit the city’s website for an overview of the zoning regulations for MRC-2-C. 
The applicant was advised by planning of their options to seek a Special Exception to the code. For whatever reason the applicant chose not to pursue such. Had they done so, they would have then been required to appear before the LMMNA to present their plans. LMMNA would then have made a recommendation to NPU-F as to whether or not to support the applicant’s Special Exception. NPU-F would have then made a recommendation to the BZA and, ultimately, the BZA would have decided whether or not a Special Exception was advised. 
At no time did LMMNA take any official position on this application as it never came before us, since the applicant chose to neither amend the plan, nor file for a Special Exception to the zoning regulations. 
Moving forward. . .obviously many within the community are saddened by the loss of this business. I ask, however, that area residents learn a very important lesson from this experience. First, when future applications come before us (and they will) I would recommend that folks make decisions based on the merits of the plan and not their emotional attachment to the applicant. Remember, zoning changes stick with the PROPERTY not the applicant. Properties continuously change owners so one cannot rely on the good will of an owner to act in the future best interest of the neighborhood. Instead, neighborhoods must seek zoning regulations that are in the best interest of their neighborhoods and then work to see that the City upholds them. To the best of our ability LMMNA needs to consistently and fairly apply the law. We expect the city to do the same. If, in the future, Varsity Jr. decides to re-file or seek a Special Exception, then LMMNA will have an opportunity to weigh in on the merits of granting such.  

As most of you are probably aware Varsity Jr. has closed its location on Lindbergh Drive. Much rumor and speculation exists surrounding this development and I want to present the facts. 

As background, beginning in 1999 the Cheshire Bridge Task Force was formed to examine ways to improve the corridor.  From this effort a study was completed, and, ultimately, the corridor was rezoned. While the details of the zoning are complex, the overall net desire and effect of this rezoning was to create a more pedestrian friendly environment. Many area neighborhood associations, businesses, and residents participated on this Task Force including but not limited to LMMNA and Varsity Jr. 

Fast forward 11 years when Varsity Jr. submitted an application for a Special Administrative Permit or SAP with the City of Atlanta Planning Department on February 8, 2010. As is required the Planning Department reviewed the application and plans and documented its comments. The city pointed out aspects of the plan that were inconsistent with the zoning regulations for the parcel. The Varsity Jr. property was “grandfathered” i.e. was granted legal non-conforming status when the Cheshire Bridge Corridor was rezoned as a result of the efforts of the Cheshire Bridge Task Force. Given the scope of the renovations planned (> 60%) the new regulations would have gone into effect. You can visit the city’s website for an overview of the zoning regulations for MRC-2-C.  

The applicant was advised by planning of their options to seek a Special Exception to the code. For whatever reason the applicant chose not to pursue such. Had they done so, they would have then been required to appear before the LMMNA to present their plans. LMMNA would then have made a recommendation to NPU-F as to whether or not to support the applicant’s Special Exception. NPU-F would have then made a recommendation to the BZA and, ultimately, the BZA would have decided whether or not a Special Exception was advised.  

At no time did LMMNA take any official position on this application as it never came before us, since the applicant chose to neither amend the plan, nor file for a Special Exception to the zoning regulations.  

Moving forward. . .obviously many within the community are saddened by the loss of this business. I ask, however, that area residents learn a very important lesson from this experience. First, when future applications come before us (and they will) I would recommend that folks make decisions based on the merits of the plan and not their emotional attachment to the applicant. Remember, zoning changes stick with the PROPERTY not the applicant. Properties continuously change owners so one cannot rely on the good will of an owner to act in the future best interest of the neighborhood. Instead, neighborhoods must seek zoning regulations that are in the best interest of their neighborhoods and then work to see that the City upholds them. To the best of our ability LMMNA needs to consistently and fairly apply the law. We expect the city to do the same. If, in the future, Varsity Jr. decides to re-file or seek a Special Exception, then LMMNA will have an opportunity to weigh in on the merits of granting such.

Georgia DOT releases draft criteria for new metro transportation projects

By Maria Saporta
If approved by voters in 2012, it is expected that the sales tax would generate about $7 billion over its 10-year life span. So the big test will be how those $7 billion will be invested.
The framework for making those decisions is beginning to come light.
On Thursday, Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, released the “draft” criteria that will be considered in coming up with the project list.
People need to keep in mind that the sales tax will only raise about one-tenth of the money that the region estimates is needed to meet most of transportation needs.
The Regional Transit Committee has estimated that it would cost about $55 billion just to implement a metrowide transit plan as outlined in Concept 3.
So the tug-of-war of how that money will be divided will keep everyone busy between now and next year, when that project list is expected to be presented to the public.
At the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable meeting Friday morning, Long summarized the criteria that is being put in place.
“The projects have to be strategic in nature,” Long said as part of a panel discussion on Georgia’s Transportation Future. “The projects have to be deliverable in the period of the tax. And projects have to be appealing to the public.”
The criteria also puts together a minimum and maximum range of what can be spent on road, transit and other transportation projects. For example, the range for roadway capital is between 20 to 50 percent. The range for transit capital is between 10 and 40 percent. The range for transit operations and maintenance is between 5 and 20 percent.
The balance would be spent on safety, traffic operations, freight and logistics, non-motorized transportation, aviation and roadway and bridge maintenance.
In other words, according to the criteria, the share that transit could get is as low as 15 percent and as high as 60 percent.
Here is the link to view the Draft Criteria for the Atlanta 10-county Special Tax District.

Metro Atlanta transportation sales tax campaign needs to focus on transit projects

from Maria Saporta – SaportaReport
At this past week’s Regional Transit Committee meeting, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s David Emory made an interesting presentation.
A total of eight light rail projects are included in the Concept 3 plan. They would cost about $8 billion to build, and they would have an annual operating cost of $200 million.
Coincidentally, if metro Atlanta voters past a regional sales tax for transportation, it would raise about $8 billion over 10 years.
I couldn’t help myself. I began to think about how wonderful it would be if the Atlanta region would spend most, if not all, of the new sales tax revenue on transit projects.
The eight light rail projects in the Concept 3 Plan actually would be a good starting point.
The first project was building the 22-mile loop for the Atlanta Beltline, now being planned by MARTA and Atlanta Beltline Inc.
The second light rail project was the Clifton Corridor light rail line that would connect MARTA’s North lines with the East line and Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control along the way.
The third project would be building light rail along the I-20 East corridor, a line that could extend to Rockdale County.
The fourth project would be to build light rail along the top end of I-285 between I-75 and I-85 (a transit specific study for the corridor is supposed to be done in 2012).
The fifth light rail project would be along the Northeast corridor going from Doraville, Norcross to the Gwinnett Village and the Gwinnett Area. That feasibility study is supposed to be completed later this year.
The sixth project would be to have a light rail line along the Northwest corridor in Cobb County, going along U.S. 41 from the Cumberland Mall area up to Town Center.
The seventh proposed line would be a fixed rail line along the Georgia 400 corridor — either extending the existing MARTA heavy rail line or building a light rail line towards the northern parts of Fulton County.
The eighth (and last) light rail project in the Concept 3 Plan is the Atlanta streetcar project that would go from downtown to Buckhead, and connect the tourist attractions around Centennial Olympic Park with the King Center.
The Regional Transit Committee, now chaired by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, passed a resolution this past Thursday to endorse establishing a permanent transit governing body for the Atlanta region.
The resolution was part of a “quad party” agreement between the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Georgia Department of Transportation and MARTA.
Never before has there been such a level of consensus among all the 10 ARC counties and all the major transportation-related entities in the state and the region. And that can only be a welcome development for the region.
But then on Friday morning, metro Atlanta leaders launched a campaign to build a “big tent coalition” to support a regional sales tax for transportation. They unveiled a plan to raise millions of dollars for the campaign to convince people to vote in favor of the sales tax.
Metro leaders brought in representatives from the cities of Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City to talk about how they were able to put together winning campaigns for their transportation sales tax initiatives.
In showing TV spots on their marketing campaigns, the themes were the same. We can’t pave our way out of congestion. If we want to accommodate new residents to our region, we must invest in transportation options.
Every one of those campaigns showcased light rail projects in their separate communities. And the various representatives spoke about how important it was to listen to voters before presenting a list of projects.
In Denver, leaders realized that voters were far more likely to pass a transportation sales tax if most of the dollars were to be invested in transit and rail.
The representatives from Salt Lake City, Denver and Phoenix said it was critically important to sell the sales tax as a quality of life campaign. In Utah, part of the effort included explaining to voters that no transportation projects pay for themselves, including transit.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, said it was all about economics and how Utah would be able to handle all its growth. Because the city has been building 70 miles of light rail, there is now $4 billion in development underway with national companies moving to Salt Lake City.
Peggy Bilsten, who worked on getting the sales tax passed in Phoenix, said the city’s “Transit 2000” campaign ended up building a 22-mile segment of light rail connecting three different cities.
“We have transit-oriented development that would blow your mind,” Bilsten said. “We got $600 million from the federal government.”
Maria Garcia, who worked on the Denver effort, did make a back-handed comment. “The longer you guys take to get your act together, the better it will be for us,” she said.
That reminded me of what the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Georgians when he was in Atlanta nearly a year ago. He said Georgia would get left behind in transportation funding if it didn’t get its act together on transit and rail.
The region can decide whether the referendum of 2012 will be a game-changer and help pay for transit once and for all, or whether it will be more of the same — spending the region’s limited dollars on roads and bridges.
For the first time in decades, the Atlanta region has an opportunity to invest substantial dollars in transit, be able to leverage federal funds and to encourage transit-friendly developments.
Let’s not blow it.

Transportation is a public health issue

Earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama established Let’s Move, a program with the ambitious and important goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation. And yesterday, a conference called “Keeping Kids Moving” examined the ways transportation policy can help America achieve that goal.
The sad truth is this: today, 32% of children in the US are overweight or obese. That means one in every three of our nation’s children are at risk for serious health conditions like diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and stroke.
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That’s why Dwayne Proctor, Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Childhood Obesity Team, sounded the alarm in his opening remarks: “This could be the first generation in America to live sicker and die younger than their parents.”
America is beginning to understand that childhood obesity is a national problem. And we need to look for solutions wherever we can find them.
At DOT, we know transportation can be part of the solution, because the way people travel shapes our communities and affects our levels of physical activity. We recognize that transportation is a public health issue.
Undersecretary Roy Kienitz
Yesterday, DOT Undersecretary Roy Kienitz talked about how transportation decisions that value things like “vehicle throughput” instead of pedestrian safety affect America’s communities. And about how transit decisions that emphasize “minutes-saved” pit outlying suburban commuters against their inner-lying urban neighbors. Recognizing that those policies have had an effect on public health, he said, “Transportation is about more than engineering.”
But, as Undersecretary Kienitz told yesterday’s meeting, DOT has taken steps to fix the formula and find a different approach.

Through our work with HUD and EPA in the Obama Administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, through our TIGER discretionary grants, and through a range of other programs like Safe Routes to School, we’re funding the kinds of projects that will help develop livable communities and provide opportunities for people to walk, bike, or take transit.
Everywhere I go, I hear from Americans that this is what they want. In fact, walking and biking have increased by 25% in the last ten years.
Undersecretary Roy Kienitz
People want options. They want to be able to be more physically active on streets that are friendlier to pedestrians and bicyclists. And when adults model physical activity, our kids see it, and they get it.
But the link between transportation and obesity doesn’t end there.
Also at yesterday’s meeting, Nashville’s Adetokunbo Omishakin talked about the more than 6,000 households in Nashville who don’t own a car and are not within a mile of a grocery store. At certain times a bus trip to a grocery store could take three hours round-trip. So residents buy food for their families at convenience stores or small groceries whose shelves can’t offer the healthy options of larger stores.
Paratransit
You see, it’s not just about improving sidewalks or bike paths. The assumption of the last half of the 20th century was that people would own cars. And because that isn’t true, people have been forced to make choices that contribute to the obesity trend.
That’s why, for example, our recent Urban Circulator and Bus Livability grants have been received so warmly.
This is about connecting communities. It’s about solving real problems. This is the kind of practical change the Obama Administration is delivering.

Some cities want fewer roadways, not more


Wider roads and new freeways and highways are a big part of the President Obama's stimulus plan, except many urban areas want to tear down highways and freeways, not build them.

: RYSSDALKAI  
Vice President Joe Biden took the wraps off the administration’s most recent report card on the economic stimulus package today. The White House says — and this number is probably subject to political interpretation — that it has created roughly three million jobs in the past year or so. A lot of that work is being done on infrastructure, building and fixing bridges and highways. Dozens of cities around the country have just the opposite in mind though. They want to tear down parts of some freeways. 
From WNYC in New York City, Andrea Bernstein reports. 
: BERNSTEIN ANDREA 
Near the lower tip of Manhattan, Michael Sorkin is standing just yards from the East River and Brooklyn Bridge, but you can barely see them. So he looks up. 
MICHAEL SORKIN:  
We see traffic that is in at least three different levels. There’s the FDR Drive. There’s an interchange to get people onto the Brooklyn Bridge that’s flying over the FDR Drive, and then flying over that is the Brooklyn Bridge. 
Sorkin is an architect and head of urban design at City College of New York. He’s drawn up a different blueprint for this patch of Manhattan. Tear down a section of the elevated highway, the on-ramps and cloverleafs. 
SORKIN:  
You would see one of the most beautiful architectural achievements in the history of consciousness, the Brooklyn Bridge. 
There would be parks, plazas, restaurants. 
SORKIN:  
You would see boats cruising by. 
Sorkin drew up these designs as part of an international exhibition by the group Institute for Transportation Development Policy. As crazy as it sounds, the idea of tearing down highways in dense urban areas is ricocheting around the country. 
Cleveland is planning to convert a lake-front expressway to a boulevard by 2012, and Seattle is moving to tear down adouble deck highway by that same year. 
CARMEN GAND:  
I think it’s ridiculous. 
Back in New York, teacher Carmen Gand was walking her dogs near the FDR Drive. Her reaction to a proposed teardown is typical. 
GAND:  
People are going to drive into Manhattan regardless, so why not make as many roads or possibilities to get into Manhattan as possible? 
It turns out that New York actually tore down an elevated highway in the 1970s. Sam Schwartz was the chief engineer for the NYC Department of Transportation then. 
SAM SCHWARTZ:  
And people panicked. They thought that was Armageddon. 
The highway had begun to crumble, so the city dismantled 60 blocks and replaced it with a regular street. 
SCHWARTZ:  
After that, we had trouble tracing about one-third of the people. Transit went up. We had the same number of people coming in, but they weren’t coming in by cars. 
San Francisco also lost freeways in the 1989 earthquake. Some years later, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a story about it. The headline: “Traffic Planners Baffled by Success: No Central Freeway, No Gridlock, and No Explanation.” Engineers found that traffic volume had dropped from 93,000 cars a day to 45,000. But what happens in city where there isn’t a lot of public transit? 
JOHN NORQUIST:  
“You want to do what? Tear down a freeway?” Oh, they thought I was nuts. 
John Norquist was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2004. He wanted to take down the Park East Freeway, which ran through downtown. 
NORQUIST:  
A lot of people realized it was ugly and all that, but they said what would you do with the 40,000 cars a day that use it? 
Norquist is now the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, a group that promotes denser communities. He says in 2002, when he tore down the highway, downtown congestion didn’t jump. Instead, it dispersed all around city streets and business activity in the area went up. 
NORQUIST:  
I’d don’t there’d be many people who say, “Milwaukee was a great place till that freeway got torn down.” 
Skeptics remain, like Robert “Buzz” Paaswell. He says goods and services must be able to move through cities. 
ROBERT “BUZZ” PAASWELL:  
You just can’t take out a link in a highway and expect nothing to happen. 
Paaswell is an engineer who’s interim president of City College of New York. He says without city highways, some people will find it harder to get around. New York officials haven’t endorsed any plans to dismantle the southern tip of the FDR Drive. But around the country, mayors and governors are eying urban highway teardowns as the road to development, not congestion. 
In New York, I’m Andrea Bernstein, for Marketplace. 
KAI RYSSDAL:  
The report is part of the public radio Transportation Nation project. For photos and links to some of the traffic studies, go to Marketplace.org. 
 

Atlanta leaders hope streetcar proposal will win in second round of U.S. TIGER grants

Maria Saporta

Maybe the second time will be the charm.
The City of Atlanta hopes the federal government will give its streetcar plan a green light during the second round of TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants.
City leaders are presenting their revised streetcar proposal to the Atlanta City Council this week and need the full council’s approval before July 16 when pre-applications are to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Atlanta and Georgia did not fare well during the first round of TIGER grants — when $1.5 billion were distributed to transportation projects across the nation. In the first round, the federal government was offering 100 percent of the funding.
This round is not quite as generous. Only $600 million will be
Read more…

Opportunity exists to create a regional transit system; new leaders at the helm

— from www.saportareport.com – Maria Saporta
A transit evolution is underway in metro Atlanta.
But what form it will take is still a mystery.
What key regional leaders do know — the status quo is no longer acceptable.
The incremental progress for transit is literally running on parallel tracks.
On one track is the state legislature and the state government. After several years of inaction, the state legislature passed a transportation bill that will permit regions to vote on a penny sales tax two years from now.
The bill was flawed, however, because it singled out MARTA — stipulating that none of those sales tax revenues could go to existing MARTA operations. The bill also mandated a new governance structure for the MARTA board and established a transit subcommittee to review how the region will invest in transit and who will make those decisions.
On the second track is the multi-year effort to create a regional transit plan and governance body — a process driven by leaders from the Atlanta region.
That effort, currently known as the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission, held a daylong retreat on June 2 when several ground-breaking developments occurred that could have a major impact on where we go as a region.
The goal for the retreat was to come up with a governance structure for transit in the region and to elect a chairman and vice chairman.
But perhaps the most significant development that occurred at the retreat was when MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott and Kirk Fjelstul, interim director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority urged the group to be bold.
Up until now, the consensus has been to create a new regional transit oversight committee enabling each of the operators — MARTA, Cobb County Transit, GRTA Xpress buses and others — to keep their autonomy.
In short, under this model, there would be no consolidation of individual transit operations and therefore limited opportunities for operational cost savings. That means each entity would continue to have its own human resources, legal, finance, security departments.
“We have got a real opportunity and a platform to really consider transit governance,” Fjelstul said. “We want to make sure that with the transit funding we have, the public needs to have confidence that we will spend it well.”
Scott said this was an opportunity to truly integrate regional transit.
Tad Leithead, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, admitted that the reason the umbrella model had been proposed was because there was “a certain amount of comfort” to keep each entity intact.
But with GRTA and MARTA leaders urging for greater consolidation, Leithead said it was time to revisit the issue.
“If those two most significant agencies would like to do something more bold, more aggressive and more significant, we can do that in this room,” Leithead said at the retreat.
Although proposing a consolidated metro transit agency wasn’t on the agenda of the Regional Transit Committee work session, the idea and the opportunity is real.
And now the metro leadership to help mold the future for transit in the region is in place.
At the retreat, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was elected chairman of the transit effort, and Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister was elected vice chairman. The balance was both symbolic and significant. A mayor and a county chairman. A MARTA jurisdiction and a suburban county. Two localities that have transit and need more.
And both Reed and Bannister, who served together in the legislature, acknowledge that the transportation bill just signed by the governor did not do enough for MARTA and transit.
In an earlier conversation before he was elected chairman, Reed was asked whether he agreed with critics who believe MARTA was shortchanged in the transportation bill.
“I think the criticism is fair,” Reed said, adding that the bill is helping MARTA in the near-term by removing the restriction that half of its sales tax revenue must go to capital and half to operating for three years.
“We now have the opportunity to move the conversation around MARTA, and in subsequent years improve the legislation,” Reed said. “In another legislative session, you will continue to improve the bill.”
After the retreat, Reed said: “I’m just ready to go to work. I think this is a strong partnership, and I want to be a strong partner to the region.”
Bannister said it was “time to get something done.” The region has spent years talking about transit, and Bannister said that “I would like to pick it up a notch and move forward.”
Specifically, Bannister said the transportation bill needed to be improved. “Certainly we’ve got to do more for transit in another bill,” he said.
The retreat also agreed on a governance structure for a new transit agency — even though this proposal did not take into account what a consolidated transit system could look like.
The group agreed that the 20 counties that are included in the “Concept 3” regional transit plan would be eligible to be part of the new governance structure.
But to have voting rights, all representatives on the new board would have to have to meet some “pay to play” standard For example, a county would have to have put in place some kind of funding for transit to have a vote on the board.
The group also decided that each participating county would select a mayor from that county to serve on the board. Plus, the mayor of Atlanta automatically would be on that board.
Lastly, the board would include an appointee by the governor, the lt. governor and the speaker of the house. There was some discussion about whether the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation would have a seat on the board.
The sensitivity on this issue is that the State of Georgia, with the exception of GRTA buses, has not provided regular financial support to the region’s transit operations, particularly MARTA.
The RTC group also is studying how to design a weighted voting system so that the more populated counties that contribute the most to transit will have a proportional voice on the board.
At the same time this work is going on, the legislature also has its transit governance subcommittee, and it is unknown how much coordination there will be between the legislative efforts and the Atlanta region’s efforts.
But Leithead he sees both efforts melding into one rather than ending up in a head-on collision.
“The Regional Transit Committee and the legislative Transit Subcommittee will collaborate because there’s so much overlap,” Leithead said.
But the real opportunity that is unfolding is that the Atlanta region is starting to think about consolidating all our disparate transit agencies into one integrated system — fulfilling the original vision of four decades ago when MARTA was supposed to be a five-county transit agency.
“I think there will be a commitment to have a fully integrated transit system,” Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker said after the work session. “I think there will be a commitment to do this, but there will need to be a transition plan.”
At least now we have a courageous goal to work on — creating a regional Atlanta transit system once and for all.

Workforce Housing: Rules Have Changed, Game Remains the Same

— from the Livable Communities Coalition

Jobs are scarce.  Houses are empty.  Why are we talking about workforce housing again?
Fair enough question–one the Livable Communities Coalition anticipated as it presented its study of workforce housing in DeKalb County to the public on May 24th.  After all, the plummet in housing values and scores of partially developed lots around the County suggests that housing affordability is no longer an issue for everyday working households.
So to get things started, the Coalition presented its point of view:  the lull in a once-frenzied housing market is actually the perfect chance to step back, assess, and plan ahead to accommodate housing for the people needed to make DeKalb (or any major urban county) hum–firefighters, teachers, police officers, recent graduates, young professionals, nurses, airline agents, even  seniors.
Turns out that was a no-brainer for the people in the audience, who understood a lack of workforce housing affects people of all incomes–especially by way of traffic congestion.  Workforce households generally  earn $33,000 to $66,000 a year in DeKalb–enough to own a reasonable home, or rent a decent apartment.  But DeKalb’s rather limited housing options for those working in such jobs often prevent them from benefitting as residents themselves, particularly without the high-cost barrier of long commutes.
So what is DeKalb to do?   The answer sounds more appropriate for environmental problems, but it applies just the same:  Recycle!
Considering today’s limited resources, A New Roadmap for Workforce Housing in DeKalb County‘s main message is clear:  Use what you already have! Comparing DeKalb’s existing issues against its desire to decrease traffic, attract business, and adapt to changing socio-economic realities (such as an aging housing stock, retiring baby boomers, tighter credit, and higher gasoline prices) some of the report’s recommendations include: 
·       Invest in housing rehabilitation programs that educate and support homeowners and landlords on home maintenance and repair, so workforce units are not lost to decline.
·       Incentivize workforce housing construction around some of DeKalb’s most valuable but under-utilized assets:  its MARTA stations.
·       Provide down-payment and home rehabilitation assistance programs for qualified workforce families but require this assistance to be repaid for re-use by others.
·       Establish a land bank so that abandoned properties can be revitalized for workforce households.
The report, numbering over 100 pages, contains many other recommended strategies, and will be presented to the DeKalb Coutny commissioners on June 15.  Look out for it on the Coalition’s website in the coming weeks.

City needs parking policy that promotes people-friendly streets

Filed under: Guest Columns — Maria Saporta @ 6:20 am
 
By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS: a Georgia Tech professor of architecture and planning who also served as the city of Atlanta’s commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation from 1996 to 2002. Dobbins also is author of a new book: ‘Urban Design and People.’
 
Parking is about a lot more than storing cars and generating revenue.
Parking, and in the current situation on-street parking, is about access and walkability, retail, restaurant and residential viability, and altogether the character – the attractiveness and functionality – of the more intense parts of town.
Various studies have confirmed the common sense that cars parked at on-street parking spaces provide a positive frame for a good quality pedestrian environment. They enable not just real and perceived access for car passengers but they also protect pedestrians, streetlights, trees, and sitting places from the rush of curbside traffic.

For retailers, restaurateurs, and other businesses, they provide the promise and often the reality of more convenient access from which their businesses benefit. For urban dwellers, they provide parking for residents and their visitors, conveniences that complement other amenities for those choosing to live in urban scale communities.
For those businesses, residents, and visitors who choose to imbibe in urban life, then, supporting that choice becomes an important policy matter for local government. Leading up to the Olympics and for the most part ever since Atlanta has retooled its policy mix to support and encourage those who want to make the urban choice, whether for locating the workplace or the home or for shopping, entertainment, or cultural and sporting events.
Zoning overhauls, development incentives, streetscape and wayfinding improvements, locating venues for broad audiences, and other initiatives have provided the base from which the city has stimulated its ongoing turnaround. It has attracted to its diversity of places the people, employers, and attractions that have lifted it out of its suburban-driven, white flight decades of decline.
To now make parking policy choices that reverse this progress, very likely for lack of understanding the larger implications, would be a significant setback. It would fly in the face of the policies that have made the city an ever-improving environment to attract the growing markets of seniors, empty-nesters, jaded suburbanites, and people moving from other places who are finding positive choices in the city.
Even so, the government — our representatives in our collective ownership of the city’s streets — is responsible for their management and collecting the revenue generated by the use of the streets for parking.
As many businesses have correctly pointed out, however, the current parking arrangement directly threatens their prospect for generating revenue, much of it taxable at one level or another.
The city has responded, wisely, by declaring a moratorium on the privatization agreement that they entered into last year, with a view toward reviewing and hopefully reworking that agreement.
At least two tracks should be taken in this review: 1) how to establish a parking policy that will reinforce, instead of threaten, its urban-friendly policies that have been successful from the mid-nineties; 2) generate a cost-benefit analysis of the current parking contract that takes into account not just the narrowly conceived parking revenue/enforcement arrangement but also estimates the certain declines in overall revenues that maintaining the current contract would cause.
It would appear that what happened is that the deal struck took into account neither of these lines of analysis. Instead, the machines and their two hour limit and 24/7 enforcement seem the simplest and most remunerative for the private partner. One size fits all, even though the streets and their use for parking are widely variable.
The city must see the people, the owners of its streets, as customers with varying needs and in the context of attracting ever more customers instead of closing the gate to them. Such a comprehensive analysis might lead to a whole different approach to the more complex problem.
For example, areas with substantial retail, restaurants, in-and-out businesses, and residential densities could use more on-street parking not less. This could be accomplished by opening up and metering “no parking” streets for parking during the off-peak hours that presently bar parking – even Peachtree Street.
Except during the peaks, there are few if any streets in the higher intensity parts of the city that have traffic congestion problems. Yet because of their very densities and diversity of activities, such streets could generate considerable parking revenue. To compensate for the heightened enforcement required during the peaks, the penalties could be more severe, using high fines and towing to cover the costs.
Regardless of the outcome of that idea, the 24/7 enforcement is a killer — the City should get rid of it, unequivocally. No one will come to eat, entertain, take in events, or even choose to live in an environment so draconian. It is killing the very street life that makes a city a city.
Surely the fancy new toll machines are sophisticated enough to program much more time-sensitive collection and recording apparatus to turn the whole of the parking enterprise into one that is sensible and welcoming, while still generating greater parking revenues than in the past.
The enforcement period should vary, like for peak hours, and its baseline should allow parking without fees from something like between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. For a city that wants to attract people, the goal should be to balance people’s access needs with legitimate and appropriate penalties for abuse of the access system.
Parking policy is vital to Atlanta’s future as a place of urban excellence.