Atlanta Development Aims to Revitalize Downtown

The shopping district of Atlanta's newest redevelopment project opens Thursday: Atlantic Station is built on the site of an old steel mill near downtown. The idea behind the design is New Urbanism, environments where people can live, work and shop in one space. Time will determine whether Atlantic Station fulfills that vision.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to listen next to the effort to redevelop part of Atlanta. The shopping district of Atlanta's newest redevelopment project opens today. It's called Atlantic Station, and it is built on the site of an old steel mill. Some people have flocked to this area immediately. They want to buy into the idea of new urbanism. That's an environment where people can live, work and shop all in the same space. You can walk around, but it's going to take time to determine what kind of community this really becomes. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

The development of a hundred and thirty-eight acres at the junction of two major interstates was a challenge because a hundred and fifty thousand tons of contaminated soil had to be removed before the project on the site of the old steel mill could even begin. Another difficulty was building the infrastructure and getting people to accept the concept of a city within a city. David Goldberg is with Smart Growth America.

Mr. DAVID GOLDBERG (Smart Growth America): This is probably one of the largest and most ambitious redevelopment efforts in the country at the moment. It was the reclamation of an industrial Brownfield, and what it has done is introduce a style of mixed use urban development that really had not been done in Atlanta and in most American cities since the Second World War.

LOHR: The $2 billion project includes a shopping district with restaurants, condos, apartments, duplexes and town homes. Among the first to move in, Joey Wiedner(ph) and Amy Renfro(ph) who had lived in New York for three years.

Mr. JOEY WIEDNER (Atlanta Resident): So, you know, we had everything around us within like a four- or five-block radius: the grocery store, the dry cleaners, the deli--everything that we needed, you know, to where we didn't have to go far even in that vast city of New York, so we really were trying to find somewhere in Atlanta that would give us some of that same feel.

LOHR: For the past two years, they've seen lots of construction as Atlantic Station started taking shape. Wiedner and Renfro's back deck overlooks a 7,000-space parking garage. A bank tower sprang up, and the Southeast's first IKEA store located here. The couple moved back to Atlanta because Amy was pregnant with their first child, who is now 19 months old. She's excited about the shops, but what Renfro says she hasn't seen is a nearby playground or others like herself.

Ms. AMY RENFRO (Atlanta Resident): I mean, there really aren't any other families here, and so that's something that we were hoping that there would be other people like us, who had children and still wanted to be in an environment like this.

LOHR: Renfro says many of her neighbors are young and single. Some travel for business and are not home much. Others bought for the investment. Two-bedroom town homes sold for about $300,000 a couple of years ago. Those built now start at around $400,000. And there are only a few single-family homes. Those start at more than $600,000, too expensive for Renfro and her husband.

Ms. RENFRO: We can't afford the homes across the street. Love to say that we could, but, you know, unfortunately, we just can't, and so there's really a limited option out there.

LOHR: About 20 percent of the units have been set aside as affordable housing, but the demand is outpacing the supply. In some places, where the new urbanist centers have been built, critics say the architects have not thought about the long-term results of what they're creating.

Mr. JOEL KOTKIN (New America Foundation): We're headed into uncharted territory.

LOHR: Joel Kotkin is with the New America Foundation.

Mr. KOTKIN: It may very well be that most of our cities in the future will be places that are basically for nomadic populations; that is, people who have second homes or young people who are going to live in the city until they get married and they decide that they're going to live somewhere else and they will be replaced by another group of people just like them.

LOHR: Kotkin says true neighborhoods take more than just the right kind of development. He says they're built over decades and take commitment from people who care about the schools, politics and ultimately the well-being of the community, people like Amy Renfro, Joey Wiedner and their daughter.

Mr. WIEDNER: Some friends asked us a while back, `Does it feel like a neighborhood or does it feel like a community?' and you'd think that the obvious answer to that--because we're in town homes and we're literally, you know, sharing a wall with our neighbors, you'd think that the obvious answer to that would be `yeah.' Unfortunately, that's, you know, not necessarily the case. Some of that, though, has been the lack of the business community here as well, because now we're going to get out and we're going to go push our stroller, you know, around, you know, all of these businesses, and we're going to start to see these people outside of their houses more. We're going to pass them on the street. We're going to pass them in front of the movie theater, so I think that this is going to be a huge part of the success of this community as well.

LOHR: As Joey Wiedner stands outside on his back deck, he looks at the construction that continues in Atlantic Station. He says he hopes more families will move in to the city's newest neighborhood.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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