Dear Decaturish – Transforming downtown Avondale should start with a plan
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The City of Avondale Estates has an incredible opportunity to define and revitalize its downtown area. The 93 year old city stands at a junction of decisions and development that will shape it for the next 100 years to come. Much of the downtown area is an undeveloped blank slate, including four acres owned by the city itself. How can the city make the most of this opportunity and build a unique, competitive, and viable downtown for the long term? According to development experts, the answer depends in large part on one thing: the public realm.
The public realm is the infrastructure that promotes economic exchange, connectivity, social gatherings, and cultural offerings – the very aspects that create a viable and dynamic downtown. It encompasses walkable blocks, streets, sidewalks, parks, plazas, civic spaces, parking, and even well designed storm water infrastructure.
Classic cities and neighborhoods, those we want to travel to and explore, are not accidents. They are the result of coherent visions and well planned and executed public realms. Take Savannah, Ga., for example; its squares and connecting streets have formed a framework in which the city has grown and evolved over 300 years.
As long time Charleston, SC, mayor, Joe Riley, has said, “The public realm rules.” (Saporta Report, Jan.3, 2015)
According to Richard Dagenhart, Georgia Institute of Technology professor of urban design and city planning, a city should focus far more on establishing a high quality, functional public realm than on the buildings that fill in the blocks. The buildings and businesses can and will vary over time – unlike the basic framework of the public realm which is much harder to change once put place.
Studies have shown that well planned public spaces are economic engines that spur development, increase real estate values, and support retail success. They can confer a unique, distinguishing identity to an area that offers a competitive edge. Quality public spaces have been shown to promote community cohesion, improve quality of life (including physical and mental health), and increase the attachment of residents to their city.
Zoning ordinances alone are not generally enough to provide desired infrastructure and the building of a top-notch public realm is too important to be left to chance or to the good will and loose change of developers.
“The private market will never yield to a higher standard than what the community sets for itself,” says Kirby Glaze, president of Public Private Partnership Management, Inc. Generally, quality private investment follows public infrastructure commitment. Successful partnerships are established when cities show that they, too, have skin in the game. Lyn Menne, assistant city manager of Decatur, has emphasized to taxpayers that citizens are “owners, not customers,” and that they should invest in their communities in the same manner as they do their homes.
Avondale Estates identity has been, until recently, largely defined by its historic residential district. Founder George Willis and his team thoughtfully envisioned and planned an area of intimate scale with a public network of tree-lined streets, sidewalks, paths, plazas, parks and civic gathering places. Avondale’s residential public realm, the form and quality of its public spaces, has given the area a distinct and beloved character.
In recent years, Avondale Estates has compiled and updated visioning documents such as its Comprehensive Plan and Downtown Master Plan. These documents, crafted with community input, outline a vison for a revitalized downtown that reflects and carries forward the character of the historic planned residential district. The Downtown Master Plan, for example, states that the downtown will “follow the holistic city plan first designed by George Willis” and that it will be a “unique pedestrian-oriented town center.” New development will preserve and celebrate the City’s arts and cultural heritage and provide housing and destinations for shopping and services, all within an environment of tree-lined streets, pocket parks, and plazas. (Avondale Estates Downtown Master Plan, 2014) The City has a clearly articulated vision for a new downtown.
However, the planning process is yet to be completed. Typically, a community will go through several rounds of visioning and planning charrettes and meetings which will result in a specific, fully formulated strategic plan. A clear plan is absolutely essential to funding exploration and implementation. Without such a plan, Avondale is not adequately prepared to talk with developers or to commit to public infrastructure projects.
Our citizen advocacy group, Second Century Avondale, was formed over two years ago in response to what we saw as an incomplete Downtown Master Plan and a stalled process. Thankfully, recent efforts by the City indicate it is re-engaging in the process. While this is encouraging, there has been no indication that a comprehensive public realm plan will be developed. Second Century Avondale will continue to urge our city officials to think more boldly and transformatively and to take the necessary steps to complete a well-thought out public realm framework plan. We encourage other citizens to do the same.
Specifically, we will continue to advocate for and support:
1. A comprehensive public space framework plan encompassing the entire downtown area from Clarendon Avenue to Sam’s crossing. Developers are inquiring and we need a plan.
2. A public realm plan that includes a functional street grid, minimum 2 acre town green, the general location of other possible pocket parks and plazas, adequate pedestrian and bike accommodation, planting infrastructure to support canopy trees wherever possible, parking locations for lots/decks, and green storm water infrastructure.
3. A process that engages the public meaningfully and deliberately. Sharing information early speeds up projects, prevents do-overs, and improves the end result. Broad community involvement and support are crucial.
All of the above items are supported by the Downtown Master Plan and many will help endow the downtown with Avondale’s own distinctive flavor.
Avondale Estates has a unique and once in a lifetime opportunity to transform its downtown into a vibrant, attractive, uniquely “Avondale,” walkable urban neighborhood. It is critically important that the community complete the process and develop a strategic plan for a robust public realm.
– Second Century Avondale Founding Group