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Dear Decaturish – Atlanta did not do enough to preserve green space at Pullman Yard

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Dear Decaturish – Atlanta did not do enough to preserve green space at Pullman Yard

The Pullman Yard in Kirkwood. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

The Pullman Yard in Kirkwood. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

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Dear Decaturish,

Atlanta is undertaking a visioning effort to preserve the corner stone of our city – its rare native forest tree canopy, original soils, and watershed system. A very different process is taking place in the planning and land entitlement procedures as development thrusts forward in “business as usual” mode, despite talk of “green” development initiatives. Pullman Yard is a good case in point.

Pullman Yard is a 26.8 acre gem of a property nestled in Kirkwood – a historic train yard perched above 10 acres of steep and gently sloping terrain above the headwaters of Hardee Creek with a spring fed marsh at the top of the watershed and remnant native forest tree canopy.

Pullman Yard’s recent history is a story of a public property owned by the State of Georgia. The surrounding neighborhoods and concerned citizens have invested years into trying to create a lasting legacy balancing private investment and long term city and community resilience and wellness. Recently the property was sold by the state and rezoned by the city. The outcome was a partial victory, as the historic buildings will be preserved.  However, it is far from a resilient development solution for the neighborhood and the city.  The city missed opportunity to preserve the last significant green space in East Atlanta (the upper spring fed stream corridor of Hardee Creek) and stem the potential impact of generating several thousand car trips on a site with poor vehicular access, despite being located 1/2 mile from a Marta train station.

The state, city, neighborhoods and concerned citizens should have been able to work together to create a resilient and balanced development solution. City and state should have combined efforts to lead this effort. The 10 acre spring fed upper stream corridor and its slopes could have been protected (currently only 2-3 acres are protected by the 75ft stream buffer) and a model urban ag educational and workforce incubator farm could have been developed. These green spaces could have been offset with denser housing and additional land entitlements provided by the city along Rogers Street and with conservation incentivized tax credits. Ironically this would have raised property values and tax revenues for the city. But this effort required constructive, proactive leadership. These opportunities do not come often. The opportunity to create water shed resilience, wellness education, a spectacular passive recreation destination, and outstanding educational and business incubator opportunities may be lost. At this point these potential sustainable and community initiatives are in the hands of the developer.

Having missed the opportunity for a state and city pro-active leadership effort, the task remaining was for the city to manage the zoning and land entitlement process in a way that represented the long-term interests of the neighborhood and city. That effort, while successful in preserving the historic buildings fell considerably short of protection of the environmental resources of the site.

Key problem areas include:

· Treating it solely as a historic site instead of also as the last significant upper watershed and stream corridor site in east Atlanta.

· Not representing or defending significant portions of the Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) specific amendment for the Pullman Yard that was worked on for years by the neighborhood

· Not requiring a substantive traffic impact analysis before increasing land entitlements for a site with very poor vehicular access that could generate several thousand car trips.

· Giving away development rights beyond present land entitlement (adding uses such as residential and increasing development bulk) without asking for a commensurate value of offset green space/natural infrastructure for a unique stream corridor site

· Negotiating overall development coverage requirements without designating site specific green spaces to be set aside and the conservation means to protect it.

· Not fully planning out the full Rogers St. corridor before proceeding with Pullman Yard

The important thing at this point is for the city to move forward in its planning and land entitlement in a way that is much more representative of the citizens of the city towards a vision for a resilient future.

This author’s view is largely retrospective and at this point we are relying on the developer to accomplish what most developers will not. The developer has expressed community and environmental aspirations for the development, so we remain hopeful that he will set substantive areas of the upper stream corridor aside (outside of the protected 75ft stream buffer), and make a substantive walk/bike/transit development limiting parking and traffic impacts.

The current tools for protecting the last critical green spaces and natural infrastructure in the city are inadequate. What is needed is a substantive resilient planning and land entitlement process. Nothing short of re -assessing the approach to future land use planning, clarifying the land entitlement process and substantively mitigating vehicle trip generation will incorporate the true value of natural infrastructure and walk/transit – ability to create healthy urban growth in Atlanta.

Tim Keane, our current planning commissioner understands well how to correct this development process and preserve the critical natural infrastructure of the city through a process involving offsetting real estate density to preserve green space.  This process requires a careful quantification of both the existing land entitlement and additional development rights gifted to the developer to insure no additional development rights are given by the city without the procurement of commensurate offset of green space/natural infrastructure for the city.  This is not a “taking,” it is simply exacting an exchange where additional development rights offered to the developer is exchanged for a commensurate value of significant green spaces (natural infrastructure).

To move forward with this and substantive walk/bike/transit ability will require a further re-examination on the part of the decision and policy makers.  They will need to:

· Identify and prioritize the key last green spaces/natural infrastructure remaining in the city

· Amend the land use plan to reflect compatibility with preserving and delineating these green spaces/ natural infrastructures.

· Integrate into the zoning review process a clear and quantifiable method for evaluating land entitlement and the value for trading added development rights for green space and incorporating innovative density neutral/offset density/planned development zoning to protect green space.

· Develop substantive maximum parking requirements instead of minimum parking requirements for any projects in pedestrian, bicycle or easy shuttle proximity of transit.

· Clarify city land development economic objectives – short term vs. long term costs/burdens – to promote resilience and sustainability and not allow “give away” development rights without commensurate protection of green spaces.

· Assess how the historic and conservation tax credit system can be improved to facilitate the use of conservation credits by developers who want to preserve green space.

If this process can move forward substantively then Pullman Yard will serve as an example going forward.  To go beyond “business as usual” and link the city’s green initiatives to the planning and land entitlement process so we can insure improved health and prosperity for the city, citizens and developers into the future.

– Greg Ramsey

Editor’s note: Greg Ramsey had previously tried to encourage the city to buy Pullman Yard. The people he was working with eventually submitted a bid when the property went on the market, he said. Ramsey said he was not a part of the group that bid on the property. 

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