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Dear Decaturish – A letter to the Decatur City Commission about the East Lake MARTA project

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Dear Decaturish – A letter to the Decatur City Commission about the East Lake MARTA project

The entrance to the East Lake MARTA station. Photo obtained via Wikimedia Commons
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The entrance to the East Lake MARTA station. Photo obtained via Wikimedia Commons

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Dear Decaturish and Decatur City Commissioners,

I want to express my opposition to MARTA’s proposed project at the East Lake station.  To quote an elderly resident who has lived on Leland Terrace since 1966, “It looks like MARTA has put a bulls-eye on our neighborhood”.

DENSITY AND HEIGHT

MARTA has presented a plan to replace its parking lots at the East Lake station with 430 apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail on 10 acres of land.  The buildings are planned to range from three to five stories in height.

MARTA asserts that one of the goals of this project is to, “Establish the scale of future development that enhances and protects the surrounding residential neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately the plan fails to meet this goal:  both the density and height of the proposed development are completely out of scale with the surrounding residential neighborhoods of Oakhurst, Lenox Park, Kirkwood, Lake Claire and Druid Hills.

With the exception of several small businesses housed in vintage storefronts along College Avenue, the AT&T buildings and a church, the area immediately adjacent to the East Lake station consists entirely of single family homes, most of which are one story, many of which were constructed in the early 20th century.

If built, MARTA’s proposed development would be the most radical change these neighborhoods have experienced since they were created 100 years ago.  And these neighborhoods, Oakhurst and Kirkwood in particular, have undergone major changes through the years.  The 1960’s and 1970’s witnessed a period of blockbusting, facilitated by unscrupulous real estate agents and developers who played on racial fears. Over a number of years, these neighborhoods slowly recovered and revitalized. The people who have moved here did so partly because they enjoy the human scale of our neighborhoods. As a result, residents of Oakhurst and Kirkwood already walk to their small but vibrant business districts to enjoy the restaurants and retail stores.

 

 

WESTERN DECATUR IS NOT DOWNTOWN DECATUR

The historical land use of the neighborhoods around the East lake station contrasts sharply with that of Decatur’s downtown.  For many decades downtown Decatur has had mostly businesses in its core:  land use in the city center has not been primarily one story residential.

Over the past 15 years, many multi-story buildings have been built in downtown.  The heart of Decatur lends itself well as a location for multi-story apartments and condos.  Residents of downtown can walk to a grocery, two pharmacies, the public library, numerous restaurants and retail stores, as well as the county courthouse and city hall.  High rise, high density buildings work well in downtown Decatur.  I do not believe such structures will work as well in Avondale, where MARTA is completing another huge project.  However, the areas surrounding this Avondale development are primarily commercial and industrial, not single family residential.

Unlike downtown Decatur or possibly Avondale, high rise, high density structures have not been part of, nor will they add any benefit to, the neighborhoods of one story single family homes near the East Lake station.  Construction of such dense and tall structures will not in any way “enhance and protect the surrounding residential neighborhoods”.

TRAFFIC IMPACTS

Another stated goal of this project is to increase MARTA’s ridership.  MARTA claims that this project, perhaps magically by its very existence, will get people out of their cars and increase the number of people who walk, bike or take Marta.  But MARTA has provided no evidence whatsoever that this project will indeed increase its ridership.  This goal is simply wishful thinking by MARTA.

MARTA provides a great way to access downtown Decatur and Atlanta, Midtown, parts of Buckhead, North Springs and the airport.  The main reason there aren’t more riders on the trains is that MARTA just doesn’t go to many of the places where people want and need to go.  While buses supplement the trains and provide transportation for those without cars, buses are not an alternative for most people who own a car.  Over the past ten years there has been increased traffic congestion, longer delays at stop signs and more difficulty turning from side streets onto East Lake Drive, College Avenue and Howard Street.  This is a situation that local residents deal with every day and night.  MARTA’s proposed plans ignore this reality.  The project’s “solutions” to traffic issues are limited to more stop signs and traffic calming, which have been ineffective under the present circumstances.

This proposed project designates 537 parking spaces for its residents and retail customers.  It seems obvious that the area’s already difficult traffic situation will worsen with the addition of 537 cars driving to and from the station area.

Then there’s the issue of parking.  With such a large project, there will undoubtedly be times when the onsite parking decks are full.  MARTA riders (and visitors to the project’s residents, since each resident will have only one assigned parking space) will then park their cars on nearby streets.  Parking is already restricted on narrow Winter Avenue which (along with Leland Terrace) is closest to ground zero.  How will this project impact parking for residents of existing one family houses whose driveways only fit one vehicle or who do not have driveways?

IMPACT ON OUR SCHOOLS

Construction of such a large development will undoubtedly result in increased school enrollment. Due to its reputation, many parents go to extraordinary lengths to send their children to City of Decatur schools.  Enrollment at City of Decatur schools has increased tremendously over the past ten years.  While the proposed apartments may be marketed to singles and empty nesters, there is nothing to prevent a single parent from living in a studio apartment with their child, or an affluent family renting an apartment in order to qualify as Decatur residents.

ESTABLISHING THE SCALE OF FUTURE DEVELOPMENT

Although MARTA states that this project will “enhance and protect the surrounding neighborhoods”, this is difficult for me to believe.  Its claim to “establish the scale of future development” means that the present scale of our neighborhoods will be replaced by denser, multi-story development.

If this project is built, it is almost certain that the areas adjacent to the East Lake station will be ripe for rezoning.  After all, with its five story edifices, this project will serve as a convenient precedent.  Land developers will be eager to assemble several adjoining properties.  With a bit of rezoning, they can then raze perfectly good homes and storefronts to construct multi-story, multi-family structures radiating from the station along College, Howard and Winter Avenues, as well as Leland Terrace.  Such developers have already displayed their rapaciousness over the past 10+ years in Oakhurst, Kirkwood and communities throughout intown Atlanta.  In that period of time old and new residents have witnessed the bulldozing of scores of classic vintage homes, many of which were sound and could have been repaired.  Rather than renovating, these builders opted to replace existing homes with oversized structures not in scale or character with the adjacent older homes.  These new one family houses are still well below the 35′ maximum height for single family structures.  However, their size pales by comparison with the five story towers this project offers as a way of supposedly “enhancing and protecting” the housing stock already built in our neighborhoods in western Decatur.

While these larger single family homes were being built in Oakhurst and Kirkwood, housing prices in our neighborhoods, particularly since 2000, rose steadily.  In the past five years these prices have shot up dramatically.   The result is many of our older residents find “aging in place” in their own homes to be unaffordable and younger buyers are unable to pay the higher prices.

THE BOTTOM LINE

MARTA doesn’t care one iota about the existing neighborhoods of Oakhurst, Lenox Park, Kirkwood, Lake Claire or Druid Hills.  With this plan MARTA seeks to create as dense a project as possible for the only reason it apparently does care about:  its own bottom line.

Revenues generated from development at East Lake will provide more income to MARTA and tax revenues to Decatur and Atlanta than using this land for parking.  But at what price?  While building as many units as possible on a tract of land so as to squeeze out every last dollar of profit has been a paradigm of development in general, such a course of action does not have to happen.

CONCLUSION

The density and height of this project will not “enhance and protect the character of the existing neighborhoods”:  they will destroy this character.  A project of this size, in this location, will result in more population, more traffic, more school enrollment, more demand on our water, sewer and sanitation infrastructures.  The project’s scale will inevitably open the door to further construction of multi-story, high density buildings.  The brunt of these external costs will be borne most heavily by residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, the majority of whom are your constituents.

On a human scale, a five story “front porch” is neither welcoming nor inviting.  MARTA’s proposed buildings will act as a wall, a tall barrier, between the neighborhoods on both sides of the tracks.  Our community’s small town character, the very thing that draws people to Decatur, will be sacrificed for the sake of rampant growth.

Any vestiges of quiet and tranquility that still remain in western Decatur will no longer exist.  The ability to enjoy a morning or evening stroll or jog, to push a baby carriage or walk a dog, will no longer be pleasant or safe.  Furthermore, walking to and from the East Lake station will be more difficult because of even more cars cutting through our neighborhoods.

The quality that distinguishes Decatur from all other municipalities is at stake.  In its Mission Statement the City of Decatur states:  “Our mission is to work with the citizens of Decatur to meet the needs of the community while serving all with respect and integrity.  We strive to do so with Competence, Accessibility, Responsiveness and Excellence.”  If that is so, you have no choice but to deny MARTA’s request to rezone.

Sincerely,

Jay Palmer

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