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Decatur downtown master plan includes ideas for redesigning the Square

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Decatur downtown master plan includes ideas for redesigning the Square

Luis Calvo (far left), senior associate with MKSK, presented concepts for redesigning the Decatur Square during a downtown master plan community meeting on April 27, 2023, at the Decatur Recreation Center. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — The city of Decatur hosted a community meeting on the Decatur Town Center Plan on Thursday, April 27. The planning team shared some of the plan’s action items. One of them includes redesigning the Decatur Square.

The city commission will begin discussing the plan this month and will likely consider adopting the plan in June. The April 27 meeting was the final community meeting for the downtown master plan, but there will be opportunities for public comment at upcoming city commission meetings.

The plan was first adopted in 1982, and this is the first comprehensive look at downtown Decatur since then. The city is working with MKSK, Inc. to develop the downtown master plan.

The consultants have gotten input from about 950 people throughout its public engagement opportunities. Luis Calvo, senior associate with MKSK, shared the top three priorities from the community meetings. One of the priorities is to include more green space and plazas downtown, especially as part of new development.

“We also heard that downtown streets need to be improved, especially to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists,” Calvo said. “We also have heard about the experience of coming downtown, and there’s a lot of support for a downtown ambassador program, something to help visitors and residents alike feel more comfortable in the space.”

One of the plan’s goals is to create welcoming and vibrant open spaces, parks, and plazas. The consultants have heard a lot about the Square from the community. The first objective is to create a more comfortable Decatur Square with amenities that attract daily activity and flexible, accessible spaces for community events.

The concept for improving the Square aims to make it more comfortable for visitors and residents and extend the energy of the Square, so it permeates throughout the rest of downtown, Calvo said.

The Square is the center of the city. It’s a place where people come together and where festivals occur. The Square currently includes the bandstand, the plaza and buildings that have active uses for ground-level retail. There are also entrances to the MARTA bus and train terminals on the Square.

“Even though there are a lot of strengths and benefits with how the Square operates today, it does come with a lot of challenges and some design issues that are preventing it from being even better than it already functions,” Calvo said.

He added that the concept for the Square is about simplicity and flexibility.

“It’s about opening up the Square in some instances, removing some of those barriers that are preventing circulation and people moving through the Square, and creating some spaces that are more flexible for events, but are also more comfortable for daily use,” Calvo said.

The current bandstand would be replaced and relocated closer to Swanton Way and the bus terminal.

“Our first hope is actually to relocate the existing bandstand to a different location and open up the central gathering space by the [historic] courthouse and create a flexible greenspace,” Calvo said. “That flexible greenspace will allow for better events that are facing the greenspace but also facing the plaza space.”

The plan also suggests opening up the area around the bus terminal and providing a more visual entry to the Square. The MARTA ventilation structure would be wrapped with supergraphic and would be integrated into the new pavilion and stage area, according to the presentation.

The plaza on the other side of the Square near Church Street and the MARTA train station would also be redesigned.

“Our concept includes a standalone retail, restaurant pavilion, and it could also be potentially a home for the Decatur visitor’s center, and anchoring that plaza on top of the MARTA station with some movable furniture and statement umbrellas and seating, things to liven it up a little…,” Calvo said.

East Court Square could become more of a pedestrian-first environment. It currently is a one-way parking loop. Calvo presented two options.

“The first of which is to rethink East Court Square as a flexible street and as a pedestrian-first environment so that it would be a curbless street with trees and some seating areas,” he said. “During the weekends, it could be closed off easily with some removable bollards. It could still function as a street with parking during peak times.”

The second option rethinks the space as a pedestrian plaza that’s fully closed to traffic and has permanent seating areas. A water feature would anchor both options.

To see the concepts and the full presentation, click here.

The other project goals, objectives, and action items are:

– Balance land use patterns with human-centered design.

Objectives under this goal include supporting pedestrian-oriented development, diversifying the housing ecosystem, and ensuring that new development has various amenities.

The action items are leveraging housing development, promoting affordable housing, and evaluating future changes to the unified development ordinance, the city’s zoning code.

Regarding changes to the UDO, Andrew Overbeck, principal at MKSK, described two scenarios for zoning. The city could continue using the existing mixed-use zoning code or look at a form-based one.

“A Downtown Decatur form-based code would offer a way to break down downtown into a framework of multiple subareas, each with distinguishing qualities and characteristics,” the presentation states.

– Stimulate economic growth in the downtown area.

These objectives include strengthening the small business and entrepreneurial ecosystem, establishing a commercial marketing and tenanting strategy, and creating opportunities for quality hotel development.

The action items are: focus retail efforts to define a unique downtown experience, attract more visitors, create a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs, and seek greater synergy between big employers and downtown Decatur.

“No. 1, creating that local distinctive retail, creating that authentic and realistic identity, having branding around that, creating finite retail and dining energy,” Matt Wetli with Development Strategies said. Development Strategies is also part of the consulting team that’s drafting the downtown master plan.

He added that having retail and dining options in a concentrated area creates a sense of vibrancy and activity.

– Promote mobility enhancements that improve connectivity.

One of the objectives is to focus on key corridor improvements, such as Ponce de Leon Avenue and Commerce Drive. The objectives also include expanding downtown’s bicycle infrastructure, leveraging planned MARTA improvements, and transforming underutilized commercial streets and parking areas into festival or flexible spaces.

Some of these action items include reinvesting in the Ponce de Leon streetscape, extending the Commerce Drive complete streets project, and creating a shared pedestrian-first street on Ponce Place.

Calvo suggested consolidating curb cuts on Ponce de Leon Avenue to ensure continuous pedestrian experience, expanding sidewalk tree planters, using placemaking and art to enliven some spaces, and investing in crosswalks and intersections.

Regarding Commerce Drive, the consultants recommended reducing Commerce Drive to three lanes near the former Baby Kroger and adding raised bike lanes and expanded sidewalks.

– Support a resilient and environmentally sustainable downtown.

The project objectives are to recognize and measure the urban heat island effect, advance citywide sustainability goals, and encourage sustainable downtown development and growth practices.

Some of the action items include increasing the street tree canopy, continuing to implement green stormwater infrastructure, updating streetlights and reviewing lighting standards, expanding electric vehicle charging locations, and updating the streetscape standards to use cooler and lighter-colored pavement.

– Enhance downtown’s historic character and unique identity.

The downtown master plan looks at retaining and preserving downtown’s historically significant buildings, telling the story of the city through interpretive signage and historical markers, and continuing to evaluate the inclusion of new buildings to existing districts.

The action items are to conserve historic properties’ existing elements and design, promote downtown’s rich history, list newly identified buildings individually eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and identify and protect new and existing historic resources.

“We’d also like to propose some tools to identify and protect historic resources through local action. The first of which is incentivizing the investment into historic structures and using historic preservation as an economic development tool,” Calvo said.

– Improve the quality of the downtown experience.

Part of the objectives includes continuing to address the needs of the unhoused population by providing outreach and connections to service organizations.

“One of the things we’ve heard from folks is it’s hard to find your way around downtown. We want to make it so that if you’re a visitor downtown, you park once, and you walk everywhere. Part of that is making sure we’ve got updated, upgraded, and expanded downtown wayfinding signage,” Overbeck said.

The consultants have also heard a lot about parking. Some of the action items include improving downtown public parking garages and updating current parking pricing.

He added that one thing the consultants have heard from the community was that there is a need for clearer and concise parking information, rules and pricing. The information would need to be consistent across public and private lots.

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