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Opinion: South DeKalb needs more ‘third places’

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Opinion: South DeKalb needs more ‘third places’

King Williams
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King Williams is a local journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has a newsletter of his own, I Am King Williams, that covers the intersections of Atlanta to the world. He is also very vocal on Instagram and Twitter.

By King Williams, contributor 

This epiphany started with me one morning earlier this month. I was looking for a place to catch up on emails and work. Like most people, I decided to work from home and find a place nearby. My criteria were simple: be open, available, wifi friendly, low cost, and within a few miles of where I was at the time, in this case, Candler Road.

I chose the easiest choice, a coffee shop, which would be accommodating to all my criteria. I chose to focus my search on a coffee shop nearby. It is one of the few places built for early mornings, remote workers, open long hours, and wifi enabled. 

I quickly searched on Google, but nothing. Then, I looked at my maps app, but nothing came up. Searched on Instagram, then Twitter, to see if there was any conversation on places near me, but nothing. 

So, I changed my criteria to libraries, which were all closed. Then to restaurants, but only fast food restaurants and Waffle Houses came up. In terms of any businesses open, it was just gas stations.

Even when expanding my map, nothing around fit my criteria. This went as far east as Stone Mountain. The further I moved away east or south from Candler Road, the more limited the options were. 

What was supposed to be a simple choice of finding a location to work from home turned into an ordeal. But it exposed a more significant problem.

South DeKalb needs more third places—accessible public spaces for various people, activities, and lifestyles. 

It may not be on the radar for any 2024 DeKalb CEO candidates or commissioners, but it should be. South DeKalb is stuck in its suburban past, leading to a slow decline in reputation and economic outlook. So, to embrace a better future, it’s time to focus on creating more third places. 

What is a ‘third place’?

A third place is a place that is for informal, unstructured, and unrequired attendance. It’s the “third place” outside the required “first place” of the home and the “second place” of work and school. It’s a chosen place for an individual or group for socializing activities. 

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg first coined the term to address the decline of civic engagement in the US due to decades of suburban models of retail, residential neighborhoods, and social gathering spaces. Oldenburg cited that the lack of public meeting places also led to a decline in economic and social value due to the lack of interconnectedness from third places. 

Since Oldenburg’s first study was released over 20 years ago, cities and towns across the globe have been addressing how to build better communities by incentivizing more social interactions between people. This has led to community revitalization through new commercial development, residential growth, and increased economic activity. All these are things that a place as varied as South DeKalb could use. 

What is considered South DeKalb?

DeKalb can be defined into two halves: North DeKalb and South DeKalb. Then, it can subdivided into two more halves, northwest and northeast, southwest and southeast. 

South DeKalb is roughly all the communities starting south of downtown Decatur at Memorial Drive. Moving west back towards Atlanta, east towards Stone Mountain, and all of the communities south, comprising roughly 300,000+ people. 

Communities such as Redan, Lithonia, Arabia Mountain, Stonecrest, and the southern portion of Stone Mountain are to the southeast. While Panthersville, Gresham Park, Ellenwood/Cedar Grove, Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta are to the southwest. 

What constitutes a ‘third place’?

Third places come in a variety of options. This includes coffee shops, diners, bookstores, restaurants, coworking spaces, and nightlife spaces like bars, lounges, breweries, and clubs. Parks, rec centers, trails, bike trails, parks, benches, playgrounds, and skate parks are typical government-run third place entities providing areas for people as they are typically low-cost or have free entry. 

The problems with DeKalb’s current third places

But in DeKalb, most parks are primarily isolated, requiring a car to attend. This is often accompanied by no social infrastructure such as visible signage, streetlights, sidewalks, bike lanes, or operating hours conducive to residents. This leaves most of these would-be third places in South DeKalb abandoned or underutilized. 

This also leads to an exit from neighborhoods to parks outside the community with most of the social infrastructure, such as Stone Mountain Park. Or parks with social and retail infrastructure, such as Piedmont Park and the Atlanta BeltLine’s eastside and southside trails. The explosion of the BeltLine with development should be a wake-up call to DeKalb’s political and business leadership. 

While on the commercial and retail side, there has been relatively little action in South DeKalb outside of new rubber stamps for gas stations, dollar stores, and fast food restaurants. And those that have been attempted recently, such as the needed but misaligned New Black Wall Street project in Stonecrest and the various attempts to revitalize the mall, have mostly fallen flat. In part, both projects attempt to recreate old commercial development ideas popular 20-30 years ago instead of focusing on the need for more minor, more localized approaches defined by having more third places.

Why does South DeKalb need third places?

South DeKalb needs an infusion of new energy, and prioritizing third places should be considered part of a larger strategy. 

South DeKalb isn’t growing. It’s declining. This is partly due to a lack of third places in the area. Places where people of varying ages and needs can meet and congregate. For the last 20 years, the overall gains in population growth, new development, and rebounding home prices have been focused in the northwest and southwest sections of the county, with communities closest to Atlanta city limits benefiting the most. The further eastward, the more this drops off. 

I went through East Lake, Kirkwood, and Oakhurst to find coffee shops open and several complimentary businesses throughout these areas. I then noticed other things like bars, restaurants, shops, small parks, small-footprint grocery stores, and various national and local retailers. I also noticed how few fast food and chain restaurants were around and how many residents were out before 10 a.m. 

South DeKalb is the most dense county in the metro area. It is also one of the youngest, but decades of suburban sprawl have influenced not only the design and development patterns of the county but also reflected in the ethos of the development here.

Appeal to the current and future homeowners; Millennials, not Boomers

In 2023, the lack of third places directly correlates to the lack of new or increased economic activity. 

The millennial homeowners have demanded more urban suburbs and better cities. Third places are vital for the retention of residents and attracting new ones. 

South DeKalb’s base of homeowners is aging. The growth in new homeowners is happening primarily in the southwest and northwest corners of the county, either directly in the city of Atlanta or in places near the county. Places that have prioritized building out better pedestrian-friendly communities and a greater emphasis on having third places anchor new residential developments. 

Suppose you live anywhere in South DeKalb outside the periphery of East Atlanta, Kirkwood, and Decatur. In that case, you mainly live in a suburban area where the urban planning and economic development ideas of 30 years ago are still in effect. Which for some is OK. But for others who’ve seen the rapid changes in development, new economic growth, and rise in new businesses across the metro over the last 10 years, it’s not. 

The former prized suburban corridors are primarily in decline 

While searching for a simple coffee shop, I drove through a lot of the county. This time, I chose to stay along the large thoroughfares that divide DeKalb. I went down Candler Road, then Memorial Drive, encompassing primarily vacant, mostly sprawling aging shopping centers, fast food restaurants, gas stations, and nothing resembling a place to sit down and wait for the bus—the same is true for significant corridors of Covington Highway, Glenwood, and Wesley Chapel.

South DeKalb is stuck in the past. It has been hard to make the area attractive to the growing millennial homebuying population partly due to its lack of third places and doubling down on destructive suburban development patterns. The area has not seen modern development since Stonecrest Mall arrived in 2001. Now, 22 years later, it is in a similar position to other malls in the metro area, with declining interest, vacancies, and plans that have yet to go anywhere—located farther away from newer, wealthier enclaves. The same enclaves prompt them up in the first place. 

And when modernity occurs, it occurs along the border to Atlanta, making some portions of southeast DeKalb more in line with the northwest side of the county. Particularly East Atlanta/Village, Moreland Ave., Bouldercrest Road, Memorial Drive, Eastlake, Kirkwood, Orwood, and slowly Gresham Park. All places actively see new third places pop up and are accompanied by the necessary social infrastructure.

For third places to thrive in DeKalb, it will take a three-pronged strategy.

This suburbanization has left large pockets of the county, mainly in southwest and southeast DeKalb, limited in its food, activities, and leisure options, resulting in a continual decline or stagnation. But this can be changed. 

Third places are mostly absent the further you move south in the county. That portion of the county is two-to-three development generations behind its peers to the north. South DeKalb can move forward, but it needs to do a few things first.

First, identify the local demographics and show a potential need for types of third places. This will be followed by surveying residents and assessing independently what places need to be added. 

Second, identify what current commercial and residential corridors could be redeveloped. Or need more development. 

Third, identify what places are most accessible to open for in-fill development that doesn’t require much infrastructure commitments.

The spatial sprawl is also at the center of the problem 

With a land mass, the size of some counties, and a population to match, a better way to energize the stagnation in South DeKalb is to develop better ideas on creating more third places.

Unfortunately, the last 40 years of development and DeKalb has followed the 30 years of suburban development from the 1940s to 1970s. This type of development emphasizes long drive times, large parking lots, and retail centers for people to shop and then go home. 

Unfortunately, for a county as diverse in geography as DeKalb, this produces problems decade after decade. Producing shopping malls, strip malls, big box stores, grocery stores, department stores, and retail centers has left most of the county in a spatial development sprawl. This makes it harder to develop the smaller footprint, smaller third place venues taking off in other parts of the county and city of Atlanta.

This is why the focus of creating third places in South DeKalb should be:

— Redeveloping existing strip malls

— Redeveloping existing stand-alone buildings 

— Providing amenities that reduce out-of-community drive times

— Changing local zoning laws to encourage mixed-use development

— Providing lower rates of taxes for startup small, third place businesses 

— Following millennial and Gen Z spending patterns in the metro area

— Raising taxes to create the social infrastructure needed to support third places

— Reducing the granting of gas stations, fast food, warehouses, and liquor stores

— Prioritizing nightlife businesses for those 21-30 and those 49-64

— Identifying dense corridors for redevelopment or in-fill development 

While all of these should be a part of a larger strategy, they should be paired with the already existing plans in the county. It also should be paired with a door-to-door and online campaign to show current residents that we’re thinking of how to make South DeKalb better for them. Explain the gaps in how the county has led to sprawl and less value capture of our varying communities. 

I believe in and love South DeKalb, but our leadership, business leaders, and overall development seem like they don’t know why we are not growing. Especially when it comes to development strategies, which seem to align with the glory days of decades ago, the future is now built on smaller footprints and more communal places. Still, it makes me concerned that maybe we’ll be once again on the outside looking in on growth. If you disagree with me, let’s get a cup of coffee in South DeKalb. 

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