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10 Thoughts for Hulsey Yard

If you haven’t yet heard (you must live under a rock), CSX has officially vacated Hulsey Yard, a former intermodal freight terminal and our across-the-street neighbor. They have moved the operations of Hulsey to another yard in Fairburn, leaving the 70-acre site that divides four neighborhoods largely empty. Serendipitously, those same neighborhoods have recently kicked off a master planning process to develop a “cohesive, community-supported vision” for the future of this giant property.

We’ve attended the pop-up, we’ve submitted our comments online, but we also want to spread the word about what we think should be done with this site. We are proud residents of Reynoldstown, and our office sits right on the edge of Hulsey. What we want, more than anything, is MORE. More connectivity, more neighbors, more density. There are a few things we want less of, too. Namely, less parking. We’ve outlined some guiding principles below:

1. Uncover the site’s history, and tell its story through design

The site of Hulsey Yard has a rich history that is deeply intertwined with the history and development of Atlanta. Dekalb Avenue is a ridgeline – but not just any old ridgeline – it’s the Eastern Continental Divide. Atlanta exists because of that ridgeline, and so does Hulsey Yard. The ridgeline became the Georgia Railroad, which is today’s CSX line – a still active rail line that parallels two of Atlanta’s most important transportation corridors: Dekalb Ave and the East/West MARTA line. There are layers upon layers of history to uncover – from the pre-development ecology of the site, to the history of the railroad (it was burned in the Civil War!), to the history of the surrounding neighborhoods, to the historic platting and uses of the site (the railroad turntable!). Nods to this history should be integrated into the design of the public space in ways that are open, honest, accessible, and educational. One idea we strongly support is using the historic footprint of the roundtable to make a small park.

2. Lots, blocks and streets, y’all

Good Urbanism 101. Extend the grid, make small blocks, pay attention to fronts and backs. It’s a 70-acre site – for comparison the entire Cabbagetown neighborhood is roughly 85 acres. Think of how many great streets and blocks exist within Cabbagetown, and how similarly sized blocks can be created with that much space. Also, minimize private streets. This doesn’t need to be Atlantic Station or Underground or any other large, private development. It needs to be integrated back into the city fabric.

3. Connect the Beltline the right way – transit and trail

Don’t push the Beltline through Krog – it doesn’t work with transit. Don’t even stay married to its current location on Wylie. The way it works now is a band-aid at best, let’s do it right. We strongly support building a new tunnel that parallels Krog to bring the Beltline straight across Dekalb, and then connecting to the Inman/Reynoldstown MARTA station. Whatever path is ultimately chosen must must must work with future transit. Ryan Gravel knows what needs to be done here, and we agree.

4. Increase connectivity for all modes, but prioritize non-vehicular modes

Sandwiched between two MARTA stations and the Beltline, Hulsey Yard is a prime candidate for walkable, transit-oriented development. Prioritize pedestrian and bicycle (and scooters, skates, etc) connectivity – across the site and across Dekalb. New streets should be slow streets, designed for all modes. Dare I say curbless? Why not be a model for how we want streets to work. If we design streets for cars, cars will come. If we make it easier for people on foot or two wheels, well, convenience usually wins out.

5. Minimize parking, period

With the zoning quick fixes, parking is no longer required for properties within ½ mile of a high capacity transit stop. Hulsey is within ½ mile of two MARTA stations. Not providing a lot of parking can help lower costs for future residents and tenants. This shouldn’t be a bunch of Texas Donuts and million-dollar drive-under townhomes. We need housing, office, and retail spaces that are affordable to a variety of people and businesses. We often hear communities say they don’t want developments to bring traffic, but then hear those same communities demand ample parking decks and wide lanes that maximize traffic flow in the developments. Parking decks and wide lanes bring traffic and they cost a lot of money to build. Unless you want luxury residential and chain retail, forget about parking decks. Demand walkability.

6. Add density

This site can and should support density. The City Design has designated Dekalb Ave as a major growth corridor, and also states a key goal of aligning density with transit. This is the perfect opportunity. Tall and dense is appropriate along Dekalb, small(er) and dense is appropriate along Wylie. Be sensitive to what exists from a form and height perspective, but by all means build densely!

7. Incorporate community spaces

In addition to well designed streets and trails, leave space for things like transit plazas (the Beltline will have transit one day), small parks, and other community oriented public places. We’re not talking about Piedmont Park or anything, just some appropriately scaled urban open spaces – just think of some of your favorite little parks or plazas where you’ve rested for a few minutes or had a coffee while visiting a city. We’d selfishly love somewhere to sit in the shade and people watch, eat lunch, and hold our book club. Our backyard is fine for now, but if we’re dreaming…

8. Mix uses, for real

This site can support office, retail and residential. It shouldn’t just be residential buildings, or even just residential buildings with ground floor retail. Speaking from experience, it’s a great area of town to work in, and could provide a great alternative to the high office rents of Midtown and Downtown. Added bonus: more office space near residential reduces traffic by allowing people to live and work in close proximity – and even if they don’t, MARTA is only a few steps away.

9. Restore ecology

The site is currently a barren wasteland, but historic maps show streams and perhaps even vegetation once inhabited the site, if you can imagine. The site could be a model for best practices of green infrastructure and ecosystem rehabilitation, other stated goals of Atlanta City Design. While walkable, transit-oriented development is arguably the most sustainable thing that can be done, this site could be a leader in innovative sustainable design practices. Perhaps the city could partner to pioneer some new district-scale technologies.

10. Invent with vigor, but not without reason

We’re so happy these conversations are happening at the community level, but many more stakeholders need to be engaged to promote a meaningful, and ultimately realistic vision. The neighborhoods should certainly have a say, but so should the City, particularly because this site has the ability to illustrate many of the goals of the Atlanta City Design. MARTA should also be engaged. A lot of people are advocating for an infill station at Krog. While we’re not against this, there are a lot of external factors at play in this decision. No plan should preclude an infill station, but no plan should hang its hat on it either. The Beltline should be engaged, of course, and I’m sure they already are. CSX should be engaged. Not because they still own the property, but because the rail lines that form the north/south barrier are not going away, and new at-grade crossings almost never happen. Creating visions and plans that aren’t grounded in conversations about what is possible can often lead to disappointment, and worst of all, to nothing ever happening.

Ask anyone who has lived in Atlanta longer than a few months, and they would agree that the City is changing. Rapid growth is happening City-wide, and undeveloped land is disappearing. While we should strive for every development – big and small – to support and further the City Design core values of Equity, Progress, Ambition, Access, and Nature, we think that with these 10 guiding principles Hulsey Yards is our big opportunity to make a statement about the kind of Atlanta we want to be.

Also, check out Eric Kronberg’s thoughts on Hulsey Yard on What’s Next ATL!


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