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Embracing History to Promote Urban Revitalization

Image © Gensler

“What defines a character of a city is its public space, not its private space. What defines the value of the private assets of the space are not the assets by themselves but the common assets. The value of the public good affects the value of the private good. We need to show every day that public spaces are an asset to a city.” —UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos i Matheu

Since World War II, urban renewal policies have played a significant role in shaping cities in the United States. Today, cities continue to evolve as we learn from the successes, failures, and impact of past urban renewal efforts.

Cities are living entities, constantly transforming and responding to their own architectural and cultural agendas. When you stage an urban intervention in an existing urban fabric, it will transform not only the physical context, but its surrounding environment and social character as well. Ultimately, the activity of the people and the use they give to the space will determine such changes. At Gensler, we believe the definition of good placemaking is creating spaces where design functions for human needs and gives the community a sense of ownership and engagement.

Our design to revitalize an underutilized parking lot site adjacent to the historic Underground Atlanta attempts to catalyze economic development, build a sense of community, and restore a spirit of civic identity and cultural relevance to a place that is rich in history. This area dates back to the emergence of Atlanta as a railroad town in the 1830s.

Located next to the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, Underground Atlanta has endured multiple transformations. In the 1920s, viaducts were built over the existing streets to facilitate traffic congestion, and in 1969 it became the home of retail shops, bars, night clubs, and restaurants. For the last 25 years, this area has experienced major changes in terms of maintenance and safety, causing it to lose some of its connection to the community.

The fundamental idea behind our design solution is to revitalize the site and improve its connectivity to the surrounding urban fabric through a dynamic, multilevel platform that originates from four main strategies.

Image © Gensler

Reconnect people

To reconnect people with each other and the surrounding urban context, the project focuses on exploring the ground plane and the significance of the public square. The ground plane will directly connect to adjacent access points at different elevations, allowing a fluid pedestrian circulation as well as an architecture that permeates outward toward the ground levels and integrates commerce, civic, and public activities.

Embrace history

The site includes the historic Georgia Railroad Freight Depot building. This iconic one-story structure will be restored and repurposed as the Railroad History Museum. We will add two stories below and connect the museum to the depressed public level. The museum will serve as a reminder of the historic importance of the site, and the connection to the plaza will bring back the vitality it once had as a center for trade and commerce in the 1930s.

Create a multiuse destination

Established at a crossroads and train station stop, Underground Atlanta emerged as a place where people gathered to exchange goods and ideas. Our solution offers a variety of options to do this in one location, making the place more than the sum of its parts. Integrating public and private spaces, this project offers a combination of uses to the community, including retail shops, restaurants, museums, and a public plaza for community events. It will provide activities for people of all ages, ethnic groups, and income levels.

Reinvigorate the community

Adjacent to the site are important civil buildings like the Georgia State Capitol, the House of Representatives, the Atlanta City Hall, and various Gothic-style churches. The design focuses on the ground level and below, respecting the existing relevant structures and allowing visual connection through the open space. It will be a public square that acts as a focal point of civic pride and helps citizens feel connected to their cultural and political institutions. At the same time, there are spaces for the community to decide what makes their public area a destination: public performances, art, movies, or a market for local products and vendors.

Placemaking is a complex and organic process. It combines thoughtful planning and design with the real life experiences of the surrounding community. Our design sets the stage for locals to take over and use their talents and resources to benefit the city of Atlanta.

Jack Ossa has an infectious passion for design, always interested in the intersection of business, creativity, and culture to generate value and enhance experiences. His personal mission is to empower people to be leaders and pursue their dreams with passion through the power of design. He is a project architect and digital design leader in Gensler’s Charlotte office. Some of his most notable projects include the worldwide corporate headquarters for SPX Corporation and the new office building The Duke Endowment foundation. Contact him at jack_ossa@gensler.com.

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