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Piedmont Park expansion opens, adds sense of escape into nature

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A major expansion of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, the long overburdened principal public space of this park-poor city, is nearing completion. Just providing access to 53 additional acres represents a huge improvement in itself. (The major part of that opened to the public this week.) But the expansion also adds a kind of environment — and a sense of escape into nature — that’s been missing until now.

The park as we’ve known it is green but rather civilized. It’s programmed, in the language of architecture, for a range of activities that in total draw huge throngs. It has scenic drives (now reserved for walkers, bicyclists and skaters, a mix that even without cars can still produce collisions), picnic lawns and playing fields, a swimming pool and spaces that accommodate frequent events large and small including weddings, theatrical performances, film screenings, concerts, charity walks and runs, a green market, and an overcrowded calendar of annual festivals.

By comparison, much of the extension has a distinctly leafy, earthy, natural feel. It encompasses wetlands, creeks, forest paths and soaring topography. But pristine it is not. Making it into a park is a reclamation project — a reclamation, that is, of kudzu thickets, eroding hillsides, trash-filled woods and an ugly channelized waterway that is part of the city’s sewer system.

This extension is as much a reclamation of overgrown urban waste ground as Atlantic Station was of a toxic defunct steel mill. And Atlantic Station may be pedestrian-oriented, but of the two, the Piedmont Park extension is surely where you will prefer to stroll.

When the Atlanta Botanical Garden announced plans, in 2005, to build a multi-story parking deck in Piedmont Park, many intown residents went wild in opposition. Some objections were to the lack of public input and the opacity of the political process involved. Rightly enough: there can never be too much transparency, after all, and while public participation does need limits if anything is ever to get done, too much citizen involvement in planning has not as a rule been a problem in Atlanta.

Other objections, however, were based on misapprehensions of the role of an urban park and, less defensibly, on a sense of entitlement on the part of some people lucky and affluent enough to live within walking distance of this priceless public amenity. Fifteen years earlier I had Midtown friends who bitched when the Piedmont Park Conservancy was founded, believe it or not. Back then the park was sadly deteriorated and occasionally dangerous, but they charged elitism and feared that the conservancy’s improvements, which generally speaking have been marvelous, would draw too many people. It’s that familiar old knee-jerk reaction: Not in My Back Yard.

For planting the seeds of that aforementioned misapprehension about what an urban park can be, we can thank Frederick Law Olmsted and other naturalistic-landscape designers of his day. (That includes his sons, who designed Atlanta’s Grant Park and in 1910 produced a master plan for Piedmont, though it was never fully implemented.) Olmsted’s great works, such as Central Park in Manhattan and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, look as if they were created by earthly forces down the eons. That’s a big part of why they are so beloved. They’re not just vital open spaces for recreation.

Urban plazas and playgrounds and promenades provide that, too, without ever hiding the fact that they have been designed and built. By contrast, the big naturalistic urban parks are simulacra of the wild. They’re not real wilderness, of course, but they’re convincing enough in their contrast to the adjacent concrete jungles to evoke magic. Just looking at a photo of tall Fifth Avenue apartment houses rising over the meadows and woods of Central Park can lower your blood pressure. Still, Central Park isn’t natural; it was plotted on a drawing board and then constructed.

The high, dense forest that makes up a good part of the Piedmont Park expansion might feel as if it’s been there forever, but it’s no more original to the site than the artfully placed rock outcrops of Central Park. These woods grow on land that was cleared by 19th-century settlers. That’s part of why one objection to the parking deck, that it would consume an invaluable acre of unspoiled habitat, didn’t hold up. To preserve virgin forest, or even second-growth forest sizable enough for viable wildlife habitat, you’d best look somewhere beyond a minuscule thicket of trees at the center of a sprawling metropolis.

This is not an argument for clear cutting and paving over. The mostly treeless, unfortunately sun-blasted expanse of Centennial Olympic Park downtown has its virtues and uses. But it doesn’t meet the need of city dwellers for rolling vistas and shady spots where water can be heard trickling.

Which is why another argument against the parking deck didn’t hold up. Of course the deck’s nearly 800-car capacity increases park usage, just as this new expansion will do. And of course these improvements will increase auto traffic around the park’s perimeter.

But Piedmont Park belongs to everybody. Solving the city’s dire transportation predicament isn’t the job of the parks department or the conservancy. Improving — or in this economy just managing to maintain — the parks is. Someday, all being well, citizens who live too far away to get to Piedmont Park on foot or bike (or who can’t, or won’t, walk the mile from Midtown MARTA) will be able to hop off a BeltLine tram right there. In the meantime, since they’re as entitled as anybody to enjoy this beautiful place, some of them are going to come by car.

Anyway, the parking deck is a fait accompli. If you are still steamed about it, a visit to the new extension — which makes the park big enough, meandering enough and woodsy enough to let you imagine getting safely and therapeutically lost — should go a long way toward calming you down. The expansion is a work in progress and will remain one for some time to come. But it’s already obvious that it’s a wonderful thing. This intown citizen’s opinion? Yes in Our Back Yard.

As you explore, try to squint a little into the future. Even in the part that is now opening, there are still lots of erosion fences and bare spots awaiting future planting. There are several new access points into the park, but also places where the interface with the city remains raw and nothing like the graceful, mature zones of transition along Tenth Street and Piedmont Avenue.

Right now you can get a pretty bleak vista of the backsides of industrial buildings along Dutch Valley Road, many teetering scarily over an eroded creek bed, but perhaps enterprising developers will capitalize on their valuable new views and pretty them up. The vast dead-blank wall of a water treatment plant may be a more permanent fixture; maybe we can learn to think of it as a monument to the park’s essential ongoing function as part of the stormwater and sewer system.

There’s a charming new overlook called Peregrine Point that gives a striking view across what will eventually be a lush wetland to the high, steep hillside into which the parking deck was built and on top of which sits the Botanical Garden. But looking back at Peregrine Point from that hillside, you see that the overlook is actually the flat top of a huge, boxy stormwater diversion structure presenting another ugly blank facade. Planners call that a “sacrificial wall.” It’s jarring to look at, but it eventually should be curtained by hanging vegetation.

Also built into that hillside are a pair of big grassy oval terraces, the Greenswards, linked by a wide, shallow granite staircase, that can function as an amphitheater. The lower terrace includes a play fountain, which in warm weather will by itself make this an active kid-magnet of a space. But much of the park section opening now is the shadowy, wooded valley bottom of Clear Creek.

Some of the creek is still a concrete channel — a necessary piece of the stormwater catchment system that new landscaping should eventually help to screen — but most of it has been re-created as a naturalistic, rocky stream. As I approached it on one recent drizzly gray afternoon, a great blue heron lifted off and flapped languidly away up the creek as if it had all the time in the world.

The northernmost section of the park expansion, between Piedmont Avenue and Monroe Drive behind Clear Creek Center, will be mainly lawns and playing fields. It isn’t finished, but it should open by the end of this year. A rubbly section east of the creek toward Monroe Drive, through which you now drive to enter the parking deck, is also unfinished. It’s tempting to wish that the entire master plan for the park had already been realized, to be revealed with a snappy flourish like a statue being unveiled. Voila! Instead we get to live with it as it comes into being. So maybe the park will teach us a little patience.

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