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Analysis: Historic Fourth Ward Park, BeltLine redefine public space for 21st-century Atlanta

Dedication of Historic Fourth Ward Park    Photo: Christopher T. Martin

 

The dedication of Historic Fourth Ward Park in 2011. (Photo by Christopher T. Martin)

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed dedicated Historic Fourth Ward Park on June 18, 2011, and it has quickly become an important neighborhood gathering place. A snapshot of a single day in the park reveals children romping in its state-of-the-art playground, skateboarders gliding around the bowls of the city’s first skateboard park, and Grady High School students posing, in what is likely to become an intown rite of passage, for pre-prom photographs in the amphitheater.

Until recently, Atlanta was a city that cared little for public space. Atrophied sidewalks, neglected parks and an often open hostility toward anything but the automobile as transportation characterized it.

As the park suggests, the city has rediscovered the notion of “public.” As American cities slowly move past the Great Recession, a new competitive model is emerging. With roots in the notion of the Creative Class and its power to transform places favored by the predilections of this highly discriminating group, competitive cities now value urban amenity almost as much as cheap real estate or an educated labor force. 

Atlanta’s business leaders and politicians have reacted to this new competitive environment with street renovations, streetcar, mass transit and bicycle projects and, most importantly, a broad commitment to the Atlanta BeltLine, the transformative multibillion-dollar parks, trails and transit initiative. 

These more human-scaled initiatives contrast with the large infrastructure projects that previously signified progress in Atlanta. Giant single-use complexes such as the Georgia World Congress Center and Georgia Dome, highway improvements and the multibillion-dollar rebuilding of the city’s long-neglected water system, the largest such project to date, were in many ways the very definition of urban Atlanta in the late 20th century. Indeed, but for the water-sewer project, there would be no Historic Fourth Ward Park. The lake that is its centerpiece is one of the system’s storm-water storage ponds.

THE MULTI-PURPOSE PARK

Still, this idea could have resulted in a glorified, if well-landscaped, retention pond masquerading as a public space. Instead, thanks to the efforts of neighborhood and environmental activists under the leadership of the BeltLine and its designers — HDR Inc.,Wood + Partners (landscape architecture) and AECOM (park master plan) — the 17-acre space has become one of the city’s best-designed new public spaces. Costing substantially less than the invisible underground water storage vault that it theoretically replaces, the park, while not perfect, achieves a promising level of design sophistication. 

The waterfall element of Maria Artemis' sculptural installation. (Photo by David Hamilton)

Designed to hold waters from a 500-year flood event, the sunken central lake has had the perhaps unintended consequence of providing Atlanta with a sheltered urban canyon surrounded by terraces and sidewalks with magnificent views of the Midtown skyline. The bridges, piers and walks at water’s edge provide diverse ways to experience the lake while making contrasting formal geographies in the deep, winding recesses of the flood plain.

Artist Maria Artemis’ water installation celebrates the return of the original Clear Creek watershed to the surface with a series of in-lake features culminating in a 20-foot waterfall. The waterway reveals at least a small part of the now submerged natural history of the Atlanta area, a region once covered with small streams and ecologically diverse watersheds, now buried in a seemingly illogical system of sewer tunnels deep beneath the city. (The young city’s roads and streams seldom aligned.)

The amphitheater leading to the south end of the lake has already become a major focal point for both formal and informal events and celebrations. One design misstep lies in the theater’s oddly formal and overly classical design. Set within the curving geometries of the lake and given its dramatic and potentially meaningful location between high and low ground, the amphitheater seems a lost opportunity for a more significant design statement.

Other parts of this long and somewhat oddly shaped park — assembled from available land and still growing — are less dramatic but reveal a level of attention to design uncommon in Atlanta’s park system. A plaza at the North Avenue entrance will support a collection of small public art pieces in an outdoor gallery setting and define the major entrance to the park. Water features originally planned for the northern leg of the park would have helped tie the park together with its central lake (and its primary generative idea), but they did not make it into the final design. 

It's Atlanta's first skateboard park. (Photo by Marc Mauldin)

The south side of the park provides an understated entry at Ralph McGill Boulevard, a sensitively designed water feature entry plaza, a major neighborhood playground filled with sculptural play equipment (and neighborhood children), and a new sustainable restroom facility. Park lighting, seating and other design features are well detailed and contemporary, lending it a new and vibrant atmosphere not found in most other city parks.

One unfortunate choice is the inclusion of period bollards at the park’s entries. While a minor detail, this unsuccessful off-the-shelf selection has the effect of setting a discordant note at the facility’s most visible public edge.

By paying homage to the city’s natural history through the partial re-creation of a significant watershed, providing a new community gathering space and acting to spur nearby urban development, this new urban space takes on many roles.

THE PARK, THE BELTLINE AND THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE MACHINE

It would be foolish and shortsighted to presume that the Atlanta BeltLine is, or should be, a purely public exercise in place-making. Any public amenity is a driver of development, especially in a city like Atlanta, and the BeltLine from its beginning has been about development. Its entire existence is predicated on tax money generated from surrounding expansion, and its power lies in its potential to combine meaningful public space, transportation connectivity and a developer’s dream of developable land into a single entity.

Like the BeltLine, the park is as much about city-building as about creating public space. Plans for thousands of new apartment units adjacent to and around the park have proven the power of the BeltLine to create well-connected, whole neighborhoods from former industrial zones.

The sidewalk designed by Robby Bryant, HDR Inc. (Photo by David Hamilton)

It will be interesting to see what develops nearby. The usual patterns of intown Atlanta private development suggest that we can expect a mixed bag of contextual contemporary architecture and the unfortunate developer-driven ahistorical mishmash of style without much thought, other than to the bottom line.

Time and the strict development regulations of BeltLine zoning will reveal whether real urban qualities can take hold at the edge of the park. The true test for this new park lies not only, or perhaps not even centrally, in its success as a well-designed and meaningful place for people, but in its ability to help manufacture an equally meaningful city from the former industrial wasteland on the edge of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.

By providing urban design standards and by building spaces that are themselves demonstrative of good design, the BeltLine can do a lot to promote healthy, urbane, well-designed private architecture — and a better city — at its periphery. At their most positive, the BeltLine and Historic Fourth Ward Park are machines for affirmative change fueled both by public intent and private resources.

David Hamilton is a principal at Praxis3, an Atlanta architectural and design firm. He is past chairman of the Metropolitan Public Art Coalition, a public art and design advocacy group, and serves on the Freedom Park Conservancy Board as a neighborhood representative. He was a member of the review committee for the Historic Fourth Ward Park and the BeltLine Northeast Quadrant Master Plan Study.

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