ArtsATL > Art+Design > The city of Decatur, a flourishing model of urban planning, is a “30-year overnight success story”

The city of Decatur, a flourishing model of urban planning, is a “30-year overnight success story”

Downtown Decatur's pedestrian scale.
Downtown Decatur's pedestrian scale.
Downtown Decatur’s pedestrian scale.

Decatur is just six miles from downtown Atlanta; despite the proximity, the city exudes a distinctive small-town feel. On weekends when the weather is nice, there seems to always be a festival or concert at the square in front of the old county courthouse. Area residents and visitors patronize the dozens of stores and restaurants whose signs and store windows add to the vibrancy of the streets, where the pedestrian is king. In 2013, the city earned a spot on the American Planning Association’s list of ten Great Neighborhoods in America.

Its character, part historic town square, part hiply contemporary, is no accident. Two key decisions, one in the 1820s and another in the 1980s, shaped the Decatur that thrives today.

When Atlanta was merely forested rolling hills, Decatur was the big town in north-central Georgia. When the railroads were seeking a terminus in the area, the burgeoning city of Decatur seemed a logical location. But the residents preferred to preserve the tranquility of their city, and declined to allow construction. Instead, the railroad made its terminus in what became Atlanta, setting in motion its metropolitan growth.

If Decatur had elected to welcome the railroads, it is likely that metro Atlantans would be grappling with whether they were “Decaturites” or “Decaturians.” That first, fateful decision ensured that Decatur remained a small town, ultimately a neighborhood in the conurbation that washed over and around it in the ensuing century.

Deterioration as an Impetus for Change

Fast-forward to the 1970s. Typifying the condition of in-town neighborhoods across the country, Decatur was in a slump. Suburban growth and shopping malls had taken their toll on its town center and its mom-and-pop stores. The once-welcoming downtown, with streets bustling with activity and lined with commercial facades, was gap-toothed where buildings had been removed to provide parking lots in hopes of luring shoppers back, and desolate.

In another misguided attempt to rectify the situation, the western side of the square was rebuilt through urban renewal initiatives following the modernist planning principles that Jane Jacobs railed against in Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Although the construction of the Decatur MARTA station, which gave access to Atlanta’s public transit system, was a boon, the design at street level — a raised plaza taking place of the east-west thoroughfare — destroyed physical connections in the downtown area.

The development of the MARTA station prompted the creation of a Downtown Redevelopment Task Force to address concerns of managing growth in downtown. The Task Force, composed of community representatives and a developer, held public input sessions throughout 1980 and 1981, leading to the creation of a visionary plan to combat the degradation of the town center.

Lynn Menne and Hugh Saxon give  a presentation for the urban Land Institute-Atlanta.
Lyn Menne and Hugh Saxon give a presentation for the Urban Land Institute Atlanta.

The Decatur Town Center Plan was adopted by the city commission in 1982, sparking the creation of the Decatur Downtown Development Authority to implement its strategies. Hugh Saxon, who had joined the city as the economic development director in November 1977, was involved in the process at its inception; his dedication to its implementation has been unwavering.

Now deputy city manager of Decatur, Saxon and the assistant city manager, Lyn Menne, who joined the city not long after the Town Center Plan’s implementation, have spent the last 30 years ensuring the success of the plan. For their dedication to the process, they have come to be known affectionately as “Mom and Dad” by the city’s staff.

Saxon explained that at that time there were no precedents for the plan in Georgia; he credits the city government and mayor with the foresight to back the plan and recognize that, though it was a leap of faith, continued support would see it come to fruition in due time. 

Beyond the support of elected officials, the success of the plan hinged on the willingness of the residents of Decatur to adhere to the plan, recognizing that any imposition in the short term would result in the betterment of their community. The city has continued to seek input from stakeholders and regularly review the goals. Design charrettes are held to glean an understanding of the needs of the community, gauge success of implemented strategies and develop new ideas to meet changing demands.

Yet, the core components of the original plan have remained: defining and delineating a “downtown,” encouraging densification through the development of infill sites and facilitating diversity of site use, all while retaining the “small-town scale.” Walkability and pedestrian scale are paramount.

Decatur's County Courthouse Square was the "kernel" for the city plan.
Decatur’s County Courthouse Square was the “kernel” for the city plan.

Learning from the Past

Menne explained that the “kernel” — that which remained from the historic square — was the starting point for the planning of a quasi-traditional downtown, reminiscent of the environment that had existed earlier in the city.

While the remaining historic buildings were preserved, the plan did not prescribe a false historicism or any other aesthetic regulations. Saxon explained that it is not the city’s goal to define a style; the town center is made that much more rich and interesting by a wide diversity of architectural styles and interpretations of the rules.

Rather it focused on the creation of a sense of space and a hierarchy of usage placing pedestrians above vehicles. Factors included building use, connectivity to the street, reestablishment of a defined street wall, removal of parking at street frontages and the creation of a pedestrian-friendly street scale through height restrictions and setback requirements.

 

Condominium in downtown Decatur
Condominium in downtown Decatur

This prescriptive, but not restrictive, approach serves to encourage adherence to a scale without dictating design. Flexibility is another key component; the city often grants variances for height after consideration of how it will impact the street feeling.

Another component that directly affects the feeling on the street is the way in which right-of-way is apportioned. While many municipalities have responded to growth by widening streets for vehicular traffic, Decatur has done the opposite, favoring pedestrian and bicycle traffic instead.

Masking of parking lots by placing them behind or below new development has allowed for a continuous street-wall to develop, turning the public right-of-way into outdoor rooms, which encourages community interaction. The sidewalks are ample and separated from the vehicular right-of-way by planted buffers.

The city recently announced plans to reduce North McDonough Road from five lanes to two. “The intention is to get people out of their cars,” says Saxon.

Regina Brewer, Decatur’s preservation planner, adds that the vision is that people will incorporate nonvehicular trips into their everyday activities, the way that students walk and bike through the town center on their way to school.

The renovated plaza is a center of activity.
The renovated plaza is a center of activity.

Decatur’s focal pedestrian zone is the plaza on the south side of the courthouse square. Reconstruction of the plaza in 1999 ameliorated the effects of the grade changes between plaza level and the storefront elevations of the original Sycamore Street. The space has become a major asset as host to festivals and gathering space for visitors. It has truly become the heart of Decatur.

Layered Growth

Saxon and Menne emphasize that the evolution unfolded slowly, in waves. Menne recalled that in the 1980s developers wanted to build offices. The city pragmatically accepted that direction, understanding that diversity of building types would come. Leading up to the Olympics in the 1990s, developers built retail and restaurants. The city hoped that residences would soon follow, but in-town population growth was slow. Finally, in the 2000s, the trend of living in town kicked in, and it has been “all residential development ever since,” Menne says.

By allowing the market to dictate the development patterns, the city capitalized on larger trends, ensuring that what was built was utilized. The incremental growth and infill resulted in a seemingly organic (though methodically planned) agglomeration that exists today. Each typological shift helped to fill in the gaps in the urban fabric left by the old “renewal” projects. By building on parking lots, the city increased density while restoring the street wall to create the envisioned sidewalk experience.

The layering has resulted in a myriad of styles as tastes change over the years. The quasi-natural progression of incremental development results in a rough-around-the-edges appearance. It’s not polished, and Brewer makes clear that that is the goal; she quipped that if a “sanitized” experience is desired, it can be had with a trip to Florida and a theme park ticket.

Growing Pains

With the success of the plan comes the oft-maligned gentrification that, while indicative of a desirable neighborhood, is also the “hardest thing” the city has faced, says Saxon.

The question of how to accommodate new residents wanting new amenities in old properties creates a Catch-22: removing the old and outdated to replace it with the new and modern risks destroying Decatur’s initial draw. (For our story on the razing of a family-favorite Dairy Queen, click here.)

As people began to become interested in living in Decatur, tensions between newer and longtime residents arose. Brewer states that the tension is not a matter of socio-economics or race, but of people losing the feeling that they belong in their own neighborhood. The city has developed programs to help longtime residents to age in place, and it works collaboratively with the Decatur Housing Authority and private developers to ensure that new development provides spaces for people in all phases of life. The planners believe that a varied population results in the successful creation of place.

Beyond the town center of Decatur, the city has initiatives to nurture existing nodes and bolster the growth of new ones, so that all Decatur residents will be within walking distance of commercial needs. Oakhurst Village shopping district is built around the adaptive reuse of the historic Scottish Rite Convalescent Home for Crippled Children — a move that helps retain the neighborhood’s character and history while adding amenities such as a bar and office. Other such nodes include development around Avondale MARTA station, billed as “East Decatur Station,” and around Eastlake Station, though that is still in its infancy. With an expansive network of trails, sidewalks, paths and bikeways to connect each node, the entire city is becoming a walkable community.

A Great Neighborhood

On a recent overcast, chilly March afternoon, dozens of people were out on the plaza. Students from Decatur High School milled around talking, eating frozen yogurt from the corner shop. Moms pushed strollers. Others sat reading at the tables by the courthouse. The space was alive despite the weather, vibrant and welcoming.

The decision by the citizens of Decatur in the early 1800s was a fortuitous one. While they could not have envisioned the unbridled growth the terminus would bring, their decision allowed for this inner-city suburban enclave to retain the charm and character that now draws people to its streets. The decision by the citizens of Decatur in 1982 was deliberate. In naming Decatur a “great neighborhood,” the American Planning Association recognized as much, attributing its success to “more than three decades . . . of planning, commitment, patience, and investment.” The city, and specifically the planners who helped create and advocate for the plan in the early 1980s, have been in it for the long haul.

At the State of the City address, the mayor recognized Menne for 30 years of service and Saxon for 35 years. Both received standing ovations. As Menne said that day, Decatur is a “30-year overnight success story.”

Click here to view more photos. 

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