By Shandra Hill Smith
A major revitalization project for part of downtown Atlanta may be closer to fruition, with a vote on a development team for the proposed transit hub and commercial district expected this summer.
The Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal or MMPT – as billed by the Georgia Department of Transportation – will bridge ground and rail transit services and spawn commercial and possibly mixed-use development in the so-called “Gulch” area near Five Points MARTA station and CNN Center.
GDOT has been in negotiation with Cousins Properties as the master developer. With Atlanta-based Cousins, the team includes Forest City Enterprises and The Integral Group.
The GDOT board will have the final say and, according to Vicki Gavalas, special assistant to the commissioner for Strategies and Development, should vote on the issue by late summer.
“What we’re looking for is for this truly to be a multi-modal terminal,” says Gavalas, “and to include all modes of transportation, including transit, rail, bicycles, Smart Car, taxi, cars for hire, inner-city bus service, express bus service and the existing MARTA transit services.”
The idea in this area that now consists of parking lots and train tracks has been talked about for years, but picked up steam in 2010 following the creation of a Public Private Partnership (P3) program for the state, says Gavalas. The P3 program, as posted on the GDOT Web site, will help fund transportation projects that would not be possible through “traditional processes and existing funding,” and allows the state to partner with the private sector for the facility’s development and operation.
Led by GDOT, the MMPT brings together several partners to include the city of Atlanta, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Georgia Regional Transit Authority (GRTA), Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and Central Atlanta Progress/Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (CAP).
“We’re cautiously optimistic that something positive will happen here,” says CAP President A.J. Robinson, adding that CAP has been working with DOT for years to make the multimodal project a reality. “It feels good to finally be making progress, but it is a very complex trail that is going to require a lot of effort from a lot of people. It has to be probably built with a combination of federal dollars, state dollars and local dollars and the private sector.”
Robinson adds that the project is a significant one for efficiency reasons in particular.
“We have an outdated Greyhound station that was built as a temporary structure prior to the Olympics and needs a place to go,” Robinson points out. “We have an Amtrak station that’s crumbling in Midtown. We have a desire by numerous people to create passenger rail from Atlanta to Macon and maybe some other places – maybe Atlanta to Athens. We have needs, but they’re just not being met by our infrastructure at this point.”
“As Atlanta remains among the fastest growing cities in the nation, it is vitally important to provide infrastructure that supports this significant growth,” says Larry Gellerstedt, president and CEO of Cousins.  “We expect the multi-modal project at the ‘Gulch’ to be an exciting and integral part of this process. The project will also drastically revitalize an important part of our downtown core while serving as a catalyst for economic activity throughout the region.”
GDOT held a public hearing in March and plans for the public to weigh in going forward.
One person who has been vocal about the project is architect Jeff Morrison, who leads walking tours of the “Gulch” area and owns Morrison Design. He counts at least two reasons for why he’s not convinced the plans are headed in the right direction.
“The first thing is they’ve detached it from the commuter rail project,” says Morrison. “When I say commuter rail, I’m talking about a system that would really be within the metro Atlanta area that would relieve our daily automobile commuting. They say loosely that it’s going to accommodate that in the long term, but I really believe that should be our highest priority at this point. Instead, they’re investing a lot of money in a bus depot, which doesn’t seem necessary.”
Additionally, Morrison points to past developments, some failed, in the vicinity.
“When you look at the area – Castleberry Hill, the state capitol, the jail and Underground Atlanta – it’s been significantly underdeveloped for a very long time. The development that has come in hasn’t made any difference,” Morrison said.
Morrison said there needs to be a better understanding of the whole Downtown area. “They’re building this as this wonderful panacea that’s going to suddenly transform the neighborhood. They’re overlooking a lot of the more complex socioeconomic issues that are at play in that area.”
The need, supporters say, is still evident.
“Particularly in the downtown community, we need a place where all of this stuff meets – where we can have trains and buses and taxis and cars in a way that we don’t have today,” says Robinson. “We’ve begun a long journey, but at least I think we’re on the right road now.”
To learn more about the project, go to dot.ga.gov.