The Ambitious Plan to 'Re-Stitch' Atlanta's Urban Core

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Taking inspiration from similar projects in Dallas and Boston, an Atlanta nonprofit presents a redevelopment concept that would see a new, park-laden neighborhood built atop a congested stretch of interstate. . (Photo: Jacobs)

Growing up, one of my favorite parks was a modernist expanse of concrete and foliage perched directly atop a major interstate.

Forty years after it arrived to “heal the scar” left behind by the neighborhood-severing construction of Interstate 5 through the heart of downtown Seattle, Lawrence Halprin & Associates' not-so-creatively-named Freeway Park remains one of America’s most revolutionary urban park projects and a remarkable feat of engineering and landscape design. It was, essentially, a freeway-blanketing lid in the form of a terraced green space.

That said, the hugely innovative Freeway Park, which served as a slightly dodgy de facto backyard for my grandmother’s apartment complex, made a massive impression not only on me but on countless urban planners and civic leaders. And so, in an effort to conceal unsightly infrastructure, reconnect severed neighborhoods and reclaim large swaths of public space above major roadways, a modest handful of cities have followed in Seattle’s footsteps.

In Dallas, the surprisingly idyllic Klyde Warren Park, which blankets Woodall Rodgers Freeway, has generated public green space “out of thin air” and revitalized the downtown neighborhoods abutting it in a speedy and dramatic fashion. Spanning nearly two decades, Boston’s notorious Big Dig project involved moving a particularly ghastly elevated stretch of Interstate 93 known as the Central Artery into a tunnel and topping it with a 1.5-mile linear park. Despite the $15 billion-plus price tag and various hiccups and headaches after the Big Dig was completed, its resulting park, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, is a wicked stunner.

Phoenix, Duluth, Minnesota; Trenton, New Jersey, and Mercer Island, Washington, also have freeway cap parks.

Now it would appear that Atlanta — a sprawling, traffic-ridden city with certainly no dearth of major freeways — wants in on the interstate-capping action to help "fill the void" between two sundered sections of the city.

Downtown Connector, Atlanta
Atlanta's Downtown Connector: Put a lid on it?. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Envisioned by Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) — a 75-year-old nonprofit corporation that provides “leadership, programs and services to preserve and strengthen the economic vitality of Downtown Atlanta” — and conceptualized by global engineering behemoth Jacobs, The Stitch couldn’t have a more apropos name if it tried. After all, the $300 million proposal — more of a starry-eyed concept at this juncture — is an ambitious attempt to stitch back together downtown and Midtown Atlanta. These two major business districts, both boasting a fair share of tourist attractions, cultural institutions and cloud-grazing skyscrapers, have been divided by one of the Big Peach’s most infamous expressways, the Downtown Connector (I-75/85), since the early 1960s.

Like its predecessors, The Stitch reunites two disconnected sections of a major city center by capping a freeway with a greenery-laden platform or “deck park." However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that the 14-acre project, which would stretch roughly three-quarters of a mile above I-75/85 from the Spring Street flyover southwards to Baker Street and the Piedmont Avenue Bridge, is also heavily focused on high-density private development. That is, Atlanta’s thousand-lane expressway would be topped with new office towers, hotels and residential high-rises in addition to ample public green space. The Stitch isn’t just one single large park.

The Stitch, Atlanta
The Stitch, Atlanta. (Photo: Jacobs)

The Stitch would blanket a roughly three-quarters of a mile stretch of I-75/85 that carves through northern downtown Atlanta and the southern reaches of Midtown Atlanta. (Rendering: Jacobs)

Elaborates the 114-page initial concept study commissioned by CAP:

Unlike examples in cities across the country, The Stitch is not a park project. It is a redevelopment project focused on leveraging air rights over the interstate to foster investment, encourage development and increase real estate value. Parks, open space and great streets are only part of the story.

As detailed by CAP, the “transformative” project geared to “bring about a unified central business district for the city of Atlanta” would consist of three so-called “character zones” that would all but erase what the study calls a “physical and psychological barrier” established by the Downtown Connector.

Each zone — Emory Square, Peachtree Garden and Energy Park — would boast small parks, plazas and other al fresco recreation spots. However, as detailed by CAP, each zone would also include sizable swaths of new development.

For example, Energy Park, located adjacent to the current Georgia Power Company headquarters, would be a mixed-use residential area centered around lush expanses of lawn — the “front yard” of The Stitch as the study puts it. Similarly, Emory Square, a “dynamic urban plaza,” would be flanked by new retail and residential development with a “reimagined” Civic Center MARTA station, the only subway station in the U.S. located over an interstate, at its heart. Likened to New York City’s Bryant Park, Peachtree Garden — “a 3-acre town green with active program elements on all sides including water features, a restaurant and café, a pavilion space for markets and art shows, an art walk, a ‘Mayor’s Walk’ and a civic heroes memorial” — would effectively serve as the community-based cultural centerpiece of The Stitch.

The Stitch, Atlanta
The Stitch, Atlanta. (Photo: Jacobs)

Flanked by a hotel, cafes, shops, and public art, Peachtree Green is described as "the beating cultural heart" of The Stitch. (Rendering: Jacobs)

Noting to Atlanta magazine that “we’re trying to create an urban amenity that will spur development,” CAP President A.J. Robinson and his colleagues are confident that the parks, plazas and mixed-use buildings built atop the newly lidded expressway won’t stop there. Ideally, redevelopment projects would radiate outwards from The Stitch to the areas immediately flanking and overlooking the below-street-level Connector — blighted and underutilized areas long in need of a little tszuj.

Writes Scott Henry for Atlanta magazine:

In CAP’s vision, the Stitch would serve as a blank slate for private development on top of the highway. The state, which owns I-75/85, could recoup a chunk of the cost of capping the highway by selling air rights to developers, the study explains. The finished project, it predicts, would bring about a surge in surrounding property values and set off a chain reaction of building and redevelopment of existing properties, like the long-vacant Medical Arts Building, which now overlooks the interstate.

Jacobs' study estimates that The Stitch could generate over $1.1 billion in redevelopment and property value growth within a zone fanning out from the project site.

This tactic certainly worked for Dallas, as the real estate surrounding Klyde Warren Park, once overlooked due to its proximity to the freeway, is now positively hot.

The Stitch, Atlanta
The Stitch, Atlanta. (Photo: Jacobs)

A mixed-use residential area emphasizing state-of-the-art sustainable construction and technology, Energy Park features a dog park, playground and great lawn. (Rendering: Jacobs)

Robinson notes that many existing property owners in the targeted area, including Emory Hospital, Georgia Power and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, are gung-ho about the project while commercial developers have expressed early interest. Various local, state and federal entities such as MARTA and the Georgia Department of Transportation, have also reportedly bestowed The Stitch with a receptive initial welcome.

Of course, The Stitch has wide-ranging perks beyond aesthetics and soaring property values.

As the study notes: “the series of parks, plazas and public open spaces built over the top of the Downtown Connector” will provide a myriad of “positive impacts to Atlanta residents and the millions of visitors who travel to Atlanta each year. These include health benefits related to walking, cycling and recreation; environmental benefits from reduced noise and visual distractions from the highway; and social benefits from increased interactions and programmed activities.”

This all said, The Stitch — a "welcoming vibrant, neighborhood" and the new “heart of Atlanta” — has a long ways to go before it starts beating; a moment when northern downtown (SoNo) and southern Midtown Atlanta are at long last reunited, fused together by a freeway-topping spread of park-laden open space and new development. As detailed by CAP, crucial next steps include completing an official civil engineering study, technical feasibility study and schematic design — and all off these steps require significant fundraising. (The initial concept study alone reportedly came with a $100,000 price tag).

However this all pans out, it's encouraging to see how Atlanta's city leaders have harnessed the game-changing idea behind Seattle's Freeway Park — heralded as the first park built directly over a freeway — along with more recent interstate-capping projects and taken it one sizable step further. And coming full circle, Atlanta isn't the only city with a bold freeway-covering proposal that's garnering attention: On a 2-mile-long stretch of I-5 just north of where it all began, one Seattle architect is leading the charge to put a lid on it once and for all.