Archive for January, 2011

Biscuits and Bar-B-Q Out. Big Banks In?

The former Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q on Cheshire Bridge Road near Lindbergh Drive was demolished this week to make way for Chase Bank. Sonny’s closed in 2009 shortly after its parent, Greater Atlanta Bar-B- LLC, filed for bankruptcy. Washington Mutual, now Chase, was already in the shopping center, in a small space on the Lindbergh side of the center. It will now have a larger free-standing branch. With the demolition wrapping up this week, construction could begin within the next week or so.
While this is a bank and not restaurant news per-se, I wanted to write about anyway for the reasons discussed below…

One, this is now the second restaurant (albeit this time closed) that Chase has knocked down for a branch. Last May, Chase bought out of the lease of the East Cobb location of The Flying Biscuit and demolished the building, constructing a free-standing branch in its place. These two restaurants are meaningful to me as saw each of them built. Having now just graduated from college, it’s amazing and kind of sad to think I’ve now managed to see buildings constructed, and also demolished.

The Flying Biscuit on Johnson Ferry was originally built as a Donato’s Pizza in the late 1990s, and was closed in 2002 when Donato’s left the Atlanta market. I think that it remained vacant for a short time until Raving Brands turned it into their now infamous failure, Mama Fu’s Asian House. The Asian concept was launched on Peachtree Road and grew to over a dozen locations before Raving Brands was hit with multiple lawsuits alleging, among other things, racketeering and fraud. Once said to exceed the growth rate of sister concept of Moe’s Southwest Grill (now owned by Atlanta-based Focus Brands), Mama Fu’s locations started dropping like flies. The chain was sold in 2008 and closed its first and last remaining Atlanta area location last year.

The Flying Biscuit was an Atlanta institution and loved by many but has become far too “cookie cutter” of late. The concept was purchased by Raving Brands in 2006 and started franchising in 2007. I believe the that conversion from Mama Fu’s to Flying Biscuit in East Cobb took place in late 2007.

Over at Lindbergh and Cheshire Bridge, a similar scenario played out. McDonald’s, in their constant chase of consumers’ changing behaviors and driving patterns, closed its location at 1824 Cheshire Bridge Road (now home to ROXX Tavern & Diner) and opened a new location within the newly constructed shopping center. In the early days, Ray Croc scouted new locations by hovering over neighborhoods in a the company plane looking for church steeples. He said these were “good American families” and that’s who he wanted as customers. Of course, today more advanced technology is used to monitor traffic counts and such, and it’s a change in traffic flow that led to the move.

The shopping center was constructed in the mid 90s if I recall. I remember accompanying my father on trips to Hastings Nature & Garden Center on that property. Today Hastings is located on Peachtree Road in Brookhaven.

Chase has stated they plan to significantly grow their Atlanta footprint and expect to have 74 branches open in metro Atlanta by the end of 2011. Chase inherited 55 branches when it purchased the banking operations of Washington Mutual in 2008. Another new location is progressing in a portion of the shuttered Linens ‘n Things at the Peach Shopping Center on Peachtree Road in Buckhead. Plans call for as many as 10 new locations each year for the next several years.

from “Tomorrow’s News Today

January 28, 2011 at 11:10 am 1 comment

Atlanta region’s leaders ask for unified mass transit

By Ariel Hart

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

6:01 p.m. Wednesday, January 26, 2011Local leaders from across the Atlanta region have asked the Legislature to form a regional mass transit agency to serve as an umbrella over the metro area’s various systems.

The legislators who hold the cards have said they don’t plan to do that this year. But the move at the Atlanta Regional Commission, pushed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, marks an important symbolic step in a region that historically has been known for its patchwork of transportation systems and its dissent on the issue of MARTA.

Reed, in a statement, called it “an important step forward and a sign of regional unity in our desire to create a truly world-class transit system for metro Atlanta.”

The ARC will deliver the suggested legislation to a committee chaired by Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, that a new law set up last year to decide what to do about regional mass transit.

Mass transit advocates had hoped the committee would take significant, fast action, setting up a regional system in 2011. If that were done, when voters are asked in 2012 to fund new projects in a transportation tax referendum the regional transit system already could be an established, well-known candidate for funds.

“It needs to get done as soon as possible” in order for referendum voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties to be convinced by 2012 that the region is serious about making a more seamless transit system, said Chick Krautler, director of the ARC.

However, Sheldon said last month that 2011 is not the year.

“This is a major investment in the community and so we need to take our time and be careful,” she said.

Marshall Guest, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, said Wednesday House leaders still intended to wait.  “This doesn’t change what we’ve said previously,” he said. “We’re going to allow the governance commission to work.”

On the Senate side, Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said this week that there is no groundswell for major transit legislation this year.

In the proposed legislation, MARTA and other local systems like Cobb Community Transit could continue to exist under a new metropolitan transit authority. But when new money comes to transit, including revenues from the referendum if it is successful, the new authority would plan and spend those.

Individual counties would have representatives on the authority. But it would no longer take a county referendum, for example, to expand MARTA rail into Gwinnett County.

The proposed system is based on the model of Chicago’s transit system, according to ARC.

That system is not perfect, said Steve Schlickman, who formerly headed Chicago’s system and testified before Sheldon’s committee last year.  When the legacy systems continue to exist under the umbrella, some of the parochial rivalries may remain.

He said the ideal is one unified system, if that is politically possible.

January 27, 2011 at 9:50 am Leave a comment

DeKalb groups: EPA’s sewer mandate is weak

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The federal Environment Protection Agency’s mandate for DeKalb County to improve its sewer system is a “slap on the wrist” with little oversight and weak penalties, DeKalb residents said.

On Wednesday, six DeKalb environmental groups asked the EPA to issue stricter penalties for DeKalb’s continued sewage spills, hoping added pressure from the EPA would guarantee speedier clean up of affected rivers and streams.

In December, the EPA issued a consent decree, mandating DeKalb upgrade its sewer system after reporting more than 800 raw sewage spills in five years. The decree, which DeKalb spent 14 months negotiating with the federal government, also includes a $453,000 fine for the spills and an additional $600,000 to clean up the South River, Snapfinger Creek and the South Fork on Peachtree Creek near Emory University.

Since then, the county commission has authorized $1.35 billion in upgrades to its sewer system, which will be paid for by increases in residents’ water and sewer bills.

However, the county has not announced any timeline or clean-up plans for the spills, which continue to occur daily, residents said.

“My concern is that taxpayers are having to foot that huge bill in increased water rates. I feel there needs to be more accountability,” said Gil Turman, president of the South DeKalb Neighborhood Coalition. “We’re in this because of a lack of accountability. For 20 years, the county has been negligent and having sewage spills so regularly. And now they just get a slap on the wrist.”

Turman’s coalition, along with the DeKalb Soil and Water Conservation District, the Miners Creek Circle Civic Association, the Metropolitan Atlanta Urban Watershed Institute, the Newly Organized Citizens Requesting Aquifer Protection and the South River Watershed Alliance, submitted a 12-page letter Wednesday to the federal government demanding stricter oversight. Wednesday was the deadline for the public comment period.

A spokeswoman for the EPA said her agency and the U.S. Department of Justice will evaluate all of the comments and then make a decision as to whether to issue tougher penalties.

Ted Rhinehart, DeKalb’s deputy chief operating officer for infrastructure, said the county had not reviewed the residents’ comments, but said DeKalb believes the decree is “fair, reasonable and in the public interest.”

Federal law allows the EPA to charge the county up to $37,500 a day for spills, but the decree only says fines of up to $500 can be charged per spill.

“It doesn’t seem like they would have much incentive if they are not complying,” GreenLaw attorney David Deganian told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Greenlaw, an Atlanta-based environmental legal group, drafted the residents’ letter.

Residents said they worry DeKalb could end up like Atlanta, which signed a consent decree in 1998 committing to $4 billion in water upgrades, but has been given several extensions.

“This is a problem that has gone on for decades. As we have learned from the City of Atlanta, there are no simple solutions and significant oversight is very important,” said Justine Thompson, GreenLaw’s executive director. “We don’t think there are adequate assurances that the consent order terms will be met.”

DeKalb officials said they have been trying to avoid the high costs and legal battles that plagued Atlanta by moving forward with the work.

January 21, 2011 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

How to make the Beltline happen

Atlanta’s game-changing transit loop won’t succeed without big, bold ideas. Here are five.

by Thomas Wheatley – Creative Loafing

Atlantans can be forgiven for having become a bit jaded about the shortage of visible progress in the eight years since the Beltline first burst on the scene.

Sure, railroad segments have been acquired and leased, public art’s been displayed and a smattering of parks have sprung to life. And yes, 2011 will be a big year for the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit proposed to circle Atlanta’s urban core and improve city life for generations to come. This spring, three new parks will open, including the first 12 acres of Historic Fourth Ward Park, which will feature a scenic lake, amphitheatre and the city’s first public skate park, near Freedom Parkway. Later this year, a highly anticipated 2.5-mile bike trail connecting Piedmont Park and DeKalb Avenue will welcome its first cyclists.

Yet despite these advancements and other small victories, people still wearily — and understandably — ask if the Beltline “actually will happen.” As a reaction to that cynicism, Mayor Kasim Reed has said he wants the $2.8 billion project to be completed much sooner than the current 25-year time line anticipates. How can that be done? Never mind the occasional ribbon-cuttings or other public unveilings — the best way to shake skeptics’ doubts that the project is nothing more than pretty sketches and pipe dreams is for big, bold steps to be taken.

Here are five initiatives — the most pressing per quadrant, as well as a broader proposal that Beltline officials have been quick to reject — that should be given serious consideration for their ability to could reignite the Beltline’s momentum and make the project more relevant to the public.

The Full Loop: Introduce Atlanta to the Beltline — by building a bike path 6

It’s far less expensive than the project’s transit component and far more feasible in the short-term
  • by Thomas Wheatley | 01.20.11
  • Northwest: Turn a giant hole in the ground into Atlanta’s new waterfront

    The booming Westside would benefit with a 45-acre reservoir and greenspace that’s twice the size of Piedmont Park
    • by Thomas Wheatley | 01.20.11
  • Northeast: Build a rail segment that links Atlanta’s most booming neighborhoods 1

    The crescent-shaped arc between Piedmont Park and DeKalb Avenue has the density to make transit work
    • by Thomas Wheatley | 01.20.11
  • Southeast: Ready the second-most-populous segment for rail — and art

    Secure the Beltline’s most prominent gap — a bucolic, gritty stretch of tracks between Glenwood Park and southwest Atlanta
    • by Thomas Wheatley | 01.20.11
  • Southwest: Turn a 31-acre parking lot into a vibrant southside neighborhood

    With the right project, some of Atlanta’s most beleaguered communities — and the entire city — could benefit
    • by Thomas Wheatley | 01.20.11
  • January 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

    I-85/Ga. 400 Interchange Could Ease Traffic

    Proposed I-85/Ga. 400 Interchange
    Metro Atlanta commuters could get some relief as the Georgia Department of Transportation is in the early planning stages of building a new interchange connecting Georgia 400 southbound to Interstate 85 northbound and I-85 southbound to Georgia 400 northbound. 

    “It is definitely the most anticipated (project) in a while,” Georgia DOT Deputy Press Secretary Jill Goldberg told Channel 2 Action News reporter Richard Elliot. “We’ve had more people wanting this done since the road was originally built.” 

    Georgia 400 from I-85 north to I-285 was completed in the early 1990s at a cost of $180 million, not adjusted for inflation. Goldberg said there wasn’t enough money budgeted to connect Ga. 400 to I-85, except the southbound lanes. Since then, commuters have had to negotiate Sidney Marcus Boulevard, the Buford-Spring Connector, Lenox Road and Cheshire Bridge Road if they wanted to go between the two major thoroughfares. 

    Now, Goldberg said, the state sold $40 million in bonds to pay for the new interchange project. She told Elliot the bonds will be repaid in seven years using money collected from the Ga. 400 toll. 

    On Friday, the Georgia DOT issued Requests For Qualifications. That’s the process where interested construction companies submit their qualifications to build the project. After the DOT selects qualified companies, the DOT will ask those companies for bids on the project. 

    Many Buckhead neighborhoods have supported the plan for years and pushed the DOT to begin construction. One northeast Atlanta neighborhood, however, did not. Residents of the Lindridge-Martins Manor neighborhood opposed the plan because it directly affects their area. One of the proposed ramps would go along Peachtree Creek, and their properties. 

    “We were worried about this for a long time,” said resident Art Schoeck. His property would be in the shadow of the proposed flyover ramp. “Encroachment has always been an issue, and so when we’re going to be encroached upon, we’d like it to be in a positive way.” 

    Schoeck and other residents said they changed their opinion of the project when the DOT agreed to build a landscaped walking trail along Peachtree Creek once the project is completed. The DOT worked with the neighborhood association and the Southfork Conservancy on the project and plan to hook it into a series of trails that winds through that area. 

    “When we looked at the manner in which they were going to do this with a trail and landscaping and the fencing, if they do what they say they’re going to do, it looks like it’s going to have a positive impact on the neighborhood,” said Schoeck. 

    Commuters seemed to like the idea since many do not appreciate navigating their way from I-85 to Ga. 400 on a daily basis. 

    “I think it’s absolutely great,” said Catalina Decastillo. “It’s going to make it convenient especially for the people who live around this area. So, whoever thought of that is very smart. It’s about time.” 

    The winning construction company will also design the interchange. The DOT hopes to have the project completed in 2013.

    January 19, 2011 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

    RFP issued for Ga. 400/I-85 interchange

    Atlanta Business Chronicle – by Dave Williams , Staff Writer

    Date: Monday, January 17, 2011, 1:22pm EST – Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2011, 2:03pm EST

    An on-ramp from Interstate 85 South onto Ga. 400 North took one small step closer to becoming reality.

    The Georgia Department of Transportation put out a request-for proposal on Jan. 14 for design-build services for the proposed project. Applicants have until 2 p.m. on Feb. 11 to make their proposals.

    The existing interchange, which opened in the early 1990s, doesn’t give southbound motorists heading into Atlanta on either highway a direct connection to the northbound lanes of the other road. The project to connect the two has been talked about for years. And business leaders in Buckhead have long complained that failing to complete that portion of the interchange hampers access to offices and retail centers in Buckhead.

    The State Transportation Board and the State Road and Tollway Authority voted last September to continue charging tolls on Ga. 400 to pay for the interchange improvements.

    The tolls had been due to expire this summer when the original bonds from the early 1990s will be paid off.

    Keeping the tolls is expected to raise $50 million, about $40 million of which will be used for the 400/I-85 interchange. The other $10 million in additional toll revenue will go toward 10 other smaller projects along the 400 corridor

    Read more: RFP issued for Ga. 400/I-85 interchange | Atlanta Business Chronicle

    January 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

    Streetcars vs. Monorails


    The future of urban transportation looks a lot like the past.

    By Tom Vanderbilt – (full article:

    There is a great, if unnamed and often overlooked, attraction in Disney World: Transportationland.

    As any visitor knows, one of the most striking experiences at Disney World is navigating it. The place offers an impressively multi-modal suite of options. There’s walking, horseless carriages, steamboats, the famous monorail (said to carry more passengers than most U.S. light-rail systems), horse-drawn trolleys, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, not to mention mobility scooters and, at some parks, bikes. Then there’s the bus fleet that shuttles visitors from the parking lots to the entrance gates. (If it were a municipal fleet, a Disney engineer once told me, it would be the 21st largest in the United States.)

    Transportation was, in fact, so important to Walt Disney himself that it has come up in recent criticisms of Disney’s newish California Adventure park, built in 2001. “Disney obsessives complain the park is “missing a soul … missing that signature Disney theme park transportation.” Indeed the park, which Disney’s own Robert Iger has called “mediocre,” is undergoing a billion-dollar renovation, featuring, among other things, the installation of a “Red Car” trolley—an effort to inject a bit of street life into a “California Adventure” that seemed, well, a little too contemporary Orange County.

    What’s interesting about Disney World and Disneyland is not merely the range of transportation options, but the mixture of new and old modes they represent. These varied ways to get around reflect biographer Neal Gabler’s observation that Walt Disney was “at once a nostalgist and a futurist, a conservative and visionary.” One imagines he would have been equally happy riding the retro trolley on Main Street as whisking through Tomorrowland in an ultramodern monorail.

    But there is something else to note here. The monorail—which must have looked to Disney and the world like the transportation of the future in the 1950s—is now, to many, considered a historical footnote, a relic of World Expos or, at best, an automated ride between airport terminals. America’s highest-profile monorail project, the expansion of Seattle’s line, was plagued by cost overruns and funding gaps, and was finally dissolved in 2005 (costing taxpayers $125 million). The Las Vegas monorail has filed for bankruptcy. At the same time, those retro streetcars, which Disney himself rode in Kansas City in the early 20th century and which must have seemed to him part of a vanishing past, are returning (or may soon return) to any number of American cities, including Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati’ Tucson; Atlanta; Dallas; St. Louis; and Salt Lake City.

    So the future we thought we were going to get somehow seems antiquated, while the past looks increasingly, well, futuristic. Why is the trolley ascendant as the monorail declines?

    The first thing to know about the monorail—which, simply defined, “guided transit vehicle operating on or suspended from a single rail, beam, or tube”—is that it has a long history of being the transportation of the future. “One of the most enduring ideas in transportation has been the monorail,” notes William Middleton in Metropolitan Railways, “which in a variety of forms has been offered as the solution to urban transportation ever since the late nineteenth century.” The inventor Joe Vincent Meigs demonstrated his patented monorail scheme in East Cambridge, Mass., in 1886. There were other, more fantastical schemes, like the Boynton Bicycle Electrical Railway, but as Middleton notes, this, too, “like almost all monorail schemes, was soon forgotten.”

    Modern monorail partisans insist theirs is a viable, if misunderstood, transportation form. (Thanks a lot, Simpsons.) The Web site of their leading organ, The Monorail Society (“Monorails … They’re Not Just for Theme Parks and Zoos!”), extols successful monorails around the world (Tokyo-Haneda, the Shanghai Maglev, a monorail slated for the Philippines!) and argues their benefits: Safe (with some exceptions), popular, and cost-effective. The failure to spread in cities worldwide reflects, they argue, a sense that they are still “experimental.” It is as if they can’t shake the perception that their moment is not yet here. As Wayne Curtis wrote, “the monorail was twenty years ahead of its time, and it has been mired there ever since.” And, more conspiratorially: “Something some transportation experts have whispered to us over the years is that a lot more people can make a lot more money if light rail or subway is built.”

    Streetcar supporters counter with a battery of well-practiced rejoinders. They say streetcars are cheaper than monorails. Sure, Japanese monorail systems make money, they argue, but so do Japanese trains. Light-rail—a term that has a somewhat slippery definition, but which I’m using here to refer to streetcars (whether modern or vintage in style) that run short routes with frequent stops at street level—has a proven track record in America and has carried infinitely more passengers. Supporters also claim that streetcars promote urban development—which seems possible if not proven. (Streetcar people, like monorail people, even have their own conspiracy theories about what’s holding them back.)

    In a conciliatory note, streetcar fans acknowledge that monorail is suitable “where nothing else fits and there is a need to connect at least two points of high activity”—situations in which you wouldn’t have to build lots of expensive elevated stations or worry about a lot of network “branching.” And if monorails are haunted by their forward-looking past, a rap on many streetcars is that they are simply vehicles for nostalgia rather than real transportation, “Disneyland toys,” as Randall O’Toole snorts. As a famous article, Don Pickrell’s “A Desire Named Streetcar,” noted, municipal officials have persistently underestimated light-rail construction costs and overestimated eventual ridership numbers. (A later study noted planners had gotten better on rider forecasts but no better on capital costs.) Transit advocates (even those on the political right) retort that all kinds of highways “lose” money; some even go bankrupt.

    Jarrett Walker, a transit planner in Melbourne, argues that a kind of mode blindness can obscure the actual practicality of any transportation technology. The monorail, he notes, was in part a victim of our vision of what cities should look like, which, for now at least, is not the Futurama world of crisscrossing elevated walkways and extreme grade-separation. “The current generation of urban designers is pretty passionate about the supreme importance of the pedestrian experience at the ground plane,” he writes, “and resistant to putting any substantial structure directly over a street.” This theory may explain why the streetcar is ascendant. But it doesn’t prove that trolleys are superior. Streetcar devotees, Walker suggests, often oversell the streetcar as a boon to mobility; there’s little, in terms of speed or technology, a streetcar can do that a bus cannot.

    And we could go here into an exhaustive rabbit-hole of per-mile costs and capacity and other spreadsheet cells, but I want instead to return to Disney, and point out that—to rework Walter Benjamin’s famous declaration—every form of infrastructure is at once a form of desire. Disney didn’t just build monorails or trolleys to move people from A to B. They were and are an experience in and of themselves—an idea often underemphasized in transit planning.

    A common critique of both monorail and streetcar projects is that they’re “for tourists.” If they are—and certainly San Francisco’s “historic” lines are heavily touristed—it might be worth asking: So what? Tourists need mobility and access like anyone else, and the economic value of historic streetcars, which in cities like San Francisco (where tourism is a legitimate industry) are often overflowing with tourists, clearly goes beyond ticket costs. Often the “tourist” charge is a brush used to tar urban livability schemes in general (e.g., New York’s Times Square); one study of Vancouver’s “Olympic Line,” a 60-day streetcar demonstration project, found 82 percent of riders were city residents.

    I recently spent hours riding the historic streetcars in Lisbon, and while there were certainly tourists (the city’s transit authority has just announced it will raise the price of tickets bought onboard, in part to benefit from this market), there were also plenty of residents—for whom, as a local friend observes, the streetcar is a “lifeline” to neighborhoods like Graça or Campo de Ourique. And while I would not have been particularly excited to board a bus, or even a taxi, there was an undeniable ease and grace to boarding a streetcar. As it clanged up into the Alfama, I alternated between looking at the stellar city views and the urban pageant within. Was it nostalgic? Perhaps. But it was also accessible, and seemed to be a part of the urban scrum, not some elevated train whisking away to an unseen destination. Nostalgia is not by itself good or bad, and it takes many forms. Consider modern streetcars, which despite not reaching high speeds, look as if they could. “If you want one reason why modern streetcars with rounded noses—Strasbourg, Portland, Seattle—are becoming the new norm,” Walker told me, “it’s that they’ve hit on a way to signify the future and the past at the same time. The mere fact of it being a streetcar invokes a nostalgic return-to-1920-paradise agenda, even as the rounded-nose signifies the future.”

    It rather puts a new gloss on something Walt Disney once said: “Yesterday is a thing of the past.”

    January 13, 2011 at 11:40 am 1 comment

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