Neighborhood renewal was in full swing in 1970’s Midtown Atlanta. And as residents renovated their turn-of-the-century homes near Piedmont Park in the emerging neighborhood, speculators and developers eyed abandoned and underutilized lots on the other side of Peachtree Street in what is now the commercial corridor of Midtown.
In the spring of 1973 the real estate company Hooker-Barnes identified that 10th Street was ripe for urban development because of the proposed rapid-transit station and low land values in the surrounding area. After evaluating the economic potential and predicting explosive growth, it quietly acquired properties between 8th and 11th Streets. In hindsight, Hooker-Barnes correctly predicted the area would explode with development after the construction of MARTA. Yet the local firm knew it needed help because this risky opportunity required external assistance.
In October 1973, Hooker-Barnes contracted with Nichols Carter Seay Architects, Inc. (NCSA) to evaluate its properties and advise it on future purchases. Upon realizing the monumental opportunity for development in Midtown, the architecture firm realized it needed help too.
Hooker-Barnes made a significant decision then. Instead of crafting plans in secret, the developer cooperated with MARTA and the City of Atlanta’s Bureau of Planning because it saw more to gain from collaboration than concealment. This decision proved right. The city desired to revitalize the area; MARTA wanted mass-transit lines; developers sought successful mixed-use projects.
Midtown development would become a success for all participants.
In 1974, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) sponsored the City of Atlanta Bureau of Planning to conduct a Tenth Street Station Area Development Study for the proposed MARTA station. Bill Seay of NCSA stated that Eric Harkness, the Station Area Planner for the city, led the study and incorporated many of NCSA’s proposals—including the idea for a linear park between the Peachtrees—into the study. Over the next several months, Seay and Harkness discussed development plans, exchanged ideas, and daydreamed of Midtown’s future.
Community input from the adjacent civic associations ensured the study led to positive outcomes for residents. The Midtown Neighborhood Association (now Midtown Neighbors’ Assoc.), Home Park Community Improvement Assoc., and the Ansley Park Bureau of Planning (now Ansley Park Civic Assoc.) all provided feedback on traffic, infrastructure, and safety, which improved the final plan.
ARC published the plan in December 1975 and suggested that the “most important concept to come out of station area planning for the Tenth Street Station is the Linear Park proposal.” It further highlighted the need for urban revival and suggested a linear greenspace that would connect all the proposed Midtown transit stations.
In 1980, the emerging Midtown Business Assoc. (now Midtown Alliance) adopted the Peachtree Walk Park as a development priority and later formed nine committees to complete its objectives. The idea received a broad-base of support from developers, architects, horticulturists, students, and leaders from civic associations, who all filled the committee ranks and began drafting a formal proposal for the park.
In June 1983, Mayor Andrew Young, Dan Sweat of Central Atlanta Progress, and Steve Nygren of the MBA published a proposal for a linear greenspace in Midtown: the Peachtree Walk Park. This park was a joint effort in funding, management, and support between their organizations, MARTA, and area businesses. They intended the park to become the spine of Midtown, and their proposal laid the foundation for future development in the corridor.
As the plan outlined, the proposed park would span more than one mile (over thirteen blocks), and blooming flowers and modern art would color its path.
Mayor Young wrote in the proposal that this “band of green space” would catalyze development in the neglected and underdeveloped area. Nygren called the park a “ribbon of green” and foresaw the potential that greenspace and art could make in urban environments by connecting Atlantans.
Although progress lingered because developers weren’t obligated to follow the plan, the MBA completed Phase 1 of the proposal by the end of 1983. A groundbreaking ceremony for the Peachtree Walk Park followed in November 1985 at the corner of 14th and West Peachtree Streets, which foreshadowed construction of the IBM Tower (now One Atlantic Center) a few months later.
The plan also proposed that the park pass through the eastern grounds of the IBM tower, but, as Bill Seay stated, “IBM didn’t own all the way to 15th Street, so that’s why the fountain walk doesn’t go the whole way there.”
The park sat dormant for many decades because emphasis shifted away from communal greenspace to private development. Funding also disappeared. Still, the MBA worked on projects block-by-block. Some progressed; others regressed to asphalt.
The park and its plans have transformed remarkably over the years. It changed names from the Peachtree Walk Park to the Midtown Art Walk. Its route shifted in 2004, look was refreshed in 2017, and length reduced around 2018 to five blocks from the original thirteen. In early 2021, the next phase of development between the Midtown and Arts Center MARTA stations will begin.
One thing that remains constant is the importance of greenspace. “As Midtown becomes more dense,” Nygren said earlier this year, “greenspace and connection to the arts become even more important for the health and wellness of residents and visitors.”
After 40 years of incremental progress, the Midtown Art Walk remains an example of past plans meeting present aspirations—an art-filled greenspace that connects the neighborhood, anchors businesses, and reminds residents that urban pioneers planted today’s blossoms of beauty years ago.
Adam C. Johnson is the History Committee Chairman for the Midtown Neighbors’ Association. He writes about the Midtown Neighborhood’s metamorphosis in a series of articles. You can find him strolling through Piedmont Park or on Twitter @adamcharlesj.