GA: MARTA Plans Series of Pedestrian-Friendly Villages Beside Stations

Feb. 06--To get to the King Memorial transit station from the south side, MARTA patrons have to venture through a graffiti-scarred, trash-strewn tunnel beneath a set of railroad tracks.

Would those riders be willing to rent apartments in the same locale if the area was redeveloped?

MARTA is making plans to transform the unsightly tunnel and a large parking lot adjacent to the King Memorial station into the first in a series of pedestrian-friendly villages next to its transit stations. The King Memorial project is farthest along in the planning process, but similar developments are expected to be launched over the next two years.

The improvements aren't solely designed to beautify the neighborhoods around the stations. They are aimed at boosting MARTA ridership, said Amanda Rhein, senior director of transit-oriented development for MARTA.

As many as 500 additional daily trips -- or 130,000 a year -- could result from a proposal to lease a four-acre parking lot beside the station to a developer, Walton Communities. MARTA board members were briefed on the proposal Thursday.

If all goes as planned, the company wants to build about 380 apartments and 13,000 square feet of street-level retail space for stores, offices and restaurants, Rhein said.

MARTA's board still has to vote on the deal at a later time and negotiations are still ongoing with Walton Communities about financial terms of the lease.

Walking home from Wesley International Academy on Wednesday afternoon, teenager Xavier Gamble said the plan sounded like very good news.

"I really don't actually trust this neighborhood," Gamble said. "Walking here, I just don't like it. And they really should do something about this bridge."

Victor Ospina, 25, who works at Six Feet Under restaurant nearby and rides MARTA every day, echoed the same concerns.

"The place is kind of dangerous at times," Ospina said. "I think some colleagues got robbed. A change would do some good."

The idea behind the development is to create an atmosphere similar to the apartment and retail center at Lindbergh Center station. That project took about five years from start to finish and this one will likely take as long.

MARTA has initiated a transit-oriented development strategy in a five-year plan. But MARTA CEO Keith Parker has set a goal to launch five transit-oriented developments over the next two years.

After King Memorial, a second development is in the pipeline for a seven-acre parcel at MARTA's Avondale rail station, in partnership with the city of Decatur. A request for proposals has been issued, but a development team has not yet been selected.

The authority has not yet decided which three of the other eight stations identified in its transit-oriented development strategy will be put forward.

MARTA is no stranger to leasing property. Last year the agency received $4.8 million in ground lease revenues, the bulk of which came from leases at Lindbergh Center Station and One Atlantic Center.

"There is excitement we've heard from the real estate community within Atlanta about MARTA being open for business," said Rhein. "I think for a long time, they have seen these stations as a huge development opportunity."

Three developers have submitted proposals since MARTA began a procurement process for King Memorial station about a year ago. Marietta-based developer Walton Communities is the front-runner because MARTA sees the company as a "long term buy-and-hold developer," said John Crocker, director of development and regional coordination for MARTA.

Atlanta, once known as the poster child of sprawl, has seen an emergence of denser, walkable urban developments since the 1990s, according to a recent study on "WalkUPs" or Walkable Urban Places, conducted by the George Washington University School of Business. Such developments now make up more than 50 percent of the market share. Developers like them because they can generate rents that are on average 112 percent higher per square foot than suburban real estate in car-dependent regions.

A spokesperson for Walton Communities, David Loeffel, said the transit station was what made the King Memorial project appealing to them.

"As Atlanta continues to grow, transit options are going to become important factors that people look at when they decide where to live and where to work and spend their time," Loeffel said. "It's about a piece of real estate being connected into that overall neighborhood. The adjacency of the transit helps make that happen."

Rental rates for the apartments will be about $1.34 per square foot. MARTA officials said representatives of Walton Communities have assured them their rental prices will be competitive with Pencil Factory Flats nearby. Monthly unit prices at that complex range from about $900 for a studio to $2,300 for a three-bedroom, three-bathroom floor plan, according to the Pencil Factory Flats website.

While MARTA owns the four-acre parking lot at King Memorial station, that space is also used by Grady Hospital employees and shuttle buses. Denise Simpson, spokeswoman for Grady Hospital, said the hospital has known for some time that MARTA was considering developing that area and they've been kept informed about the authority's plans.

The hospital is "exploring other options for parking," Simpson said.

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