VHCA, Ansley, Midtown, MLPA, City Council Members Join to Study Event Impacts and Processes

By: Jack White

VaHi-Logo-Vertical-Hypen-RGBThe Virginia-Highland Civic Association is joining three other neighborhood groups around Piedmont Park and several City Council Members in sponsoring and paying for a study of the impacts of large events (such as this coming weekend’s Music Midtown) on traffic flows, parking impacts, and safety issues. Community groups do not commonly initiate such analyses, and the decision to do one in this instance was neither obvious nor simple; it was arrived at and took shape incrementally. Here’s some background.

Music Midtown’s entertainment lineup is extensive and popular, and many citizens from intown neighborhoods (including ours) will attend and enjoy it. So will tens of thousands of citizens from more distant neighborhoods. These visitors are always welcome – Piedmont Park is a great destination – but the accompanying traffic snarls and the inevitable and extensive closing or limited access to parts of (or entire) streets and disruption to work, school, and neighborhood life are real challenges.

While Music Midtown is a “Class A” festival – the city’s classification for its largest category (> 50,000 attendees) – and is staging its largest event ever (and anticipates its biggest crowds ever), these effects occur in varying degrees with other festivals, too. The impacts of the Dogwood Festival, the Peachtree Road Race, the Atlanta Jazz Festival, and the Red Bull Soap Box Derby are felt in adjacent residential neighborhoods in ways that are difficult to fully appreciate for those who don’t live there. Even events that consciously set out to be ‘green’ can’t escape producing most of these impacts.

Some amount of inconvenience may be viewed as a burden residents should accept in exchange for living near a nice park; that argument has a kernel of merit, but it is not limitless. It doesn’t address the reality that both the frequency and scope of such events have grown steadily over the last decade, and neither shows any sign of abating. Music Midtown’s projected attendance for this year, for example, is 80,000 compared to 50,000 last year.

More significantly, the methods of anticipating and mitigating the widespread local impacts – i.e., the basic planning processes – have not expanded to match the scope and complexity of the various events. Significant important pieces – particularly meaningful and effective neighborhood inputs – are not present in the planning stages; they are post-facto at best.

That reality was never more apparent than in an early August meeting of a number of relevant parties hosted by Council Member Mary Norwood, at which the sometimes conflicting and often only partially-defined responsibilities, views, knowledge, concerns, roles, and purviews of a variety of agencies – several APD units, Park Atlanta, Public Works, neighborhood planning agencies, the event applicants – were on full display. Trying to make all this coherent was the Mayor’s Office of Special Events Director Ebony Barley, a very bright and knowledgeable woman who diligently tried to bring order and clarity to a swirl of regulations and practices, both written and de facto.

There were a few head-slapping moments, among them learning that the city’s Public Works Department – home to its own official traffic expertise – has an extremely limited formal role in the review of such events. Challenges about other fundamental issues – how impact fees are calculated and their relationship to street and lane closures (if any), the goals of the safety plan, the adequacy of coordination with Atlanta Public Schools, the varying reliability of attendance estimates, the absence of incentivized mass transit and formal agreements and shuttles with existing parking purveyors, the impacts on closing the bike lanes on 10th Street, et al – abounded.

That an independent, outside review and a much more comprehensive approach to these (and many other challenges) were greatly needed seemed to us abundantly obvious. Ms. Barley’s support for more clarity and better coordination was quite plain to see.

We subsequently asked for suggestions from our longtime consultant, Aaron Fortner, who approached Nelson-Nygaard, nationally-known traffic analysts with an Atlanta office, and asked them to consider the task. That firm was picked specifically because they did the traffic study for the Atlanta BeltLine plan; they know the area, and the City of Atlanta Planning’s staff knows them.

Joel Mann of Nelson-Nygaard developed a proposal for a traffic and parking study that will use this year’s Music Midtown event as an exemplar to examine traffic and parking, study local community impacts, examine the City’s processes and agencies to see what improvements are possible, look at best practices from other cities, and make recommendations designed to improve the city’s approaches to such events.

Though noise is sometimes a complaint, this is not being studied, mostly because the complexity and amount of effort required for a comprehensive evaluation would have made the whole project prohibitively expensive. That topic will have to wait.

Also not being examined here are long-range impacts on the park, which can be extensive. While the sponsors typically pay the direct costs of repairs in such instances – as with last year’s Music Midtown “Mud Bowl” – the ‘cost’ to citizens of having the newly-sodded area in restricted use for a number of months was not evaluated at all, as best we can tell. Such costs – if desired – can be estimated and valued using a variety of means.

The goal of this study is not to ‘stop’ Music Midtown or any such event; it is to streamline and coordinate existing processes, improve traffic flows, improve timely communication between all parties (including event organizers and local citizens), identify and measure safety challenges, bring the city’s considerable existing resources into play as much as possible, and develop a more comprehensive and inclusive approach.

Such a study will not be inexpensive. Nelson-Nygaard’s proposal (revised after meetings with various local neighborhoods and council staffs) outlined a cost of $24,000. In August the VHCA Board kick-started the fundraising process with a $7000 allocation. The Ansley Park Civic Association and the Midtown Neighborhood Association are formally supporting the proposal, including financially.   Morningside/Lenox’s (MLPA) support is pending and anticipated.

Two City Council district members – Alex Wan (who represents VaHi, Morningside, and Ansley) and Kwanza Hall (who represents Midtown) are on board for contributions from their discretionary funds, as are At-Large Council Members Norwood and Andre Dickens. We thank them very much; the study could not happen without their contribution and belief in its value. We have asked for – and expect to receive – support from other council members; we will happily announce their decisions as they arrive.

Let’s be clear; no study – no matter how well done it is – will alone change the city’s approaches in this area. But what is certain is that the current rituals we all know so well – a proposal for a huge event, a traffic plan made without any neighborhood input, subsequent complaints from community groups, hastily-called meetings, dueling press releases, generally accurate but anecdotal claims about the event’s impacts, post-facto grumbling and relief (until it’s time to do it all again) – are not at all effective.  We’ve seen that approach year after year; it’s exhausting and unproductive.

The proponents of this study – both council members and neighborhood associations – believe that a study and recommendations from an established firm will provide the basis for a more systematic and effective approach to making changes. We understand that moving from recommendations to changes in practice is a separate journey and will not happen automatically. We want to use the recommendations of a professional agency as a tool to define what questions need to be addressed and to get the process going with the city’s administration and council. Improved outcomes may not be simple, and they are not certain; the report is a beginning, not an end. But we believe this will get the process started in a credible and fact-based framework.

That four local neighborhood associations are united in backing this effort (with the support of district and at-large council members) is significant and important. While all communities share some common impacts, some issues are more acute and specific in each area. Acting in unison has a much greater chance of effectively addressing the challenges than individual approaches. We respect and appreciate all three groups for being part of this.

In the same vein, that both district and at-large council members have already supported this indicates that they too know how much this matters to their constituents. We are all grateful and appreciative for that.

With all these partners and with a more comprehensive study and set of recommendations in hand, we are hopeful that progress can be made over the next year in addressing these seemingly intractable problems.

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