The city of Stone Mountain is stepping from the shadow of one of the largest granite domes in America with, of all things, sidewalks.
The sidewalks will be made of brick and granite pavers in a special pattern. They will be wider, illuminated by decorative street lights and, eventually, shaded by new trees.
And they’ll put Stone Mountain in the company of many metro Atlanta cities that have used streetscapes to pretty themselves up for both the people who are already there and whoever it is they wish would come. That reinvigorating downtowns also can boost city coffers doesn’t hurt, either.
“It is public investment in a place you’re trying to prime for development or redevelopment,” said Catherine Ross, an urban planner and professor at Georgia Tech. “But it’s more than that. It’s about increasing the value of your place, a way to make better a place where you live. It’s about generating new but also making sure to keep what you have.”
Streetscapes include everything from new roads, sidewalks and bike lanes to decorative touches such as antique lighting and benches.
Stone Mountain’s goal is to use its history and the arts to remake its center city, City Manager Barry Amos said. Success, then, would look like restoration to the 150-year-old train depot that now houses City Hall or the arrival of galleries and art studios in the several vacant storefronts that line Main Street.
In Norcross, success sounds like the music from outdoor speakers downtown — creating a buzz that draws more people to dine there. Officials in Roswell knew they were on the right track with a focus on cycling and walking when residents began clamoring for work in their neighborhoods or along their favorite routes.
Boosting town centers has an apple-pie appeal for residents tired of congested drives to hectic malls and chain restaurants.
Decatur, Duluth, Marietta, Norcross and Roswell have built on historical center cities to attract businesses and pump up local pride.
Decatur is one of the best known local success stories. With an established downtown and cluster of government buildings just blocks from leafy residential streets, Decatur decided nearly 20 years ago to make itself a walkable community.
First came widened sidewalks and new trees on one block of East Ponce de Leon Avenue in the early 1990s. A few years later, the city built up its square around an underground MARTA station. Suddenly, there were decorative street lights, a gazebo for summer concerts and tables and benches.
That focus on a downtown core led to new condo developments, one of the region’s highest office occupancy rates and daylong activity that has spread from Decatur Square.
The city now plans more projects, such as bike lanes to connect to residential neighborhoods.
“We wanted to invest in our town and show we’re willing to partner with developers,” Decatur City Manager Lyn Menne said. “You have to have things in place to encourage the kind of development you want.”
Stone Mountain’s face-lift is designed to create live-work space for artists and attract galleries as well as more traditional restaurants and shops.
Today, its downtown looks much like a stagecoach town from the Old West. The west side of Main Street is a hodgepodge of a locally run clothing and sporting goods shops, lunchtime eateries and offices — along with several vacancies. A former trolley station, now converted to a theater and gallery known as ART Station, is on a side street.
A rail line dominates the east side, where the historical train depot that serves as City Hall sits next to a large parking lot and a handful of businesses.
“If we just get it fixed up a bit, it can be cute again,” said Karen Parker, the owner of Mama Mia’s eatery on Main Street. “People need to realize our village is here.”
Putting your city on the map — even for locals — doesn’t come cheap. Marietta has spent $19 million on just one project, fixing up Roswell Road between the square and the Big Chicken.
Crews are adding a lane to the road, installing medians and decorative railings and landscaping the nearly two-mile stretch, Public Works director Dan Conn said.
That project has been on the books since at least 2000, revealing another hurdle to streetscapes: time. Between planning and securing grants from state and federal agencies, projects can take years.
Stone Mountain’s bid for a streetscape goes back nearly a decade. Hiccups included funding delays and a dispute with a local property owner over the fate of a balcony that hangs over Main Street. Construction finally began earlier this month, with the state Department of Transportation paying for three-quarters of the $1.66 million first phase.
Plans call for 12- to 16-foot sidewalks to replace the current 8- to 1-foot ones in front of businesses, historical accents and a block-long landscaped median.
By year’s end, a second $1.6 million streetscape phase extending down Main Street to Poole Street should be ready for to break ground. By summer, the City Council is slated to change its alcohol ordinance. The city must allow outdoor dining so eateries can serve food and alcohol on those new broad walkways.
The city is also about to become the first in DeKalb to have an arts incubator program. The incubator, a county project, is designed to nurture and promote local artists in a bid to draw tourists and locals to Main Street.
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