Downtown Atlanta has struggled for years with the perception that it’s not vibrant.
Now, a group of business leaders in the area hopes an ordinance before the Atlanta City Council on Monday will change that — by bringing in bright lights.
The proposal from Central Atlanta Progress would create a new Arts and Entertainment District that would allow dynamic, LED signs downtown — similar to those in New York City’s Times Square or Denver’s Theatre District.
Standing outside the College Football Hall of Fame on Marietta Street, Jennifer Ball, the nonprofit’s vice president of planning and economic development, said the goal is to draw more people downtown.
“When we talk about downtown, people have an affinity for it as a place, whether they live here, work here, maybe they just come to visit every once and awhile,” Ball said. “But we constantly hear people say they want more street activity.”
She said the digital signs would be for advertising. But the revenue would go toward funding public art and entertainment also to display on the signs. They could even coordinate the signs with sporting events.
All of this would make downtown more of a destination, Ball said.
“A component of that is literally the light. But also just the visual stimulation, that you’re seeing things, and not walking by blank walls and vacant lots, but that there is something cool to look at and interesting to see,” she said.
The idea of bright lights downtown is a familiar one. Take a look at the lyrics of Petula Clark’s 1960s hit “Downtown”: “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty, how can you lose?”
But some people, like Jamie Henderson, do see how you can lose with the digital signs.
He’s lived in downtown’s Fairlie-Poplar District for 16 years. He’s watched the residential population around him grow, and now he’s worried what the signs will mean for him and his neighbors.
To illustrate, Henderson points out one of his apartment windows.
“There's this backside of this building, which is in Fairlie-Poplar, on the other side of the courthouse, right through that area. That’s kind of the area where they want to hang a sign. My bed’s right there,” he said, looking next to the window.
He admits downtown is lacking some things. But what residents have asked for is a grocery store, more greenery or an expanded streetcar. Flashing LED signs are at the bottom of the list.
And also, Henderson just doesn’t get why Atlanta needs them.
“Atlanta’s already got its identity. People don’t come here for big neon signage they find in Vegas or Times Square, that’s not who we are. I don’t know why we would want to try to be another city, when we already are our own, Atlanta,” he said.
Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, who has consulted cities about their downtowns, seems to agree with that logic. He said, if you’re aiming for revitalization, copying other cities isn’t the answer.
“In fact, I’d say outdoor advertising is the exact opposite way to go,” McMahon said. “It is not a way to make cities more lively, it’s a way to make cities uglier and more commercial and more homogenized.”
Instead, he says, cities should think about how they can create unique public spaces, where people can interact. He points to New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and the High Line park.
“They are some of the liveliest places on planet Earth, but they’re not places that are bombarding pedestrians with outdoor advertising,” McMahon said.
Still, downtown Atlanta has a lot of problems, said Atlanta’s Planning Commissioner Tim Keane. There are interesting sections, he said, but they’re disconnected. There isn’t an overall character right now.
So he supports the proposed ordinance.
“There’s a lot of missing fabric here. There’s a lot of dead zones,” Keane said. “And I think it would be unfortunate to not be thinking creatively to address the shortcomings we have.”
He thinks the signs will be an opportunity for something creative, not just advertising. The Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, a public-private group connected to Central Atlanta Progress, will be managing them.
And anyway, Keane said the digital displays will be only one feature of downtown.
“In the best cities and the best downtowns, you see aspects of this, maybe you don’t notice them as much, because there’s so many other things happening, which is what we want here,” he said.
The Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on the proposed ordinance Monday.