Reviving Main Street America

Atlanta suburb invigorates town center with touches of yesteryear.

Mayor Max Bacon remembers the day in 1990 when he looked out his window and saw a downtown that had been reduced to a few ramshackle buildings, a failed public-housing project, and two twisted oak trees.

When he looks out his City Hall window today, he can see the same oak trees, but just about everything else has changed. All the touches of yesteryear - a pond with honking geese, wrought-iron lamp posts, and polished-wood park benches - have returned.

Seven years ago, the intersection of two major highways on the edge of town was sucking virtually all the vitality out of downtown. But Mayor Bacon, determined not to let Smyrna's town center crumble completely, embarked on a bold plan to raze the few weary buildings still standing and build a new downtown from scratch.

In re-creating a Main Street, Smyrna, Ga., joined a growing backlash against suburban sprawl. Examples of a new urbanism movement abound, from the high-profile planned community Celebration, created by Disney in Florida, to smaller developments outside Washington and Chicago espousing back-to-Rockwell ideals. Yet it appears that this town of 37,000, set in one of the country's most spread-out metro areas, is on the front line of the movement - exchanging strip malls for storefronts and parking lots for public gardens.

"What Smyrna's done is creatively and apparently very successfully address a problem that we see all over the US: What do you do with old, inner-ring suburbs that were engulfed by suburban sprawl?" says Charles Kendrick Jr., a Boston developer and a member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a nonprofit group of developers and architects. Last month, the group gave Smyrna one of its prestigious awards for excellence. "There are lots of little town that were wonderful towns and just got lost."

In the new town center, King Street - Smyrna's main thoroughfare - is the model of a small town, bracketed by a columned City Hall and an inviting police department. A community center and library cluster around a New England-style traffic circle with a large village green in the middle. A retail building that shares the beige-brick coloring, clean-line metal roofs, and classic design of its civic counterparts stands nearby.

Just down the block is perhaps the project's most successful feature: 22 single-family homes clustered in a density unimaginable in most small-sized cities today. They sold out in 125 days.

But seven years ago, all this prosperity was just a dream - and a risky one at that. The project began when Bacon walked through downtown with an architect and other city leaders. The architect asked what they wanted to save. "We said, 'Those two oak trees.... That's it.' "

The next few years were a little scary. Smyrna's leaders issued bonds without a public referendum, spending $15 million on the first phase alone.

"I know we had some folks that were real leery about what we planned to do," Bacon says. "They said they were glad we saved the trees, because if this didn't work out, they were going to need someplace to hang us from."

He needn't have worried. Today, the new downtown regularly receives raves from Smyrna residents and beyond. The city's tax base has sharply risen, as private developers build luxury neighborhoods nearby for people who want to live in a city with a thriving downtown.

"It was important to me to put the heart back into downtown," says Bacon. "People are now proud to bring their guests and family to the new downtown. They haven't felt that way for long time."

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