Piedmont Park: A Destination, Not A Pass Through

April 6, 2012 57 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In this periodical series, Metro Jacksonville highlights sites in peer cities across the country that have become destinations and not pass throughs. We ask if Jacksonville is ready for the challenge and willing to invest in itself to compete for economic development in the 21st century. Today, we visit Atlanta's Piedmont Park.

History of Piedmont Park

Atlanta's Piedmont Park may be one of the most popular historical urban parks in the country.  Located just north of downtown Atlanta, it's a recreational space including a of mix of amenities that attract a diverse range of the city's residents.

Piedmont Park is a 189-acre urban park in Atlanta, Georgia, located about 1 mile northeast of Downtown, between the Midtown and Virginia Highland neighborhoods. Originally the land was owned by Dr. Benjamin Walker, who used it as his out-of-town gentleman's farm and residence. He sold the land in 1887 to the Gentlemen's Driving Club (later renamed the Piedmont Driving Club), who wanted to establish an exclusive club and racing ground for horse enthusiasts. The Driving Club entered an agreement with the Piedmont Exposition Company, headed by prominent Atlantan Charles A. Collier, to use the land for fairs and expositions and later gave the park its name.

The park was originally designed by Joseph Forsyth Johnson to host the first of two major expositions held in the park in the late 19th century. The Piedmont Exposition opened in October 1887 to great fanfare. The event was a success and set the stage for the Cotton States and International Exposition which was held in the park seven years later in 1895. Both exhibitions showcased the prosperity of the region that had occurred during and after the Reconstruction period. In the early 20th century, a redesign plan called the Olmsted plan, was begun by the sons of New York Central Park architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. The effort led to the addition of scenic paths in the park and the joining of the park with the Ansley park system.

Over the years, the park has also served as an athletic center for the city. Atlanta's first professional baseball team, the Atlanta Crackers, played in the park from 1902 to 1904. Several important intercollegiate rivalries were also forged in the park including the University of Georgia vs. Georgia Tech baseball rivalry and Georgia versus Auburn football which has been called the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry".

Throughout the 20th century, many other improvements have been made in the park including the addition of covered picnic areas, tennis facilities, the Lake Clara Meer dock and visitors center, and two playgrounds. Today, the park is a popular place for gathering, grilling, swimming, fishing, playing and more. In 2008, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for a 53-acre extension to the park and complete renovation of the bathhouse and swimming pool. The renovated pool opened in summer of 2009.

On April 12, 2011, Mayor Kasim Reed cut the ribbon to open the first phase of a major expansion into the northern third of the park. Areas opened include:

- Two oval-shaped plazas: "The Greensward" & "The Promenade", which contains the interactive Legacy Fountain
- the Lower Meadow
- the Six Springs Wetlands
- a vastly expanded dog park

Additional areas at the far north of the park are to be developed next, including The Northwoods, Piedmont Commons and Piedmont Gardens. There are already dirt trails that follow Clear Creek and the BeltLine northwards and connect the park with these areas and provide pedestrian access to the Ansley Mall area north of the park, and with the BeltLine trail going further north.

A Walk Through Piedmont Park

In 1983, Piedmont Park was closed to through traffic, creating a more pedestrian-friendly park, and opening the pathways to a new mix of wheeled traffic—skateboarders, bicyclists, and rollerbladers.

Located in the southwestern corner, the 24-acre Oak Hill is one of two gateways to the park from the Midtown business district. It also interfaces with the historic midtown neighborhood. Recently, the Piedmont Park Conservancy hired HOK to lead a $2 million restoration plan for this section of the park.

Above: The gazebo over Lake Clara Meer.
Below: The skyline of Midtown Atlanta rises over the gazebo and Lake Clara Meer.

In 1911, Lake Clara Meer was host to swimmers, diving platforms, sunning platforms and a giant, double water slide.

The southeastern section of the park is known as the Meadow.  In 1979, a golf course was closed, freeing up 70 acres of green space on what is now Oak Hill and the Meadow.

Now closed to vechicular traffic, the Park Drive Bridge was built in 1916 to provide connectivity between the park and the Virginia-Highlands neighborhood.  The bridge provided grade separated access over the former Atlanta & West Point Railroad.  Today, the abandoned rail right-of-way is being converted into a 22-mile, looped, multi-use path, circling the core of Atlanta in the process.

The Belt Line Background

The idea originated in a 1999 masters degree thesis by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, who founded the non-profit Friends of the Belt Line and currently works for the city of Atlanta's planning department. Frustrated with the lack of transportation alternatives in Atlanta, Gravel and two of his colleagues, Mark Arnold and Sarah Edgens, summarized his thesis in 2000 and mailed copies to two dozen influential Atlantans. Cathy Woolard, then the city council representative for district six, was an early supporter of the concept. Woolard, Gravel, Arnold, and Edgens spent the next several months promoting the idea of the BeltLine to neighborhood groups, the PATH foundation, and Atlanta business leaders. Supported by Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, previous city council president Cathy Woolard, and many others in Atlanta's large business community, the idea grew rapidly during 2003 and 2004.
The railroad tracks and rights-of-way are owned mostly by CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and the Georgia Department of Transportation. Developer Wayne Mason had purchased most of the NS portion, in anticipation of the BeltLine, but later sold it after conflict with the city.

The total length will be 22 miles, running about 3 miles on either side of Atlanta's elongated central business district. It is planned to include a neighborhood-serving transit system (likely streetcars), footpaths for non-motorized traffic, including bicycling, rollerskating, and walking and the redevelopment of some 2,544 acres. The project (although not the funding for it) is included in the 25-year Mobility 2030 plan by the Atlanta Regional Commission, for improving transit from 2005 to 2030.

Piedmont Park features parks for both small and large dogs near the Six Springs wetlands.

Legacy Fountain is located in the Promenade section of Piedmont Park.

Lake Clara Meer separates Oak Hill and the Meadow from the aquatic center, basketball and tennis courts, Mayor Groves' playground, and the Active Oval.

The Active Oval is a popular location for recreation sports and fitness activities.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden can be seen in the background overlooking the Active Oval. In 1976, the high ground of Piedmont Park was leased by the City of Atlanta to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

The Visitor's Center, located near the 12th Street gate, is the oldest remaining building in Piedmont Park.  Constructed as a rest house in 1910, it was restored to serve as a visitor's center in 1996.

An Economic Development Catalyst

The redevelopment and increased popularity of Piedmont Park over the last two decades has lead to economic development opportunities adjacent to the public space.  Midtown Atlanta has been a recipient of this phenomenon.

A Lesson For Jacksonville

Like Piedmont Park, residents once jogged, biked, and strolled the multi-use paths along Hogans Creek.

The urban core has a large public park that was once just as popular and exciting as Atlanta's Piedmont Park.  Formerly known as Springfield Park, it stretches over a mile along the banks of Hogans Creek, forming the border between downtown Jacksonville and Springfield.  Like this under-maintained public space, Piedmont Park was in a period of decline two decades ago.  However, that came to an end with the organization of the Piedmont Park Conservancy.  

In 1989, unwilling to accept the decline of their beloved park, a small group of concerned citizens and civic leaders joined together to form Piedmont Park Conservancy, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Piedmont Park. In 1992, The Conservancy established a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Atlanta, making official the public–private partnership and mutual goals to rehabilitate and maintain Piedmont Park.

Through the generosity of corporate, foundation and individual contributions, Piedmont Park Conservancy has raised more than $23 million in private funds to complete the first half of the Master Plan restoration, including the renovation of Oak Hill, Lake Clara Meer and the Meadowlands. Through its member support, Piedmont Park Conservancy funds landscaping maintenance workers and off-duty police officers to keep Piedmont Park safe, clean and beautiful, and offers a variety of educational programming through its new Community Center.

Through the work of Piedmont Park Conservancy and its members and supporters, century-old Piedmont Park is once again the premier green space and central gathering place of Atlanta.

Perhaps a few of our parks need their own conservancies formed by concerned citizens and civic leaders.

Article by Ennis Davis.