ULI Atlanta Blog

Community Building: Transcendental, Not Transactional Communities

Houser, Hankby Hank Houser, founding Principal Architect with Houser Walker Architecture


Trey Williams and Addie Weber organized an enlightening 4th day of speakers and exercises for the ULI Center for Leadership Class to consider how strong communities can be cultivated. The day revealed a sample of the extraordinary efforts of Atlanta’s development community in shaping unique, authentic places that connect with and nourish people. Community building is the crossroads of people and place.

Aaron Fortner, an urban planner with the Canvas Planning Group, perceives a trending preference for unique, urban settings in advertising, media and pop culture. Similarly, in a real estate market of free choice, people are increasingly moving to walkable, differentiated communities with unique stories rooted in authentic heritage.

Mr. Fortner suggests that clues for cultivating communities where people choose to live can be understood by comparing the qualities of places that people embrace as part of their identity (transcendental communities) with places that people simply occupy (transactional communities). Transcendental communities are places that people love. They are walkable and accessible to all. They are cultivated over time and celebrate their heritage. They have an expressed vision for their future that motivates civic action. People’s stories are entwined with the place of community. A transcendental community’s stories are honest and connect people to its setting, to each other, to their past and to their future.

IMG_4860However, successful community building doesn’t always look the same to everyone as Frank Fernandez, Vice President of Community Development for The Blank Foundation, points out. Just because a place has been transformed doesn’t necessarily mean that the people of that community will be better off. Redevelopment of neglected areas can even disenfranchise poor and working class people from the places where they grew up and from a heritage they are connected to.

The Blank Foundation has pledged to not only improve the places around the new Falcons stadium, but also to attend to the people of the Westside communities with programs and projects that will connect people with opportunities. Mr. Fernandez will rely on his prior experiences in Austin, Texas, where he led redevelopment projects that transformed dangerous and neglected places into vibrant, reborn, safe communities. Although these communities were initially skeptical of the developer, the communities eventually embraced the projects after Mr. Fernandez worked to improve safety within the neighborhoods. Mr. Fernandez knows that an outsider’s ability to affect positive change in a community is based on trust which is earned over time and grows from action and genuine concern for people.

IMG_4871Building trust is also central to Hope Bolden’s job as President of Human Development for Integral where she is tasked with building new, positive traditions that help organize, enhance and inspire the lives of the families and individuals within Integral’s communities. Ms. Bolden’s job is based on Integral’s recognition that a community is more than the built place and will only sustain value over time if its residents take pride in their homes and work toward a positive vision for a community they love.

Ms. Bolden’s people-centered approach was born out of an effort to transform an area of Atlanta that had the highest per capita violent crime statistics in the US. The Techwood and Clark Howell public housing projects were adjacent to the area that would become the Olympic Village and needed to be radically transformed before the world arrived in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. The buildings were in impossibly poor condition and the residents had become captive to the expectation of poverty, drugs and crime as part of their everyday lives. It was clear that the community needed to be fully restarted, which meant that its residents would be displaced during the redevelopment.

CP-1Integral rebuilt Centennial Place as a model for mixed income, partially subsidized community development. Integral recognized that for Centennial Homes to be successful, people would need to choose to live there. So Egbert Perry and Ms. Bolden established the development standard by asking, “What would it take for me to choose to live there?” And, indeed, both choose to live in Centennial Place today.

CP_Exterior3_smallCentennial Place is not only a case study for the transformative capacity of a neglected place, but is also a model for positively impacting people, including displaced residents. During redevelopment, Ms. Bolden and her staff followed and coached relocated residents for three years. Many residents transformed their lives and chose to move back to Centennial Place and participate as constructive citizens. Ms. Bolden also believes that the redevelopment positively impacted the relocated people who chose not to move back because the generational cycle of hopelessness at Techwood and Clark Howell was broken – and people were provided with tools to help improve their lives. “We know with 100 percent certainty that people’s lives will transform if their environment is transformed and we invest in the people. Environment matters. People matter” Bolden says.

IMG_4886The CFL class was then offered an opportunity to apply the lessons of the day and imagine how Turner Field and its surrounding area might be redeveloped. In Reality TV fashion, the CFL class was divided into teams and allotted 2 hours to meet with planners and community stakeholders, agree on development concepts and create a site plan to present to a panel of residents and ULI leaders.

The proposal that was preferred by the panel was SODO, an acronym for ‘South of Downtown’ and potential brand identifier for the area. SODO recommended extending Summerhill’s grid of residential streets into the existing sea of parking lots and reestablish the neighborhood-scale, walkable street pattern that existed prior to building Atlanta-Fulton County stadium in the 60’s. The stadium would be repurposed into loft offices and residences that would overlook the green space of the playing field. The footprint of Atlanta-Fulton County stadium would also be restored as green space with a memorial at the location of Hank Aaron’s historic 714th home run.

SODO learned the day’s lessons well by proposing a place rooted in the history of Summerville and in the history of the Braves: the stadium and its parking repurposed as a walkable, unique community connected to the surrounding neighborhood and woven into the authentic story of its place and people. Including vestiges of Summerhill and the stadium preserves and renews a setting shared by so many Atlantans. SODO promises a place where a son and dad could play catch on the field where Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record. The dad might share with his son the story of that famous home run in 1974 that brought everyone in Atlanta together for a special moment.

Thank you to our Program Day Chairs:

Trey Williams, a Development Director with The Integral Group’s Planned Communities Division and CFL alumni Class of 2012; and Addie Weber an urban designer with the global consulting firm of Jacobs and CFL alumni Class of 2013.


Thank you to our Day Sponsor:


Hank Houser is a founding Principal Architect with Houser Walker Architecture and a current member of the CFL Class of 2015.

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