A recent trip to Macon, GA –about a 4 hour drive southeast of Birmingham–revealed an interesting downtown undergoing a revitalization. Above is one of the many blocks in the historic core whose streets are divided by large, park-like medians. Not only do these medians give the pedestrian an alternative to the sidewalk, but they introduce a large amount of green space into the core.
Having that much space given over to trees, paths, and fountains in the middle of the street feels “Southern”: it implies a more leisurely pace and a warmer climate. On a weekday, these spaces including the one above appeared well-used.
As a companion to those wide median-parks, the sidewalks on principal streets have extreme depths (above). In Birmingham we are often barely able to get a tight row of cafe seating on the sidewalk, where minimum clearances for pedestrians must be observed. This is clearly not a problem in Macon: the sidewalk allows large planting areas, sitting areas, and plenty of space for cafe seating and pedestrian clearances. At this point, however, there aren’t enough cafes, or foot traffic generally, to make these sidewalks feel comfortably occupied. The potential is there, however, as new businesses look to fill old storefronts.
While perhaps several hundred apartments exist downtown, scattered in small developments, the city’s first large loft development, in the former Dannenberg Department Store, is underway incorporating several old buildings into a project of some 60 units and ground floor retail (above). Demand for housing downtown appears strong, helped by a medical center on the edge of downtown (sound familiar?). City leaders hope this project will be a “tipping point” for Macon, demonstrating the need for more housing, restaurants, and other services.
Part of downtown’s appeal to new residents is the system of alleys, called “lanes” in Macon. That nomenclature isn’t merely euphemistic; they are narrow, lined with quaint, small-scale architecture and landscaped areas and sometimes populated with restaurants (above). In Birmingham we often dream of converting our higher density alleys into pedestrian, mixed-use environments; but our system was and is almost purely about service: loading, employee entrances, etc. Transforming our alleys is a greater challenge, while Macon’s appear almost designed from the start for mixed-use transformation.
An arresting sight downtown is the neoclassical facade of Terminal Station (waiting room, above), which has recently been fully restored and is poised to again become a center of rail activity if high-speed service is introduced to Atlanta. Ironically, Birmingham still has Amtrak service while our own gorgeous Terminal Station was torn down in 1969; Macon has no train service but managed to save their station. One wing is the now the main downtown transit center for city buses.
Spotted around the corner from Terminal Station was this storefront above, former headquarters of the consolidation movement which, just a few months ago, resulted in the citizens of Macon and surrounding Bibb County voting to merge as one entity. With the City and County speaking with one voice, it will make it easier to lobby for that train service, as well as any number of other initiatives. The politics, economics and demographics are different in Bibb County compared to Jefferson County; but it must be said that we are held back from achieving our true potential because our region doesn’t speak with that one voice. We waste too much time arguing amongst ourselves instead–rather than uniting for high-speed rail. Or a functioning transit system.
Sometimes, small gestures can make a big difference. Above is an electric vehicle charging station outside Macon City Hall. Seeing this station has the same effect the (now removed) high-tech parking meters had outside Birmingham’s City Hall: the message is we’re moving forward, we’re embracing the future, we’re promoting efficiency through technology. Macon seems poised to become a real jewel of a Southern city, and we’ll follow its progress with interest.