Masters Plan for Mableton
Without the need to refuel steam locomotives, the train no longer stopped in Mableton. Even though Mableton lies only 12 miles to the west of Downtown Atlanta, Georgia and nine miles south of Marietta, Georgia, it has become physically and economically isolated from the region.
Isolation from the explosive and often unplanned growth in the Atlanta region over the past three decades may long-term prove to be a blessing in disguise. Much of the urban expansion of that period was in auto dependent and sprawling and will be difficult to sustain over time. The town did not experience the major investments and subsequent busts of the housing boom thus it still waits ready for redevelopment guided by the less auto-dependent principles of lifelong design.
Today Mableton is well suited to become a compact, livable bedroom community for both Marietta and Downtown Atlanta, with major employers like Coca-Cola headquarters only a 7-minute drive down the now under utilized Bank Head Highway (today renamed Veterans Memorial Highway). Recently development pressures have begun returning to the area, spilling over from the heavy investment North Cobb experienced during the past decade. The community has actively sought to ensure that future development will be carried out in a manner to include existing residents and to create a healthy, walkable environment for people of all ages.
Redeveloping as a Lifelong Community
Step One: Establishing Neighborhood Nodes
A common characteristic of sprawling development is its lack of identifiable neighborhood centers and edges: one neighborhood tends to spill into another with no change in character. Mableton is too large to function as a single pedestrian oriented neighborhood, and thus initial investigation looked into how it could be best subdivided into a series of distinct, walkable neighborhoods. Four neighborhood nodes were identified:
Old Town Center
The original town center formed around the original railroad depot by the tracks along the south. This old town center anchored the original main street for the town and could once again be an important transit oriented center if a proposed regional passenger rail station is realized there. Transit Oriented Development would provide regional access to those who are not able or do not wish to drive and provide sufficient regional retail market opportunities to support the compact, mixed use developments that are excellent environments for aging.
The Barnes Site
The Barnes homestead is a 23.5-acre (9.5-hectare) parcel that is currently the largest private development site in Mableton and is an opportunity to integrate some Lifelong Communities facilities into Mableton.
John Mable House area
The John Mable House was not the original center of town, but with its collection of post office, library, arts center, amphitheater and other civic functions immediately surrounding, it currently functions as the new town center for the South Cobb area. The John Mable area has all the ingredients in place to establish a clear center and place identity for the area.
Developing a sense of arrival and place this site is absolutely critical to its regional role as a town center. It is currently easy to slip by Mableton while traveling on Floyd with out ever noticing the community. The redevelopment will need to shape an entire environment that reflects the place and character of Mableton as an important South Cobb regional destination.
Mableton Elementary School Site
The school anchors the northern end of Church street which was the original main street for the town. The school site holds promise as a neighborhood center for health, recreation, and education programs. If Floyd Road Redevelopment is critical to Mableton's regional role, Mableton Elementary School is the most significant opportunity to improve the community's internal core.
The trend in Cobb County, as in most of the nation, is to view an elementary school as a regional facility whose immediate surrounding neighborhood is incidental to its function. However, Mableton Elementary is not off by itself in a field at the edge of town: it is the heart of Mableton and perched at its highest point. As the heart of the community, the school has rare opportunities to weave its program into the surroundings for the benefit of students, older adults and all other neighborhood residents.
No single public or private entity will be emerging to assemble all property in Mableton to then carry out in lock step a perfectly logical and sequential redevelopment process. Instead, the County's master plan and form-based code will work incrementally over time to coordinate the independent timing and decision making of all of Mableton's individual property owners.
The absence of a master development entity places a greater burden on the larger initial public and private interventions to set a direction and example for the look and feel of future redevelopment. If implemented well, these initial actions can anchor the overall framework of the Master Plan and help establish the momentum and credibility necessary to influence the actions of the surrounding individual owners as they work on their properties over time.
Step Two: Enhancing Connectivity and Access
Connectivity and access is absolutely necessary for lifelong neighborhoods: a well-networked street and transit system is the enabling prerequisite requirement for many of the other urban features covered in this article.
In historic Mableton, the existing street network is reasonably well connected and is a mix of rectilinear grid in the area subdivided originally in the 1890's and more organic sections to the east that probably evolved over time from footpaths and dirt drives . The original blocks are scaled well and subdivide the neighborhood into comfortable walking routes. Outside of the historic area the urban fabric is more recently developed and does not cohesively mesh with the original street network: streets do not form blocks and result in long distances between intersections. This latter development is much more oriented to automobile traffic than foot traffic and concentrates the automobiles onto a few arterials rather than disperse it across multiple local roads. A rail corridor to the south is bridged at only three points in the immediate vicinity and thus it forms a strong southern boundary for the area.
The thoroughfare network adjustments proposed in the master plan enhance connections within the community while taking advantage of every possible opportunity to extend connection opportunities to some of the more recently development surrounding the historic area .
The master plan prioritizes a collection of small road extensions to better connect the interior of the community and significant redesigns of the major arterials to create more pedestrian friendly frontages. The master plan builds upon existing sidewalk installation programs and proposes a wide range of streetscape improvements to better integrate traffic into a pedestrian scaled environment. These include reduced or reclaimed front setbacks, planted medians, and a civic square. Most notable among these improvements is that the major north south arterial, Floyd Road, will be transformed from a high-speed suburban road into a true boulevard, with a median and slip roads accommodating parallel parking, one-way lanes and well-protected sidewalks. Though the proposed design requires some acquisition and reorganization to reach its fullest potential, it demonstrates how a cohesive and welcoming pedestrian environment could evolve overtime.
Mableton's transit stops would provide much more local mobility if a local circulating bus was added as shown . The circulator bus would better connect the four neighborhood nodes with regional bus and train routes resulting in better transit access and enhanced customer catchment areas for local retail. This coordinated assemblage of transit options would serve the full range of transit needs through out a lifetime: bus routes for school age children, regional commuting to employment centers for working adults, and circulation through out the community for the daily need errands of people of all ages.
Step Three: Enhancing Dwellings and Retail
Mableton area is currently composed of single-family detached housing. Redevelopment as a lifelong community would need to introduce the wide variety of housing types proposed in the plan. These range from apartments and townhomes, to single family homes. Live work units are a particularly attractive type for older adults that continue to work but no longer commute to an office.
Mableton does not yet have the critical mass of retail enterprises necessary for achieving its full potential as a retail and service center for the area. To better support this potential, the master plan structures three distinct neighborhood units connected by a circulating shuttle bus. There is probably not a sufficient market catchment area to support retail for all daily needs in each neighborhood, but between the three, most necessities could be provided in neighborhood settings. However, a critical piece of the design strategy is to capture the strip mall to the south within a neighborhood structure and redevelop it as a mixed-use development. Infilling the site with dense housing and retail units could provide the critical mass of residents to support retail in the area.
At the initiation of its master planning process for the area, Cobb County's zoning of Mableton prevented the diversification of the housing stock and the integration of retail into neighborhood centers. The existing zoning code was a conventional suburban development approach which divides a community into several separate zones each of which permit only a single building use and a single type of building type. In order to create conditions more conducive to the development of cohesive buildings of diverse types capable of supporting a wide range of uses, the County created a new overlay zoning code to accompany the new master plan .
Critical to creating a more diverse, mixed-use environment is greater attention to the shape of the public realm through regulating the placement, massing, and frontage detailing of the lining buildings. It is the coordination of a cohesive public realm that allows the private buildings to be more diverse in type and use without appearing to be out of place with each other .
As an example of what could be accomplished under the form-based code, the proposed town square is envisioned as the civic focus for the community with a few specialty retail opportunities provided to enliven the area. Because the existing shopping centers to the south and north were better suited to be the primary regional retail cores, the town square was designed to target specialty and "third place" venues. The mix of these three retail types in close proximity could improve the market prospects of each.
Step Four: Community Building Spaces
Currently in Mableton, there are significant existing or easy to realize opportunities for social interaction spaces throughout the community, although they could be immediately improved by better pedestrian connection. For example, in the town center site it is nearly impossible to imagine an older adult or child walking to the library then stopping by the post office before heading to the arts center. The facilities are all within a few hundred feet of each other, but somehow manage to exist in complete isolation from one another. There is no urbanism to connect them.
This isolation within close proximity represents a significant lost opportunity for community building. Without the interstitial urbanism, these facilities all serve as intentional destinations for focused social exchange, but that important opportunity for chance encounters that occur between destinations is lost. Residents will not bump into their neighbors and say hello while walking from the post office to the arts center. When driving past the library on the way to the post office a resident will probably not see that his favorite local author is giving a reading inside, or the book he has been waiting for is now available. These chance encounters with neighbors and events are very important to the high percentage of older adults prone to depression and withdrawal. Chance encounters are more likely to keep an older adult engaged.
The master plan proposes a relatively easy way to meaningfully insert some urbanism between the existing civic and cultural institutions. A civic square cobbled together out of a collection of parking lots, vacant property, and existing street right of way also resolves the awkward and dangerous traffic situation in this area. With this square in place, an entirely new realm of social interaction is created that would encourage allows residents to be more effortlessly engaged with other people and interesting events even during the times when their motivation to do so wanes.
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This article is excerpted from Livable Communities for Aging Populations by M. Ball Scott, copyright © 2012, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.