Assembling a City

Assembling a City

The City of Doraville, population 8,300, is a 15-mile drive from downtown Atlanta. The suburban enclave is also the last stop on Atlanta’s METRO Gold line rail transit system. Around the station, Stan Eckstut, principal at Perkins Eastman, has designed a “city-within-a-city” on the 165-acre site of a former General Motors assembly plant, adding a heavy dose of transit-oriented walkability that developers at The Integral Group hope can entice city-centric millennials to the city’s fringe.

“It is a city, there’s no question,” Eckstut said of the development, dubbed “Assembly, Doraville, USA.” His master plan design—a mix of about 50-percent public space and 50-percent developable land sandwiched between railroad tracks and an interstate highway—embraces density around the Doraville transit stop, connecting to the city’s historic downtown with an armature of parks that will guide development over the next decade.

Eckstut said streets and public spaces organize development parcels, which are envisioned as fluid land-use designations rather than prescribed uses—much like in a real city. In turn, market forces guide what ends up getting built. Eckstut cautioned against the pitfalls of large-scale “Renaissance plans,” that guided 20th century urban renewal, and today have influenced heavy-handed development in China. “The issue is creating something that can be implemented over time with many ideas and many innovations,” said Eckstut. “You need to focus on how it will get implemented and how you can create a fabric where things can evolve and change—much like the grid of Manhattan.”

Assembly sits on one side of a 30-foot-tall freight and transit rail line, one of the busiest in the Southeast, and Doraville on the other. Eckstut said connecting the two was important to create a real urban place. He plans to build a 60-foot-wide tunnel beneath 13 active tracks, an expensive feat, to create connections that can also foster density.

“The plans that preceded us all had bridges that went over the tracks,” said Eckstut. The massive approach ramps required for such a structure precluded creating a compact town center. “I realized I could bring a street right under the tracks and meet up with grade. That became the whole scheme.” Eckstut said the street—an extension of Doraville’s civic heart, Park Avenue—will form the framework for the rest of the development. “This is the glue that connects the historical town center with the new 165-acre site,” he said.


Just inside, an approximately 1.7-acre “Transit Square” serves as the forecourt to the larger parks system. From here, everything in Assembly is an easy walk. “I drew a circle with a radius of about 1,200 feet—a five minute walk,” said Eckstut. “When you reach a five-minute walk, the world changes—people don’t walk after that.” You can get just about anywhere in Assembly in five minutes, and your walk will always be close by a park.”

Eckstut said that Assembly’s park system is a sustainable machine for the entire neighborhood. “Most large-scale projects today have one major sustainability challenge: keeping stormwater on site,” he said. “The best way of doing that is creating a park system. Wherever you have streets, you’re going to have rain gardens.” Rather than build wide sidewalks, Eckstut hopes these gardens will create a more intimate and vibrant streetscape.

Around the parks, the city has approved up to 10 million square feet of development governed by form-based codes that call for maintaining a street wall without setbacks for the first 60 feet of height. Eckstut said the tallest buildings around the Transit Square will top out at up to 15 stories, as dictated by the airspace requirements of an adjacent airport.

The first section of the plan to be built is called “The Yards” on the southwest corner of the site, where a spur of the rail line once entered the factory. Eckstut convinced developers to save leftover remnants from the old GM plant to be repurposed as a film studio. Perkins Eastman is also designing a new minimalist loft building with an industrial aesthetic adjacent to the studio. Cottage-like outbuildings will surround the studio and additional offices will fill train cars. Developers plan on breaking ground on The Yards within the next year.

With the master plan complete and approved, each of six distinct neighborhood districts will go through a separate site planning process that goes into more detail about buildings and public space design. The district surrounding Transit Square and including the new underpass will go into planning in the next 18 months. Eckstut said this phase “is very complicated because we have to engage the transit station and the street that goes under. It involves at least a dozen entities.”