The Town Square Redux
by Linda Stewart
One Georgia teacher examines the concept of the master-planned community by researching the progress of Post Riverside in Atlanta.
Post Riverside, a master-planned community of apartment homes, was one site our team selected for site observations. A community planned by a corporation isn't unusual across many regions of the United States. Post Properties alone has locations in Houston, Denver, Phoenix, and has development plans for California, the Northeast and the Northwest. Post Properties' success and influence in the Atlanta area suggest they are worthy of study. The marketing of their planned communities appeals to a wide cross-section of the Atlanta population. A closer look at one of their self-described "neo-urbanism/neo-traditional communities" helped us to better understand the nature of the suburban American landscape and its residents.
What are suburban Atlantans buying from the Post Riverside presentation? A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper, headlined "Squaresville: Aging downtowns being reborn," claims that suburban town squares across northern Georgia are being revitalized because that's what residents want. Post Riverside is offering their residents a new town square that merely looks old. According to the chairman and CEO of Post Properties, John Williams, Post Riverside was designed to "look 60- to 80- years old." One design feature for the Post Riverside multi-use, $115 million property of more than 500 apartments is its central town square. Post is selling the past.
For us, visiting the Post property to observe, take photographs, research its background, and interview some of the participants was an activity grounded in KCAC principles. Asking a critical question, "What are the complex forces that led to this present configuration?", was the underlying focal point for my observation and analysis.
Post Riverside is situated on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, which winds through metro Atlanta. The address is advertised as prestigious Buckhead, a suburb or exurb of Atlanta. However, Post Riverside abuts Route 41 and is nearer the Cumberland Mall than the spacious lawns and mansions of Buckhead. Northwest of Atlanta and outside the Perimeter, Post Riverside is located in one of the fastest growing areas in the metro.
Turning from Route 41 into the property, a brick clock landmark sign nestled in well-tended, symmetrical landscaping signals you've arrived at Post Riverside. A long, curving entranceway brings you to the town square. Surrounding the town square are townhouses, a multi-storied office building, retail stores, a café and an upscale restaurant, The River Room. Beyond the town square is the "Village," behind a gated entranceway. To live in one of the 500 apartment homes ranging from 900 to 5,000 square feet, a renter will pay a median rent of $2,700 per month, which includes access to the pool and tennis facilities.
The town square is the focal point of the Post Riverside project. Created to meet the demands for "smart growth" as a response to the problems of urban sprawl, a prominent issue in metro Atlanta and across the United States, this town square was part of the planners' desire to create a "pedestrian-friendly" community. Architect Andres Duany drew his inspiration from the streets of older, northern cities that encourage walking. The town square design was a result of his input and collaboration with key Post executives.
III. Landmark Analysis
I visited Post Riverside twice-in daytime on a weekday and on a Saturday. I spent over two hours in the town square each time, taking notes and photographs, sitting outside and taking notes, talking to retailers and the leasing agent. Prior to and after my visits, I read several general essays and books about suburbia and planned communities, and I went to the library for past newspaper articles about Post Properties. I also visited their website. If Post Properties is in the business of "building better neighborhoods," as their marketing claims, then examining the brick and mortar "text" of Post Riverside's town square may what qualities are thought to make a good neighbor in today's Atlanta.
The town square has a lush, landscaped fountain in the center. The road is a one-way U-shaped loop that first passes in front of the multi-storied office building, curves in front of The River Room, a fine-dining restaurant with a good reputation, and then returns to the main thoroughfare past a hair salon, a deli-cafe, a "mailroom," workout gym, and leasing office. Euro-style townhouses line the streets.
An employee at the cafe, who asked that she not be identified, said that the planners deliberately drew upon European designs for the architecture. The cafe is amiably faux French, offering wines, gourmet foods, and specialty deli items stylishly displayed.
Residents of Post Riverside could walk into the town square to send their mail, work out, pick up coffee and a newspaper, and cross the street to work. How many of them do would need to be the subject of further research. During my site observations, the streets were noticeably empty of pedestrians. However, I didn't visit in the evening. It wasn't until I began looking closely at all the photographs I took that I noticed, and recalled, that I didn't see anyone walking around the town square. The town square is perfectly landscaped, the buildings are quaint and charming, the signage innocuous, the flowers well-trimmed and shaped. It's the perfect setting awaiting the contemporary Atlanta neo-suburbanite-a replica of the old town square that is intended to suggest "Mayberry." Post Riverside offers suburban Atlanta residents their transplanted vision of Mayberry for a "global elite." Rather than being drawn together because of geography, what Post residents share is the ability to pay the rent. As Robert Reich points out in his essay, "The Global Elite," Americans "generally have one thing in common with their neighbors: They have similar incomes. And that simple fact lies at the heart of the new community." In the case of Post Riverside, like planned communities across America, earnings unite the residents.
The leasing office visit yielded an interesting twist. Framed on the wall of the office hangs a matted document that resembles an historical account of the property before Post developed it. A conversation with the leasing agent revealed the "history" to be fake. Like the reproduction town square, the "history" was manufactured to create an imaginary past for this development. According to Ann Carrns' 1998 Wall Street Journal article, the fake history, originally used as a memo to help focus the architectural team's design efforts, became a "an advertising campaign featuring a mock historian's treatise." The faux history as a marketing tool is as complete (with imagined illustrations, stories, details, and letters) as the town square is with its detailed shops, boutiques, euro-exteriors, and fountain.
The faux history draws upon Civil War connections, a ferry landing and old mill sites, rather than telling the real history of the landfill, the sewage treatment plant, and the railroad exchange station that R. Bohrer, a senior researcher at Georgia Tech, states was there before. Why the need to produce this fictional history? John Williams apparently thinks it is harmless. The Atlanta History Center disagrees, according to articles by Darlene Roth.
The Post Riverside town square, drawing upon European design, rural "Mayberry" metaphors, Civil War legacies, and early American town marketplaces is a confusing conflation of themes and histories. Do the residents care or notice? Perhaps not. Perhaps, as my colleague Diane Shearer suggests, corporations are "selling us memories or history along with the property because they have seen how we mobile Americans long for a sense of place and meaningful community." Perhaps Post Riverside's town square provides a new venue for contemporary suburban communities. But if so, it has erased much of what was there in the land and in its history, and replaced it with a fictional history and a town square redux. Are these reproductions what Americans are seeking?
Is Post Riverside another planned community development that erases history, much as suburban "lava" scalds our rural landscapes, creating the difficult task of discovering (remembering) what was there before the asphalt? The production and design of Post Riverside is a reproduction of the past in bricks and ink. It's not real, but it does reveal. By examining planned communities across America, we can better understand the nature of Americans, their neighborhoods, their dreams, and their communities.
Bohrer, Rand. "Marketing a Community." Letter. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution 19 April 1998. http://web.lexis- nexis.com/universe.
Carrns, Ann. "How a Brand-New Development Came by Its Rich History." The Wall Street Journal 18 February 1998: B1.
Farber, Henry. "Squaresville: Aging downtowns being reborn." The Atlanta Journal and Constitution 23 April 2001: C1.
Henry, Randy. "Post Properties' visionary leader comments on getting to the top." National Real Estate Investor. May 1998. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe.
Reich, Robert. "The Global Elite." Arguing in Communities. Ed. Gary Layne Hatch. Mountain View: Mayfield. 1999.
Shearer, Diane. "Teacher Research/requests Posts' history." Email. 04 June 2001
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