2022 Annual Meeting Explores How Midtown Can “Crank Up the Wow”
After a year off, more than 700 people came together for the return of one of Midtown’s signature community events
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
The morning’s “All Together Now” theme celebrated the momentum Midtown Atlanta is regaining as more people begin to make their return to public life. Topics included development growth and density, a look inside crime trends in Midtown, new public art partnerships, the latest on street-level improvement projects, and a deep-dive on the emerging culture shift toward open-air gathering spaces.
Here are some highlights from the event, along with video replays of each speech.
NOTE: We put a high value on drawing in-person attendance at this annual ticketed event because so much of it is built around spending time building relationships and experiencing the energy of a room full of people who care about and are excited about Midtown and our city's future. That said, we are making the replays available from this year's annual meeting because various members of our community are currently at different stages of making their way back to public life and in-person gatherings.
Why Midtown? Outgoing Board Chair Describes the Human Energy that Makes a City
Mark Toro, principal and chief vision officer of Toro Development Co. and Midtown Alliance’s outgoing board chair, kicked off the morning by welcoming the crowd and telling his Midtown story.
He and his wife Nancy left the suburbs for a 35th floor condo on 14th Street, where they had a front-row seat to Midtown’s unprecedented transformation. Since 2010, an astounding 57 buildings have been delivered in this 1.2 square mile district, with another 16 under construction today and 10 in the design review process. And in this same timeframe, Midtown also welcomed 34,000 new jobs announcements and 12,500 new residents.
“That’s more new residents than the past six decades combined, making a life in the city,” Toro said. “And we’re not finished.”
Although Midtown has a street grid, access to public transit and some of the top arts and cultural institutions in the Southeast, the district’s best asset is its people, Toro said.
He offered as an example Colony Square, Midtown’s original mixed-use development that North American Properties acquired in 2015 for redevelopment. As managing partner of NAP, Toro led the charge to transform the mixed-use property at the corner of Peachtree and 14th streets from an aging, underutilized office complex and shopping mall into a hip destination that has thrived throughout the pandemic.
“By the time we were able to deliver our first permanent space, Midtown was ready to embrace Colony Square as their third place,” Toro said. “Now we host 20,000 people on a busy weekend. People attracting people. And we invite our peers to do the same, opening their properties to Midtown and embracing the community we serve.”
Incoming Board Chair Celebrates Midtown’s “Tenacious Vision” and Partnerships
Mary Pat Matheson, Anna and Hays Mershon President and CEO of Atlanta Botanical Garden, is Midtown Alliance’s new board chair. She presented onstage at the event with a message to the community to get involved.
Under Matheson’s leadership since 2002, the Garden has raised its profile to become one of the top public gardens in the U.S., with 760K combined visitors in 2021. For many, the venue has been a refuge of peace and an oasis in the city throughout the pandemic.
Matheson and her team have lent their expertise to Midtown Alliance’s holiday lighting program and partnered with the organization on temporary public art installations including the mosaiculture frog (dubbed “Sam Phibian” by the Atlanta community) at 10th and West Peachtree Streets and the new “Conversation Peace” sculpture at 10th and Peachtree Streets.
“We mean it when we say that Midtown will be among the most exceptional urban places anywhere, and there is more work to do,” Matheson said. “We are doubling down on placemaking, public art and activations like Sam Phibian, and we have made recent progress with the City on some long-stalled projects.”
This progress comes as more employees are returning to the office, universities have reopened for in-person classes and arts and cultural organizations are adding more live shows to their calendars.
“As our city comes back to full strength, we know that things will be different, perhaps even better,” she said. “We have come to appreciate the silver linings of the last two years like greenspace, nature and public spaces.”
Matheson ended her remarks with a call to action to community members and decision-makers.
“Midtown Alliance does not own or control one inch of land,” she said. “We have no regulatory power. Our secret formula for the last 40 years has been a strong partnership with our community and public and private sector partners.”
Mayor Dickens Celebrates City of Atlanta's Partnership with Midtown Alliance
The Hon. Andre Dickens, who assumed office as the City of Atlanta’s 61st mayor and is approaching a milestone 100th day in office, took the stage at Midtown Alliance's annual meeting to acknowledge the city's shared wins and the district's contribution as an economic engine that has attracted new investment, new businesses, and new residents.
Dickens also celebrated the City's 40+ year relationship with Midtown Alliance.
"It is a relationship built on collaboration and partnership that works for the overall good of the entire city," he said.
Together, the City and Midtown Alliance created Blueprint Midtown, accomplished the single largest rezoning in the city's history, and established the Midtown Improvement District. Dickens praised the "outstanding" effects of the partnership, including the development boom in Midtown that has occurred in the past two decades.
"We have seen over $9 billion in private investment, and tens of thousands of jobs created in this simple one and a half square mile," he said. "This has made us the envy of cities all around the country."
Midtown has become one of the city's largest job centers, with a formidable blend of technology enterprise and emerging talent thanks in no small part to company relocations and expansions such as Visa, Cisco, Micron and Roadsync.
"For every $4 generated in local tax revenue in Midtown, almost $3 support citywide services and schools," he said. "This helps us make strategic investments that can help lift up other areas of the city that have been historically overlooked. And that is very important to me and my administration, to have one city with one bright future."
Midtown Alliance President and CEO: Time to “Crank Up the Wow”
Midtown Alliance President and CEO Kevin Green noted as he approached the podium that the morning’s event with in-person attendees "felt like a reawakening after a strange two years that wasn't easy on any of us."
He began his presentation with a topic that is top of mind for many — public safety.
"For the last two years, there's a lot we couldn't control, but as an organization, we were able to concentrate on what was most important," Green said. "Number one is that Midtown is safe. Because if Midtown is not viewed as a place that's safe and welcoming, literally nothing else matters."
Green noted that 95% of the crime in Midtown is nonviolent property crime, with the majority of it relating to auto theft and items stolen from vehicles, and that these types of crimes can be prevented. Overall, Midtown remains one of the safest places in the city on the strength of close partnerships with APD and long-term investment in the Midtown Blue supplemental public safety program.
Midtown Alliance’s other priorities that Green discussed include advancing transportation projects and doubling down on adding a vibrant street-level experience through the addition of parks and plazas and activations. Arts District Plaza and Art Walk are currently under construction, with a refresh of 10th Street Park coming this summer. See all of Midtown Alliance’s projects.
"You could sum up our entire work plan with four words: 'Happy People on Foot,'" Green said. "We're still committed to that. But we're going to add four more words: 'Crank Up the Wow.'"
Through a recent survey, 650 Midtown workers, residents and visitors told us they would be "wowed" by activation projects including live music, food and beverage, arts and history events. Stay tuned for announcements soon about how these types of activations will become a bigger part of Midtown events and fun things to do.
"We've all heard over the last two years that we need to get back to normal," Green said. "We submit that we can aim higher than normal... We're not going back anyway. Cities don't go backward, they go forward. And maybe that's a gift. All together now, on we go."
Keynote Speaker: Midtown’s Bright Future Depends on “Collective Commitment”
The 2022 Midtown Alliance Annual Meeting featured a keynote speech by Matthew Lister, managing director and partner at Gehl Studio New York. Matthew’s team at Gehl Studio studies the relationships between people’s quality of life and their built environment. The goal? To develop more equitable, healthier, and sustainable cities for all.
Lister defines public life as “what a group of people collectively create as they live their lives outside their homes, their businesses and their cars.”
“I like to think of it as something that is shaped by micro-moments,” he said. “Those small daily interactions between people — what happens when people have the desire to participate, to connect and share the experience with one another, to create community. To discover new things about themselves and others."
Gehl has studied and designed outdoor spaces all over the world, including Denver, England, Australia, New York City and Copenhagen, where it is based. The firm studied human behavior throughout the pandemic and found that while public health guidelines shifted, the desire for human connection remained constant.
“Bars, restaurants, churches, gymnasiums, libraries, schools — all those places where we used to connect with one another were off the table, [but] due to the innate need to be together and share experiences with one another, we pushed through it,” Lister said. “We found a way.”
Before the pandemic, meeting for a drink outside in 20-degree weather seemed inconceivable; now, people will meet outdoors year-round if it means getting to see friends and loved ones safely. Smart businesses and communities have evolved to provide comfortable, enjoyable public spaces for people to gather.
Lister calls these “sticky” places — places that people happen by and want to stick around. Planters, seating, art, and other visually interesting things can actually break up dull urban facades and unconsciously spur people to venture out on walks that they otherwise wouldn’t have taken.
"Midtown Atlanta has the bones for lots of different shapes of spaces, lots of different kinds of spaces, all connected up with different types of streets," Lister said.
Rhythms and routines are being re-established due to the pandemic, according to Lister, and this is a huge opportunity for the district to create a "Public Space Playbook," rethinking who it is inviting into spaces, when we are making invitations and where we are making investments.
"Mixed-use districts must collectively commit to becoming places that nurture human connection," Lister said. "These are the places that were most resilient during the pandemic and are going to be the most attractive and successful in a post-pandemic world. Midtown is on its way to being one of these places where people come to participate in a more dynamic, connected, balanced life together."