Early airport plans warned of growing conflicts with surrounding communities.
Growing up in Clayton County on the edges of the Atlanta airport, jet noise and runway construction projects formed the backdrop of my childhood. Ever-expanding Hartsfield-Jackson was both a benevolent and invading presence. Many of my schoolmates’ parents worked for Delta and Eastern airlines, and most of our houses boasted new siding and windows installed as part of the airport’s noise abatement program. The airport’s relentless growth was met with pride and celebration by some in the community and anxiety and protest by others. Both groups were faced with the same looming decision: the need to sell their properties and move away from the airport.
The tension between Atlanta’s airport and its surrounding communities has always been a key challenge facing airport planners. Hemmed in by established neighborhoods and interstate highways, how can the airport continue to accommodate growth? Is it possible to reconcile the existential mission of the airlines—to move more planes, more efficiently—and still maintain livable communities nearby?
It’s a common puzzle for all airports, but one that’s made even more complex at Hartsfield-Jackson. The Atlanta airport is not actually located in the City of Atlanta, which owns, operates, and primarily benefits from it. Situated in northern Clayton County, the airport borders many small cities—College Park, Hapeville, East Point, Forest Park and Riverdale. The area impacted by flight traffic is even larger, a vast patchwork of jurisdictions that bears the negative results of noise and traffic, and struggles with lost populations and degraded property values.
Emblematic of this conflict is the fact that the visionary mayors who have championed the aviation industry in Atlanta, from Hartsfield to Jackson to Reed, are not our elected mayors. They represent the airport, but they don’t represent the people who live in the airport area.
In a 1980 interview commemorating the opening of the new Central Passenger Terminal, which modernized the airport and doubled its size, Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, Jr. was asked if he would have done anything differently. He said:
“Hindsight is always a great help in detecting problems. There are several things I would have done. One would be to work closely with the local jurisdictions on zoning, limiting development around the airport to industrial areas with no residential build-up. Also, we would have worked to resolve the potential difficulty with Clayton County a long time ago. Years ago, I would have attempted to annex into Atlanta the entire airport reservation … all of this would have been completed before the new terminal was built.”
The mayor’s regrets raise a number of profound questions. What if the entire 4,700-acre airport reservation had been annexed into Atlanta? Did previous planners and politicians, like Mayors William Hartsfield and Ivan Allen, Jr., consider annexation? What were the attempts to head off the “difficulty with Clayton County?” Could bolder plans have prevented the degradation of my hometown?
To find answers, I unearthed a 1966 report—a high-level assessment of Atlanta’s metro airports that contains the seeds of the airport we recognize today. It’s astonishing to think that these plans were being developed almost immediately after the opening of Atlanta Municipal Airport in 1961, when jet operations were revolutionizing air travel.
This plan recommends redesigning the airport from scratch, replacing its criss-cross runways with a parallel runway system and a series of repeating terminals. The genius of this layout is its expandability: a third parallel runway was proposed to meet forecast demand for 1980, and it was followed by a fourth runway in 1984, a fifth in 2006, and a sixth runway is featured in the airport’s 2030 master plan. By shifting the orientation of the runways to channel air traffic east and west, it protected the north side of Atlanta from the worst of the noise.
This early plan also warns about the growing conflict with the adjacent neighborhoods. The report concedes that the neighborhoods were there first, but points out that the rapid and continuous pace of residential growth around the airport is cause for alarm. In the above map, the areas shown in gray were established before 1955 and predate the airport as we know it. The green areas, including some rogue patches sprouting up along the runways, were developed in the subsequent 10 years. “Zoning,” the report states, “has been quite unable to cope with the problem.” This is a snapshot of a late ‘60s south side thriving in spite of, not because of the airport.
The report ends with a bold call to action:
“The only effective way to control the use of land is to own it… The object would be to make it possible to acquire enough land adjacent to an airport to protect it from its neighbors.”
This is the recommendation that resulted in the residential buyouts that would eviscerate College Park and erase Mountain View entirely. Ultimately, these buyouts did little to improve relations between the airport and the surrounding communities. Would annexation have provided a better alternative?
Almost 50 years ago, this plan sketched out the world’s busiest and most efficient airport and predicted the inevitable battles with the booming neighborhoods nearby. The first part of the plan has been realized at a spectacular scale, but the more difficult work of resolving community conflicts remains unfinished. With the emergence of the new Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, the southside is holding out hope that the accomplishment of the former will now drive the latter.