For almost a century, Atlanta’s Atlantic Steel Mill churned out barbed wire, plough shears, and galvanized steel in massive quantities destined for locations across the country. Once the largest steel mill in the South, at the height of its production in the 1950s, the facility employed more than 2,300 people and produced approximately 750,000 tons of steel annually.
The factory continued to operate on a limited degree into the 1970’s but was eventually forced to close its doors for good in 1998 as competition at home and abroad intensified. That left 138 acres of contaminated land abandoned in the heart of midtown Atlanta, one of the fastest growing cities in America.
Less than a year later, developers proposed a bold idea – what if the industrial property could be cleaned up and turned into a multi-use residential community? Planning quickly began on what would become the largest ever cleanup of a Brownfield site in history. They called it Atlantic Station.
The potential environmental and economic benefits of the project were numerous: cleanup of an old industrial property; separation of sanitary and storm sewer systems; reduction of auto emissions; and creation of jobs and economic development where infrastructure already exists.
However, because the Mill was located on an industrial property already known to be polluted by heavy metals and other potentially dangerous toxins, project sponsors immediately began working to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and enacted into law in 1970, NEPA requires the federal government to undertake an environmental review process designed to discover any significant environmental and public health impacts a project may have on local communities before construction begins.
We teach our children to “look before you leap.” NEPA simply and sensible requires our government to do the same.
All told, the cleanup of Atlantic station cost $3 billion and included removal of some 165,000 tons of soil from the property, the construction of the 17th Street Bridge over Interstate 75/85, and the development of a three-level, 8,000 space parking structure underneath the commercial core. The Environmental Protection Agency officially certified the property as safe for construction on Dec. 11, 2001, after two years of environmental cleanup.
From there, it took another $250 million of infrastructure investment in roads, sewers and utility lines before construction of buildings could begin in 2002.
A public comment period – mandated by the NEPA process – also played a crucial role in the successful revitalization of Atlantic Station. Public participation in the NEPA process serves two functions. First, individual citizens and communities affected by proposed action can be a valuable source of information and ideas. Second, allowing citizens to communicate and engage with federal decision-makers serves fundamental principles of democratic governance.
Local citizens filed a total of 255 comments identifying several concerns about the project. In particular, residents were concerned that the development could increase traffic congestion and negatively impact historic properties. As a result, 15 historic architectural sites were identified, listed in the National Register of Historic Properties, and preserved under the supervision of an archaeological consultant.
The comments also prompted significant design modifications to reduce traffic congestion and increase the project’s transportation connectivity. Atlantic Station is now easily accessible from two major interstates and a nearby public transit station. In total, the EPA estimates that the modifications to Atlantic Station reduced residents’ number of vehicle miles traveled by 34 percent and resident’s car emissions by 45 percent.
Today, Atlantic Station encompasses six million square feet of development, and includes more than 5,000 residents in 3,000 residential units, 7,000 employees, a luxury hotel, and 11 acres of public parks.
It also provided a new model for high-density, walkable urban development, and was recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency for its contribution to emissions reductions. Perhaps most importantly, by knitting together Midtown Atlanta with the city’s long underserved and largely industrial west side, Atlantic Station was the catalyst for the wholesale revitalization of an entire quadrant of the city.
 “Environmental Assessment: 17th Street Extension and Atlantic Steel Redevelopment Project.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. August 2000. Available at:
 “Project XL and Atlantic Steel Supporting Environmental Excellence and Smart Growth.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. September 1999. Available at:
 “Building a City Within the City of Atlanta.” The New York Times. May 24, 2006. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/24/realestate/commercial/24atlanta.html?mtrref=www.google.com
 “Health Consultation: Atlantic Station Redevelopment.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. August 9, 2004. Available at: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/pha/AtlanticStation080904HC-GA/AtlanticStation080904HC-GA.pdf