In the 1980s, Memorial Drive, which runs from the state Capitol to Stone Mountain Park, was a thriving destination with more than 100 restaurants and ample shopping.
It was a golden thread through DeKalb County, said DeKalb County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who represents the county’s third district through which Memorial Drive runs.
But in the 1990s a decline began in the area as crime increased, restaurants failed and business owners disinvested, said Andrew Baker, the county’s associate director of planning and development.
Currently the road is peppered with commercial offices in varying degrees of disrepair, apartment buildings, extended stay motels and many mom-and-pop stores. During a strategic planning session on Dec. 9 for residents, government representatives, community leaders and business owners to discuss revitalizing the area, residents complained of crime, panhandling and eyesores along the road.
“We have a challenge in terms of aesthetics,” said resident Victoria Webb. “People should see beauty and I don’t see that.”
Residents near the Memorial Drive corridor want the road to return to its former glory.
“Memorial Drive is essential to the health of the whole county, not just the district,” Sutton said. “Once Memorial Drive is better, the whole community will be better.”
There are already some changes occurring on Memorial Drive. In 2008, Walmart opened its doors on the land where the old Avondale Mall once stood. During its grand opening DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson said Walmart would bring a surge of vitality to Memorial Drive as customers come back.
“Walmart is a critical component in the redevelopment of the Memorial Drive area,” Johnson said at the time. “Their presence will motivate others to invest in the area.”
And the renewal has begun. Near Walmart other businesses have popped up such as an ALDI’s grocery store, Sonic and Zaxby’s restaurants. In addition to the new businesses, an extensive streetscape project is under way on Memorial Drive paid for with approximately $5 million of county funds and $13.6 million from state and federal sources.
Workers are in the process of installing raised brick medians, decorative streetlights and wider sidewalks. A wider, enhanced interchange and overpass at I-285 is now in place.
Additionally, MARTA recently began a new bus rapid transit system on Memorial Drive. These buses have special passing lanes and the ability to hold signal lights to get through intersections quicker. MARTA has also installed new passenger shelters at many stops along the road.
Sutton said she is happy to see all the changes, but wants the revitalization to be more encompassing.
Residents had many ideas for jump-starting a renaissance of Memorial Drive. Among the proposals were community gardens, bike lanes, walkable environments, a mixture of large stores and small upscale shops, annual events such as a Memorial Drive 5K run, a police precinct and more greenery.
Representatives from DeKalb Technical and Georgia Perimeter colleges said the road is an important lifeline for the schools.
“We would like an entrance on Memorial Drive to let people know that there are colleges over here,” said Cynthia Edwards, vice president of institutional advancement at DeKalb Technical College.
There have been several major studies aimed at improving Memorial Drive and now Sutton is putting together a task force for revitalizing the road.
“We want to find ways to actually make it happen,” Sutton said.