Can the gigantic center-city "megastructures" of recent years - bank and office buildings, hotels, convention centers looming over downtown areas - he related to the neighborhoods of our cities, to the fabric of homes and shops that are the warp and woof of the city for people?
Or must the architechtural behemoths, cold and forbidding exercises in the egotism of architects and the boosterism of big business, invariably generate "bombed out" belts of parking lots, freeway ramps, "pornoshops and high-crime zones around their peripheries?
From Minneapolis to Los Angeles, from Detroit to Houston, the issue is acute. It's poised perhaps most poignantly and directly in Atlanta, the "Cinderella" city of the South that's risen in a single generation from a sleeply Dixie city to a powerful metropolis with international aspirations.
In 1945, the Saturday Evening Post could write off Atlanta's downtown as "less attractive thatn Birmingham's." Yet in the '60s, Atlanta's skyline was transformed with 36 huge new buildings costing hundreds of millions. More recently the city has added the world's tallest hotel, the Omni International business-entertainment center, and an ambitious subway system (now under construction). Businessmen and conventioneers flock there from all over the United States.
But around the megastructures, mostly clustered on a thin strip along Peachtree Stree, the scene is one of urban devastation, from empty lots to ugly old warehouses. There are precious few of the small and colorful shops, restaurants, galleries and gathering places for people that give a city character.
The irony is that while downtown Atlanta has lost its flavor and personalism, many of the city-s neighborhoods are undergoing a strong renaissance.
At least 11 inner-city neighborhoods, says Leon Eplan, Atlanta's commissioner of planning and budget, are now coming back from semislumhood to sound restoration and revival.
But will revived neighborhoods - in prouds Atlanta and other cities around the nation - be part of a seamless web or urban excellence, or will they continue to be cut off from their city centers by the desolate no-man's-land that the megastructures seem to bring in their wake?
The Atlanta experience says that a powerful downtown business establishment, left to its own devices, will opt for monumentalism and ignore the city's people. But when neighborhoods acquire real power and press for change, the seeds of more balanced growth may be sown.
The story of undisputed business power was written in the Atlanta of the '50s and '60s, when a handful of elite business leaders could meet over lunch at the Commerce Club and make any significant decision they cared to. Large urban renewal projects, a hugh stadium, more and more freeways resulted.
But in the early '70s, the neighborhoods began to revolt. The catalytic issue was freeways, particularly proposed interstate 485. With connector roads, I-485 would have ploughed through 30 neighborhoods from one end of Atlanta to the other.
The antifreeway revolt began in Inman Park, which would have been decimated by I-485. Quickly it spread to other neighborhoods and other antihighway groups sprang up. Rapidly, they reached for political power. Andrew Young, making his first race for Congress, won vital support in white areas by opposing I-485.
In 1973 the League of Neighborhoods endorsed Maynard Jackson - Bumper strips read "Maynard Yes, I-485 No" - and Jackson became Atlanta's first black mayor.
Through pressure applied to Washington, I-485 was shelved. And neighborhoods continued to gain political power. This year they not only helped reelect Jackson but also won almost every council election in which their spokesmen were pitted against opponents who had received highway lobby contributions. Both black and white voters freely crossed racial lines to support antihighway and neighborhoods activist candidates.
The rise of neighborhood power, in fact, may have been more rapid and effective in Atlanta than any other U.S. city. Atlanta's neighborhoods have won major institutionalized power through a new city charter that requires the city to adopt comprehensive annual plans based on strong citizen participation.
Jackson and Eplan have responded to that mandate by dividing the city into 24 neighborhoood planning units, inviting all neigborhood groups to participate and register their wishes on every issue from street planning to housing rehabilitation.
Intent on new freeways and jealous of its power, Atlanta's business leadership at first viewed Jackson and the neighborhoods as dangerous enemies. But power recognizes power; with Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) taking the lead for business, confrontation is rapidly yielding to accommodation.
Says CAP president Dan Sweat: "We began to see the neighborhoods are the first line of defense for the economy of downtown, that central Atlanta can't afford to be surrounded by a rind of slums."
So to fight redilining of poor neighborhoods, CAP worked with neighborhood groups and the banks to set up a $62.5 million mortgage consortium for borderline risks.
And now, if all goes well, the problem of the desolate ring around downtown will also be tackled.
CAP's first priority for the next year, says Sweat, will be the 36-block Fairlie-Poplar area that flanks Peachtree Street from Five Points, the old retail-business heart of the city, to Peachtree Center. The area, says Sweat, could become "a high-grade So-Ho" with art galleries, antique stores, restaurants and possibly housing.
Atlanta, in short, is finally seeing the drawbacks of unfettered giantism and is seeking human scale beside the megastructures. The process won't be easy. More megastructures are on the drawing boards; land prices are inflated and many pieces are held by speculators. But to the degree that Atlanta can develop its center city for all its people, it will set a national model.*