You won’t find a worse tangle of intersections, traffic signals and highways in all of Buckhead than the convergence of Northside Parkway, West Paces Ferry Road and Interstate 75.

Anyone who lives on this side of Buckhead or who has children at Lovett, Westminster, Trinity or North Atlanta knows it is the worst mess in the automobile’s history.

Kennedy, Thornton rgb

Thornton Kennedy

There is no reason or logic. In the span of a quarter mile on West Paces, there is a major highway exit and on-ramp, 12 traffic lights, crosswalks, several curb cuts, an overpass and roads shooting off in about eight different directions, none leading to the same place.

The lights are never synced, as far as I can tell. Drivers are continually inching through late yellows, getting stuck in the middle of intersections under a red. The sound of horns is ubiquitous.

Trying to navigate this area when one of the five or six schools in the immediate vicinity let out will test Abraham’s patience. Coming down Paces Ferry from Vinings, the traffic backs up half a mile. The light at the intersection of West Paces is of no consequence, owing to two police officers trying to move cars through at a decent clip, an impossible task.

Clearly, there wasn’t a ton of thought behind it. The intersections, traffic lights, crosswalks and traffic cops seem to be Band-Aid after Band-Aid to stop the bleeding. But once the bleeding stopped, so did all of the cars.

The president of the Buckhead Heritage Society board, John Beach, lives right in the thick of it, less than a quarter of a mile from the mess. He has copies of a ton of historical maps. The ones of this area before and through the 1950s shed light on what happened.

Prior to 1955, they show the four-lane Northside Parkway — Highway 41, the old Dixie Highway — meeting West Paces at the current intersection.

Howell Mill Road came through the area, connecting to West Paces next to Westminster, where the Amoco gas station sits today.

In fact, the original entrance to Westminster was on Howell Mill. The old girls’ school and the boys’ school are aligned with the old Howell Mill. My father, who along with my late mother, was among the first students, said when the entrance moved to West Paces, he couldn’t figure out how to get in.

I-75 changed everything, according to Beach.

In 1955, the Georgia Department of Transportation extended the interstate north to West Paces. Another map shows the highway dead-ends at street level into 41/Northside Parkway at West Paces.

The construction caused the state to move Nancy Creek several hundred feet west, onto the Westminster campus, and cut off Howell Mill. There was no overpass, exit ramps or on-ramps. The interstate just ended. Everything to the north was in private hands.

The state moved Howell Mill to connect with Northside Drive near the present-day McDonald’s as a result.

In the early ’60s, the state extended the interstate north again, this time to I-285, which resulted in the overpass and the ramps. Howell Mill was again moved farther south to its present location.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I am willing to bet the traffic lights were added as they were needed, with little thought given to how the interchange system would work as a whole. The thousands of suburban commuters who use 75 and that exit, in particular, to get to work in Buckhead daily exacerbate the challenges.

On Beach’s map, you can see the land on the Fulton County side of the Chattahoochee River my great-grandparents owned along 41. The large plats are labeled Mrs. Jane Thornton (my great-grandmother) and Mrs. L.A. Thornton, her mother. Real estate types considered the land worthless back in the 1940s and ’50s. Several attempted to buy the land for cheap.

According to family lore, my grandfather, Alfred D. Kennedy, and his brother Thornton knew the state planned to extend 75 through the middle of their property, and they rebuffed the offers.

Today, some of that land is the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

I’m not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg. Did the interstate cause the area to grow, or did the growth necessitate the interstate? The reality, as with all things, is likely somewhere in between.

More residents living in the suburbs created the need for a faster route downtown, while the quicker route downtown made living in the suburbs more appealing.

I wish someone had thought about all that potential growth before they started pouring the concrete.

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Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is the president of PR South and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at thornton@prsouth.net.

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