2020: Focus on Atlanta’s Future

Multibillion-dollar, mixed-use projects centered around mass transit will create a new urbanism.

Atlanta Business Chronicle
by Matt Hennie

For decades, Atlanta’s fascination with the automobile pushed the region’s footprint farther away from its core and contributed to traffic congestion.

But the metro area’s skyline is likely to look much different in the future as transit-oriented commercial developments — mixing office, retail and residences — continue gaining popularity.

This future can be glimpsed in existing high-profile projects, such as Atlantic Station and Lindbergh City Center. And as the region expands to more than 5.9 million by 2020, planners and developers say growth in urban areas will continue to feed mixed-use developments.

“Atlanta is a young city and we are all learning how to build the city and do it very rapidly sometimes,” said Bob Hughes, a principal with HGOR, a planning and architecture firm whose portfolio includes Terminus in Buckhead, Allen Plaza downtown and Glenwood Park in East Atlanta. “From the planning work we are doing right now, one of the things we are saying to people is that we still have this sense we can solve the city for the automobile. The reality is that you can’t.”

Transportation planners are listening, too.

Recently unveiled plans concerning transportation include IT3, a proposal that calls for $43 billion in infrastructure improvements in the state; “Concept 3,” a $50 billion mass transit plan from the Transit Implementation Board; and “Connect Atlanta,” a transportation plan for the city of Atlanta that could cost up to $6 billion.

All of the efforts include plans for transit — from the city’s proposal to put a streetcar on Peachtree Street to commuter rail that reaches into the suburbs and beyond to Griffin and Athens.

Those plans help link investments in transportation projects to development patterns, which will promote manageable growth across the region, said Tom Weyandt, comprehensive planning director for the Atlanta Regional Commission, which has its own $67 billion transportation plan.
“What will happen is that as we begin to solidify financial plans and potential transit stations, we have an opportunity to prepare those communities for the time when transit can be a reality,” Weyandt said.

“It is not something people need to fear.”

Atlantic Station, a $3 billion mixed-use development in Midtown that opened in 2005, is often cited as a model of new urbanism with its mix of office, retail and residential space. It offers its own shuttle system that carried more than 1 million people last year and links it to a nearby MARTA station as well as buildings constructed using environmentally friendly standards — components that will become staples in future developments, said Brian Leary, vice president of design and development for Atlantic Station LLC.

“We were installing the quality-of-life infrastructure for a neighborhood in a city of neighborhoods that had been missing,” Leary said. “There is not a lot of rocket science to this. You are seeing the way the public responds to Atlantic Station and Midtown and the other places that are thinking about this and it will not be so leading-edge. It will be more mainstream.”

Growth in the suburbs will continue, but the demographic breakdown of the region’s expanding population shows that it’s a younger group with singles or families without children that favor smaller homes and an urban environment, Weyandt said. The growth in dense areas is best seen from the sky, where the ARC used aerial photography to show that the conversion of forested and agricultural land in metro Atlanta slowed more than 70 percent during a two-year period ending in 2007.

“There will be continued suburban development. But it’s a matter of how the balance shifts between growth in the suburbs versus urbanized areas, which have the jobs, locations for future transit and a blend of amenities,” Weyandt said.

A study of 13 metro area counties shows that the area will add 1.2 million jobs by 2030, according to Atlanta Regional Commission statistics. Employment in Fulton County alone is projected to jump by more than 100,000 people from 2010 to 2020 — reaching nearly 930,000 workers.
Successfully managing the region’s growth depends on offering choices, from the developments people live in to mobility so they can travel to and from work.

It’s not a matter of changing the driving habits and living patterns of a wide swath of the region’s population but appealing to a small percentage through transit-oriented developments, said Bob Voyles, principal and CEO of Seven Oaks Company LLC, a private real estate development and investment firm, and a member of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

“We are trying to provide choices in markets where we’ve never really had them,” Voyles said. “It is not 100 percent of people deciding they want to live in transit-oriented developments. It’s maybe 10 or 20 percent of the population and that’s all you need to dramatically impact our traffic. The development community is slowly warming up to it.”