As More Urbanization Occurs, Suburban Atlanta Should Take Notes From Other Regions

Last Saturday Tom Sabulis of the AJC had a great piece on the growth of mixed-use, urban style developments that cater to walking over driving.  He points out that most of these developments are happening in traditional suburban areas outside the perimeter and have largely been spurred by developers and not by local planners and politicians.  This is certainly a valid point for our suburban locations as many local politicians in these areas still don’t understand the growing demand and necessity for alternative transportation choices and more sustainable land use policies.

A few months ago I wrote an article revealing the opposite situation occurring in Atlanta; local politicians and communities want more walkability and less parking, but developers still don’t get this.  Of course what is acceptable in many denser Atlanta communities would not be acceptable in suburban locations that are still heavily dependent on the car.  Though developers still aren’t fully accepting of the radical departure from automobile-oriented developments demanded in-town, the good news is that they are much more receptive to the casual departure from these developments demanded in the suburbs.

A Familiar Site for Many

A Familiar Site for Many

This really is the beginning of a major transformation for many Atlanta suburbs; a transformation that has already started in many other suburban areas throughout the country.  As Sabulis states, Metro Atlanta has reached “peak sprawl.”  There’s no more room to widen freeways and pave more roads.  This has proven to be bad policy as traffic has only gotten worse as we’ve built more roads and widened existing ones.  Other areas of the country have already realized this and now it’s our turn.  More urban-style centers that encourage walking and discourage driving are already occurring, but more fundamental changes to land use and transportation will certainly be needed if suburban areas want to remain viable and attractive.

As we make the transition, we should look to other areas to see what works and what doesn’t work.  The best example of this transition is the suburbs of Washington, DC, particularly those in Virginia.  Arlington provides the best example of one of the more fundamental changes that needs to occur.  Back in the early 1970’s when DC’s subway system, Metro, was being drafted, plans called for the Orange line to run along Interstate 66 through Arlington in exactly the same way Marta runs along 400. But Arlington officials resisted this and demanded the line be taken off the interstate and placed underground, with stations placed in the community.  This raised costs tremendously because it required additional environmental studies and land grabs, but the results were astounding (here’s a link to a great video documenting Arlington’s Metro plan).

The result of Arlington’s resistance was the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, which lies directly above the Orange line. It continues to be one of the most desirable areas in the greater DC region.  While the population of Arlington has more than doubled since the 1970’s, traffic remains at 1970’s levels.  This is because instead of the stations being located in the middle of an interstate, they are located in neighborhoods with few obstacles.  Arlington wisely placed the stations in the community and created a tapered system where density is high adjacent to each station and tapers off as distance from the station grows.  This dramatically increases accessibility to stations and reduces the need for a car. Tying density to fixed-transportation stations, such as subway, streetcar, light rail (not bus stops because they can easily be moved), is called Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

Marta on 400

Marta on 400

Atlanta, and many other places, avoided TOD mainly due to the initial high cost of removing heavy rail from interstates.  But as Arlington proves, spending money upfront to do things right drives the economy, and consequently the tax base, all while creating no additional vehicular traffic.  So the first thing suburbs need to do as they make the transformation is to dedicate themselves to wise transportation choices.

As the space for road expansion is gone and traffic is only increasing, clearly alternative transportation modes are needed.  If we expand Marta into Cobb County, we need to spend the extra money to take it off the interstate and integrate it into the community; the alternative results in lower up-front costs, but less economic growth and tax growth in the future.  We save money, but the money we do spend is a waste if no one uses the system because it’s inaccessible.  The same thing goes for light rail plans in Gwinnett; density must be increased around the stations to allow new residents to actually live near the stations so they aren’t reliant on a car.

Tyson’s Corner, an unincorporated suburb just outside of the DC is a working case study of a large-scale transformation from suburban, car-oriented development to urban walkability.  Tyson’s has a population of just 20,000, but is the 12th largest commercial metropolitan in the country with 27 million square feet of commercial office space.  This is more than the downtowns of Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta! Tyson’s office vacancy rate hovers around 15 percent, while Atlanta’s is somewhere in the low 20’s.

Tyson's Corner Currently

Tyson’s Corner Currently

This is great news if Tyson’s population wasn’t just 20,000 and the DC Metro didn’t reach it.  Unsurprisingly, with so few people living next to office and retail and so few transportation choices, the traffic is astounding.  Over 100,000 people commute to the area every day.  While Tyson’s competes with many of America’s major downtowns, it hardly looks like a traditional downtown as most the land is used by roads and parking lots needed to accommodate the tremendous amount of cars.  Money that could be spent on development that would increase the tax base and the economy is instead being wasted on parking lots.

With the overwhelming support of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (that’s both Republicans and Democrats), Tysons’s adopted a dramatic (and I say that lightly) new plan to transform from a loose conglomeration of parking lots and highways into a truly urban city.  That means taking land using eminent domain to create an urban network of streets, putting more restrictions and parking, and dramatically increasing density.  None of this could occur, though, if billions of dollars weren’t spent on expanding the Metro to reach Tyson’s.  Within the next few months four new stations will open in Tyson’s.

Future Streetscape

Future Streetscape

The new plan calls for the “city” to be home to 100,000 people and 200,000 jobs by 2050.  Wisely, 75 percent of that development will occur within a half mile of one of the new stations.  Developers have responded quickly to the Board of Supervisors strong and generally relentless support of the plan to increase density and reduce parking.  Last spring a new development was approved that would make Tyson’s home to the DC area’s tallest building.  Strong support by local politicians is key.  Many neighborhood groups were obviously opposed to a massive surge in density in nearby areas.  The transformation is needed for the entire county and region to grow in a responsible manner.  Localized opposition groups shouldn’t stand in the way of something that will be better for everyone and when all is said and done, likely better for the those local groups.

Certainly the scope of this project isn’t comparable to anywhere else in the country.  But it does provide a nice case study of what works and what doesn’t work.  Already the original plans that called for Manhattan-like density have been revised downwards  and concession have been made elsewhere; but the overall goal and plan remains fully intact.  Local Atlanta suburban locations can learn from this project.  More fundamental land use and transportation changes are needed and we have great examples across the country.   It’s no longer viable to waste more and more of our land on parking and roads.  People want to be able to walk around and use alternative modes of transportation (or allow others to use them to reduce vehicular traffic) and conveniently this can also produce a tremendous amount of economic growth.

6 replies »

  1. Great points. As Charlotte drafted various lines for its Light Rail System, Chicago was used as a case study for not putting rail lines along or within highway right-of-ways. The blue line runs between the Loop and O’Hare, and a good portion of it runs in highway right of way. The highway inherently interferes with the goals and requirements of mass transit. Transit agencies in Atlanta would do good to locate rail transit in the community where density makes most sense.

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