Everything in Its Right Place: Atlanta Needs More In-Town Housing Despite a Lack of In-Town Professional Jobs

Future Mixed-Use Site Near King MARTA Station

Future Mixed-Use Site Near King MARTA Station

While the AJC has done a great job of reporting on the increasing demand of walkable neighborhoods and a need to slow suburban sprawl, it still seems like the paper is having a difficult time fully adopting the idea that many people no longer desire suburban lifestyles. A recent article by Kyle Wingfield pointed out the fact that many new developments in the City of Atlanta feature huge amounts of residential space and may be lacking in commercial space.  As he points out, it is critical for mixed-use developments to actually mix residential and commercial uses and an imbalance of residential spaces to commercial spaces may pose a problem.  The article rightfully brings up valid points that need to be addressed, but unfortunately it presents the issue with a degree of bias against these new “mixed-use” developments.

Mr. Winfield shows concern that we are adding so much housing inside the perimeter when only 3,529 people moved into the City of Atlanta (“Atlanta”) between 2000 and 2010. That should be a huge concern if more recent numbers didn’t paint the opposite picture. As this site and the AJC have previously noted, the population of Atlanta was over-inflated during the 2000’s, which resulted in a net loss of 120,000 between 2009 and 2010 once the US Census Bureau realized the accounting error. Add that loss of population to the entire decade and you get a very small number of people moving into Atlanta during the 2000’s.  Given that, the 2010 and 2000 population counts are probably accurate, or at least consistent, since the Census is doing the counting themselves and not relying on self-reported estimates from cities and counties. But we’re midway through a new decade, so why not use some more recent and possibly more accurate data?

More recent data shows that Atlanta added 23,496 people between 2010 and 2012. This reliable figure makes the 2000 to 2010 data seem even more unbelievable. In that time period Atlanta grew faster than Cobb, Gwinnett, and DeKalb Counties. We are still awaiting the Census Bureau’s latest population data for cities (scheduled to be released sometime this month), but recent, reliable statistics show that there is strong demand to live in Atlanta.

Paris, and Other Places Like it

Paris, and Other Places Like it

The article points out that these new “mixed-use” developments are simply condensed walkable versions of the suburban sprawl that drove development over the past 10 years (actually 50 years). This completely undermines the idea of mixed-use development by suggesting that such development is a new concept that was adapted from suburbia. The idea of having retail and residential uses share spaces is incorporated in the oldest forms of city planning. Our favorite and most iconic cities throughout the world employ this design and have since their inception.  The term mixed-use shouldn’t have quotation marks around it; it isn’t some strange concept people drew up in the past 10 years.  People are realizing the social, environmental, and economic shortcomings of segregated land uses and are demanding to return to how we originally built cities.

Mr. Wingfield is suggesting that people won’t want to live in such places because jobs are failing to relocate to in-town buildings. From a purely economic standpoint, shouldn’t developers have already considered this? Shouldn’t the free market have already taken care of this? Based on the the most recent recession we know that the private sector isn’t too great at regulating itself with respect to housing supply and demand. Given this, Mr. Wingfield is absolutely correct and we should be questioning the supply and demand of the housing market in Atlanta.

The Popular and Subsequently Expensive Neighborhood of Virginia Highlands

The Popular and Subsequently Expensive Neighborhood of Virginia Highlands

Beyond looking at the fact that thousands of people moved into Atlanta over the past 4 years, data shows that people want to live in walkable places not because they are close to jobs, but because they are walkable.  Certainly living within walking distance to your job is preferable, but it’s unrealistic even in highly urbanized areas like Manhattan. Once it’s understood that people want to live in vibrant areas where they can walk to get basic necessities, go out to eat, or get a drink, the job shortcomings of new developments doesn’t seem all that important.

The article argues that people who ordinarily would want to live in in-town walkable communities will abandon that desire because jobs are far away; but this is further negated by the fact that jobs are already far away. Due to the sprawled land use pattern of metro Atlanta, it has some of the longest commutes in the country. So given the choice between living in a generic housing development outside the perimeter where the commute is long and living in a vibrant in-town development where the commute is long, what do you think people will choose? The data strongly suggest people will choose the in-town vibrant community.

As more housing comes online in Atlanta and more young professionals move into the city, more businesses may follow Coca-Cola’s lead and move from suburb to city. Like traditional developers who don’t fully understand the new desire for walkable neighborhoods, business don’t fully understand the return to the city atmosphere. It’s hard to blame either of these two when for the past 50 years this country has been driven by suburban development. Times are changing for all generations and we shouldn’t be afraid that the market is finally responding to people’s desire to live in vibrant, walkable communities.

Song: “Everything in its Right Place” by Radiohead

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