Atlanta Is the Nation’s “Most Ambitious” City, With Short-Sighted Mayoral Candidates

8 05 2009

As reported by RealClearPolitics, according to the Kaufmann Foundation Index of Entrepreneurial Activity (say that five times fast), Atlanta is the country’s most ambitious city “with nearly 200 more entrepreneurs per 100,000 people than the second runner-up.” (h/t: AJC’s BizwriterKristi)

But note that this is based on 2008 data, which includes almost months of pre-crash activity.  It will be interesting to see how Atlanta entrepreneurial activity holds up to its rivals “post-recession.”

Hopefully these scores of entrepreneurs aren’t heeding the words coming from city of Atlanta mayoral candidates, Kasim Reed and Lisa Borders, who during a recent real-estate endorsement induced euphoria exclaimed to the AJC

“The real estate development community is to Atlanta what the financial services industry is to New York,” Reed said at a Midtown Starbucks one recent morning.

Borders, in a phone conversation, said almost the same thing: “Development is to Atlanta what cars are to Detroit and entertainment is to L.A.”

Both candidates better hope to hell that their statements aren’t true.   Tying Atlanta’s future to the real estate market seems like a sick death wish.

And why would you even mention Detroit?!

Rule 1 when running for mayor: never EVER speak the word “Detroit.”  At most you can say “Motown” and even then you better be lamenting the once great music scene.





Defining Atlanta

5 05 2009

Atlantans are always complaining their city has no identity.

Many transplants just don’t look deep enough, while natives often find themselves pointing to events and places that were inevitably torn down between 1950-1980.  City historians and marketing gurus look to the skyline and see no Space Needle, Empire State Building or Sears Tower.  Apparently the post-modern BOA tower and the city’s dispersed,  skyline just doesn’t cut it.

So Atlanta continues on in its struggle to define itself with an unexciting skyline. And all the while the city’s defining characteristic sits not ON Peachtree Road, but one street over.  And miles beyond that.

Hilly terrain and dense tree canopy, hide the city’s lasting identity.  Its streetcar suburbs.

If the city wants to recapture its image, I would humbly suggest a greater focus on this truly unique resource.  And while returning the streetcar to some of its old haunts is the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for now, we could all benefit from a little bit of “streetcar suburb” marketing.  Of course, its not easy to throw a “streetcar suburb” on the cover of a Hotlanta Magazine and say “Come visit our beautiful city!” without looking slightly ridiculous.  But a definitive book, documenting this diverse resource would be an excellent first step helping the city define itself.  Not just to the world, but to its own residents, old and new.

We don’t have an ocean or the Rocky Mountains to help us out.  We need to create our own identity.  And as we’ve already touched on, the skyline won’t be filling in anytime soon.  I say we go to Plan B.





Element Auction Shows There’s Still Demand to Live Intown

1 03 2009

40 Element condos at Atlantic Station went up for auction yesterday, and while the AJC seemed focused on the  “bargain” prices, I was most interested to hear that all 40 condos were easily sold.

According to the article, 175 bidders showed up to bid on 40 Element condos with opening bids less than half their original asking price – though the two profiled in the article actually ended up going for more like 2/3rds the original asking price.  To me this seems to indicate that the condo market is over-saturated not because of dying interest to live intown, but because property is simply over-priced.

Though it would be nice to have these condos going for insane amounts of money, its still good to see so much interest in Atlanta’s condos when the price is right.





More Atlantans are Shacking Up

18 02 2009

This story popped yesterday when Forbes ranked the nation’s “emptiest” cities and Atlanta came in third behind housing-hedonist Las Vegas and car-dependent Detroit in terms of vacant rental units and single-family homes.  The AJC’s print edition led with the story in this morning’s paper and does a pretty good job at taking apart the data, citing many local experts.

So, why does Atlanta have more available property than almost every other U.S. city?  The AJC article states that some of it has to do with the vastness of the metro-area (28 counties) and our particularly potent combination of an overbuilt market with a high rate of foreclosures.   From that it sounds to me like Atlanta might just be the victim of its own early 21st century popularity.

But probably the most interesting trend cited is that the census data is also showing that the city’s population is still growing.  Sound impossible?  Apparently, more people are moving in together instead of buying their own property.

This trend helps the AJC article end on a high hote… “As the economy stabilizes, [Emory Prof. Frank] Alexander said, demand should rebound quickly, unlike in No. 2 Detroit, where population has been steadily declining.”

And when will that be?  Unfortunately, people much smarter than myself keep talking more and more about a “lost decade”.





Who Will Save MARTA?

18 12 2008

Has anyone else been following this MARTA $60 million budget deficit story?

Over the past week or so, we’ve gotten a nice, healthy taste of the impending crisis for MARTA, thanks to its heavy reliance on the 1 cent sales tax (it accounts for 52% of revenue).  As people buy less, MARTA receives less tax money.  This isn’t an uncommon way of funding public transit – this document I discovered thru Terminal Station shows that a 1 cent sales tax is the majority funding mechanism for most city’s around the country.

But what to do when the market collapses? (We could ask this same question about 401k dominated retirement plans!)

Who foots the bill for public transit when stops growing?  In ultra-dense areas, like NYC, where public transit is widely supported, legislators are thinking about implementing a payroll tax.  But that would never fly in Atlanta/GA.  So who will save public transit in car-smooching cities like Atlanta, which provide questionable support for transit even in boom times?

At a Tuesday meeting of MARTA minds, general manager Beverly Scott announced that it would do whatever it could to reduce costs, including a hiring and salary increase freeze,  freeing up some funding tagged for construction only, and reversing a prohibition on eating, which could invite food vendors (and their fees) into the stations.  But that won’t do much to ease the pinch.  Without some sort of outside help, MARTA predicts a “draconian” reduction in service and a huge ticket price increase in the coming year.

So, who will come to MARTA’s aid?  The state?  Yeah right.  The feds?  Maybe.  But every other transit org in the U.S. will be clamoring for the same help…so MARTA will be just one beggar among the masses.

So how big is the nation’s purse when it comes to its commitment to public transit?  Are the struggles of the U.S. auto industry a sign that we’ve moved beyond the automobile era and have turned a corner into a century where the auto lobby doesn’t rule supreme on Capitol Hill?  Or is this just a hiccup for the auto industry?

Once we get the answer to “Who Will Save MARTA?” we should have a much clearer idea.





Civil War Atlanta

12 12 2008

Is anyone else a fan of the photoblog Shorpy.com?  Its an incredible resource of photographs taken between 1850 and 1950.

A search of “Atlanta” turns up a collection of truly amazing pics during Sherman’s occupation in 1864, along with a few others from the turn of the century.





Atlanta’s Unmatched Gentrification

30 06 2008

Over at CL, Thomas Wheatley recently linked to an interesting article at Governing.com that cites Brookings Institution data that shows Atlanta’s white population having grown at an unmatched rate since 2000 (from 31% in 2000 to 35% in 2006). According to the article, that’s the fastest white population increase in the nation…only D.C. is competitive.

However, while the city is becoming more white, the collective metro area is becoming less so.

“For if the city itself is growing whiter, the Atlanta region is growing less white. The Atlanta Regional Commission reports that in 2000, the white, non-Hispanic population of the 20-county Atlanta metro region formed 60 percent of the total population; by 2006, that had shrunk to 54 percent, not so much because whites were leaving — although four counties did see absolute declines in white numbers — but because of the arrival in the suburbs of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Africans and Caribbeans. Of the 10 counties in the nation with the largest declines in white percentage of the population from 2000 to 2006, six are in the suburbs of Atlanta.”

So, what’s the reason? Well, to make a long story short, the article’s author thinks its traffic. And that “Commuting distance has become inversely proportional to class” in Atlanta. He predicts a similar trend the nation over.

Quite coincidently, Atlantic Monthly recently investigated another aspect of this very trend. A July ’08 article entitled “American Murder Mystery” investigates the crime explosion in city suburbs and points the finger at one of the most celebrated antipoverty initiatives in decades: the destruction of the projects and the dispensing of Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers to its tenants.

It’s an interesting and slightly troubling read, as entire inner city communities are torn apart and sent packing into the unknown ‘burbs. On top of that, these poorer populations are now spread out in the lower-density areas, where walking anywhere is nearly out of the question. So now $4 gas or a bus/train ticket figures into an already difficult financial equation. Coupled that with a loss of community, and the future of the outer suburbs looks very real and very bleak.

For better or worse, cities are being redefined…and Atlanta seems to be on the cutting edge.





The Great Convergence

19 05 2008

OK, I don’t mean to freak anybody out, but I think that Paul Krugman is stalking me. Either that or we just think alike and have the same experiences.

Acckkk! There he is!

Just look at his latest op-ed piece in the NYT. (thanks Scott!) It’s like he’s read my posts about transportation and travel to Berlin over the past week and summed it up in a better-written, little package!

Here’s the scariest part…

“To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard. For one thing, houses last a lot longer than cars. Long after today’s S.U.V.’s have become antique collectors’ items, millions of people will still be living in subdivisions built when gas was $1.50 or less a gallon.

Infrastructure is another problem. Public transit, in particular, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to justify transit systems unless there’s sufficient population density, yet it’s hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access.”

Weirdness.

OK but seriously…since I live in one place and just visited the other, let me belabor Krugman’s comparison for a moment. Not only does Berlin have an enviable public transportation system and bike network as I mentioned previously, but as Krugman states, cars are generally smaller. Now we’re not talking about a city of smart cars and mopeds…we’re talking about lots of VW Golfs/3 series BMWs and not many SUVs.

Also, while Berlin is more compact than Atlanta, it has hardly any skyscrapers. Most buildings are shorter than 8 stories and small, street-level retail is abundant and strongly supported. This is an important example that a high-density city doesn’t have to look like midtown Manhattan, Midtown or the often-cited Buckhead. It can be 8 story commercial/residential and easily support smaller, street-level retail. Sound familiar?

Decatur’s plans are based on Berlin’s ideals. Now we just need the rest of Atlanta to follow suit.





Does Anyone Actually Live at Atlantic Station?

17 12 2007

I’ve been asking myself this question ever since the over-hyped, mixed-use, mega-city first opened to the public in 2005. At first I chalked it all up to on-going construction. “Once this place is finished, kids will play in the fountains, elderly couples will walk hand-in-hand along the wide sidewalks, and 20 somethings will sunbathe in the parks.”, I thought. But that hasn’t been the case. In the two plus years since its opened, Atlantic Station has continued to look as dead as its ever been. Which has led me to speculate that either no one lives here or the homes and apartments are inhabited by some sort of mole people straight out of the 1956 sci-fi movie.

Tell me you don’t have the same experience? Whenever I drive across the 17th street bridge into former brownfill country for an embarassingly frequent Banana Republic fix, all the residential areas are a wasteland. Sidewalks? Empty. Porches? Empty. Apartment balconies? Empty. Parks? Empty.

Maybe I just don’t know where to look. Maybe all the families hangout away from where all the chainstore junkies congregate. I wouldn’t blame them if they did. But I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the case.

Read the rest of this entry »





Rail Promotes Walkable Communities Around Atlanta

5 12 2007

I swear, I’m not being paid or reimbursed in any way by a “streetcar mafia” for all of my recent posts concerning rail transportation.

In a study by the Brooking Institution, that was recently reported in the AJC [h/t: InDecatur], Atlanta ranked midway among the 30 largest cities in terms of “walkability”. But don’t thank downtown for that ranking, thank Decatur…along with Atlantic Station, Buckhead and Midtown.

Here’s the cutesy Decatur blurb… “Here, parents sip lattes while kids dance in the misty fountain at the center of the town square. Traffic jams do happen — in strollers. And shoppers sauntering down the latern-lined sidewalks aren’t just on a first-name basis with each other. Jake means ice cream. Eddie means music. And Twain means billiards and beer”

In addition to the rankings (which always get press, along with seemingly endless mentions on this blog), the study concludes that rail (not buses) is a key component of promoting walkable neighborhoods.

Take it away AJC…

“The survey underscored the link between walkable areas and rail transit, finding that 65 percent of the pedestrian meccas were situated along the tracks. It concluded that metro areas not experiencing this type of development might want to consider investments in rail.

And Leinberger noted that Atlanta could do more with special zoning districts around MARTA stops to encourage development. “You have a tremendous resource in Atlanta with MARTA,” he said. “But you haven’t taken enough advantage of development within walking distance of those stations.”