These are two questions that I often ponder over. I believe the answers are yes and no, with one exception that will slowly die off. Given the demographic shifts underway pointing to the younger generation’s preference of walkable mixed-use environments over drivable suburbia, I firmly believe that employers that are dependent on a young vibrant workforce will be forced to consider moving to follow the talent. Places like NYC, Boston, DC, Portland, Seattle and Austin are leading the charge in attracting the young talent.
The North Fulton situation is okay at the moment and Alpharetta does act as a major job center. However, in my mind the data center and call center niche that Alpharetta has built over the last decade will begin to erode as employers start to find other more healthy talent centers in the coming years. A data center is a mammoth investment and those will stick around for a while but talent will trump sunk costs and I foresee that we will see some changes in that arena in the next 5-10 years.
I recently came across this article. It concerns a letter written by a Detroit law firm partner who firmly feels that his firm will need to relocate in order to survive. His reason is that they cannot attract the talent required to stay competitive. Overall, the piece sums up my thoughts pretty well. Those are that the sprawling mono-culturistic built environment that suburbia has become does not attract talent and communities that hang their hats on the sprawling development pattern as their hallmark will suffer significantly over the next 10 years. Does Detroit have problems other than sprawl? Absolutely, but sprawl has exasperated many of those problems.
Here are the two key quotes in my mind:
The fundamental problem it seems to me is that our region as gone berserk on suburbia to the expense of having any type of nearby open space or viable urban communities, which are the two primary spatial assets that attract and retain the best human capital.
Things are spread too far apart. You have to drive everywhere. There's no mass transit. There are no viable cities. Lots of it is really ugly, especially the mile after mile of sterile and often dingy suburban strip shopping and utility wires that line our dilapidated roads. There's no nearby open space for most people. It's impossible to get around by bike without taking your life in your hands. Most people lead sedentary lifestyles.
What do you think? Can North Fulton thrive in 10 - 15 - 20 years without the mixed-use, transit oriented development that the younger generations desire?
My vote is no.. 10 years from now, N.Fulton will be a much less desirable place to live all around.. The suburban housing stock built during the boom years will be aging and the folks who originally bought these places in the 2000’s intent on selling in 3-4 years for a windfall will still own them and in many cases will be renting them. There won’t be many new homes built and there won’t be much in the way of mixed-use or transit although Alpharetta has approved three well intentioned projects and Roswell has a couple of opportunities. The historic town centers of Roswell and Alpharetta as well as the up and coming Milton Crabapple area will be the most desirable locations but they will be powerless to have any meaningful impact on the demographic shift that is underway. Johns Creek is not going to fare well at all. The creativity and energy that businesses require and thrive on will be going elsewhere and over time, the businesses that feed on them will move as well.
What can we do? I say we start building an environment that works for as much of society as possible. Kids out of college might work in N.Fulton but they generally don’t pick N.Fulton as a home. Singles in their late twenties and early thirties are a little more common but they’re still going to look at Sandy Springs, Buckhead or an intown neighborhood primarily. Families? Yes.. N.Fulton does have the family thing down but it could be a lot better. Empty nesters? Yes, but many are starting to look into downsizing and will have limited options. Retirees? Yes, but over time that number will dwindle. Elderly who can’t drive? If they are in N.Fulton, I feel for them and their families because they have now become dependents. If we truly want to be a great place to live that will be sustainable in the long term, we need to make our cities great places to live for everyone not just families. In the coming years, I believe this is the best bet to ensure stable employment centers.