"Poster Child of Sprawl” to “Champion of Walkability”?

I’ve been excitedly awaiting the WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta report that was released last month.  The report, authored by Christopher Leinberger and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at the George Washington School of Business, takes a look at the Atlanta region’s pattern of development over the past 20 years and makes a compelling case that the era of sprawl may be over.  Mr. Leinberger is a well known land-use strategist who is famous for labeling Atlanta of the 90’s as the ‘fastest growing human settlement in the history of the world’ in terms of acres consumed per capita.  

Although, an impressive claim, we all can agree that the outcome wasn’t all great.  Sure, there are a good percentage of Atlanta area residents who have nice yards, lots of square feet and ample big boxes to shop from.  Conversely, most of us have to drive to virtually everything in sometimes excruciating congestion, relegating the young, elderly, poor and disabled to a subservient existence waiting on buses with 30 to 60 minute headways.  Additionally, the environmental impacts of our carelessly planned sprawl have wreaked havoc on both our air, via tailpipe emissions, and water quality, via runoff.

The report did not disappoint in its findings.  It chronicled development across the Atlanta region and looked at the two primary market supported forms of development, drivable suburban and walkable urban.  Drivable suburban is characterized by separated uses and automobile dependance.  Walkable urban is characterized by mixed-uses, multiple viable transportation options and a high degree of walkability.  Atlanta has been characterized as the ‘Sprawl Capital of U.S.’ and videos have chronicled “Sprawlanta” in a negative light.  When I moved here in 1999, being able to walk was the last thing on my mind.  However, today’s college graduates and corporate re-lo’s are a different animal.  They want walkable places with a mix of uses and those preferences aren’t expected to shift anytime soon.  The good thing is that Atlanta is apparently working to answer the demand.

The report found that there are 27 Established Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs) in the region.  Oversimplifying for this column, the Established WalkUPs were identified as places having Walkscores greater than 70.5.  There were nine locations with Walkscores between 57 and 70.5 and those were labeled Emerging WalkUPs.  There were also ten potential WalkUPs identified through other methodology.  The report also ranked the WalkUPs on two factors, Economic Performance and Social Equity.  It gets into further detail by classifying the WalkUPs into seven types, Downtown, Downtown Adjacent, Urban Commercial, Urban University, Suburban Town Center, Drivable Suburban Commercial Redevelopment and Greenfield/Brownfield.  


Matrix of land use options in metro-ATL. Source: WalkUP Wake Up Call

In a speaking engagement surrounding the release of the report, Mr. Leinberger stated;

We have seen the end of sprawl in Atlanta. The suburbs are not dead.  This is the urbanization of the suburbs. 

So, how did the northern burbs fare?  Just okay.  North of the river, there are only two established WalkUPs, Downtown Roswell and Downtown Marietta.  No surprises there.  There were two emerging WalkUPs, North Point and Town Center (Kennesaw) along with three potential WalkUPs, East & West Windward and Encore Park.  There were a bunch of established and potential clustered in the Perimeter area and the majority of the others were in Buckhead and Atlanta around MARTA lines.  One glaringly absent area... HBR & 400.  This absence is not the fault of the authors.  It is the lack of creativity from Roswell and due to the outcry from a small minority (see last month’s column) it looks like the UDC will remove any changes to current zoning from that area.  

Notice there is a little activity in North Fulton. source: WalkUP Wake Up Call

Notice, there aren't many established WalkUPs in the northern burbs. source: WalkUP Wake Up Call

All of that is interesting but what does it all mean?  Some of the key findings: 

  • Established WalkUPs account for .55% of the region’s land area and Emerging WalkUPs take up another .33% for a total of .88%.
  • From 1992 to 2000, the share of income producing property development (office, retail, apartment, hotel) in Emerging or Established WalkUPs was 14%.
  • From 2001 to 2009, that share increased to 26%.
  • From 2009 to present, the share was a whopping 60%.
  • That means that since 2009 60% of the region’s development has been concentrated on .88% of the land.
  • Since 2009, 73% of development in Established WalkUPs went around MARTA rail stations.
  • Almost 19% of the regions jobs are located in the 27 Established WalkUPs.
  • Using Washington DC as the de facto model of WalkUP development, the Atlanta region could support another 8 WalkUPs.  
  • On a price/sq.ft. basis, the 27 WalkUPs saw a 112% rent premium over the rest of the metro area (30% for office, 147% for retail, 12% for rental residential, 161% for for-sale residential)

That last point bears repeating.  For-sale residential in the 27 Established WalkUPs saw a 161% price premium compared to the rest of the region.  It’s safe to say that the market is SCREAMING for Walkable Urban development.  It is not only desirable, but highly profitable.  So, if you don’t want your city to fall by the wayside, you might want to support walkable development.  

Attn. Roswell... HINT... HBR/400 MUST BE Zoned Mixed Use in the UDC.

Attn. Sandy Springs... Great work on your city center plans.

Attn. Johns Creek... Mayday.. Mayday.. Mayday..

Attn. Milton... Horses need walkability too.

Attn. Alpharetta... Walkability is coming whether you like it or not.

For the full report click here.