A recent post in the Atlanta Business Chronicle claims that Atlanta is “no longer the King of Sprawl" — basing this on a report from Georgetown University. Awesome! So, we’re done with it, right? We can all take a metro-wide walk outside to a pocket park and forget the “s” word every existed.
But wait, didn’t we also read just a couple of months ago that a different study found Atlanta to be “the most sprawling big metro in the U.S.?” Why, yes we did. And both are correct. Which makes your brain hurt for a second, but here’s the way to untangle the mess: “sprawl” can be both a noun and a verb.
In it’s verb form, “sprawl” means 1.) the action of a development that is in the process of sprawling across the land. But in it’s noun form, “sprawl” is 2.) the end result — the finished product of low-density, land hogging development.
WHAT WE’VE GOT: A SPRAWLING MESS
That #2 definition, the end product, is what Atlanta has in spades. As that Smart Growth American report from this year shows, Metro Atlanta is still a leader when it comes to having a low-density, far-reaching built environment, following decades of outward growth in a format that’s focused on cars.
WHAT WE’RE BUILDING: DEVELOPMENT IN WALKABLE PLACES
But we’re doing well on #1 — that verb form. Because, according to a report las year from Christopher B. Leinberger, over half of our new development is in walkable places. As the report shows:
…In the real estate cycle begun in 2009, “60 percent of all development delivered to the market by square footage has gone to walkable urban places,” representing less than one percent of metro Atlanta’s land.
So we are no longer in the act of sprawling like we once were. And, as the aforementioned Georgetown University report shows, even greater amounts of development in walkable places are predicted for Metro Atlanta’s future.
There’s still plenty of leftover low-density sprawl (noun form) from previous decades. So trumpeting that there’s an end to sprawl (verb form) here makes sense and it’s a cool thing to see happening, but it’s a bittersweet victory.
I’ll be more excited when, in conjunction with our new-found interest in infill type development, we’ve also got regional leaders on board with the idea of retrofitting suburban sprawl to have a form that’s more compact and walkable.
For now, let this little graphic I’ve made be your guide in clearing up the confusion on where the metro stands with sprawl:
The Atlanta Legal Aid Society will spend $5.4 million renovating this beautiful building at 54 Ellis St, originally built in 1908 as an Elks Club lodge. Over the years it’s also housed the Salvation Army, the Union Mission and Beers-Skanska. It’s very exciting to know it will be renovated and used. BUT…
The project will also involve demolishing the two buildings to the right. Why? Because even though new surface parking lots are not allowed here, the City of Atlanta has granted a ridiculous variance that will allow the Legal Aid Society to tear down these buildings and put in a surface lot.
Say goodbye to building #1:
This deceptively large (it goes way back into the lot) building at 62 Ellis Street opened in 1920 as the southern headquarters for Mack Trucks.
Here’s a peak at the inside as it appeared in 1920, filled with delivery trucks.
And let’s bid a very sad goodbye to building #2:
A longtime Downtown Atlanta curiosity that has charmed many with it’s position below the skyscrapers, this house at 70 Ellis Street predates 1899 and is likely the oldest wood-frame home Downtown.
It’s always reminded me of Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House.”
They aren’t published online that I can find, but a 2012 parking study by Colliers as well as a more recent one found that Downtown Atlanta has surplus capacity parking (one source puts it at 96k spaces, used at only 61% capacity). Could the city not work to help meet demand by filling empty spaces elsewhere instead of allowing two buildings to be demolished for a new parking lot?
EDIT: Just to clarify, I understand that it’s highly debatable as to whether or not either of these two buildings is really worthy of a historic-preservation crusade. In general, I probably wouldn’t be terribly upset (I’d be only a little upset) to see them demolished if a good new building was going up in their place. My issue is specifically with seeing them demolished for the creation of new parking spaces and that a variance was granted to do this despite a zoning plan for the area that encourages pedestrian-focused places.