Atlanta: where is our streetcar-spurred housing?

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Modern streetcars across the US have been a great tool for, among other things, spurring new residential development in walkable centers, with Portland’s being the most obvious example.

But streetcars don’t even need to be fully completed to have this positive effect.

In Streets Blog post titled “New Wave of Development Follows Streetcar Construction in Mid-Sized Cities,” Angie Schmitt writes that the under-construction streetcars in Kansas City, Tuscon and Cincinnati have already brought in new residential development, with apartments announced and under construction in all three cities along their new rail lines.

Reading this got me wondering: why isn’t Atlanta’s streetcar accomplishing that same thing, seeing as we’re in the final stretch of construction? We have the One 12 Courtland apartments under way (with one wing completed and occupied) and that project is bringing hundreds of new students into Downtown’s GSU campus — a great thing, to be sure. But what about non-student housing for more permanent residents?

As of now, no new non-student residential construction has been started or even announced on the route of the Atlanta Streetcar. The city is losing out on one of the main capabilities of the streetcar that other US cities have enjoyed in theirs: bringing in new residents with new housing.

Why aren’t we getting new housing Downtown?

Looking for answers, I reached out to the office of City Council-member Kwanza Hall, whose district encompasses the streetcar. I also asked for input from Jennifer Ball. Vice President, Planning and Economic Development at Central Atlanta Progress.

Jay Tribby, Hall’s Chief of Staff, writes this:

"Kwanza has been convening the community for the past few months to update the zoning for the [King Historic] district, which hasn’t been updated since Mrs. King created the district decades ago. Part of the update process has included discussions of massing and heights for any new construction."

Jennifer Ball writes:

“While the market dynamics are supportive of new residential development in Downtown – particularly along the Atlanta Streetcar route – developers have been slow to find and acquire good sites for ground-up development. You are likely to see adaptive re-use projects first, then ground-up deals.”

Current leaders seem to be doing what they can to bring in new housing, and that’s admirable. But I can’t help but wonder why it’s so hard in  2013 to accomplish something that we’ve known about for a long time as a need for Downtown.

The housing problem we’ve known about for years

Twenty two years ago, in 1991, Atlanta architect John Portman wrote this in an editorial about the need to capitalize on the 1996 Olympics to improve Downtown: “Perhaps our greatest opportunity is housing. We must put more residential housing Downtown. It should stretch from GSU toward the central city.”

Seven years later, a 1998 Atlanta Journal piece titled “Let’s get moving again on downtown housing” had this to say: “Experts agree more housing is critical to make downtown more like a neighborhood. A study released Thursday by Central Atlanta Progress and Centennial Olympic Park Area Inc. called the city’s recent experiment in downtown housing a clear success, with overall occupancy of new projects at 96 percent.”

So we see that Downtown housing is successful and that experts agree that much more needs to be built. What about demand, though — would people actually WANT to live downtown?

Yes, they would. A 2011 survey found that one in four people across the entire metro would consider living in Downtown Atlanta.

With all of this encouragement by experts to increase residential housing downtown, and with a survey showing the willingness of a huge number of people in the metro area to consider living here, it seems only natural that local politicians would have done everything possible to create a master plan that allows and encourages a windfall of new residential housing to be built. Particularly with the massive expenditure of the Atlanta Streetcar on the horizon.

City of Atlanta: Do. Not. Screw. This. Up. Past leaders have left a mess of a situation wherein it’s difficult for even willing developers to build much-needed new housing Downtown. Understandably, this is a product of previous generations’ efforts to separate housing, office, event and retail instead of mixing them together in walkable spaces. We’re still paying for those past development/planning mistakes.

But now is the time to play major catch up and to give both Downtown and the Atlanta Streetcar their best chance for success by bringing the one main ingredient that experts have crowed about for decades: more people living here.

New Census info shows that, for the second year in a row, Atlanta is among the many US cities surpassing the growth rate of their surrounding suburbs.

Population growth in centers of urban density

A post on New Urban Network confirms a suspicion I had after reading about population decline in Chicago: though some cities are seeing an overall decline in population, those same places are seeing dramatic population growth in their most dense, walkable urban zones:
Bad news for cities, good news for urban centers

This is good news for urban livability in both Chicago and St Louis. I’m particularly glad to see that downtown St Louis has made big gains in population after the good investments they’ve made in their downtown public parks.

To sum up: cities owe it to their long-term health to invest in developing more livable urban centers versus suburban-type sprawl within their limits. People who want to live in sprawlburbs are moving out of cities and people who want urban walkability are moving in. The proof is in the census numbers.

As we continue to debate smart growth & densification efforts in Atlanta, let’s keep these trends in mind. Maintaining Atlanta’s suburbs-in-the-city elements may not be worth the effort. Walkable urban density is the way of the future for cities.