Atlanta: where is our streetcar-spurred housing?


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.

"We’ve known about the environmental effects for decades, we’ve known about the health impacts for 10, 20 years. Now we’re learning that the financial costs of sprawl are going to be staggering and we’re leaving a major deficit to our children and grandchildren."

Hidden costs of sprawl will cripple cities, report says | Toronto Star, 10/28/2013

This is why we moved downtown


It was a Saturday filled with fairly mundane events, but what sets them apart is that we did them all by walking around the neighborhood.

We started off by walking to the Park Market at Centennial Park (every second and fourth Saturday) to get a couple of things. Then we went to Le French Quarter Cafe to get fresh-baked pastries for next morning’s breakfast.

For lunch we went to Dua on Broad Street. I wish I’d taken a photo — it’s such a beautiful sight to see so many Broad restaurants, previously open only for the weekday lunch crowd, open on Saturdays now. Rosa’s, Rueben’s, Dua and a couple more were doing well, with people eating at sidewalk tables.

Next was a trip to Woodruff Park so our kid could play on the ATL playscape. The grass (photo below) has recovered well from the craziness of the Anchorman 2 filming. Bonus: I spotted the first Brown Thrasher I’ve ever seen downtown.


Then we walked to the very busy Curb Market (photo at top) to buy a few things, including some ground Campesino coffee — my favorite brand — sold at the Sweet Auburn Bread Company. 

So it was a lazy afternoon of lunch and shopping for me, my wife and our kid. Unremarkable by most standards, but lovely to do without getting in a car and while putting money into neighborhood stores.

Choices we make for ourselves, our families & our cities

Blogger Mathildepiard writes this today about an NPR report:

What I found really interesting is that this story, which was supposed to be about how parents struggle to make sure their kids get enough exercise, ended up being about biking, traffic, and urban planning.

One mother talked about how she spends her afternoons in Los Angeles traffic, ferrying her two boys from one sporting activity to another. She explained that her eldest can’t really just bike around in her neighborhood because it’s not bike-friendly enough.

The story also profiled two other moms, both in Portland, and I especially loved how both talked about the choices we make for ourselves, for our families, for our cities (emphasis is mine)

Read her full post here.

My family had an interesting choice to make a couple of years ago. We were moving from a Midtown townhouse and had to choose a place that was both in our modest price range and in a walkable area.

Though downtown fit those criteria, a move there would force us to rely on sidewalks and MARTA much more than we had before, with our shared car parked four blocks away from our building in a garage. We would also be without some of the amenities nearby we had in Midtown.

In the end, we went with downtown because it was well-connected to transit and walkable — more so than most any other spot in the city, in my opinion. The small indignities of getting groceries inside without a driveway and walking in inclement weather are, for us, well worth suffering through for the benefit of being able to walk out the door to go some place we like, without needing to hop in the car first.


"…all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood. It turns out that trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week."

Stop climate change: Move to the city, start walking | Salon, 11/3/2012

"Atlanta’s northern suburbs are largely made up of subdivisions that people call neighborhoods because our country has lost so many true neighborhoods that people don’t even know how to recognize them anymore."

The Elusive Walkable Neighborhood | New Urban Roswell