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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Facing the Challenges of Growth in Atlanta

Yesterday, Buzz Brockway at Peachpundit referenced an article in the AJC about the proposed Beltline and asked why the City of Atlanta was making things difficult for developer Wayne Mason. I'm going to attempt to answer this question as we have seen just the beginning of these city growth conflicts.

I am one of those rare Atlanta natives (4th generation to be precise). I have seen most of the transformation of Atlanta from sleepy town to world-class city. I can remember when Lenox Mall was an open-air mall, when the Omni (now the CNN Center) had an ice skating rink, and when driving past Jimmy Carter Blvd up I-85 meant that you had left town. I remember what the traffic was like on I-85 (now Buford Hwy) before they built the new freeway. And I rode on MARTA the day it opened. Trust me, that orange, yellow, and brown look was hot back then.

One of the advantages that Atlanta has had over many other cities is all of the available space for growth. Unlike many American cities, there are no natural boundaries to restrict growth. We used that space in the '80s and '90s to become one of the largest cities in America. Along the way we created a massive doughnut of a city with booming suburbs encircling a decaying core. Sometimes it is hard to believe that less than 10 years ago stretches of Peachtree Street through Midtown were given over the drug dealers and prostitutes at night.

That original advantage of available space has now become a disadvantage. We are now conditioned to think that we all need low density development in Atlanta. And one of the great ironies is perpetuating low density development.

For years, political conservatives have argued against more city planning in favor of laissez-faire development. They have argued that people should have the right to live in whatever environment they choose and should be able to use their property (i.e. land) as they see fit. I generally agree with this sentiment. However, the irony is that pro-growth/pro-sprawl people have used the power of the government through zoning laws to force development into a suburban mold.

Ask the developers of Atlantic Station how open our zoning system is to mixed-use development and increased density. If it had not been for the City of Atlanta seeing the opportunity and allowing zoning variances, Atlantic Station would have never happened. Only over the past few years have their been zoning designations for mixed-use in Atlanta.

There is nothing laissez-faire about our current system of zoning and land planning. The deck is stacked in favor of low density development.

Now that people are now moving back into the city, we have this current debate around Wayne Mason's Beltline development. The great irony is that many of those decryingMason' development because of the increased density are the same people clamoring for better mass transit. As anyone who has studied transportation issues can attest, mass transit depends upon increasing density of development.

And while it is understandable for people who live in outer suburbs such as Alpharetta or Woodstock will fight against high density developments in their communities, those living in intown neighborhoods need to understand that there will naturally be greater density closer into town. Ultimately, to answer Buzz's question, the City of Atlanta is putting a roadblock in the way of Mason's development because of a vocal minority who fear change.