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Atlanta is No New York: Getting Behind the Obvious

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When we talk about the future of urban development in Atlanta (which, along with ruminations on the rosy picture of Atlanta housing, we do a lot of here at Curbed Atlanta), the ultimate question is "what is the end game?" A recent trip to New York got us thinking (maybe over a Papaya King hotdog and an Orange Fanta) about density and how cities grow. Successful urban development requires dense, walkable communities with efficient public transportation. New York City is, of course, the gold standard for a dense, walkable, transit-orientated city, and it is the bar which, consciously or not, American cities are compared to in the context of being true urban places. Atlanta has pockets of urban areas, but a New York it is clearly not.
New York is an anomaly. We won't go back too far into the depths of high school US history, but the spectacle that is New York was created by a perfect storm of macro trends and local conditions. The recipe? Take: 1) a massive amount of people in an unprecedented migration; 2) funnel them into a place with limited living area due its geographical restrictions; 3) at a time when the world was becoming breathtakingly modern and industrialized; and 4) in a country (and city) that was becoming amazingly prosperous, and you know the result. People and capital poured into the small island of Manhattan and kept piling on until you ended up with one of the most dense, affluent and well-constructed cities in the world.

Even if we wanted to grow our city into something like New York (a debatable goal) achieving that level of density and infrastructure will likely never happen in the lifetime of anyone reading this post. Unless the mother of all black swans descends on Atlanta (i.e. China somehow swaps part of its portfolio of U.S. Treasuries for Buckhead, and sends hordes of peasants with boatloads of cash over to redevelop its new colony). As we know, Atlanta just doesn't have the physical constrictions to funnel growth together like in New York. And with no mountains or water boundaries restricting horizontal sprawl, indirect pressures like traffic and general inhibitors such as the availability of resources like water are left as the sole governors of growth.

Absent the China scenario, we also shouldn't expect to see a massive and sudden influx of new residents. Atlanta's growth over the ten year period before the Great Recession came in form of steady immigration and relocation at the expense of other U.S. cities like those in the shrinking Rust Belt. The relocation effect has dried up as potential movers to Atlanta can't sell their homes where they live, but it will come back as the housing market recovers (hopefully). That growth- when it returns- should be steady but incremental growth, i.e. a steady, small stream of people, as opposed to the tidal wave that created New York.

Atlanta does have a decent start, but it will be a long time (if ever) before the city can credibly be labeled a 'walkable' or public transit-oriented city. Does that mean we should drop efforts to help Atlanta grow in a more dense, sustainable fashion? Of course not. When the up-cycle comes and Atlanta begins to build again, it's important for stakeholders to understand the context in which this city's growth will happen.

We may want an Atlanta that can boast a truly citywide urban experience, and that goal may be be achieved. But it will likely happen in a steady, deliberate way as dictated by demand and the allocation of capital. We'll likely not see exponential growth that justifies throwing up massive towers and expecting them to fill up with dynamic communities popping-up around them. In an industry in a city known for its exuberance and tendency to build first and ask questions later, Atlanta would be wise to promote a new growth pattern rather than the fits and sparks of the boom-bust cycle of past years.

As we build out of this downturn in this next cycle, the "build it and they will come" philosophy should be left on the shelf. Atlanta can build its way into a walkable, transit-oriented city but it's going to have to be done in a patient, deliberate matter. We'll get there - it just won't be in a New York Minute.

PS: Passing the Transportation Investment Act will go a long way helping to get vital infrastructure needed for Atlanta's next round of growth, but that story requires a couple more hotdogs.