Walkable urban places – in the suburbs, too

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

There are three columns today. Commenting is open.

Walking a way to the future

By Tom Sabulis

The talking point was meant to be a grabber: Metro Atlanta has reached peak sprawl. More development is going to urban development. The old way of fueling our economy by building subdvision after subdvision has been replaced by a new real estate metric — the proliferation of intown multi-purpose hot zones where folks can walk to their desired destinations.

Then came the kicker: Many of these new urban locales are actually in…the suburbs.

The “urbanization of the suburbs” is helping drive the real-estate market both in Atlanta and outside the perimeter, says Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use strategist, professor at the George Washington University School of Business and author of a new report called “The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta.” (www.atlantaregional.com/walkups).

The study says land use in metropolitan areas can be defined two ways: “drivable suburban” and “walkable urban.” Drivable suburban places, as you might expect, are low-density spreads where you need your car to get anywhere. They offer “stand-alone real estate products” — homes over here, strip mall there, office park that way — connected mostly by highways and major arterials. The building of “drivable suburban” is what fueled metro Atlanta’s economy for decades.

Walkable urban places have much higher density. They integrate real estate products in the same place — office, retail and residential. They welcome multiple modes of transportation — public transit, autos, bicycles and, obviously, your feet. No matter how you reach a “WalkUP,” everything is walkable once you’re there. “It’s much tighter, just a few hundred acres at most,” says Leinberger, a developer himself, whose team collaborated with the Atlanta Regional Commission and Georgia Tech to build on research formed at the Brookings Institution.

Walkable urban downtowns are in demand all over. Some are the traditional crossroads established decades ago (Marietta, Roswell, Decatur), only to be reinvigorated. They continue to thrive. Others are germinating now, from Brookhaven to Hapeville, from Cumberland to Morrow, from Suwanee to Serenbe.

Atlanta’s walkable urban places, the study says, are commanding “an impressive rent premium over its drivable sub-urban areas.” Real estate demand is shifting to the urban infrastructure that’s being built, Leinberger says, to fill in where road infrastructure came first.

According to the study, the 36 established and emerging WalkUPs consume less than one percent of metro Atlanta’s land mass. Yet 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.

Still, the study is hardly a slam dunk. Detractors say the methodology invites scrutiny. Some observers question the “duh” news value in the idea that vibrant dense areas are good at drawing more investment.

But there’s no denying the appeal of “WalkUPs” and the validity of the walkability trend — see, for example, the burgeoning downtown on Dresden Road behind Brookhaven MARTA station, or the lower Howell Mill district in West Atlanta.

It’s even harder to discount the citycentric activity when it’s occuring well beyond the Perimeter, in places where many people have no urge to live in “the city.” It doesn’t mean, Leinberger says, that the suburbs as we know them are on their way out. What it does enforce is the notion that while people still love their cars, they like to be free of them whenever they can.

Good planning trumps all

By Terry Russell

While the urban core offers great walkability, the suburbs are where all the action is taking place. So what’s fueling the growth, and how are homebuilders responding?

The suburbs north of Atlanta attract residents because of the great schools and access to growing employment centers and affordability. Cities in the Northern Arc have continued to prosper during the recent economic downturn. In fact, Forbes.com named Forsyth County the 13th-wealthiest county in the United States in terms of median household income for 2008.

New home inventory in the area has been tight, with few unsold homes in many of the key submarkets. Beyond the top-notch schools and access to jobs, excellent municipal foresight, solid planning and the endorsement of quality growth are spurring the housing boom.

We can read all day long about the increasing popularity of urban living. But the suburbs that have continued to prosper during the downturn share many attributes with the best urban neighborhoods: connectivity, walkability, parks, access to public amenities, environmental sensitivity, and so on. Great neighborhood planning and partnerships with municipalities that want more than just rooftops are behind the quality neighborhoods builders are developing

The same principles apply to suburban infill as they do to urban infill. For example, FrontDoor Communities has two townhome projects immediately adjacent to Canton Street in Roswell that offer the same walkability to dining and entertainment as the urban walkable developments. So essentially I’m arguing that many of Atlanta’s suburban cities have the same urban infill context.

Big box communities are on the way out; quality neighborhood developments are in. Now more than ever, local municipalities are better informed about what constitutes quality development and good design. Developing neighborhoods and communities that promote an active lifestyle, embrace the outdoors, great architectural design and capitalize on outdoor living spaces are requirements for builders.

FrontDoor Communities is responding by planning Traditions, a 400 home-plus neighborhood on 158 acres in south Forsyth County situated adjacent to Fowler Park and the Big Creek Greenway. Plans for Traditions call for 13 parks that can be accessed by every homeowner by way of strategically designed sidewalks – or paths that connect residents with each other and to a purpose. Residents will be able to walk or run from Traditions to the Big Creek Greenway, a park with 6.1 miles of paved track as well as paths for mountain biking and hiking.

Designing communities that encourage interaction is key; for example, every home in Traditions will have a front porch and outdoor spaces to facilitate neighborhood engagement. Quality growth planning seems to be resonating well, as evidenced by the interest in homes in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. Case in point: while home sales for Traditions don’t open until early next year, almost 300 families have expressed an interest in the community in a mere four months since being announced.

Terry Russell is a 28-year veteran of the homebuilding industry and is CEO/Partner of FrontDoor Communities.

Urban is an effective economic strategy

By Yvonne Williams

When Perimeter business leaders developed the master plan in 2001 for the large office hub in the northern suburbs of Fulton County and unincorporated DeKalb County, they put Perimeter at the forefront of a fundamental change in the way we live, work and play in metro Atlanta.

Through the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts (PCIDs), these investors are developing a model community that demonstrates how to improve traffic and livability while strongly promoting economic development.

A Livable Centers Initiative grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission to the PCIDs to develop Perimeter’s master plan was the starting point for change. In the PCIDs’ conference room, a large “no walk” sign that once was used on Ashford Dunwoody Road reminds us of how far we have come in providing pedestrian access and connectivity throughout the area. In fact, the PCIDs have attached walkability to every major transportation improvement they have implemented in Perimeter since the organization’s founding in 1999.

Today, Perimeter is a prime example of how the creation of a walkable urban place is the most effective economic development strategy that a CID, Atlanta and the region can pursue. That was the conclusion of George Washington University professor Chris Leinberger’s recent study of regionally significant Walkable Urban Places (WalkUps) in Metro Atlanta.

The report, “The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta,” named Perimeter at The Center as one of 27 WalkUPs in the region and one of only four “platinum” areas in an economic success ranking of those WalkUPS.

We also have promoted more housing near jobs and work to improve access to Perimeter’s three MARTA stations. The study found that 59 percent of the regionally significant WalkUPs have rail transit. Companies choosing Perimeter cite the availability of public transit as critical for recruiting skilled, educated employees from throughout the metro area. State Farm’s announcement that it is developing one of three national operations centers near the Dunwoody MARTA station places Perimeter in the category of a regional model for achieving economic outcomes through leadership in delivering infrastructure connectivity.

The takeaway from this study is that WalkUPs like “Perimeter at The Center” must continue to build walkable, connected, accessible communities to anticipate the needs of the workforce of the future. The well-being of our residents and our economic success depend on it.

Yvonne Williams is President and CEO of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts

One comment Add your comment

[...] Columns and an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10/26) reference Leinberger’s research on walkable communities.  Leinberger’s most recent WalkUP report focused on Atlanta. [...]