Facing the Challenges of Growth in Atlanta

Yesterday, Buzz 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 decrying Mason’s 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.

15 comments

  1. RiverRat says:

    While you make EXCELLENT points about how the deck is stacked against denser development, I think you miss the boat in regards to Mason, at least partly. Certainly, there is a vocal minority that fears change – this has always existed, and will always exist in any neighborhood. The whole NIMBY thing.

    What you miss is the same thing that Mason missed – the NIMBYs in Atlanta are particularly organized, and carry a fair amount of power, especially in the area he is trying to build in. Some of the folks involved likely still remember when they fought then-Mayor Andy Young, then-POTUS Jimmy Carter, and federal highway money to stop a highway going through the neighborhood. The compromise was Freedom Parkway and Freedom Park.

    Mason thought he could take the same approach that has worked elsewhere – offer city council members lots of tax dollars for his new development, plus a very generous incentive package in the form of donating the BeltLine land, play some hardball, and he’d win. The problem is that he didn’t focus on the local interests and needs, and underestimated their influence among the City.

    A city council member came within 3 votes of losing her seat in large part because she supported a parking deck in Piedmont Park – can you imagine what a vote for two 40 story towers could do if it was opposed more vocally than a parking deck? The neighborhoods were at least split on the parking deck, EVERYONE agrees that 40 stories is too high for that corner.

    And Mason hasn’t really tried to compromise or work with the groups very much. His public statements have been very confrontational, threatening the city and condescending the community. His slash and burn approach that maybe worked in Gwinnett simply will not work in Atlanta. More than anything else, Mason simply underestimated what the neighborhoods would support. I may be wrong, and the City may grant everything he wants. But I would put the blame squarely on Mason for this – he simply misjudged things.

  2. I see something slightly different – the people that currently live near Piedmont park think it is ok for you to live or park there — as long as you buy that right from them. They don’t like the competition on parking and they don’t like the competition on real estate. Typical limo libs.

    Now, speaking of the NPU’s and neighborhood organization, how truly representative of overall sentiment can they be if they can come close but can’t even win a low turnout city council election against a candidate that was MIA who nobody liked? I mean, the neighborhood organizations were completely against this candidate and she still carried (albeit slightly) some of these neighborhoods.

  3. ColinATL says:

    Should we shed a tear for Wayne Mason? Not hardly. I don’t think people are against denser development, they just may not be willing to accept as dense as Wayne wants it. He’s going to make a profit either way, he just wants to make MORE profit by packing MORE units in.

    I agree with RiverRat, Wayne’s not interested in compromise. It’s his way or the highway. So bully to those people who stand in his way. The Beltline’s going to happen one way or another. Hopefully Wayne will get on board.

  4. Will Hinton says:

    The Beltline is NOT a foregone conclusion. Higher density is neccessary to both support the light rail and to make development economically feasible.

    I chuckle at those of you who purport to know anything about how developers make their money and the financial structure of development deals. How many of you have ever been involved professional in commercial real estate or development? I’m guessing few if any. I have and am. What some of you view as too much profit for developers is what they may have to live off of for years between deals. Developers and brokers do not draw a salary. Commercial real estate and development is one of the hardest and riskiest jobs on the face of the planet. How much profit is too much for someone who may go a year or two without bringing in a dime?

  5. ColinATL says:

    Will, I probably was a little overdone in my casting of aspersions at Wayne. But I still believe that a successful development WILL work to allay neighbors’ concerns to whatever extent possible. If Wayne is saying there is no middle ground, that he has no choice in the matter, then let him do what he wants. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think there are options and middle-ground, and both sides need to move towards it.

    The Beltline may not be a foregone conclusion, but the momentum is certainly moving that way, and Wayne Mason isn’t going to stop it, because then his investment would totally go to crap. And the neighbors aren’t going to stop it, because they’re limo libs, and they need people on the light rail to free up roads and parking spaces for their limos… 🙂

  6. ColinATL says:

    Oh, and Will, please try to sound a little less condescending next time. You sound like Tom Cruise. “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.

  7. Decaturguy says:

    A middle ground will be found. Something will be developed there short of the 40 story towers, but taller than the 3 story townhomes the neighbors want, or in some cases the neighbors want nothing built there.

    But we do really need to think more and more about the way we re-develop our intown land in a broader sense, not just street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood. If we cannot have higher density in already existing neighborhoods then Atlanta will never been the transit friendly, walkable city that we all say that we want. It is just a fact that some now low density residential neighborhoods are going to have to become more dense in order for it to work. You can’t have it both ways.

  8. Rusty says:

    How much profit is too much for someone who may go a year or two without bringing in a dime?

    Somehow, I think Wayne Mason will find the scratch somewhere to buy canned peas at Kroger whether these new condos are five stories or 50.

  9. Will Hinton says:

    Decaturguy: that is the very point I am trying to make. I hear people in intown neighborhoods talk all the time about having a walkable community with great transit options. Yet they don’t really seem willing to help make it happen.

  10. rmckibben says:

    First of all Will, before you toss around liberal like it’s a bad word, go back and read your history book again (assuming you ever did in the first place) The “libs” of their day were responsible for ending slavery, giving women and minorities the right to vote, declaring independance from England, and a host of other watershed events. What have conservatives EVER done but oppose all those things listed and then some?

    The neighborhoods surounding those proposed towers are not, contrary to popular opinion, NIMBY’s. Those towers, because of the way they would run North/South would cast a shadow over the Meadow in Piedmont Park until mid afternoon.

    That gravel parking lot has been slated to be open space in the CDP far longer then Mason has owned the property. I am also in development, and when I buy a piece of property that I would like to build on I check the zoning to make sure I can legally do what I want. Mason assumed that he could have his way with us “limo libs” the same way he had his way with Gwinett County. He was wrong!

  11. Will Hinton says:

    rmckibben: I don’t believe I used the term “liberal” in my post. Since you suggested I go back and read my history book, I will suggest that you go back and read my post. Much of my criticism is of conservatives who try to claim that our current system of zoning laws is an expression of a free market.

    For the most part I don’t think that this is a liberal/conservative issue. If we (those who live ITP including myself) want a more walkable, livable community, we are going to have to accept greater density. Those ITP who want less density should move out to Cumming.

  12. ColinATL says:

    So Wayne Mason has taken his marbles on gone home. Not showing very much fortitude, if you ask me.

    And Will, it seems that none of us disagree, and greater density is certainly something that most people can agree with ITP. What you seem averse to acknowledging is that a 40-story tower is not in character with that area. I think if Mason had proposed a 5-10 story development, there wouldn’t have been an issue, or at least not the outcry that has ensued. It’s a question of scale, not a question of goals. We all agree that density is needed, just not to the outrageous limits that Mason was proposing we take it…

    Ultimately, even with the state’s new restrictions on eminent domain, the city can make the Beltline happen, and Mason would be dumb not to develop something along all that property he owns.

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