Fixing the Atlantic Station Model

OK.  I admit in the past that I”ve spent a lot of time relieving developmental angst by railing against Atlantic Station. I sit here at the corner of Ponce and Smart-Growth Ave. and let the damning adjectives fly.  I mock.  I sarcaz.  I scoff.

But really, how does that help anything other than my blood pressure?

So this morning, after reading a very interesting op-ed over on Maria Saporta’s new blog “The Saporta Report” by the developer of Atlantic Station, Jim Jacoby, about the new “Aerotropolis” he plans to build on the site of the Ford Hapeville Plant, I’m taking a step back.  And instead of just cuing up a snarky rant, I’m going to attempt to be a bit more constructive.  (BTW, the Atlantic recently used Hapeville as a great, graphic example of how much $ it costs to dissemble an auto assembly line.  Highly recommend a look.)

If we must continue to endure these examples of “auto shrines cloaked in smart growth” metro-wide we might as well learn from our mistakes for the next time around, right?  So…the following are my specific gripes with Atlantic Station from a development perspective.  I don’t claim to have any background on how these things are make money.  This looks at the long term success of these projects, not the short.  Take them for what they’re worth…

1.  The near complete separation of residential and commercial/office is a tragic concept.

While this split has allowed the creation of an “outdoor mall”, it does nothing to promote a walkable, vibrant community.  That’s why the place is packed with “out-of-brownfielders” on the weekend and you can’t sell a majority of your condos.  You sacrificed the reliable dollars of a stable community, for those of the mobile, fickle auto-dependent.  And once AS is no longer the next big thing, that mobile money will move on to the next big locale.

2.  Don’t put a 4 lane speedway through the center of your district.

Even if you completely separate residential from commercial, you can still create a community if you provide accessible and safe paths to and from these areas.  But instead you tried to have it both ways.  By catering to those that can’t wait to get to load up their cars at IKEA or the underground parking deck, you have destroyed any chance of residents walking along this main strip to the commercial center.  And certainly no one wants to relax in your stately highway park if they have to risk life and limb to get there (not to mention the hum of engines that can’t be drowned out by a water feature).

3.  Invest in quality and variety in your buildings.

As a single developer, you work at a disadvantage when you try to create a community from the ground up.   Price points and tax incentives promote low costs.  And what suffers as a result?  The quality and variety of your urban environment.   So here’s my suggestion.  Put a little more money into your buildings.  Give them a little more individual character.  The result will be a more desirable community that takes pride in its surroundings.  Right now, the condos that line the strip along AS make even the transient motorist uncomfortable.

In terms of variety, I suggest a somewhat revolutionary approach.  Don’t just hire a team of architects that attempt to manufacture “variety” along your streetscape.  Hire architects from a variety of different firms, completely unrelated to each other.  Then you stand a chance at contributing real variety to your project.   Give them the specs and let them have free rein.  Real variety is hard to imitate…as Atlantic Station proves time and again.  Of course, this approach will end up costing you more in the end, but if you care about your legacy, this gives your project a fighting chance 30-40-50 years from now.

4.  Attract local retailers.

Has a lot to do with #3 above.  People have no loyalty to national brands, big boxes, except when it comes to price.  And “cheap” never a community made.  So, seek out retailers from the area and perhaps give them reduced rent while they start up.  They may not immediately attract the auto-philes, since they lack “brand recognition”, but they can provide an immeasurable service to both your community and its image.

Now, make no mistake, these suggestions are given under the impression that you, the developer of said brownfield, are most concerned with things you cite in your op-ed, like the “transfer of intellectual capital” and the “velocity of ideas”, and not necessarily just getting the most bang for your brownfield investments up-front.  If that isn’t the case, then please disregard.  I’m sorry to take up two minutes of your time.  Continue on your quest to marry auto-dominance with density.  But unfortunately for the rest of us, its a marriage doomed to failure.

Because while you can still make a tidy profit at the end of the day, regardless of a projects long term success/popularity, Atlanta is little better for these current projects – even when new variations sound like they are the brainchild of Howard Hughes.  Masking the auto in New Urbanist clothing does a disservice to our city and the movement to reinvigorate our cities.  Be honest and commit to your creed.

Anyone can make money.  Stand out by doing something better than that.