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North Fulton School Redistricting

The public input process for the upcoming North Fulton school redistricting is almost over.  You have until midnight tomorrow (12/14/14) to submit your comments to the county.  With any school redistricting, there are going to be some PO'd people and I'm one of them.  Unfortunately, our nation has a public school system that is anything other than free market and democratic.  If you live in a certain spot, your children are going to a certain school regardless of whether that makes the best sense for the end consumer, end of story.  

The new elementary school on hwy 9 has created some pretty big shifts in Roswell at the elementary and middle school levels.  High schools in Roswell are largely unchanged.  However, there are some notable shifts that will happen with elementary and middle schools on the west side of Roswell.  Proposed maps for elementary and middle are below. (click on the image for the full map).  Black lines show existing boundaries and colors show the proposed boundaries.


You will notice that the new school pulls from Roswell North and Mimosa primarily which was to be expected.  I live in Liberty which is next door to the new school so there was no getting away from the fact that my elementary school kids would be going to the new school.  What I didn't expect was to get pulled away from Crabapple Middle in the process.  As the crow flies, Crabapple is right at a mile from our house and our new middle school, Elkins Point, is right at 2.5 miles. 

Neither route would be particularly walkable or bikeable for my kids but the Elkins Point route takes us across two main arteries (HBR and Mansell) causing a significant increase in time by either car or bus.  I can plainly see that Fulton County is trying to keep the feeder system as clean as possible but I really don't know how in Historic Roswell has any meaningful affiliation with Mountain Park when it comes to middle school aged children.  But, alas, we are in suburbia where playdates are planned and parents chauffeur kids from one end of the city to the other by car to

Keep supporting our car dependence for everything Fulton County.  My solution.. build smaller neighborhood focused schools from elementary through high school rather than the standardized education factories we have now.  Who knows, maybe another redistricting will occur before my kids are in middle school.  One can dream... I'll have plenty of time when I driving to our new middle school.


What's Going Here? - Woodstock & Canton

The demolition request public notice signs are up all over the place around the old Vickers Auto Repair shop and the surrounding buildings.  King Lowry Ventures/Miller Lowry is the name on the petition requests and they are looking to consolidate four parcels at the corner of Woodstock Rd and Canton St totaling roughly 1.75 acres.  There hasn't been much detail released about what will go here so I'm going to speculate.

This is a prime parcel at the lesser developed end of Canton Street.  The pricetag to assemble these four lots was likely in the $2M+ ballpark given the $1.4M list price for the Vickers property.  Given that pricetag, this is going to need to be multi-story and with the trend toward mixed-use development taking hold in North Fulton, I definitely see this development headed that way.

I'm predecting some residential, retail and office in this one and it's going to need to be higher end development to make it in this part of town.  Miller Lowry has developed in Historic Roswell before.  You're probably familiar with this development just to the south of this new project.

I've always liked this building and the residential units upstairs with one exception.  That is the fact that it sits just a little too far back from the street.  It should be closer up to the street to help create the type of environment that is present on the south end of Canton Street.  I'm definitely hoping that the new development goes for a smaller setback.  

Another development that Miller Lowry has in the pipeline is at 1075 Canton St which is the old blacksmith property.  This one will tear down the shed behind the historic home and replace it with four townhomes and the plan is to rehab the house that fronts Canton St into (I'm guessing here) a restaurant space.  Here's the rendering that has been filed with the city for that development.

The townhomes look strickingly similar to the Sweet building just up the street.  I think this could be a solid addition to Canton Street but we need to be careful that all Miller Lowry projects don't look the same.  We don't want monotony on our most important street.

That said, I'm guessing that what we get at the corner of Woodstock and Canton Street has a similar feel and tops off at 3 or 4 stories with retail/restaurant on the main floor and some residential and office on the upper floors.  Also, there is plenty of land so don't rule out the possibility that additional buildings go behind the one that will front Canton and Woodstock.


Riverwalk Village: Roswell's Next Act

In November, news broke on a huge real estate development slated for 104 acres of the southeast quadrant of Holcomb Bridge Rd and GA 400 interchange.  It’s the biggest news out of Roswell in years.  It could be the biggest news out of Roswell since the last development was proposed in virtually the same area.  Many readers will recall the failed $2 billion Roswell East (aka Charlie Brown) proposal in 2007 that succumbed to significant neighborhood backlash before it had the opportunity to succumb to the real estate downturn.  the new project, Riverwalk Village, is still very ambitious.  What $500 million project isn’t?

There is simply too much to cover in one column but here’s the quick & dirty (and my previous columns here & here).  It’s much smaller than Charlie Brown but it’s still huge.  It could have up to 1,556 residences with some multifamily (renter and owner occupied), senior housing and single-family attached homes.  Office space could total 1.7 million square feet, a tad more than the BoA building in Midtown.  That’s on top of almost 500k square feet of retail and a 200 room full-service hotel.  The Swift School could open a new campus and about 43 percent of the overall site is reserved for green space and walking trails that would connect to the river and nearby neighborhoods. This project is quite simply a mixed-use behemoth.  

Under the current proposal,  the buildings will be low to mid-rise with the tallest proposed buildings being 10 stories.  Most of those taller buildings will be down the hill using the topography to create the illusion that the buildings aren’t as tall.  The hotel would be 28 rooms larger than the Doubletree, currently Roswell’s largest.  

The project is being led by Duke Land Group of Dunwoody.  They are seeking rezoning from the city and have presented a site plan that they believe works within the new UDC to provide the type of development that the city sees as contextually appropriate for that part of the city.  Asking around, this group seems to be well heeled and very capable of executing on the vision.  

The official announcement came roughly one week after the opening of Avalon another nearby mixed-use mega-project at Old Milton and GA 400 in Alpharetta.  This seemed very timely and no doubt was meant to capitalize on the excitement surrounding the opening of a high profile walkable mixed-use development.   The comparisons are bound to continue but Riverwalk Village will be strikingly different than what you find at Avalon.  First and foremost, Riverwalk has the Chattahoochee.  The only river that Avalon has next to it is the river of cars running up and down GA400.  Riverwalk is mixed-use and it’s roughly the same size parcel but Duke will be going for more of a village or neighborhood feel than an upscale shopping destination.

The current site plan calls for 16 different sections broken out into 7 categories, each with a slightly different intent and purpose.  For the most part, I think Duke has hit the nail on the head.  

  • A1-A2 - Office District - Well located along the western edge placing it closest to 400 keeping the residential and retail further away from the highway.  
  • B1 - Medium Density Residential (Townhomes) - I really like that this parcel is situated close to the river and will offer some of the best walkability options for residents who will be able to walk to shops, restaurants, office and a national park (and eventually a train station?).
  • C1-C8 - Mixed Use Development District (Residential & Non-Residential Uses, Such as Retail, Restaurant, Civic, Office, Multi-Family, Entertainment) - This one is a bit tough to envision but the obvious main point is that it will front what appears to be a Main Street that bisects the new development.  This could create a great walkable street on the east side of Roswell where nothing close to a walkable urban street currently exists.  The small bridge crossing the lake should be a great focal point.
  • D1 - School or Alternate Residential District - Well played.  This part of the property abuts 21 single family homes in Martins Landing, the most vocal opponent of Roswell East.  So, they make some options.
  • E1-E2 - Entertainment District (Restaurant, Retail, Grocery, Multi-Family) - Everyone loves entertainment.  From the initial renderings, they seem to have done an excellent job putting this area next to the lake, using the water in an urban fashion actually building right up to the water. Be prepared to be Entertained!
  • F1 - Hotel District (Hotel, Civic, Multi-Family) - Positioned directly on the little lake.  Well thought out and Roswell needs this.  Period!
  • Greenspace - (Parks, Trails, Landscaping) - A real opportunity to differentiate the development from virtually any other in Atlanta.  Mixed-Use with a connection to the Chattahoochee River and the Roswell Riverside Trail and potential MARTA connectivity.  

This project will increase a lot of things not the least of which are the tax rolls and traffic.  The first is obviously a win for the city while the second is going to make what is already a bad situation a bit worse.  There’s no sugar coating that.  The city and state need to step up and fix the HBR/400 interchange.  There are some small projects underway but much more is needed.  It sure would be nice to have the $48 million in improvements from TSPLOST but that’s spilt milk.  Proposal for HBR/400 Interchange Circa 2012Current projects like the early off ramp from 400N, the extended northbound turn lane to 400N from Old Alabama and the realignment of HBR eastbound to eliminate the lane switching before Old Alabama will all help but more is needed.  Mr. Acenbrak has some tricks in his bag I’m sure but we’re going to need money to make them happen.

Now that I’ve given you most of the facts, it’s time to share some of my thoughts.  

  • If the developer is truly going for a village feel, architecture and street design are critical.  Modern corporate architecture does not jive with a village feel.  Don’t try to be Avalon.  Take inspiration from some of the award winning developments from metro Atlanta such as Serenbe, Vickery Village and Glenwood Park and incorporate the designs seen in our historic district that make Roswell great. 
  • Roads should be as NARROW as humanly possible and connect as much as possible.  Villages and wide roads don’t mix. Villages and fine grained connectivity do.  Also, let's finally connect the greenway to the river. 
  • Figure out the MARTA solution now rather than later.  Everyone will be better off for it.  I’ve heard an underground solution might be necessary due to the incline from the river.  How cool would that be to enter Roswell by subway and walk to the River?
  • Old Alabama Avenue - OA should be turned into a grand tree lined avenue in the European style from HBR all the way to the river.  DPZ gave us a fantastic model in their Historic Gateway Master Plan.
  • Gigabit.  It’s a must.  Avalon has set the standard.  If we are serious about attracting business and entrepreneurs, we must have the fast speeds that they require.

Wishing Duke all the best.  If all goes well with permitting and approvals, ground could be broken in Q4 2015.  One thing is for certain.. a lot will change between now and the finished product.  Look forward to more coverage of Riverwalk Village by The CurrentHub and check my for my thoughts and opinions.


All the News on Riverwalk Village

Here are all the links you could possibly want that deal with the new Riverwalk Village development here in Roswell.  If you know of any others that aren't included, please add them to the comments.
Exciting Things are Happening in Roswell Georgia - - 11/11/2014
This Proposed Mini-City Could Rival Avalon - Curbed Atlanta - 11/7/2014
Riverwalk Village: The Site Plan - New Urban Roswell - 11/7/2014
Initial Thoughts on Riverwalk Village - New Urban Roswell - 11/6/2014

Goodbye Old Majestic

I first heard about this tree a few weeks ago when a fellow RoswellNEXT board member who owns a property on Goulding Place shared the sad news.  The owner of the property on which the tree stands (not my friend) who is completely within their rights had decided, based upon an aborist's assessment, that the tree needed to come down as it was not in good health.  The news was not well received by the neighbors and others in the community.

In all honesty, if I lived in the house, I would have been terrified of one of the gigantic limbs that hung directly over the house.  That said, there is no arguing that up until the last year or so when trimmings appear to have started, this was an amazingly beautiful tree.  Google Streetview caught an incredible picture of it in a 2013 drivethrough (above) and I snapped one a few weeks ago while I was out on a walk.

Notice how much of the left canopy has been trimmed back even at this point.  I'm not sure of the history but man I hope it wasn't trimmed back to keep it away from the power lines.  To forsake a tree like this for shitty power lines would be a shame.  Also, notice how close this tree is to the street. It's almost IN the street.  Do you think this is dangerous or safe?  I'd highly doubt there has ever been any collision with or around that tree because it's perceived danger is exactly what makes it and that road very safe.

Anyway, over the past several weeks, a great deal of citizens came out to support Old Majestic by signing a petition to save the tree.  That petition was started by Donald McDonnell and has since changed to focus on creating a landmark tree ordinance.  There were 449 supporters who came to the digital side of the tree.  That's a lot of supporters for a tree on a sleepy street in Roswell.  It took us over 9 months to get 600 supporters for the City Green project.  News crews were out to cover it and Mike Pechenek of WSBTV did a segment and had several tweets (@MPetchenikWSB) on the situation.  Here's his piece from today as the tree was being taken down.

The real takeaway here is that the city probably should have a landmark tree ordinance to protect some of our oldest inhabitants and kudos to Donald for pushing it along.  I find it absurd that we have a Historic Preservation Commission that will prevent a business owner from putting up tasteful decor on their facade but when a tree that is older than any building in our city is set to be cut down, there is no one there to ensure it's a good decision.  Assuming an ordinance is protective to our old trees but subordinate to a landowners rights, I believe it could be a good thing.  

Goodbye Old Majestic.. I barely knew ye.


Riverwalk Village: The Site Plan

I was able to get a copy of the site plan today for Riverwalk Village and it looks pretty darn good.  I'm seeing a lot more pros than cons as I dig in.  It utilizes the land and geography nicely and puts appropriate development in the appropriate place.  Here's the plan overlaid on Google Maps.

There are 16 different sections broken out into 7 different categories, each with a slightly different intent and purpose.  I think they have largely gotten these right.  Here are the descriptions for each according to the site plan along with my commentary.

  • A1-A2 - Office District - This area is well located along the western edge to place it closest to 400 which was an intentional decision by the developer to keep the residential and retail further away from the highway.  I'm curious about it being further south on the site though as there will be a lot of commuters driving through to get to the offices.  That could be a positive for the retail and it would be great to be able to get out of the office and walk to the river during lunch break.
  • B1 - Medium Density Residential (Townhomes & Single Family) - The residential is toned down from the East Roswell/Charlie Brown proposal from 2007.  In fact, there are roughly half the number of units coming down to 1500+ from 3000.  I don't see any single family on the site plan but the description calls for it.  We'll see if that happens.  I really like that this B1 parcel it is situated close to the river and what will eventually be more parks and trails in Riverwalk Village.
  • C1-C8 - Mixed Use Development District (Residential & Non-Residential Uses, Such as Retail, Restaurant, Civic, Office, Multi-Family, Entertainment) - This one is a bit tough to envision but the obvious main point is that it will front what appears to be a Main Street that bisects the new development.  This could create a great walkable street on the east side of town that currently has nothing at all close to a walkable urban street.  Or.. It could end up looking plasticy and contrived like Town Brookhaven.  It will hopefully take its inspiration from Serenbe, Downtown Woodstock and Glenwood Park.  I like that there will be a small bridge crossing the lake.
  • D1 (with alternate) - School or Alternate Residential District - This one is well played.  The developer has to expect that their largest opposition is going to come from Martins Landing.  This part of the property abuts 21 single family homes along Trailmore Dr & Trailmore Pl.  So, they place a school that will cater to children with disabilities on the adjacent property.  If for some reason, there is enough objection to the school, they have prepared option two which will be townhomes and multi-family from what I can tell. The one thing that seems a bit ridiculous is that the multi-family and the townhomes each have their own entrance/exit on to Old Alabama.  There should be street connectivity between the properties.
  • E1-E2 - Entertainment District (Restaurant, Retail, Grocery, Multi-Family) - Everyone loves entertainment.  The lone rendering which I shared in my first post on Riverwalk is, from what I can tell along the lake in what looks to be E1.  They've done an excellent job putting this area next to the lake and it appears they will utilize the water in an urban fashion actually building right up to it which differs significantly from most modern development which caters to the environmental memes of water quality protection at all costs.  (One reason we can't develop much at all along the Chattahoochee).  I'm thinking the water in the lake won't be as blue as the rendering depicts though. Whatever they've done, it sure does attract a lot of Rendering People though.  Be prepared to be Entertained!
  • F1 - Hotel District (Hotel, Civic, Multi-Family) - The articles and PR releases floating around are calling for a ~200 key hotel.  That would give this new hotel 28 more rooms than the Doubletree.  It will be positioned directly on the little lake.  Once again, well thought out.  Roswell needs this.  Period!
  • Greenspace - (Parks, Trails, Landscaping) - This is a huge plus for this development and I sure hope they get it right.  There is a real opportunity to differentiate the development from virtually any other in Atlanta.  Mixed-Use with a connection to the Chattahoochee River and the Roswell Riverside Trail.  Wow!  I'd like to see the city jump on the opportunity to finally connect the Big Creek Greenway to the River by somehow extending the trail from Big Creek Park down through this project and to the River.  There aren't many details yet on the greenspace but given what they are doing with the rest of the property, I'm thinking this will be a win.

Our next post will take a look at transportation and potential traffic issues and after that, we'll hypothesize on what this means for Roswell and in particular, the Historic District given that it will have Avalon, Alpharetta City Center and now Riverwalk Village to compete with.


Initial Thoughts on Riverwalk Village

Image: Duke Land Group

The big news this week in Roswell is the $500 million mixed-use project called Riverwalk Village that is being proposed for the southeast quadrant of the Holcomb Bridge/GA400 interchange (paywall link).  Dunwoody based Duke Land Group announced on Tuesday that they will be seeking rezoning to allow for a massive development that could rival Avalon in size.  The AJC broke the story in Wednesday's paper with some details but little in the way of imagery.  

I've been able to find one rendering but have not been able to come up with a site plan yet (stay tuned).

Here are the high level details from the AJC article with my thoughts.

  • 1,556 residences, including active adult housing, single-family attached housing and multifamily units that could be apartments or condos.  - This is about half of what the Roswell East (aka Charlie Brown) project had proposed.  I see this level of density being a major problem for the vocal NIMBYs on the east side of town.
  • Nearly a half-million square feet of space for restaurants and retailers, including a grocery store. - This is a LOT of space.  I'm not sure what to think yet but it wil
  • 1.7 million square feet of office space spread across several mid-rise buildings. That amount of office space is slightly more than the total floor space of Bank of America Plaza in Atlanta.  - Again, this is a LOT of space but the 400 corridor is booming and I'm not doubting this can and would be filled.
  • A hotel with 200 rooms. - Yes PLEASE.  We need another hotel to compete with the Doubletree.  I would like to see one closer to the historic district though.
  • A Swift School campus, a private institution for children with language difficulties. - This is a nice addition and will be a good fit.
  • About 43 percent of the property would be preserved as green space with passive and active recreation amenities, such as walking trails that would connect to nearby neighborhoods and the Chattahoochee River. - I don't see that there would be any way to avoid this given the proximity to the river.  It will be a great addition.
  • An existing apartment community known as Marquis Trace would be demolished. - Great news.  That think is a big POS and significantly underutilizes the land.

I think it's ambitious but doable given that this is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in North Fulton.  I'm unsure of the developer's background but I'm optimistic.  My biggest concern is the vocal NIMBY force that will organize to once again defeat a project in that area.

So, that's the summary.  As this progresses, it will be one of the biggest stories in Roswell.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the project progresses and wish the developers luck in implementing what I hope will be a great addition to the city of Roswell.


Married to the Wrong Place

image courtesy of Nate Hood

I often write about what makes great places.  I try to provide insights on what makes places great and what makes places not so great.  It generally boils down to this.. Places built around people that are highly walkable tend to be great.  Places built around cars, not so much.  Places that try to accommodate both are hit or miss but usually fall into the miss bucket. 

Now, I know a lot of this is personal preference but just take a look at look at home values and vacation destinations to discover the magic of place.  In a 2009 study on walkability, Walking the Walk, houses with above average walkability were seen to command premiums of about $4,000 to $34,000 over houses with just average levels of walkability in the typical metropolitan areas studied.  Additionally, the study saw between a $500 and $3,000 increase in home values for each point increase in Walk Score.  In our own metro area, the same place/walkability premiums exist and can be evidenced in neighborhoods such as Virginia Highlands, Inman Park, Decatur, Historic Roswell and eventually Avalon.

Vacations, another high ticket item where place seems to matter, also show a distinct preference for destinations that deliver great experiences .  Vacation destinations are almost always either walkable urban environments or places that bring us closer to nature, and it is apparent that the ‘burbs just don’t provide either very well.  Unless you’re visiting a friend or family, you probably aren’t headed to suburbia for vacation.  There just isn’t any ‘there’ there.  People crave places with personality and will pay a premium for it.  

Building better places was an important discussion 5 or 6 years ago when we were in the throws of the Great Recession but it’s even more important now as we are seeing a building recovery, dare I say boom, in North Fulton.  The unfortunate thing is that we are still building the same crap devoid of personality and lacking any true future.  Will Windward be the next historic district in Alpharetta? Why are we still throwing up commoditized subdivisions dominated by front loader garages that pretend to be walkable but yet connect to nothing?  Why do we still tolerate sucky architecture from builders looking to make a quick buck?

In my opinion, the problem revolves around our obsession with economic efficiency and our love affair with the short term.  When we add on to our suburban street network, we fail to see how that will impact our commute in 5 years when more vacant or under developed land is developed.  We purchase a home using borrowed money planning to sell it within 5-10 years hoping for a quick profit.  We think that a quality interior will somehow fix the shallow and cheap exterior.  We are blinded by the mortgage interest credit.

In our short sightedness, we have built an environment that only a mother (or homeowner) can love, a world full of non-places whose sum is less than the value of its parts.  The fact of the matter is that we are building places that have few redeeming qualities save that fact that you can buy and sell them.  They won’t stand the test of time... 

Nate Hood, a fellow urbanist from Minnesota, recently made just this point when he posted his engagement photos online.  The satirical photo shoot highlights just how ridiculous our suburban landscape is in a series of shots in front of driveways, empty lots and cul-de-sacs.  Nate’s website says it all; “Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow... Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.  We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American Subdivision”

What a sad sad place we have created when our homes and neighborhoods are a punchline for a witty couple who recognizes the hilarity of our suburbs.  Like it or not, we are married to the places we build.  Like a spouse, don’t expect to change places.  Once built, we have to accept them for what they are.  When the traffic gets bad, realize that you married that traffic when you chose to live in a car oriented world.  When you have to drive the kids everywhere, don’t think you’re going to change that zoning code so things can be closer together.  When you want to ride your bike, go ahead and strap it on the SUV and drive it over to the greenway because you’re married to a place where riding on the streets is akin to risking your life.  But, maybe you’d be better off.. or maybe you just need to get a divorce and move to a real place that will truly truly stand the test of time.  One that is capable of growing with you as your needs and preferences change.  

For those of us who can’t get a divorce from our places, we need to focus on building more real places and quit pretending that the suburbs as we know them are the answer.


WTF Roswell?

I've been wondering a few things lately.. I'm just going to get this all out in one post.

Why don't we partner more with non-profits such as the Trust for Public Land & the PATH foundation?  We could make a lot of things happen a lot faster if we decided to partner with these organizations.  The PATH Foundation would be a great partner for the Rowell Loop and the TPL might have some interest in helping us add park land along the River.  I'm just sayin.

What in the world was the city doing redesigning the city green plan behind the scenes? This one really bugs me.  We have a plan.  It's a really good one.  There are almost 600 supporters of the plan.  

Why in the world is the city having an internal charrette to look at alternative designs?  The DDA hired JB+a to do conceptual design work.  These are the same guys that designed Suwanee's Town Center.  No offense to staff, but I think the JB+a guys have a pretty good track record at desiging urban parks.  

Why wouldn't the city get significantly more involved in the architecture of the new school?  They get into intricate nuances on irrelevant buildings but but the city seems to be indifferent when the largest building to be built in Roswell in the last 10-15 years comes along.  It's run of the mill architecure that looks just like a handful of other schools recently constructed or currently being built in Fulton County.  I'm shocked that we didn't even ask if we could get some different colors that might be more fitting for Roswell.  It's mind bottling.  

Why do we give business owners on Canton St shit when they want to add harmless accents to their shopfronts?  Seriously guys.  A couple tasteful shutters by an entrance, some colorful shade curtains.  I happen to love the Mac McGee paint job but man.. how did they get that done when people who have all but made Canton St what it is want to make small, inconsequential tweaks have to go through hell and then can't do what they want to do?

Why can't we figure out the HBR/400 SE quadrant?  Someone grow a pair and just call it what it is.  It is the most valuable piece of land in Roswell that is going to be developed at some point and guess what.. there will be traffic and tall buildings and transit and all of the things that those loud people over there just can't stand.  

Why do we have over 1300 dead ends or cul-de-sacs in our city?  Seriously... that's whole lot of cul-de-sac.  What it does is force essentially EVERY driver on to Holcomb Bridge Road.

WTF is up with Stormwater?  If we can't figure this out, we are going to see development really slow down in the historic district.

WHY.. WHY..  WHY.. can't we get the damn sidewalks between the square and City Hall fixed?  This is the heart of our city and the sidewalks along the main thoroughfare are abysmal.


Does anyone here not understand that Alpharetta is about to eat North Fulton's collective lunch?  Hey Milton, Johns Creek & Roswell..  Alpharetta is going to eat your lunch.  Just thought I'd let you know.

I bet you thought I'd gripe about road signs.. I'm resigned to the fact that our governments will continue to treat all citizens as if they are complete and utter imbeciles.  

There.. I've said it.  I can now get on with my life.




The Looming Sprawl Bomb

Over 90% of the Atlanta region lives what is loosely called the suburbs.  So, if the overwhelming majority of people live in suburbia, it must be the right choice, right?  

Well, I wouldn’t call Suburbia the pragmatic choice.  Suburbia stretches resources and eats up land in ways that can’t be sustained in the long run.  Currently we are seeing suburbs attempting to become more walkable and significant development being focused on rebuilding our urban cores.  However, if you’ve looked around recently, there is a lot of suburban style development going up around the northern burbs.  That’s great economically in the near term but it might not be so good in the long term.  It brings more residents, it requires new infrastructure, it creates the need for all things that cities must provide.  These things cost money and often turn into long term liabilities for cities and municipalities.  

The organization StrongTowns has been illustrating the high costs of sprawl to cities across the country in an alarmingly effective way.  Their Curbside Chat is a bit like taking Morpheus’ red pill in the Matrix.  Their premise goes like this.. Our ability to grow by taking on more debt is waning.  Federal and State incentives for growth will become more scarce. The tax productivity of auto-dependent places is lower on a per acre basis than the pre-WWII city design.  Cities need to stop pursuing the short term prosperity that will result in long term liability.  They refer to the post WWII development pattern as the Suburban Experiment and compare it to a Ponzi scheme.  The suburban development pattern requires new growth to pay for long term liabilities.  Eventually, the growth stops and maintenance comes due.

They argue very effectively that the most financially viable development pattern for cities is one that resembles the way we designed cities prior to WWII, prior to the suburban development pattern.  If they are right, and our economic growth is stunted by sprawl, then why aren’t we doing anything about it?  

If we admit they are right, then we are saying we have been wrong for all of these decades.  We are saying that we sunk our national wealth into a development pattern that caused us to go broke.  It married us to our cars and our commutes and it drained our municipalities of cash to build and maintain roads that don't generate enough in property tax to maintain themselves and it unfairly burdened future generations with debt that was ultimately wasted.  It’s hard to admit when you made a wrong turn...  And that’s why we aren’t making wholesale changes to our development pattern.

So, if we are too proud to admit we mad a bad financial bet on an inefficient development pattern, will we do anything to protect the environment?  The suburban lifestyle seeks to create refuge in the environment but in it’s effort to create an idyllic home in the woods, it is actually wrecking the very woods that it seeks to be so close to.  According to a joint study released in July by the US Geological Survey and NC State University, sprawl in the southeast will increase by 110 to 180 percent between now and 2060.  The piedmont region between Raleigh and Atlanta will experience the largest growth.  By 2060, we could see a virtually uninterrupted stretch of development on that corridor.  This will have huge environmental impacts in a region that has some of the most biodiversity in the US.  I don’t know about you but I think developing generic suburban style development from here to Raleigh, is a travesty.  

Development as of 2009

potential development as of 2060

If we continue that direction our places could look like the suburban transect that planner Dan Zack designed to effectively illustrate the difference between Suburbia and the type of development that new urbanists advocate for.  In Suburbia, we divide uses and limit connectivity, while New Urbanist developments combine uses and encourage connectivity.  Juxtaposed, next to each other, it’s easy to see the difference.


image courtesy of Dan Zack,

If we want to build more productive places, that reduce environmental and economic waste, we need to be aggressively building mixed-use, walkable places that follow the pre-WWII development pattern.  The New Urbanists have been doing this for over 30 years.  It’s time to get serious about it.