Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Replay: Is It Game Over for Atlanta?

[ I wrote this before the 2010 Census results came out that showed Atlanta to have had the most over-estimated population of any large city in America. The Census Bureau had projected huge central city growth there, but in the results came in flat instead, falling a full 123,000 below what was expected. I have elected not to update the piece to reflect these numbers, but keep them very much in mind. The story in Atlanta seems to be even worse than I’d previously considered – Aaron. ]

Atlanta is arguably the greatest American urban growth story of the 20th century. In 1950, it was a sleepy state capital in a region of about a million people, not much different from Indianapolis or Columbus, Ohio. Today, it’s a teeming region of 5.5 million, the ninth largest in America, home to the world’s busiest airport, a major subway system and numerous corporations. Critically, it’s also become the country’s premier African-American hub at a time of black empowerment.

Though famous for its sprawl, Atlanta has also quietly become one of America’s top urban success stories. The city of Atlanta has added nearly 120,000 new residents since 2000, a population increase of 28 percent representing fully 10 percent of the region’s growth during that period. None of America’s traditional premier urban centers can make that claim. As a Chicago city-dweller who did multiple consulting stints in Atlanta, I can tell you the city is much better than its reputation in urbanists’ circles suggests. I loved working there and I could happily live there.

Yet the Great Recession has exposed some troubling cracks in the foundations of Atlanta’s success. Perhaps it’s too early to declare “game over” for Atlanta, but converging trends point to a possible plateauing of Atlanta’s remarkable rise, and the end of its great growth phase.

Atlanta grew strongly in the 2000s, with growth of over 1.2 million people, a 29 percent rise that beat peer cities like Dallas and Houston. But look at the recent past and see a very different dynamic. Domestic in-migration has cratered, only reaching 17,479 last year, or 0.32 percent. While migration did slow nationally last year due to the economy, Dallas and Houston continued to power ahead. Dallas added 45,241 people (0.72 percent) and Houston added 49,662 (0.87 percent). Even Indianapolis added 7,034, but that’s 0.42 percent on a smaller base, meaning Atlanta is actually getting beat on net migration by a Midwest city.

With growth faltering, Atlanta’s jobs engine is also sputtering. With over one million new people, Atlanta added almost no jobs in the last decade. From 2001-08, its GDP per capita actually declined by 6 percent. And over that same period its per capita income declined from 109 percent of the U.S. average to 95 percent, a stunning 14-point drop that was the worst of any large city.

Atlanta also has a myriad of infrastructure problems. It suffers some of the highest water and sewer rates in the nation, double those of New York City. As former Councilwoman Clair Muller put it, “I’m not sure being No. 1 in the country for water and sewer rates is a good selling feature.” It also faces a shutoff of water from Lake Lanier — a political issue, but one that highlights that Atlanta has done little to expand water resources in the last 50 years.

The biggest infrastructure issue for Atlanta is transportation. Atlanta’s freeways are among the world’s widest, but this disguises the extent to which its roadway infrastructure is woefully insufficient. Atlanta has a simple beltway and spoke system similar to Indianapolis and Columbus, much smaller cities. Other big cities like Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Detroit have much more elaborate systems that don’t rely on a single ring road, but instead webs of freeway with multiple “crosstown” routes.

But Atlanta’s greatest road problem lies in the lack of arterial street capacity. Atlanta’s suburban arterial network is mostly former winding country roads, many of which have never been upgraded to handle current demands. Most upgraded streets are radial routes, not crosstown ones, which forces even more traffic onto the overloaded freeway network.

For those who prefer transit, Atlanta hasn’t invested there either. It built the MARTA heavy-rail system as an extremely forward-looking transportation investment, mostly in the 1970s and early ’80s. This was built before Portland’s system and is far better than light rail to boot. But there has been almost no expansion of the network. The state of public transport has been largely frozen for some time. Meanwhile, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and others have invested billions.

Bad traffic congestion and other infrastructure ills didn’t matter much when Atlanta was the only game in town. For a long time, anyone who needed a presence in the Southeast found Atlanta the easy or even only answer.

But no more. Atlanta is now surrounded by upstart, faster-growing cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, Nashville and Charleston, S.C. — all in many ways with ambitions once characteristic of Atlanta.

Atlanta’s problem lies in its insufficient differentiation from these other places. Other than the airport, a clear major asset to Atlanta, how much do you actually lose by moving to Charlotte or Nashville? Your commute will even improve. These other cities also now have the talent to compete for a lot of the business Atlanta used to pick up without working for it.

Charlotte chamber of commerce chief Bob Morgan said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” That’s the way Atlanta used to talk.

Atlanta does seem to realize it’s in a different competitive world. Like Chicago and other growth stories before it, as Atlanta got big and rich, it decided it needed to get classier as well. To go for quality, not just quantity. And to embrace a more urban future for its core.

But it might be too little, too late. Atlanta is urbanizing, but despite the huge influx of people into the city, it’s not there yet. Atlantic Station got built and attracted lots of press, but numerous other mixed-use projects were killed by the poor economy. Ambitious projects like the Beltline park and transit loop lack funding.

Atlanta is left in a sort of “quarter way house,” caught between its traditional sprawling self and a more upscale urban metropolis. It offers neither the low-traffic quality of life of its upstart competition nor the sophisticated urban living of a Chicago or Boston.

Cities, like companies and people, go through a life cycle. There’s the youthful founding, the explosive growth phase, then maturity and, for some, decline. Atlanta has been one of the boomtowns of the current age. Like other cities before it, that growth will come to an end one day. It is then that we’ll see if, like Chicago and New York, Atlanta will succeed as a mature region and truly claim a place in the pantheon of great American cities, or instead decline or stagnate like so many others did.

Atlanta is far from dead, but it may be facing the beginning of the end of its growth cycle. What will Atlanta be when it grows up? The answer will be the true measure of its greatness as a city.

This column originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 26, 2010 and is adapted from a post that originally appeared in New Geography.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development
Cities: Atlanta

19 Responses to “Replay: Is It Game Over for Atlanta?”

  1. Matthew Hall says:

    Atlanta really is a cautionary tale for post-war boom towns. I wonder about the future of many low-density metros that depended on cheap land, gas and offering a way for established businesses to reduce their costs. Declining GDP per capita staring around 2000 was a real warning sign for Atlanta. What are the other U.S. cities today that are experiencing the biggest declines in per capita GDP? Those are the ones to worry about in the future.

  2. Mitsy says:

    Great article. I’m in the process of purchasing a home in the Reynoldstown neighborhood of Atlanta. I’ve heard promises of the belt line, a new grocery store and all other kinds of great things yet, I SEE nothing. I hope this isn’t the end of Atlanta. I’m going to be paying way too much to watch this place turn into Detroit or something like it. Just like Detroit, we need jobs and then the people will come here.

  3. DBR96A says:

    It’s worth noting that Georgia did not rank among the top 10 states in net domestic migration, according to the 2010 American Community Survey. If Atlanta (and the whole South, really) wants to have a bright future, then their growth will have to become more organic and come from within. It can no longer rely on poaching other cities or regions for human capital.

  4. tlt says:

    I’m curious about why you found the city to be “much better than its reputation in urbanists’ circles suggests.” Many people report the opposite – being disappointed to find this city much less connected, energetic and dense than they expected. It’s interesting that your experience was so different.

  5. Rod Stevens says:

    I lived in Atlanta in 1986 through 1988, and it surprising how predictable the metro area’s evolution was.

    Back then I lived in the center city, first near the IBM Tower and then, quite literally, one half block south of Ponce and therefore one-half block south of the racial dividing line. As an early “gentrifier”, I had an easy commute in from my job in the suburbs, for most local whites wouldn’t live there then. The commute from the perimeter outward was bad even then.

    You could tell even then that all those old country roads ending in “Ferry” were going to clog up. But the place was essentially a low-price sell: you could get any where on a plane from there, life was easy, and it was cheap.

    Which is pretty much how we’ve described the post-war world of sprawl: these systems work well in their early years, until the networks become congested. At that point they can no longer sell themselves as low cost and high performance: they become high cost and low performance. Yes, like LA, they become a system of “villages” or communities, but they lose the synergies of contact between people when it becomes so difficult to get around. Seattle is having that problem today, with the split between the downtown and Eastside, while Portland, which habitually saw itself as the #2 city of the region, the Charlotte to the Atlanta of the, has now come on as a livable place that connects people to one another and the culture of the place. The sprawling places have ended up dividing people; the more livable places unite.

    That may be why “world” cities like Vancouver, New York and London still hold sway: they bring people together easily. In a knowledge economy, such network places are ever more important. When Atlanta boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, it was partly because companies were relocated from the expensive cities of the Northeast to the cheap office parks of the perimeter freeway. As the economy has gone global and talent has become more important, we’re seeing companies move back to central locations, to draw that talent. That is harder to do in a place like Atlanta. In a way, we are seeing a revenge of the city, but we are also seeing a revenge of the classical city, the place that brings people together. Atlanta is going to have to do a lot of reordering of its suburbs, or create a much more comprehensive transit structure if it is going to compete on these new old terms.

  6. Vlajos says:

    “I’m curious about why you found the city to be “much better than its reputation in urbanists’ circles suggests.” Many people report the opposite – being disappointed to find this city much less connected, energetic and dense than they expected. It’s interesting that your experience was so different.”

    Me too. I used to visit Atlanta quite often. I’ve never been impressed. Just sprawl and highways. Even Buckhead, supposedly a happening area, was a huge disappointment.

  7. Well, for one thing it was nice to be able to take the MARTA from the airport to my office in Midtown without having to rent a car. Then there are my friends who live in east Atlanta (in the city) in an old neighborhood that still has drug dealers living on the block but where newcomers had been buy in, fixing up single family homes, etc. And prompting some very good restaurants and others businesses to spring up. You can get great food in Atlanta, the shopping is good, etc. And I like how you run into black people who are fully integrated into every stratum of society unlike in most cities. I’m impressed that they’ve allowed high rises in city neighborhoods that never had them before.

    To me I saw Atlanta as a bit of a model of how a small, predominantly single family home dominated city could have something of a thriving urban center (though I’m not much of a fan of downtown Atlanta). It immediately made me think of Indianapolis and how it might progress. Of course, I like living in places like Indianapolis, which may not appeal to you.

  8. stlplanr says:

    Charlotte is at a crossroads– be a Phoenix that repeated LA’s mistakes, or be a Portland and plan differently. Just in the South, the autocentric metro to learn from, is not LA, but Atlanta.

  9. Matthew Hall says:

    Everything is relative. On my period trips to Indy I’ve found startling bland and dull. I think many visitors see Atlanta in the same way. But, the perspective of those who live there is what matters for their success over time. Millions want to visit NYC that don’t want to live there, while many live in places that they would never visit on a vacation.

  10. A. Hickner says:

    I would not worry about Atlanta going down the path of Detroit. Detroit was a single-industry town with low percentages of college attainment; Atlanta’s economy is diversified and it has a comparatively well-educated metro population. The main problem they share is sprawl. Atlanta’s going through a rough patch, but it remains much better positioned for the future than was Detroit when it started its long slide.

  11. MidtownResident says:

    While I don’t disagree with you on a lot of the issues you raise about Atlanta, perhaps because I live in Atlanta I have a much better feeling on our future.

    For starters, no other city in the country has the project that is as wide and massive in scope as the Atlanta Beltline. Large segments of trails and several parks have already started or are near completion. In addition the project has sparked the redevelopment of City Hall East into a large redevelopment in the likes of NYC’s Chelsea Market

    Also the region will soon be voting on a 1% transportation tax bringing in billions with half going to transit in the region. The tax would fund a MARTA expansion to Emory University and two BeltLine transit segments and a cross town east/west transit connection. And let’s not forget some the new transit connection to Cobb County. In addition the region is finally looking into regional transit governance because many metro counties aren’t a part of MARTA. The state is investing $20 million in a public/private partnership to redevelop the “gulch” into a multi-modal transit station near Phillips Arena (don’t get me wrong the multi-modal facility has long been “just around the corner.”).

    Let’s also not underestimate the importance of world class universities in the city. Charlotte doesn’t have the benefit of Georgia Tech, Emory, Agnes Scott, Georgia State, etc… Or the redevelopment these universities are having. Georgia State and Georgia Tech have led the way in bringing redevelopment to their neighborhoods.

    Another project that wasn’t mentioned is the importance of the Savannah port dredging. This will continue to bring growth to the state and the Atlanta region.

    If anything things are looking much much better.

  12. BC says:

    Does anyone have a theory as to why Atlanta’s stock is now down, but Dallas and Houston are still up? I don’t know anyone who would have predicted this difference a couple years ago, as all three cities have pursued the same growth strategies with success, yet for some reason Atlanta is no longer so much in favor. For my money, Atlanta offers better four-season climate, topography, foliage, and connectedness to the remainder of the population centers of the country, than any Texas city. It has a more educated population, and more notable universities. All of the fundamentals seem to swing in Atlanta’s favor, so the Dallas-Houston surge (minus Atlanta) of the past couple years remains a mystery to me. Thanks for any suggestions.

  13. JoeP says:

    I’ve lived in Atlanta for over a decade. While I think the truth is somewhere in between Detroit and the growth of the past, the truth is many Americans like the sprawl and like the weather in Atlanta. that said, it’s miserable in many ways. there are places I won’t consider going to after work, but of traffic and downtown is pathetic. Midtown has improved, but the city developed in a way that lacks true big city urban scale.

    There are some nice city neigborhoods though and yes the city does have Emory and Ga Tech which helps (the other schools are not on a level that really would be a top tier, though good schools I’m sure).

    Dallas and Houston (and TX) benefit from massive Hispanic growth (look at the 2010 census data, it’s not poaching from other cities that has propelled Texas in the 2000s).
    That and energy (oil) push those cities.

    Charlotte does lack historic characteristics in a way that Atlanta does when compared to Northern cities, but there’s not much it can do about that. It needs to make an identity for itself and learn Atlanta and other sprawling cities.

    Charlotte would really do itself a lot of good by investing in smarter growth and attempting at policies often discussed here and elsehwere. For what it’s worth, it’s downtown is its core and while shiny and new, looks really nice.

  14. DBR96A says:

    Part of why people have higher expectations of Dallas and Houston relative to Atlanta is because neither city is overbuilt the way Atlanta is. Atlanta had a little bit of a housing bubble, but what’s killing it now is commercial real estate. Atlanta’s commercial real estate market is one of the most overbuilt in the United States, if not the most overbuilt. It is to commercial real estate what Phoenix, Las Vegas and Orlando are to residential real estate. Drive around the exurban fringe of Atlanta and you’ll see lots of brand-new shopping plazas that are less than half-occupied.

  15. Zathras says:

    BC asked the same question I was going to. What is it about Dallas and Houston that make them not Atlanta? Part of the answer is better investment in roads (I don’t know about Atlanta, but Dallas and Houston have done pretty well with this). This can’t be the whole story. As for overbuilding, Dallas and Houston certainly went through periods where this was the case, but they were able to move on.

    The problem of a lack of good universities in either city (Rice in Houston being the only exception) is a significant negative point–for this, you only have to look at the reasons why Boeing chose Chicago over Dallas for relocation. One possibility is that Dallas and Houston are just a few years behind Atlanta in the growth curve. I believe Atlanta’s growth picked up a little before Dallas’s and Houston’s did. Maybe they’re in for a plateau decade.

  16. Matthew Hall says:

    There are people who like sprawl? Not the chance to have a large house for themselves, but the collective experience of sprawl itself? Are there people who prefer long periods of time in their cars and would miss the sight of endless parking lots and 14 lane highways if they disappeared? I accept that there are people who like the low prices of walmart and its ample parking, but there are people who actually enjoy the florescent lighting, the smell of synthetic fabrics, and having all their food shoved at them through holes in walls into the windows of their cars? They would miss these things? They are positive goods instead of necessary evils for some people? What a heartbreaking thought.

  17. I’m from Atlanta and yes, the absence of east-west arterials is really a disaster in Buckhead and Sandy Springs. But I’m not sure there’s any more congestion in Atlanta than in Dallas or Houston (unfortunately the Texas Transportation Institute report’s link is broken or something so I can’t dig up the statistics…)

  18. Benjy says:

    I lived in Atlanta from 1995-2001 and was amazed at the growth/sprawl during my time there, and the area’s grown by another 1.5mm since?!? I can only imagine how difficult it is to get around now…

    I lived there for four years of college and two years post-college, two years without a car and four with one. I learned my way around to the point that my ATL native friends asked me for directions. But it was usually a pain because there was no direct way to get around. MARTA was fine to get to specific spots, but transit was terrible if not directly on one of the two train lines. When at Emory, it took hours to get to places that were 15 minute drives from campus (Little Five Points, Lenox Mall). MARTA to work was never an option, but because I worked across from the Art Center station it meant easy, free airport parking whenever I traveled.

    Ultimately, the sprawl and car-centric development was one of the main reasons I left Atlanta. Everything was defined private bubbles (apartment complexes, subdivisions, office parks, shopping malls) connected by moving bubbles (cars)… there was little sense of neighborhood or community. Every time I returned to Chicago and visited friends or family living downtown, I realized that is what I wanted.

  19. missing NYC says:

    Atlanta is a doughnut: it’s center is still empty from urban renewal and surrounded by a thin margin of below-poverty. I live in one of those neighborhoods that were supposed to be “up-and-coming”, but it’s been “stalled-if-not-down” since I moved there in 2006. Still many drug dealers and homeless, unfortunately almost every one of them is black and not integrated into society at all. The transit system is stuck in a racist attitude and will not likely get the support of white suburbs when time to vote on the 1% tax will come. The Beltline is a wonderful project, hopefully that will move forward and will build some sense of belonging and pride.
    There is no commercial core, no main street. To find nice retail, you have to hop from neighborhood to neighborhood. Little Five Points is exactly what it means: an intersection. It is merely impossible to walk or bike on Atlanta streets because of driver’s attitude, but also the width of the right-of-way that never considered expansion. Stormwater management is hell and roads turn into rivers at every rain fall. Ironic when GA Tech has a good reputation for its civil engineering graduates.
    Atlanta was the end of the railroad, and it still feels a lot like that. We are not connected to any other large city, we are floating in an incongruous location. It burned down twice (if not thrice – I cannot remember) and we still managed to rebuild it wrong. Then we allowed Portman to build a sterile downtown. And we changed the name of an innocent street to his.

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