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Leinberger: Atlanta should look to Washington for future growth model

Nation?s capital has built 20 walkable urban centers with 10 more taking shape

ATLANTA ? Metro Atlanta should look to Washington, D.C. if it wants to see the future of urban growth, a nationally renowned expert in the field told Atlanta builders, planners and smart growth proponents today.

?You?ve been a model. As I said during a visit here in the 1990s, you were the fastest growing settlement in human history. But now you?ve got some catching up to do. Washington, D.C. is the model of where the city is going,? said Chris Leinberger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. Leinberger is also a developer and was one of the founders of Robert Charles Lesser & Co., one of the country?s leading real estate consulting firms.

Leinberger spoke Thursday morning to an audience of 375 in the theater auditorium at the American Cancer Society in downtown Atlanta. His appearance was sponsored by the Livable Communities Coalition, Urban Land Institute-Atlanta District Council, Georgia chapter of the American Planning Association, Congress for the New Urbanism-Atlanta Chapter ? all members of the Coalition ? and Robert Charles Lesser & Co.

Leinberger believes that American land development is undergoing a structural shift. The shift, which began in the mid-1990s, is toward ?walkable urbanism,? Leinberger?s term for new developments and communities that mix commercial and residential uses in neighborhoods that are easy to navigate on foot.Such communities also typically have ready access to transit.

The shift is easily seen in Washington, a metro area comparable in size to Atlanta.Twenty years ago, there were two walkable urban centers in metro Washington, Leinberger said. There are 20 now, with another 10 taking shape.Atlanta, on the other hand, has five or six. ?Where will the other 25 go?? he asked.

Leinberger predicts that the rise of walkable urban centers will continue. Pent-up demand drives the increase. In Atlanta, no more than approximately 10 percent of the population lives in walkable urban centers, Leinberger estimates. Yet market surveys show that nearly 30 percent of the metro Atlanta population prefers walkable urban centers over ?drivable? suburban communities.

The demand is fueled by the millennial generation, the oldest of whom are now in their mid-20s, and by Baby Boomers whose children are grown and who are now reaching retirement. Gas prices also contribute to the demand. By some estimates, households on the fringe of urban areas spend up to 25 percent of their monthly budgets on transportation, a category that combines the costs of driving and owning cars. For households in walkable urban areas, the portion of monthly budget spent on transportation is typically 9 percent.

Leinberger recommended that the metro Atlanta region:

  • View MARTA less as a people mover and more as an economic driver. ?Transportation drives development,? Leinberger said.
  • Focus its efforts on building Atlanta?s BeltLine, new commuter rail, and overall regional transportation networks.
  • Establish walkable urban ?overlay districts? at all rail stations and town centers. An overlay district is a planning term for a special set of zoning rules superimposed ? and often superseding ? normal zoning regulations. For example, in a community where retail districts are carefully separated from residential districts, an overlay might be used to create a district where a mix of retail businesses and housing is allowed or encouraged. Leinberger noted that walkable urban centers, which often mix housing, offices, and retail businesses, are difficult or even impossible to build many places. In addition, such projects are complicated and often risky. Simplified zoning rules can increase the likelihood of success for mixed-use projects.

Following Leinberger?s talk, three local panelists added comments:

  • Beverly Scott, general manager and CEO of MARTA, called MARTA?s rail network ? which represents $6.4 billion in capital ? a ?precious regional investment? now running at 30 percent of original design capacity. ?What we do [in terms of development] within a half mile of those stations is critical ? I?m sick and tired of being a poster child for what not to do.?
  • Dick Anderson, executive director of Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, said that the strategic assessment of the state?s transportation planning situation under way is ?now down to hard choices? ? trying to come up with spending priorities. Study authors with McKinsey & Co., the business consulting firm hired at Gov. Sonny Perdue?s direction to conduct the assessment, continue to build ?business cases? for different scenarios. One overall goal, Anderson said, is ?shorter, predictable commutes. It?s beginning to gel that the market is demanding change. Typical investment is not a winning play,? he said. It?s expected the McKinsey assessment will be completed in November.
  • Tom Bell, chairman and CEO of Cousins Properties real estate investment trust, cautioned that mixed-use developments are ?very difficult.? Bell estimated that 85 percent of mixed-use developments do not make money for the first developer. He also emphasized the importance of schools and affordable housing. He noted that walkable centers are targeted to the young and old and that ?if you want families to stay, you?ve got to work on the schools.? He added, ?We have got to figure out how to build 1,650 square-foot homes for $125,000 - $150,000.?

Formed in 2005, the Livable Communities Coalition is the metro Atlanta region?s smart growth catalyst. It unites 42 organizations working to change the way metro Atlanta grows by focusing on land use, transportation, housing, and conservation of open green space and natural resources. Member organizations include regional leaders in the areas of aging, building and development, business, urban and landscape design, government, housing, planning, sustainable development, the environment, and transit and transportation alternatives. For more information on the Coalition, please visit its Web site at

Further Reading

Chris Leinberger: The Structural Shift in Building in Metropolitan Atlanta

Chris Leinberger Interviewed about Tyson's Corner, VA on NPR