Guest Columnist BRUCE GUNTER, president of Progressive Redevelopment Inc., an affordable housing developer that has been divesting itself of its assets
Atlanta is getting its mojo back….and at an accelerating pace. Cranes are returning to our skyline, a welcome sign of a rejuvenating real estate sector, with new office construction joining the multifamily housing that was first out of the gate.
This is unadulterated good news for the region, but a quick look reveals a very selective recovery. Midtown, Buckhead, Perimeter, Cumberland (thank you, Braves) and the 400 corridor are fast heating up, but—not surprisingly—long neglected sectors remain overlooked.
This pattern is not unusual, but what is different this time is that we know how to jump-start recovery in certain – not al – disinvested areas. New approaches in the field of “community development” (referring to real estate and human capital development in lower income communities) can unlock market opportunities, if the public sector can properly seed the ground.
“Concentrating available resources to maximize impact” is a simple business truism but devilishly difficult to execute in the public sector. Focusing public resources involves aligning multiple agencies with multiple rule books and transcending the naturally divergent tendencies of parochial local politics to achieve scale in a defined geographic area. The inherent difficulty in doing so is one important reason why lower income communities remain so.
The field of community development can be said to be a creature of the 60s reform and idealism, as an ideology of empowering local communities came into political vogue. Neighborhood-based nonprofits sprang up to deal with the multiplicity of social and economic ills, and in a few cities they played important roles.
Southern cities, including Atlanta, have historically been unable to fully fund these entities adequately, and Southern states have had little interest in this area.
As the field focused increasingly on housing developments and grew much more complex, smaller nonprofits ceded ground to more sophisticated and better capitalized for-profits and a few large nonprofits, which were generally much more project-focused than neighborhood-focused (an exception being Atlanta-based Purpose Built Communities, a spin-off of Tom Cousins’ highly successful East Lake development.)
Today, with a few exceptions, for-profit firms dominate what has become a housing-driven field. Fortunately, many of these housing deals have had enormously positive impact, particularly the projects spearheaded by the Atlanta Housing Authority in partnership with strong development partners such as the Integral Group, Norsouth Companies, and Columbia Residential.
In fact, the community turnaround these partnerships engendered by developing high quality, mixed-income housing while also focusing on the local schools is one of the primary reasons for in-town Atlanta’s startling revival.
Informed by these real estate successes and validated by academic research, the field has now evolved with a conviction that housing must be anchored by good schools and other public amenities, particularly greenspace and walkable services, and served by transit in order to access employment opportunities.
On the private side, a veritable land rush to develop in or create “walkable neighborhoods” is one of the strongest factors undergirding Atlanta’s renaissance.
The noted land use expert from the Brookings Institution, Christopher Leinberger, who has long studied Atlanta’s growth patterns, said recently that “…building walkable urban places is the most effective economic development strategy that a city or region can pursue.” In other words, that is where money is to be made, and the numbers bear this out.
Wealthier communities, such as Midtown, Buckhead and Alpharetta, are benefitting enormously from this strong market preference, but in less desirable communities, where the public sector must kick-start the process, the promise and the execution of such a vision remain maddeningly far apart.
Where in Atlanta can this approach to community development take advantage of the powerful market trend toward walkable urban places? How can we marshal the essential civic leadership and political will to bend the system toward a strategic focus of public investment that will induce the market to follow?
In the past year, three lower income neighborhoods in our city have been tantalized with promises of “transformation” – that oft-used hyperbole. In the wake of the Atlanta Braves fiasco, Mayor Reed promised a “transformation” of the neighborhood surrounding Turner Field, describing his vision of a long-sought mixed-income residential community where the stadium and acres of asphalt now stand.
A few neighborhoods away, in the shadow of another stadium — the Georgia Dome and its successor new Atlanta Falcons stadium — Arthur Blank has vowed a “transformation” of the long distressed Westside neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue.
Neighbors surrounding the former Army base, Fort McPherson’s 488-acres near the airport, have attended dozens of planning meetings in hopes of promoting its “transformative” potential.
Obviously the city has multiple opportunities to invest in major infrastructure improvements in these three areas. But the city also has to realize it has limited financial resources and technical capacity, even allowing for some state and federal participation.
Fortunately the timing for these three initiatives will be staggered with emphasis today being focused on the communities around the Atlanta Falcons stadium.
In three years, the focus could shift to the communities around Turner Field. The Atlanta Braves are scheduled to begin playing in Cobb County during the 2017 season. And the prospects for the redevelopment of Fort McPherson could take even longer.
Atlanta’s future prosperity is tied to the twin ports of Hartsfield-Jackson and Savannah and our several national-class universities, all located in or around downtown. These monumental assets are driving Atlanta in the global economy and propel high-wage job creation.
Can we all agree that “sharing the wealth” with lower income communities via market mechanisms is a preferable approach? So as prosperity rapidly returns to Atlanta, that means we can’t let these market drivers be siphoned soley into the “favored quarter” as has historically been the pattern.
We as a larger community must coalesce and coordinate our public and private resources to create a city where everyone enjoys the economic rebound.