By Maria Saporta
Developer and urbanist Chris Leinberger delivered a “wake-up call” Monday at the Rotary Club of Atlanta — “Hot-lanta is no longer hot.”
Leinberger has been coming to Atlanta an average of once a month for the past 30 years, and he’s seen the metro area blossom during the boom times. And now he’s witnessing an Atlanta that is losing ground to such “left wing cities” as Dallas, Houston, Salt Lake City, Denver and Charlotte.
He remembers the developers of the past generation — from Blaine Kelley, Ron Terwilliger, John Williams, John Wieland and Tom Cousins.
“Literally, this has been the most forward looking and progressive real estate community in the country, bar none,” said Leinberger, who also is a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution.
But the current data on metro Atlanta is sobering.
“You have the same number of jobs and the same real capita income as you did in 1998,” Leinberger said. “It’s not a lost decade; it’s a lost 15 years.”
Home prices in metro Atlanta have declined by 29 percent in the last decade, and only three zipc odes had gained in value — Grant Park, Virginia-Highlands and East Lake.
Brookings has been keeping score. It ranks metro performance of the 200 largest cities in the world. In the 1990s, Atlanta was in the top 25 percent. In the 2000s, Atlanta was ranked 89 out of the 200 largest cities. And today, that rank has dropped to 189.
So why is Atlanta losing ground?
The major reason, as Leinberger sees it, is that the region quit investing in transportation — particularly public transit. Unlike Washington, D.C. and San Francisco (two cities that started building a rail system at the same time as Atlanta), Atlanta has barely expanded its MARTA system and it has not leveraged the economic development potential of developing around its transit stations.
“Transportation drives economic development and real estate development,” Leinberger said. And that’s why Leinberger, who has become a frequent speaker these past few months in Atlanta, has become such a proponent of the July 31 regional transportation referendum that would dedicate a one-percent sales tax to already approved projects.
It’s more than just transportation. Atlanta has been developing for yesterday’s economy — not tomorrow’s economy.
Atlanta needs to create a city where the workers and decision-makers of today’s “knowledge economy” and tomorrow’s “experience economy” want to be, Leinberger said. And those places are “walkable urban” spaces rather than “drivable suburban” spaces.
“That’s why Atlanta has flat-lined,” Leinberger said. It only has five “walkable urban” neighborhoods while Washington, D.C. has more than 40.
So what is an “experience” economy?
“You start with tourism,” Leinberger said. “Now tourism is the biggest industry on the planet.”
About a third of all travelers go explore the wilderness. The remaining 70 percent travel to experience cities, not suburbs. “They are not going to be going through a drive through,” Leinberger said.
Another example of the experience economy is the Apple Store, which is redefining the whole concept of retail. A Macy’s store might have annual sales of $500 a square foot; Whole Foods has about $900; a jewelry store can have as much as $1,500 a square foot.
But an Apple Store is bringing in between $4,000 and $6,000 a square foot. And it has trained traditionally low-paid retail sales clerks to become true computer consultants and profit centers in their own right.
So what should Atlanta do to catch up lost ground.
Leinberger provided five suggestions.
1. Pass the July 31 referendum. “It’s the most important investment you will make in the 21st Century. If not, the next town that you will be lapped by is Birmingham,” he said.
2. Fast track the Atlanta BeltLine, which is one of the most important rail projects in the country.
3. Develop at least 25 to 30 more walkable urban places — including such places in the suburbs, and seek to serve at least 85 percent of them with rail transit.
4. Take better advantage of your knowledge-based generators — such as Atlanta’s research universities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
5. Look at the region as a whole. “This nonsense of outside the perimeter and inside the perimeter has to go,” Leinberger said. “I liken it to a baseball field with an infield and an outfield. You need both,” he said
During his talk, it was clear that Leinberger has developed a strong affection for the Atlanta region. He could have been that disappointed parent or uncle who was talking about a kid with so much unrealized potential.
At the end of his remarks, Leinberger wistfully said: “I really want Atlanta to be Hot-lanta again.”