Livable Communities Coalition reassesses its strategy with slowdown in metro growth

When the Livable Communities Coalition was formed five years ago, metro Atlanta couldn’t contain all its growth.

The coalition was an offshoot of the Quality Growth Task Force that had been formed a year earlier by the Metro Atlanta Chamber to help figure out how the region could accommodate as many as 2 million more people by 2030 and manage all the development that the population growth would bring.

The coalition represented the coming together of about 50 member organizations all focused on growth and development issues in the Atlanta region. The goal was to help the Atlanta region grow in a sensible, sustainable way.

Among the many ideas promoted by the coalition included preservation of green space, increased density around town center, connecting those centers with transit and providing a multitude of housing options for its citizens.

But in the past five years, the Atlanta landscape has changed dramatically. The economy has slowed new housing starts to a crawl, suburban/exurban sprawl has hit a natural economic growth boundary, and one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country has become sluggish and stagnant.

As a result of the changing environment, the Livable Communities Coalition has had to adapt its message and its emphasis.

“We are still alive and kicking five years later,” said Ray Christman, the coalition’s executive director who service on the Quality Growth Task Force and on the coalition’s board until he was named executive director about a year ago.

Christman and his staff brought together its board and representatives from member organizations to discuss where it stands on its five-year anniversary.

“It’s a good moment to reflect on what the coalition has accomplished, what it was set up to do, and what it might need to do in the future,” Christman told the group meeting at the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Christman summed up the situation: “What a difference five years makes. There was unbridled growth in this region. The coalition was set up deal with the growth paradigm.”

And then Christman said half-jokingly: “Our greatest accomplishment is that we’ve basically stopped sprawl in its tracks. We wanted less development, and we got it.”

When the economic downturn began in 2008, the coalition became more of a public policy and advocacy organization focused on transportation and land-use.

“The coalition had to step back and change direction and see where it could make a difference,” Christman explained. “While so much has changed in the last five years, so much has stayed the same.”

For starters, the four recommendations passed by the Quality Growth Task Force six years ago still ring true.

1. To maintain or improve quality of life while the metro area grows.

2. To provide housing choices that offer affordable residences across the region so people can live close to where they work.

3. To integrate the region’s transportation investments with land use, and to encourage all modes of transportation including transit, pedestrian and bicycle.

4. To encourage the best ways to develop land — green fields — that hasn’t yet been disturbed.

The good news is that little greenfield development is underway and that most of the growth that is occurring is where urban infrastructure already exists.

Retrofitting our already-developed urban and suburban areas ultimately makes good economic sense because it builds on past investments rather than requiring new roads and sewer lines.

The question facing metro Atlanta is whether we have learned from our evolution from unprecedented growth to unprecedented decline.

If and when the economy rebounds, will the region adapt its growth patterns to a more humane, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use environment, or will it resume to auto-dependent developments that segregate uses requiring people to drive from their homes to schools to work to shop.

Will the Atlanta region create communities that encourage the conservation of green space and the use of transit? Will the Atlanta region provide housing choices in various communities so people of all ages and all incomes can live side-by-side?

Thankfully, the Livable Communities Coalition is on hand to help keep this region on track by convening all of its member organizations and reminding them how best metro Atlanta can grow when the economy rebounds.

Here is a list of the coalition’s accomplishments over its five-year existence:

Regional leader for transit funding advocacy in HB 277 (2010)
Organized a Transit Stakeholder Advisory Committee in 2010 to advocate for greater transit funding in metro Atlanta. Currently working to influence the Draft Criteria for the Atlanta 10-County Special Tax District and will continue monitor activities of GDOT’s Planning Director and regional roundtables as a project list emerges for the referendum.

DeKalb Workforce Housing Strategy (2010)

Proposed, arranged and delivered a comprehensive workforce housing analysis for DeKalb County.
Recommendations included streamlining programs, catalyzing TOD, and updating housing data collection. Further Coalition work to implement recommendations is expected.

Helping shape a new transportation policy for Georgia (2009)

Georgia’s new transportation policy framework (known as Investing in Tomorrow’s Transportation Today, or IT3) gives unprecedented importance to the crucial link between transportation investment and development patterns (land use), thanks in significant part to work by the Coalition.

The link is now one of three explicit goals for state transportation planning and project selection in the metro Atlanta region. The Coalition’s influence on the design of the new framework began with meetings in 2008. It included an exhaustive, 162-page study of successful job centers around the nation.

Findings from the study were presented to a committee of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in fall 2009, and were incorporated into McKinsey & Co.’s final transportation strategy for the state.

Influenced Federal transportation spending in Georgia (2009)

The Coalition worked with Smart Growth America and the Southern Environmental Law Center to (a) favorably influence transportation spending made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 and (b) push for public disclosure and accountability on the spending.

The region’s first comprehensive Smart Growth Scorecard (2008)

The Coalition produced and administered a Smart Growth Scorecard. The Scorecard program evaluates new development for smart growth principles and design features. One project under the scorecard program received speedy approval in a rezoning request following approval by the Coalition.

A land use handbook for local officials (2008)

The Livable Communities Coalition produced the region’s first comprehensive survey of land use law, policies, and good growth management practices in Georgia – Guiding Growth and Development in Georgia: A Handbook on Planning and Land Use Law and Practices.

Georgia Municipal Association and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia have together distributed 850 copies to every county and municipal government in Georgia. Atlanta Regional Commission ordered an additional 500 copies for distribution in the region.

Building support for density (2008)

The coalition produced and delivered a compelling presentation about the benefits of well-designed density in cities. Work with Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. included numerous presentations to audiences skeptical of plans for dense development along the BeltLine route.

Tax Allocation District (TAD) study and winning ballot initiative (2007)

Helped rally legislative and popular support for a ballot proposition whose passage in 2008 preserved the most effective tool available to local communities for smart growth and economic development.

A template for retrofitting close-in suburbs (2007)

Influenced the planning and design of the proposed Executive Park redevelopment by creating a template for retrofitting suburbs in the 2007 plan entitled A New Public Realm for DeKalb County.

The coalition organized and administered this planning process which was led by noted urban planner Alex Garvin.

Defining key principles for smart growth (2007-2009)

Using its founding principles as starting points, the Coalition created four one-page handouts that turn smart growth principles and practices into primers suitable for distribution to general audiences.

Attractive and easy to read yet dense with information, the Coalition’s four “one-pagers” tackle the topics of how to manage growth in “greenfields” (undeveloped land); why it makes sense to closely link transportation and development; why it’s important to have a wide range of housing types and pricing, including affordable housing; and how we can fit 2 million more people in metro Atlanta without
expanding our imprint, while making the region a better place to live. More than 1,750 of the one-pagers have been distributed at presentations, workshops, planning charrettes, town hall meetings, and others special events.

Outreach to thousands (2005-2010)

Through publications, electronic communications, news media coverage, and presentations to audiences, the Livable Communities Coalition has reached hundreds of thousands of metro Atlantans with information on the principles and practices of smart growth. The numbers include:

• Speaking engagements that have reached a total audience of over 16,000.

• Monthly e-News educational pieces go to a mailing list of approximately 1,800. Combined total impressions to date: 87,900.

• 58 articles, op-eds, and letters to the editor that have appeared in print news media ranging from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Atlanta Business Chronicle to Georgia Trend and USA Today, with a total impact of more than 8.8 million impressions.

• More than 3,800 brochures and “one-pagers” (Greenfield Guidelines and Housing Guidelines) have been distributed so far.

• More than 9,000 unique visitors to the Coalition’s Web site and more than 45,000 page views in the past year and a half.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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