The economy sucks. Local governments are slashing their budgets. MARTA is facing a $120 million operating shortfall and may have to cut its service by 25 percent. Many people are suffering from unemployment and underemployment. And our region, economically dependent on growth, is lagging.
It’s easy to get depressed, easy to feel that our best days are behind us.
But I can’t help feeling optimistic about the future. Maybe it’s because winter is finally on its way out and spring is coming. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of being depressed and pessimistic.
Yet I can point to two experiences this past week that have taken me out of my current misery and lifted me to take a longer view of the future of our city. And that future is bright.
My first experience was listening to a panel discussion between some of Atlanta’s top real estate leaders at the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Deals of the Decades dinner at the Atlanta History Center on March 4.
The second experience was joining about 100 people from all over our region (and even one woman from Sweden) on Saturday to walk along the Northeast corridor of the Beltline. (I returned Sunday on a solo walk with my dogs to let the experience sink in and let my imagination run wild).
Both events gave me hope.
Let me give you a recap of the panel discussion between four of Atlanta’s leading real estate experts — Larry Gellerstedt III, CEO of Cousins Properties; David Allman, founder and chairman of Regent Partners – a leading developer in Buckhead; Jim Jacoby, developer of Atlantic Station and Aerotropolis; and Char Fortune, managing director of corporate services for Grubb & Ellis.
Gellerstedt said our region is undergoing a “sea change driven by demographics.” The trend is urbanization and the trend is towards more mixed use developments where people can live in pedestrian-friendly communities where they can walk to work, stores and parks.
“Young people want to live in an urban environment,” Allman said.
Jacoby said many people, young and old, want to live in healthier communities where they can walk rather than in the sprawling suburbs.
“People are coming back in the city — the young and the hip and the retired,” Jacoby said. “Atlanta could be a great opportunity for retirees.”
And Fortune said “Generation Y literally thinks the planet is deteriorating.” For that reason, forward-thinking developers will need to be thinking green.
ABC Publisher Ed Baker then asked the panel what they thought the market was going to look like in 10 years.
“The direction toward urbanization is here to stay,” Allman said. “That’s not going away. We’re going to see more emphasis on mixed use environments with more density. I think it will be a good time for the city if we can address the infrastructure needs — water, transportation and public education.”
Fortune expects the price of energy to rise. “I can see a future that’s going to be similar to Europe with gas at $5 a gallon,” she said. “People want to go back to a walking environment.”
Gellerstedt said metro Atlanta historically has been blessed with geography and great history. The region’s future will depend on whether state and local leaders will aggressively address Atlanta’s problems.
“There’s a crisis in leadership,” Gellerstedt said. As an example, Gellerstedt asked if there has been a major city other than Atlanta has not invested in light rail during the last decade.
“There’s a crisis in leadership emerging,” he said. “It’s hard to get consensus on big important issues. Will we rise to the occasion as our forefathers did?”
Later Allman added: “If you take care of infrastructure, it will happen organically. People will want to move here.”
The panel agreed that there needs to be stronger leadership at the state level.
“If I am governor, I focus on helping the metro area get regional solutions and transportation in place.”
If Gellerstedt were governor, he said he “would absolutely embrace the metro Atlanta region as the economic capital of this state. This region drives our state.”
And if he were mayor, Gellerstedt would role up his sleeves and get to work on the basic services of city government. “Atlanta is destined to be successful unless it crumbles on its own inertia,” he said.
This conversation gave me hope because the Atlanta region has been driven by developers, and the developers of today understand the value of a strong city and an environmentally healthy urban environment. Historically, Atlanta’s business leaders have managed to convince state and local governments to invest in our future.
Eventually, our economy will rebound. And if we’re lucky, we’ll elect leaders who will make sound public policy decisions that help us create an environmentally sensitive city built around people and nature rather than cars and pavement.
We were able to glimpse into that future on our Saturday hike along the Northeast corridor of the Beltline. We all felt like urban pioneers discovering a part of our city from an amazing new vantage point.
The tour was led by one of the most inspirational souls in our city — Angel Poventud — someone who has redefined community activism. Thanks to Angel and his renegade friends, weeds and kudzu along the Beltline have been cut back making much of the corridor comfortably accessible.
Angel and his friends also are working hard to illustrate the Beltline with urban art — both through official city channels as well as through any non-traditional avenues they can think of.
As we walked along the Beltline, we could see the future — a city where parking lots have become parks, where bicycle trails weave their way through new neighborhoods and where formerly dead-end streets will cross over the corridor — reconnecting our city into an urban grid to serve people rather than cars.
Yes, there is hope. If we are wise enough to support visionary leaders, sooner or later we will see an amazing city emerge from our auto-centric chaos. We can raise a brave and beautiful city that is a wonderful place to live.