By 2040, metro Atlanta is projected to grow by 2.5 million people, bringing it to 8 million people, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. Understanding how transportation and land use can accommodate this increase was one of the subjects discussed at a recent ULI Atlanta event. The event was cohosted in partnership with Perimeter Connects and the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts.
Transit in Atlanta has a long road ahead. Speaking at the event, Georgia State Sen. Brandon Beach recounted his attempt to travel from one end of Atlanta to the other, a total of 38 miles, by using transit. The trip took him more than four hours and required visiting three websites to plan the trip across county lines.
Georgia House Bill 930, which was sponsored by Beach, was designed to expand mass transit in metro Atlanta and allow for more coordination across county lines, becoming law in 2018.
“If we do make it easy and we make it simple to get from point A to point B and if we can figure out that last mile, either through Uber or e-scooters or what to get you to your job, I do think people will look at mass transit and public transportation as an option,” Beach said.
He added that Atlanta also needs a multimodal passenger terminal—a Grand Central-type station—that encompasses bus and rail. That could also include a potential rail line from Atlanta to Charlotte. Beach said a good place to put a terminal could be on the site of a closed GM plant in Doraville, a city just outside of Atlanta.
Atlanta needs to focus on more than transit to alleviate congestion. People don’t always have access to housing close to where they work, creating more traffic, said Stan Wall, partner with real estate and economic development firm HR&A Advisors. He conducted a study on Buckhead, a north Atlanta neighborhood known for its high-income housing and concentration of businesses.
“There’s a lot of naturally occurring affordable housing in Atlanta, largely in the south and west of the city. The issue is that a lot of the jobs centers are to the north and to the east,” Wall said. “There’s a disconnect where housing exists and where the jobs centers exist.”
He spoke as part of a panel moderated by Denise Starling, executive director of Livable Buckhead, a sister nonprofit to Buckhead’s BID, working to make the area more walkable, connected, and sustainable
Wall’s study found that congestion could decrease if additional housing across income levels existed for the thousands of workers coming to Buckhead. The neighborhood has some affordable housing units, but they are under threat of conversion or demolition. Wall has looked at avenues to preserve those units, partnering with nonprofits and using city funds to offset the costs. He has also looked at building workforce housing that could accommodate 12,000 Buckhead workers.
In addition to Buckhead, panelists also discussed the possibilities of south metro Atlanta. The Aerotropolis Atlanta Community Improvement Districts represent the CIDs in the area around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The daytime population increases to 350,000 and another 80,000 to 100,000 people come out of the airport each day, said Gerald McDowell, executive director of the Aerotropolis. So the Aerotropolis is creating a mobility district to look at how people move. Meanwhile, the organization must coordinate with 13 cities around the airport. This mirrors the challenges of synchronizing across the many cities and counties in the Atlanta region when addressing transportation, McDowell said.
“We wanted to bring regional leadership to the table so that as we explored solutions, we would not only be able to identify solutions for the Aerotropolis, but perhaps solutions for the entire region, if not for the entire state,” he said.
As Atlanta grows, it needs to be proactive in finding space for everyone. The answer lies in south metro Atlanta. It has 90,000 acres available for development, he said. This would create relief for north Atlanta and downtown, which house a large part of the area’s population and jobs.
“The reality is we’ve got to find a place for these 2.5 to 3 million people to live and to work. And we have run out of room in north metro [Atlanta], in downtown,” McDowell said. “Let’s not wait 15 to 20 years from now when we have an incredible problem in metro Atlanta and then all of a sudden we start directing projects to south metro when we could start doing that today.”
Supporting education is another component of making sure people live closer to where they work. Rhonda Tompkins, director of property management at Cousins Properties, said people looking for a good education for their children tend to move to north Atlanta. This is also top of mind for companies when they choose where to locate, she said.
“We can bring in all of the leases and the headquarters and everybody that we want to, but their employees want to start looking and thinking education,” Tompkins said.
Lynn Lewis, director of property management at real estate developer Hines, said looking at local and out-of-the-box projects is also important. An example includes PATH400, a multiuse path along Georgia State Route 400 that began in Buckhead and is being extended to neighboring cities.
“The big transportation management plans are great, but that’s kind of like moving the Titanic,” Lewis said. “If there’s things that we can do locally or as a developer or as a property manager, we should be thinking about chipping away at it.”