Experts: Walkability not a trend but a sea change

Consumers’ preference for walkability isn’t just a trend but a structural change in the way many Americans see the American Dream.

So says noted city planner Jeff Speck, one of two featured speakers Tuesday, at a forecasting breakfast in Buckhead by real estate services firm JLL.

“Walkable places are thriving places,” said Speck, the author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”

September 10, 2014 Atlanta: Patrick Gilbert who lives close to Piedmont Park brought his dogs, Roman and Remus out for a walk in the park Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 . JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Speck said surveys show consumers prefer to live in a place where they can reach dining, shopping and other amenities without getting into a car. But the overwhelming supply of residences, offices and retail built over the past several decades has been designed for travel by automobiles.

ExploreRelated: No car? No problem if you live in these Atlanta neighborhoods (PHOTOS)

Sprawl, long commutes and the loss of walkable design contribute to public health concerns such as obesity and automobile injuries and deaths, Speck said.

“We have engineered out the useful walk,” he said.

Getting people to walk requires thoughtful design and the walk must be just as convenient as getting into a car. That means streets, sidewalks, buildings and public spaces must be made safe, inviting and interesting, he said.

This isn’t just some new urbanist pipedream and it isn’t all about millennials. Boomers and other age groups want to be able to walk to things, too.

And there’s data to back up the value of traditional urban design, the experts said.

Ben Breslau, managing director for research with JLL, said commercial properties nationally in highly walkable central business districts and pedestrian-oriented suburbs are appreciating in value at a rate roughly double that of properties in car-centric suburbs.

Converting car-centric suburbs and cities to more walkable and dense communities rank among the greatest challenges and opportunities in real estate, Breslau said.

MARTA’s Red Line to Sandy Springs. Ben Gray/

Atlanta and some inner-ring suburbs development surge, and some of the region's biggest corporate recruits have landed near MARTA stations. Certainly, providing workers with an alternative to Atlanta's soul-crushing gridlock is one reason, but a number of corporate executives say the moves were inspired by the need to recruit and retain talent.

They say younger workers want to shed their cars and live and work in places that feature amenities and life on the street.

In response, a number of developers have launched projects or unveiled plans for dense development near MARTA stations, and MARTA itself has launched bids to redevelop parking lots and other land around some of its rail stops.

The desire for walkability can’t be divorced from transit, the speakers said.

This map shows three proposed expansion routes that MARTA officials say could be funded if taxpayers in Fulton and DeKalb agreed to pay an additional half-percent sales tax.

ExploreMARTA is currently pushing a massive $8 billion expansion plan that could face an uphill climb in the Georgia Legislature.
ExploreThere’s also local opposition in some communities.

But a recent poll by the Metro Atlanta Chamber found 73 percent of registered voters in DeKalb and Fulton — 58 percent among Republicans — favor expansion of MARTA. About half said  they would vote against any penny sales tax referendum for transportation that didn't consider funding for rail.

Breslau cited Midtown with its MARTA access and street grid as one of the best submarkets for corporate interest and growing rents. Downtown, a historically under-performing submarket, he said, is one of the neighborhoods with the greatest upside potential.

Atlanta’s so-called “edge cities” around the Perimeter also rank high on the list of areas that could benefit from more urban-style planning. For instance, the Central Perimeter submarket around Perimeter Mall– the metro area’s biggest office center by square feet – retains a suburban layout that is rapidly urbanizing. But it lacks a traditional street grid seen in Midtown or downtown.

ExploreTwo proposals for multiple high rises in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have been met with angst over congestion fears.

Other areas outside of MARTA’s rail network also are seeking more walkable features, including city centers in Alpharetta, Sugar Hill, Smyrna and the entertainment and residential district surrounding the future Braves stadium near Cumberland Mall.