‘Hotlanta’ isn’t what it once was

For decades, I have known, studied and admired metro Atlanta as an outsider. It gives me no pleasure to say Atlanta is no longer Hotlanta.

The Brookings Institution Global Metro Monitor ranked Atlanta as the 89th fastest-growing metropolitan area of the world’s 200 largest between 1993 and 2007. Recent rankings showed the city among the weakest economically — 189 out of the top 200 in the world.

The number of metro area jobs is down 8.4 percent from its 2007 peak. It’s even down 2.8 percent from the previous peak in 2001. The average housing price per square foot in real (noninflated) dollars between 2000 and 2010 has dropped 29 percent, according to Zillow, the online real estate database.

Still, this downturn did not lessen Atlanta’s notorious traffic congestion. The region is the 11th-most-congested region of 101 metropolitan areas in the country, according to a recent Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report.

How does Atlanta restart its economy? Go back to its roots.

Earlier, Atlanta was called Terminus because of the railroads that put the city on the map. Highways followed, along with the world’s busiest airport. These intentional investments created the business capital of the New South.

Research has shown that employees and companies are attracted to a different way to work and live than most of what Atlanta offers. The “creative class” wants the option of the drivable suburbs Atlanta is known for, and higher density, walkable urban places served by rail transit. Few walkable urban places exist in the region, a fact that is directly responsible for the poor economic performance, not to mention the continued congestion, of recent years.

One piece of evidence of the pent-up demand for walkable urban space: The only ZIP codes to actually gain housing value in the past decade were Virginia-Highland, Grant Park and East Lake. All of these were considered slums 30 years ago. Today they are among the highest price per square foot for housing in the region.

Real estate professionals know that one way to build walkable urban places is by building the transportation that can catalyze its development: rail transit, biking and pedestrian infrastructure. Atlanta has let MARTA languish from a lack of meaningful investment. Outmoded regulations, along with developers and investors wedded to the 20th-century model, have created pent-up demand for the type of development the regional economy needs.

In July, the area has a chance to take the first step toward rectifying this imbalance and sparking growth. A ballot measure would raise local sales taxes to invest in transportation. The measure would allocate about 52 percent of its proceeds to transit. This includes substantial investment in the Beltline, the most innovative transit investment in the country, one that all American metros will study and follow during the next few decades. It also includes funds for needed road and bridge maintenance.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use strategist, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.