Shouldn’t there be more to Atlanta’s rebirth than new housing?

Fort McPherson. Fort Gillem. The old Doraville GM plant. The Gulch. Turner Field. Underground Atlanta. And, as of this week, the Atlanta Civic Center.

If you follow the headlines, you know we are awash in big tracts of land poised for or undergoing redevelopment. Besides the above list, there are the new Falcons and Braves stadiums, Buckhead Atlanta, various shopping malls due for a facelift or gutting, Ponce City Market, a handful of MARTA-centric micro-towns, Aerotropolis, the renaissance of various metro cities’ downtowns, and the biggest of them all, the Beltline.

That’s a lot of building to be done.

With some exceptions, the offerings at these “mixed-use” projects focus on housing and/or more ways to spend disposable income. Here, we may have a problem.

While the current wave tilts almost exclusively toward dense development, I’m not complaining about density. In an important way, the mixed-use model is just a condensed, walkable version of the subdivisions and shopping centers that drove the previous expansion into the suburbs and beyond.

No, the problem is older and more general than that. It’s twofold:

First, the current building boom highlights our over-reliance on construction in a region and state — from the timber fields of South Georgia to the carpet mills of North Georgia — already too vulnerable to real-estate downturns.

Second, as we build under the popular banner of “live-work-play,” the weak link is work.

Sure, some older suburbanites and younger newcomers with intown jobs are gravitating ITP, the better to shorten their commutes and enjoy the perks of walkability. But are their numbers commensurate with the rebuilding we’re seeing intown?

By my count, more than 8,000 multi-family housing units either recently opened or are under construction inside I-285, with another 11,000-plus proposed. The vast majority are inside Atlanta’s city limits. Considering the population of Atlanta grew by just 3,529 between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, this could be problematic.

Could be — unless the "work" part of live-work-play starts fulfilling its promise.

True, many developments include office space: millions of square feet of it. Sometimes, the firms filling those spaces are new or expanding.

Sometimes, though, they’re merely changing neighborhoods. It’s hard to ignore that the gleaming bustle of Midtown, for example, was built on a lot of emptiness downtown.

In any case, the “work” we see in these developments tends toward the ends of the income scale: high-paying professional jobs or low-paying service jobs. In a city recently branded one of America’s most unequal for income, is there not an interest in growing more middle-income jobs? And if so, what might that require?

Back to the list of redevelopment sites. When big thinkers talk about our local economy’s needs, they say: more certain water supplies; less traffic congestion; better education and job training; and leadership from someone to deliver on the various dreams about new industries in which Atlanta should be competing.

You don’t usually hear them ask for more housing stock.

The choices made about these big redevelopment sites — some by private actors, but many by the governments that control them — will help shape our future course. We ought to think deeply about what they might be before we fall back to the familiar and just build, baby, build.

About the Author