The capital of the New South looks vulnerable

Though famous for its sprawl, Atlanta has also quietly become one of America’s top urban success stories. The city of Atlanta has added nearly 120,000 new residents since 2000, a population increase of 28 percent representing fully 10 percent of the region’s growth during that period. None of America’s traditional premier urban centers can make that claim. As a Chicago city-dweller who did multiple consulting stints in Atlanta, I can tell you the city is much better than its reputation in urbanists’ circles suggests. I loved working there and I could happily live there.

Yet the Great Recession has exposed some troubling cracks in the foundations of Atlanta’s success. Perhaps it’s too early to declare “game over” for Atlanta, but converging trends point to a possible plateauing of Atlanta’s remarkable rise, and the end of its great growth phase.

Atlanta grew strongly in the 2000s, with growth of over 1.2 million people, a 29 percent rise that beat peer cities like Dallas and Houston. But look at the recent past and see a very different dynamic. Domestic in-migration has cratered, only reaching 17,479 last year, or 0.32 percent. While migration did slow nationally last year due to the economy, Dallas and Houston continued to power ahead. Dallas added 45,241 people (0.72 percent) and Houston added 49,662 (0.87 percent). Even Indianapolis added 7,034, but that’s 0.42 percent on a smaller base, meaning Atlanta is actually getting beat on net migration by a Midwest city.

With growth faltering, Atlanta’s jobs engine is also sputtering. With over one million new people, Atlanta added almost no jobs in the last decade. From 2001-08, its GDP per capita actually declined by 6 percent. And over that same period its per capita income declined from 109 percent of the U.S. average to 95 percent, a stunning 14-point drop that was the worst of any large city.

Atlanta also has a myriad of infrastructure problems. It suffers some of the highest water and sewer rates in the nation, double those of New York City. As former Councilwoman Clair Muller put it, “I’m not sure being No. 1 in the country for water and sewer rates is a good selling feature.” It also faces a shutoff of water from Lake Lanier — a political issue, but one that highlights that Atlanta has done little to expand water resources in the last 50 years.

The biggest infrastructure issue for Atlanta is transportation. Atlanta’s freeways are among the world’s widest, but this disguises the extent to which its roadway infrastructure is woefully insufficient. Atlanta has a simple beltway and spoke system similar to Indianapolis and Columbus, much smaller cities. Other big cities like Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Detroit have much more elaborate systems that don’t rely on a single ring road, but instead webs of freeway with multiple “crosstown” routes.

But Atlanta’s greatest road problem lies in the lack of arterial street capacity. Atlanta’s suburban arterial network is mostly former winding country roads, many of which have never been upgraded to handle current demands. Most upgraded streets are radial routes, not crosstown ones, which forces even more traffic onto the overloaded freeway network.

For those who prefer transit, Atlanta hasn’t invested there either. It built the MARTA heavy-rail system as an extremely forward-looking transportation investment, mostly in the 1970s and early ’80s. This was built before Portland’s system and is far better than light rail to boot. But there has been almost no expansion of the network. The state of public transport has been largely frozen for some time. Meanwhile, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and others have invested billions.

Bad traffic congestion and other infrastructure ills didn’t matter much when Atlanta was the only game in town. For a long time, anyone who needed a presence in the Southeast found Atlanta the easy or even only answer.

But no more. Atlanta is now surrounded by upstart, faster-growing cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, Nashville and Charleston, S.C. — all in many ways with ambitions once characteristic of Atlanta.

Atlanta’s problem lies in its insufficient differentiation from these other places. Other than the airport, a clear major asset to Atlanta, how much do you actually lose by moving to Charlotte or Nashville? Your commute will even improve. These other cities also now have the talent to compete for a lot of the business Atlanta used to pick up without working for it.

Charlotte chamber of commerce chief Bob Morgan said, “To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition. We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.” That’s the way Atlanta used to talk.

Atlanta does seem to realize it’s in a different competitive world. Like Chicago and other growth stories before it, as Atlanta got big and rich, it decided it needed to get classier as well. To go for quality, not just quantity. And to embrace a more urban future for its core.

But it might be too little, too late. Atlanta is urbanizing, but despite the huge influx of people into the city, it’s not there yet. Atlantic Station got built and attracted lots of press, but numerous other mixed-use projects were killed by the poor economy. Ambitious projects like the Beltline park and transit loop lack funding.

Atlanta is left in a sort of “quarter way house,” caught between its traditional sprawling self and a more upscale urban metropolis. It offers neither the low-traffic quality of life of its upstart competition nor the sophisticated urban living of a Chicago or Boston.

Cities, like companies and people, go through a life cycle. There’s the youthful founding, the explosive growth phase, then maturity and, for some, decline. Atlanta has been one of the boomtowns of the current age. Like other cities before it, that growth will come to an end one day. It is then that we’ll see if, like Chicago and New York, Atlanta will succeed as a mature region and truly claim a place in the pantheon of great American cities, or instead decline or stagnate like so many others did.

Atlanta is far from dead, but it may be facing the beginning of the end of its growth cycle. What will Atlanta be when it grows up? The answer will be the true measure of its greatness as a city.

Aaron M. Renn, an independent urban affairs writer based in the Midwest, writes for The Urbanophile. A version of this article first appeared in New Geography.