New Olympic moment

Published Monday, May 28, 2012

As a fond and knowledgeable outside observer of Atlanta for 30 years, I have been pleased to watch the “city too busy to hate” and your hosting the 1996 Olympics. But I am fearful for your future. As I’ve mentioned in recent speeches and articles, Hotlanta is no longer hot.

Metro Atlanta has had a lost economic decade. You have fewer jobs today than in 2001, but a higher population. Your houses have lost 29 percent of their value in inflation-adjusted terms over the past 10 years. Brookings’ Global MetroMonitor ranks your economic prospects as 189th out of the top 200 metros in the world. And you still have some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

How have you gotten yourself in this situation?

You have forgotten why Atlanta was founded in the first place: transportation.

There is a reason an early name for Atlanta was Terminus. There is no reason for the region to be where it is physically except for the enlightened investment of past civic and private leaders in the transportation that has propelled your growth. First it was freight rail, then highways and then airplanes.

Atlanta has always led the way — until now.

Today’s knowledge economy demands a different way of building your region and getting people around. The pent-up demand is for walkable urban places. This is why the only metro neighborhoods to gain in real dollar value over the past decade were Grant Park, Virginia-Highland and East Lake — all slums or nearly slums 25 years ago, and all close to downtown Atlanta. They gained value because of the pent-up demand for walkable urban development. Meanwhile, high-end neighborhoods such as Alpharetta and Buckhead lost 16 percent of their value and fringe communities such as Stone Mountain lost more than 50 percent of their inflation-adjusted value.

The solution to this stagnation is to give the creative class and knowledge workers what they are demanding: walkable urban neighborhoods and places of business. Walkable urban places are being developed throughout the country in competitive metro areas such as Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Denver and Washington, D.C.

Not providing this type of environment to live, work and play means you have been lapped by your competition.

Walkable urban places require a portfolio of different transportation options, not just highways. Car transportation will always be important, but metro Atlanta has to offer choices, which it does not today.

A diverse portfolio of car/truck, rail transit, buses, bikes and walkability will allow for the real estate industry to build the walkable urban places the economy is demanding. And this is not just inside the Perimeter. National research shows that a majority of walkable urban development will be built in the suburbs — much of it outside the Perimeter.

That is why the July 31 transportation ballot measure is the early 21st century Olympic moment for Atlanta. If you do not pass it, Atlanta will be out of position for the next generation. If you don’t build rail transit and walkable urban places, economic growth will go elsewhere.

As a longtime friend of Atlanta, I would love to see Hotlanta become hot again.

Christopher B. Leinberger is a professor at George Washington University School of Business and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow.