Walkability is new word for development

by W. Winston Skinner

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Ashley Park is a retail area designed to encourage people to walk. An expert told leaders at an ARC gathering Friday that more such developments will be part of the region's future.

Walkability is the new watchword for development in metro Atlanta.

That was the central message Christopher B. Leinberger brought to about 1,000 business and political leaders on Friday. Leinberger was the keynote speaker at the Atlanta Regional Commission’s 2013 State of the Region Breakfast.

Speaking in the Thomas Murphy Ballroom at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Leinberger said Atlanta has been seen as “the poster child of sprawl” in the past, but said that day is ending.

“It is a different future. It is a walkable future,” Leinberger said. He said there will be "a constellation of walkable places" both in the central city and in the suburbs. Those walkable places will include city centers — like the downtown areas in Newnan and other Coweta cities — and shopping centers that are designed for walking.

Coweta’s already popular Ashley Park retail center, which was a drawing card in bringing Cancer Treatment Centers of America to Newnan, is an example.

"It's what I call a cultural shift in how you're building,” Leinberger said. He predicted there will be "more and more walkable urban places."

Leinberger is Charles Bendit Distinguished Scholar in the business school at George Washington University. He was named one of the Top 100 Urban Thinkers in a 2009 Planetizen poll and received the 2010 William H. Whyte Urbanism Award from the Partners for Livable Communities.

He has been studying — and writing and speaking about — growth in the Atlanta region for about 20 years.

Leinberger said the shift toward walkability is being driven by young adults. "Why is this happening?” he asked. “Because the market wants it."

He said people are willing to pay more in metro Atlanta in rent or purchase price for the same square footage of space that is in a walkable area. Office space in walkable urban areas rents for 30 percent more than comparable space elsewhere. The difference is 144 percent for retail space and 161 percent to purchase a home “in a walkable urban place."

Walkable urban projects "used to be a niche market," Leinberger said. “Walkable urban is now THE market the country is witnessing.”

In the Atlanta region, 14 percent of money spent on development projects went to walkable urban projects in the 1990s. From 2001-2008, they got 26 percent. In the past four years, those projects are 60 percent of the total.

"That 60 percent went to less than one percent of your total land area,” Leinberger said.

Lineberger has studied 27 regionally significant walkable places in the metro area. "This is where you make your money. This where you make your wealth,” he said.

"There are another nine that are emerging,” Leinberger noted. Walkable areas in neighborhoods have not yet been studied but also have an impact.

Lineberger gave examples of walkable areas in Atlanta and then in other places throughout the region. He said town centers are good examples — some of them places that have fallen on hard times and are being reinvigorated. "They're now coming back because of a great grid of streets,” he said.

He said shopping areas are increasingly going to be places where people drive — but then walk once they get there. "All of these regional malls are going to be redeveloped over time,” he predicted.

He said Atlanta can learn lessons from cities in Europe that are known for their beauty, from American cities that are recreating themselves in terms of walkability and in Atlanta’s own history.

"To be a world class city, you need to learn from world class cities,” he said. He showed slides of scenes from Paris, Nuremberg, Brussels and Toulouse in Europe.

Leinberger said such cities generally have great transit systems and encourage walking and biking. Paris has "the leading bike share system in the world,” he said.

Leinberger said it is the street scenes that draw people to the world class cities. The key is "the 20 feet of the sidewalk in front of the building and the 20 feet of the facade you as a pedestrian experience,” he posited.

In the United States, he pointed to the Pike Place Market in Seattle, to the "first modern streetcar system in the country" in Portland, Ore. and to the retrofitting of an abandoned Sears store site as a high end shopping-residential project in Arlington, Va. The Portland streertcar system has attracted $3.5 billion in private sector investment around it.

Single-family housing near the Arlington project has the highest per square foot cost in the area. The 10 percent of the land on and around that project generates 55 percent of the property taxes for the local governments there.

"As a result they have some of the best schools in the country — and they came through this last recession with hardly a blink," Leinberger said.

Leinberger also showed a slide of Disneyworld, where people pay close to $100 to visit for one day. Disneyword is "a walkable urban place,” Lineberger said. “Why don't you have Disneyworld at home?"

Leinberger said the building of a walkable metro area will be done with less federal funding than in past development eras. There will be a combination of local and private money that hearkens back to the early 1900s.

Atlanta developer Joel Hurt build a railroad to get from his house to Inman Park. The railroad had to be subsidized. As Leinberger put it, the rail part of the project did not make sense operationally.

What the railroad did do was fuel growth. “The profits from building Inman Park funded that railroad,” Leinberger said.

Leinberger said leaders in government and business need to forget real estate truisms of the last half century.

"Sprawl is over,” he said. “It’s a whole new world."



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