Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday real estate round-up

So I've been pretty busy with work the last week or so, and I seem to have hit the first real "dead spot" in the blogging. I'm just not terribly motivated today to put up interesting content. But, I've been pretty good about posting at least once a day so far, so I'm going to try and keep it up.
  • A weekend item in the AJC about the transformation at GSU and other urban colleges over the past 10 years or so. It hits some of the same notes as my previous post on the topic.

  • MARTA is considering RFPs for transit-oriented developments at the Brookhaven, Lenox, and North Ave. stations. I drove by the Inman Park station Sunday and thought, "why not here?" Indeed, why not there?

  • Apartment rents should be breaking $2/sf soon. That would run you $1,400 for a decent sized one-bedroom apartment. While I think that there is a market for high-end units at that price, I wonder how large that market is. I know of a lot of developments that are really pushing the envelope on their rent assumptions. There are still lots of good deals in town at $1.10 - $1.25/sf, or lower if you hunt for it.
Maybe I'll find something to rant about today, but I doubt it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Affordability index GIS site

A very interesting webpage uses some GIS technology to map the cost of housing and transportation. Here is the link to the Atlanta data. The basic maps show cost as a percentage of median income, but the advanced tabs really have some interesting data.

For example, the Transit Connectivity Index shows just why lots of folks don't use MARTA. Vast stretches of the city have only one or two bus routes within walking distance (the two lightest colors on the map).

It would be patently unfair to compare ATL to NYC, where everything in the city seems to be have greater than 9 transit stops within walking distance. But even a city noted for sprawl like L.A. seems to do a much better job with transit, certainly within the core city.

Also, the fact that James has had such a good experience with MARTA might have something to do with the fact that there are 4 to 9 transit routes within walking distance of his house. I have to admit that I hardly ever use MARTA, although I have in the past. The fact that there are only 2 routes (the 16 and the 45, I think) within walking distance of my place might affect this.

This also brings me to something I was reminded of the other day when chatting with James. When I was at U of M, I took the AATA to class every day when I lived where I couldn't walk. I took the bus even in the dead of winter when I had to jump over brown snow drifts on the side of the street to get to the bus stop. I started taking the AATA because it was free for U of M students, and all I had to do was flash my ID card. Surely GSU could work something like this out with MARTA, right?

Crum and Forster Update

I went to the DRC meeting last night at the 999 building. Maria Saporta has the recap on what transpired. She should get an award for making this issue public. Instead of copying copious amounts of her work, just follow the link and read the whole thing.

Several folks suggested that a more effective approach would be to get in touch with the GT foundation's board, which Maria Saporta helpfully provided a link to. Contact them here, although I don't know that cold-calling them is the best way to do it. Better to figure out who you might know that knows the folks. I will be asking a few GT alums that I know.

At the end of the day, the Bureau of Planning makes the decision, though, so feel free to call them, too.

Now - my take on the meeting, beyond all the "newsy" bits. There were maybe 45 folks in attendance, and in general most of the comments were intelligent, insightful, and informed. In my experience, developers often underestimate the knowledge and intelligence of Atlanta's neighborhood organizations. Midtown's organizations are especially knowledgeable about development and land use issues, and it showed last night.

As I drove home, I was actually surprised at how similar this felt to a bad movie script. The GT Foundation guys were straight out of central casting. Three guys in blazers-and-khakis with bad comb-overs. Whenever anyone asked a question, ("Did you consult the Historic District Preservation Act?" "Why haven't you come up with a plan for re-use before you asked for a demo permit") the answer was, "Well, we weren't legally required to do that, so we didn't." Excellent PR there, guys.

In my opinion, the GT Foundation's statement that they can't find another economical use for the buiding doesn't pass the smell test. The building was leased prior to their purchase of it! It can't be in that bad shape, and people are clearly interested in leasing there. The only reason it is not leased up is because the GT Foundation has made no attempt to lease it.

I am continually amazed when developers take a confrontational and arrogant approach to working with neighborhood associations. Wouldn't folks have learned by now that the delays and PR mess are not worth it? I've also seen a lot of situations where neighborhood input has made project designs better. Again, a lot of these groups are very savvy.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

GBA rejects bids on Kirkwood rail yards site

The Georgia Building Authority put the Pullman railyards in Kirkwood up for bid to developers, but none of the offers came in remotely close to what the GBA thought the property was worth. GBA appraised the land at $12-$14 million, and the two highest bids came in at $3.25 and $3.7 million. Um... that's not even in the same ball park. What the heck happened?

A reader informed me a week or so ago that the conditions of the RFP were stringent, although not that unusual or outrageous. When you combine them with a site that has known environmental issues (offered as-is), these terms might have:
  • prevented interested parties from submitting a bid; and
  • ensured that bids were low
Without getting a look at the actual RFP, I don't want to get into the details of the terms, so this is mostly speculatin on my part. Take it FWIW, although the rest of the info I was passed on turned out to be accurate. In any event, the environmental conditions DID seem to play a factor here:
The state has cleaned up the site, but there is some question as to the extent
of any environmental problems. One potential bidder, Roswell-based The Columns
Group, declined to bid but circulated a letter in which the company said it
found the site to be "significantly contaminated" with metals including lead,
barium and mercury.

I know lots of neighborhood folks are concerned that the historic structures on the site will be demolished. It appears that the state was interested in saving them, although this would also have made development on the property harder:
But several factors could impact development, including the state's requirement
that four buildings considered to have the most historic value be preserved.

What happens now? A CL article on the site from last year suggested that GA Power was interested in the site. My guess is that they would have figured out a way to get the site from the state if they really wanted it. GA Power usually gets their way with this sort of stuff. So I wouldn't be too concerned about ending up with a power station there. Let's hope I'm not wrong.

Keep the info coming folks! Thanks a ton to reader MH.

This hurts my head

Via my old friend Rob comes this link to the trippiest tower I have ever seen. Some crazy Italian architect has designed buildings that basically undulate. Technically, individual floors rotate around a central core. Click the link to their website and watch the intro to get the full experience.

I half-way think this is a hoax...


I think this would make me kind of sick looking at it from the street. I mean, its neat, but... talk about distracting. I think it could actually cause car wrecks. I have a hard enough time not wrecking sometimes just looking at the skyline as-is, I think I'd be screwed if one of the buildings constantly changed shape.

Not to mention motion sickness living there. I assume the floors rotate slowly, but I'm not sure I like the idea of living on a rotating platform.

So they are building three of these things in NYC, Dubai, and Moscow. They are powered by wind turbines between the floors, and each floor will be pre-fabricated in a factory in Italy. Oh, and the Dubai tower will have parking spaces inside the units.

I had to create a new tag for this post - WTF.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reminder on Crum and Forster building

Just a reminder, but the DRC is hearing the GT Foundation's petition to demolish the Crum and Forster building on Spring Street tomorrow. Click the calendar on the side bar for time and location.

Also, for those of you who read this in RSS - take a minute to check out the Development Tracker map and the freshly added blogroll on the side bar.

Everyone please feel free to email about new developments or events that should be added to the calendar. I'm definitely interested in taking advantage of community information pooling - I can't keep track of everything myself. For example, I ran across several developments planned for the Grant Park/Glenwood Park area the other day, but I just haven't had the time to find out much about them.

Giving buyers a real choice

An article in the NY Times tackles the effect of rising gas prices on suburbia. It has lots of choice quotes, mostly supporting the notion that it is cheaper to live closer in and that home prices in suburbia are falling faster than those in-town. But I wanted to highlight this bit on someone holding fast to suburbia:

Megan Werner, 39, a mother of three, moved here five years ago from a dense suburb closer to Denver. She and her husband bought a home set on a 1.5-acre lot
in the Deer Creek Farm subdivision. The space justified her husband’s 40-minute
commute.

“We wanted more than a postage stamp,” she said, as her 5-year-old daughter walked barefoot across the driveway.

It used to cost her about $30 to fill her Honda minivan with gas. Now, it is more like $50, and she coordinates her trips — shopping in town, combined with dance lessons for her children. But she has no thoughts of leaving.

“I can open up my door and my kids can play,” Ms. Werner said.


I think I've made it obvious that I have no desire to live in suburbia, and that as a matter of public policy I think we should encourage urban living as much as we encouraged suburban living over the past 50 years by investing in transit, incentivizing urban developments (through things like TADs), and writing better zoning codes (among many other policy ideas).

I should also be clear that I don't think suburbs should cease to exist, or that I think all suburbs are inherently evil. People who want to live on large lots and drive long distances should be able to do that. Nor did I mean to imply yesterday that suburban neighborhoods can't or don't have tight-knit communities, only that they may have to work harder to get there because their physical environment is less conducive to it.

My hope and suspicion is that urban living is inherently more attractive for many people, and that given an equal choice between city living and suburbia, more people will choose to live in cities than in the last 30 years. The key here is equal choice, and it is only recently that government support for urban living has begun to catch up with government support for suburban living.

Most folks' complaints with urban life sound like this person from the article above:
Juanita Johnson and her husband, both retired Denver schoolteachers, moved here
last August, after three decades in the city and a few years in the mountains. They bought a four-bedroom house for $415,000...

“I was so glad to get out of the city, the pollution, the traffic, the crime,” she said.

These problems aren't inherent to the urban environment, which is evident by the fact that suburbs are currently dealing with the rising crime, increased pollution, and strangling traffic. The Johnsons regret their decision, by the way. Now she says, “I wouldn’t do this again.”

I obviously don't lay the current state of the built environment entirely at county governments, FHA loans and the highway system. Urban government has played a part, too. But people will chose a lifestyle they hate if it means their children go to good schools and their neighborhood is safe. This City of Buckhead nonsense came about for a reason - folks are dissatisfied with city government, with good reason.

This is why I think it is very important for Atlanta's government to catch up to its suburban counterparts when it comes to police, budgeting and schools. Until people feel that they can trust Atlanta to provide quality services, Atlanta is not on equal footing with suburbia.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lane Co. investing near urban transit

Having just bashed Lane Co., I feel the need to highlight some of their positive aspects. Lane has bought 710 Peachtree (ABC subscription required), a high-rise apartment building a few blocks from MARTA in the heart of Midtown. It is also a mixed-use building, housing Baraonda.

They bought the 533-unit building for $43M, with $8 million planned in capital renovations. The price also includes 34,000 sf in retail space, so getting an accurate rate for the units is difficult. But if I make some basic assumptions about cap rates and rental space, it looks like a pretty good buy.

I always felt that the units were too small and too expensive for my tastes, but if others were willing to pay, more power to them. It is still a value play compared to buildings like Post Biltmore and Post Parkside, and there is probably a high up-side to the value-add components that Lane seems to be looking at with their capital improvements.

Lane also says that equity partners have pushed for investments near transit, which is probably smart. As investors gravitate towards investments near transit and are willing to pay a premium for that (because they expect higher growth potential from these units), developers will be more interested in developing such properties (because rents will be higher and because buyers will prefer this building type, making it easier to sell).

All of this of course drives off the belief that renters will want to live closer to transit, which is not an unreasonable assumption in the current economic climate.

Update: Tribute Lofts auction

Tribute Lofts did auction their units, but they didn't sell as many units as initially planned:
Initially, the Wohls and auctioneer Accelerated Marketing Partners intended to auction 40 units. But 10 units were nixed beforehand because registrants showed little or no interest in them.

Four more units were not offered for sale when the sellers ended the auction ended early; they feared prices might go too low as the crowd thinned. "We had gone as low as we could tolerate," said Jon Gollinger, Accelerated Marketing Partners' co-founder and East Coast chief executive officer.
If you have been following Terminal Station for a little while, you will remember that I thought this would happen:
If this project had started just a year earlier, I think it'd be sold out. As things stand, I just don't think there are enough buyers for even this auction to help much.
I guess 26 of 40 units isn't horrible. It might actually help a little, although I can't imagine anyone else buying at Tribute any time soon. Wouldn't they have shown up Sunday? I hope the Wohls sold enough to pay off the construction loan, which was the real point anyway.

Now, there are sure to be situations in the future where I predict something and I am dead wrong. I don't really want to do a whole lot of prediction-type stuff, since I'm not that smart and I could really show my ass a lot. When I do, please feel free to remind me of these situations, and I will post a mea culpa.

h/t: Atlanta Intown, via el hermano

Monday, June 23, 2008

Obnoxious Architecture - Lane Company

I started to write a response to Terry's comment, but my response kept growing to the point that I decided to make it a full post. Terry asks about Atlantic Station:
I'd award an "Obnoxious Architecture" award to all the low-rise residential at Atlantic Station ... How did they go so wrong on the residential?
There are a few buildings in Atlantic Station that qualify, starting with the Beazer townhomes on 16th street. With Beazer, I think they simply did not fully understand the in-town market. At the time they were almost entirely a suburban developer, and Atlantic Station was one of their first forays into the city. So you unsurprisingly ended up with a product that looked very suburban.

The Lane Co. stuff, like Metro... I don't know what to tell you without being very mean to Lane. I respect a number of folks who have been involved with Lane over the years, so I'll try to be relatively nice. The simplest way it to just keep it basic: Their architecture leaves a lot to be desired pretty regularly. The real question is why would you expect anything different from Lane based on their history.

For example, in 2004 Creative Loafing had this to say about Lane's CityView development:
The CityView apartments and condos have one thing going for them: Residents there have a great view of Atlanta's skyline.

Too bad the stucco monstrosity at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway blocks out chunks of the view for the rest of us. To add insult to injury, CityView's design makes it look like a cheap-ass hotel on the strip in Panama City Beach.
Ouch. I can't say I disagree very much. I really want to like Lane Co... they typically get very good locations, they build mid-rise multi-family and mixed-use projects, and they aren't afraid of urban locations. But wow, they might have the most obnoxious architecture in the city.

Community and the city

An op-ed column in the NY Times today is a great example of what happens to a sense of community in suburbia. The author, who lives in "a middle-class suburb of Rochester", describes his community:
Did I live in a community or just in a house on a street surrounded by people whose lives were entirely separate? Few of my neighbors, I later learned, knew others on the street more than casually; many didn’t know even the names of those a few doors down.

According to social scientists, from 1974 to 1998, the frequency with which Americans spent a social evening with neighbors fell by about one-third. Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” a groundbreaking study of the disintegration of the American social fabric, suggests that the decline actually began 20 years earlier, so that neighborhood ties today are less than half as strong as they were in the 1950s.

Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don’t know the people who live next door?
I am proud to have grown up in the city in a 1920's streetcar suburb that my folks moved into when it was considerably less popular (the city tried to bulldoze most of it in the 70's for a highway). My experience with community is vastly different from what this author describes, and I like to think that part of it was due to the fact that I lived in an actual neighborhood and not in a cul-de-sac.

Because of the way my neighborhood was developed, I was able to walk to school with the other kids on the block and bike to the local grocery store. Our family could easily walk to any number of restaurants in the neighborhood, and we often ran into our neighbors returning from their own dinner out. Now that the kids have grown up, the parents still get together regularly for book clubs and knitting. As they walk around the corner to dinner, my folks still stops to chat with the neighbor working on her garden in the evening.

In fact, I have noticed that the neighborhood continues as a community. For the last 25 years, there has been someone from my street who has gone to the local public school. The amazing thing (to me at least) is that my folks know a young girl on the street who is currently in 5th grade. She picks up the paper when they are out of town. They know her parents simply from "around the neighborhood," nothing more complicated than that.

There is also an amazing diversity of residents on my folks' street alone, from young professionals, to elderly women, to empty-nesters, to young couples with children. Not everyone knows everyone else, of course, and it is not idyllic or anything. But there is a reason that very few families have moved away over the last 25 years, and it is in large part because they recognize that they live in a community.

City of Buckhead saves 11% taxes, not 50%

By some happy circumstance, a friend of mine was accidentally mailed one of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation's letters. The letter includes this graph showing how taxes would decrease under the proposed City of Buckhead (click for larger size):

I would like to call attention to some trickeration in how this material is presented. The proposed city shows a millage rate of just 15.221 mills, compared with a 42.145 mills for the city of Atlanta. They achieve this low rate by ignoring the tax currently paid for Atlanta Public Schools. (The City of Atlanta actually only has a tax rate of 9.35 mills for 2008, but you wouldn't know it from this mailer.)

Using these rates is certainly fair considering that their proposal includes the elimination of public schools from Buckhead. But I would just point out that the stated reasons for secession are centered around the city government, namely the Mayor, the City Council, and the recent issues concerning the city's budget. The Mayor and the Council have no control over the taxes paid to the schools - that is controlled by the School Board.

Eliminating public schools is an entirely different matter from seceding from the City, and it clouds the basic argument concerning city services. When you consider the fact that every other new city on the list above has continued to pay for public schools, and it is clear that we do not have an apples-to-apples comparison. A much fairer comparison would be to look at the taxes saved just from seceding from the city to establish a new city with a lower municipal tax rate.

Such a comparison would look something like this:

Millage Rate

Proposed Apples-to-Apples Current rate
City millage 4.69 4.69 9.35
School millage 0 21.64 21.64
County millage 10.281 10.281 10.281
State millage 0.25 0.25 0.25




Total millage 15.221 36.861 41.521

On the far right is the current tax rate, using the actual taxes proposed for 2008 for the City, School, and County. On the far left is the rate for the City of Buckhead. In the middle is the tax rate for the City of Buckhead using existing school rates and the new municipal rate from the FCTF. As you can see, it is pretty much in line with the other "new cities", and is even higher than Sandy Springs.

Using these numbers, the actual overall tax reduction for the new city is only 11.2%, or 4.66 mills. This is a far cry from the 50% reduction in taxes shouted by the FCTF.

In fairness, the FCTF rates are accurate if you assume that you both secede from the city and eliminate public schools, and a 4.69 millage rate is indeed 50% less than the current city millage rate of 9.35 mills. I am not accusing the FCTF of lying or of erroneous math. I just think they are not presenting an accurate comparison.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stupid ideas - The City of Buckhead

I love it when I get to use my "Stupid ideas" tag, and rarely has it felt so appropriate. Eternal crank John Sherman and his Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation wants Buckhead to secede from the City of Atlanta.

Barring the fact that it would never in a million years pass the legislature or a referendum, just how would this new city work? Well, I'm glad you asked, because once you hear the answer you will surely agree that this is not a half-baked idea:
Supporters say cityhood would allow Buckhead homeowners to pay about 60 percent less a year in property taxes. They base the estimate on the average property tax rate of the new Fulton County cities, all lower than Atlanta's.

They also contend that homeowners would no longer pay property taxes to support the city's school system.

The supporters envision a city of about 85,000 residents, with children educated in private schools or new charter schools. The city government could be run by a company, they say. Milton and Johns Creek are managed by the consulting firm, CH2M Hill.
Basically, its a magic city. No taxes. Or services. I mean, what could 40% of the level of taxation possibly provide to an area changing as rapidly as Buckhead?

Schools? Who needs them. Everyone in Buckhead goes to private school anyway. Huh? What's that you say?
Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall was surprised by the suggestion that Buckhead could leave the Atlanta system, noting school officials are having to create more classroom space to meet the rising enrollment in the area.
Socialist.

Also, it is great to know that they really researched this thoroughly before proposing it. Aside from not having proposed anything as pesky as boundaries, there is also that matter of the pre-existing city of the same name:
About 60 miles east of Atlanta, in Morgan County, is the town of Buckhead, population 222.

"You wouldn't have that cache," said Massell, saying Atlanta's Buckhead must change its name if it became a city.

"I'd hate to see that," said Sherman, unaware of the other Buckhead's existence.
Even I knew that - that dude from American Idol was from Buckhead, GA. He sang the crap out Queen that one night. Get with the program, man! The median age for American Idol viewers is 42, so no excuses.

Thank goodness every legitimate Buckhead civic leader panned the idea immediately.

But hey, while we are playing Fantasy Island, I've got a great idea for the new Mayor of Buckhead - that dude with the animal head telling all the little animals the story of Buckhead. That little squirrel can be Council President.

I think this is the first nominee for Stupidest Idea of the Year. Other nominees are encouraged, but John Sherman has set a pretty high bar. You are welcome to submit ideas that came out of this past session at the General Assembly, though. Post in the comments so we can all join the mockery.

Weekend round-up

Links and such from the week:
  • What impact could high gas have on real estate values? With a $2 increase in gas, Richard Green pencils it out to being worth an extra $36,000 in home value not to drive to work.

  • Find out how walkable your home is. WalkScore.com figures out how close a location is to various amenities (grocery stores, hardware stores, movie theaters, etc.) and uses the info to calculate a walk-ability rating. I tried a few location in Atlanta, and find it a little suspect. There are a lot more hardware stores downtown than I realized, apparently. Still, it is neat. h/t: Greater Greater Washington.

  • Sandy Springs City Council rejected rezoning for a Central Perimeter mixed-use redevelopment project. Too much traffic. If the 'burbs start to put the kibosh on higher density because they don't have the infrastructure, I won't shed a tear. You know who has the infrastructure for dense mixed-use development? Downtown. Come on in boys, the water is fine.

  • Richard Florida has a great excerpt from a Hitchens column on the need for affordable bohemian areas. One of my favorite things about East Atlanta is that it has managed to retain a certain level of shabbiness. And I'm actually a little surprised at how Little Five Points has held up over the years. I wrote it off years ago, but it still manages to keep things interesting and authentic enough...

  • MARTA is trying to promote a non-binding referendum in Gwinnett for a penny sales tax to bring rail service to the county. Shouldn't there be some organization actually lobbying for this? Holding events and trying to organize voters in support? No matter how much folks may want transit, it is hard to get any sort of tax increase passed on referendum.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Development Tracker - 4th Ward

The AJC reports that Cartel Properties is planning a 2-acre mixed use project on Edgewood Ave. A little research shows me that Rohrig Pollack LLC has bought 628 and 660 Edgewood just behind Studioplex at Edgewood and Airline, and paid $3.8 million for the property.

George Rohrig, the man behind Cartel Properties, is going to put two of his own restaurants in the retail space. Being able to count on leasing half your restaurant space must help the development spreadsheet. He is also trying to get a live theater group.

An interesting note from the article:
The status of the project may hinge on whether Rohrig is able to receive tax subsidies from the city to defray the estimated $9 million cost of building a 600-space parking deck. The property sits in Atlanta's Eastside Tax Allocation District, or TAD, a special zone set up by the city to spur economic development. Rohrig said he won't be able to make the financial numbers work without TAD money...
That pencils out to about $15,000 per parking space. In case you were wondering how expensive free parking is. Imagine how much easier the economics of new development would be if you didn't need so much parking. At some point I'll post a rant about parking requirements for liqour licenses. Beyond the implication on development and density, something doesn't make sense about encouraging driving to bars...

Pursuing failed strategies of renewal

Hooray? Atlanta has won the National Health Museum sweepstakes, successfully luring the $250 million project that will "teach visitors about healthier living and serve as a stage for international health events."

And, of course, the museum folks and the state economic development folks are looking for sites around Centennial Park. (I called it Centennial Park once to someone that works for the park - she emphatically informed me that the correct term is Centennial Olympic Park.)

My first reaction is that I don't want Centennial Park to become surrounded by half-ass museums and unnecessary libraries. The Aquarium and the World of Coke are good and all, but I always think of the museums around Central Park in NYC a model. They don't compare to the Met or the Guggenheim (I exclude the CCHR from this discussion, since I think it probably will compare favorably enough).


I also react based on living near Detroit for a number of years. Detroit, like Cleveland and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, took an "attractions" approach to urban revitalization. This approach did bring more people downtown, but it didn't bring revitalization. All these folks just left and went back home to the 'burbs. The land around Centennial Park is very valuable and shouldn't be wasted on strategies that are bound to fail. Even if these museums get good attendance, the impact on the city might be less than with another land use.

So I think that there should be less emphasis on getting the next Hall of Fame or museum, and more on attracting residences. More residences will bring more retail and more commercial space. That said, I don't think these goals (attraction, increased number of residences) have to be mutually exclusive. This National Health Museum is supposed to be a decent size (between that of the World of Coke and the Aquarium), so I am a little afraid this will chew up a lot of land. I am going to hope that I'm wrong and pursuing all these attractions won't inhibit alternative uses around the park.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A visual on construction costs

I mentioned yesterday that constrution costs keep going up, and commented that a lot of this growth can be attributed to increased competition for supplies with China and India. Via Paul Krugman comes this timely graph from The Oil Drum showing just how much construction is going on in China. It shows the percentage of concrete used by country for the last four years:


Notice that China's proportion of concrete used is increasing. Half of all the concrete in the world gets used in China.

The politics of urban real estate financing

I also want to call attention to Maria Saporta's column concerning the TAD constitutional amendent. If you aren't familiar with Tax Allocation Districts, let me recap. The Atlanta Housing Authority issues bonds backed by future property tax revenue, and give portions of the bond proceeds to developers to build in "blighted" or "revitalizing" portions of town. The idea is that these developments will increase the tax base, and it is this future increase that backs the AHA bonds. Developments get portions of the bond proceeds based on how much their development will increase tax revenue.

The need for a constitutional amendment came about because the GA Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional (by the GA Constitution) to use school taxes for non-school purposes - in this case paying back bonds which funded private development. Because school taxes make up more than half of property taxes, this ruling effectively cut the amount of money available to incentivize development by half. So to restore full funding, a constitutional amendment is needed.

Saporta supports the case for TADs by pointing out the mass of development just north and east of Centennial Park:

To reinforce her point, Franklin surveyed the view and began ticking off all the
developments that had received TAD financing: The World of Coca-Cola, the Museum Tower, the Ernst & Young high rise, Centennial Towers among others.
She also identified several other projects that received some kind of public
financing to become reality, such as Centennial Place and Centennial Olympic
Park.

Franklin then asked a group of observers whether they remembered how
the area looked before the 1996 Summer Olympics. The view then included Techwood Homes, a bunch of surface parking lots and vacant non-descript buildings.


This argument probably works well for Saporta's readers, and for the folks the Mayor was talking to at the time. But it probably is exactly the wrong argument for the rest of the city. Helping already rich developers and corporations build fancy high rises and museums isn't the most compelling argument for mortgaging future school taxes.

A much better argument is to talk about the numerous affordable housing units and mixed-income projects that have been built with TAD financing. Replacing blight with communitites is a much better argument. Not to mention the transit and parks it will fund with the BeltLine. Supporting the TAD amendment is a way for everyone pissed that the regional transit tax option didn't pass can support alternative funding for transit projects.

I also see these future school taxes as funds that would not exist without the TAD, so it is slightly inaccurate to argue that TADs take away school funds. Without TADs incentivizing development, the value of the property to be developed will stay the same, and schools would end up with the same taxes as they would with the TAD.

Crum and Forster update

First up today is an opinion column in the AJC this morning by Atlanta attorney Michael Bishop concerning the Crum and Forster building (aka 771 Spring St). It hits most of the points you expect it to hit, including this one:
The foundation acquired the building in 2007 as part of what it calls its
"long-term plan" for expansion of the Technology Square complex. I haven't seen
the plan, but if past efforts are any indication of future performance, we are
in for a predictably homogenized streetscape.

I actually like the architecture of Technology Square, although I will agree that it isn't particularly noteworthy. And it certainly isn't as noteworthy as the Crum and Forster building. But compared to most new development, it gets almost everything right. Unlike the numberous residential developments I discussed previously, it is very integrated with the city. Barry's Allen Plaza development works very well with the city fabric, too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Construction prices and affordable housing

According to the Turner Building Cost Index, construction prices keep going up. I don't expect this to change all that much for the foreseeable future, unless China and India stop growing. There has been a lot of attention recently to the residential market collapse, but other sectors have stayed healthy enough and so demand for building materials hasn't dropped that much:
Besides global supply and demand, the higher prices are due to increased energy costs for manufacturing and transportation.

"Overall, the domestic non-residential building markets continue to be active," said Karl F. Almstead, vice president at Turner Construction Co. in New York City. "The health care, education, science, technology and public sector market segments remain strong while commercial and retail have declined slightly and large-scale residential projects have slowed significantly."
I am among those who think the affordable housing crisis is a serious issue, and I also think that there is a public duty to ensure that quality housing close to employment and leisure activities exists. While I am less optimistic about housing solutions for those in poverty, I think that affordable housing has a much brighter future.

There are numerous programs and policy initiatives which can increase the stock of affordable housing units, namely inclusionary zoning, which the AHA has done fairly successfully with their Eastside TAD projects. The Home Atlanta program is also the sort of program I like to see.

While municipalities can influence affordable housing with these sorts of programs, in my experience two of the largest inhibitors of affordable housing are land prices and construction costs. Getting a development financed can be very difficult, and high land prices and rising construction costs only squeeze returns more.

It is easy to think that developers just want to push prices as high as they can, but sometimes you can be more successful undercutting the competition with lower priced units and move them faster. Like any industry, if you can lower production costs the equilibrium price of the product will drop.

I'm sure many developers would love to build a more affordable product, but if construction costs continue to rise it will be increasingly harder to do. A potential offset is if Americans start preferring smaller houses, which I have fantasized about before. Smaller units means lower absolute prices, even if the price per foot is still high.

Of course, anyone who has seen one of Novare's condo units or lived in NYC will question how much smaller we can go. I guess I am mainly talking about single family homes, and hoping for a revival of the bungalow at the expense of the McMansion. I think we tend to accumulate too much stuff anyway - in fact, we accumulate as much stuff as it takes to fill up our houses.

So I see some spiritual benefits to smaller houses, too. Those of you reading with children will undoubtedly think I am nuts. But y'know what? I shared a room with my brother until I was 9, and I got used to it. By the time I was 15 I wanted to spend as much time away from home as possible. I don't think that it is mandatory that every house be 3,000 sf.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Crime and housing

Warning: this is a long, rambling post. I will try to avoid these in the future, but I suck as my own editor for the present.

A thoroughly depressing article in the Atlantic that is getting lots of attention on numerous blogs makes the argument that destroying public housing and dispersing Section 8 residents makes overall crime worse:
Studies show that recipients of Section8 vouchers have tended to choose moderately poor neighborhoods that were already on the decline, not low-poverty neighborhoods. One recent study publicized by HUD warned that policy makers should lower their expectations, because voucher recipients seemed not to be spreading out, as they had hoped, but clustering together. Galster theorizes that every neighborhood has its tipping point—a threshold well below a 40 percent poverty rate—beyond which crime explodes and other severe social problems set in. Pushing a greater number of neighborhoods past that tipping point is likely to produce more total crime.
Richard Green publishes an email that disputes the central finding of the article, showing that the murder rate in Memphis (where the Atlantic article focuses) hasn't increased in a statistically significant way since the destruction of public housing:
So going from 1996 until today, which is the natural comparison for the effect of project demolition, you have a decrease from 161 to 129. You can slice it many different ways, but my reading is essentially nothing happened.
I read this article over the weekend, and waited to post until today. The Atlantic article makes a pretty convincing demonstration that crime tends to follow Section 8 housing, although this argument is also built around the "tipping point" theory. Even if crime doesn't actually increase, as Green's emailer suggests, the perception of crime is now city-wide, instead of just concentrated in the ghettos.

I'm horribly conflicted about this issue. I have a passionate desire to see Atlanta safe and pedestrian friendly, but I cannot get on board with a policy that just wants to ship poor folks to the suburbs. My advocacy for tearing down public housing often causes arguments with my more liberal friends who are very concerned with what happens to the residents. I usually point to studies showing that most residents are happier in new digs.

I had hoped that a dispersal policy could integrate poverty into the city fabric in a way that made it less cyclical for those in poverty. At the same time, this dispersal was thought to lower crime by preventing the concentrated levels of poverty that encouraged criminal organizing and activity. Turns out this may be wrong.

So what do we do? I don't believe that mandatory sentences do much to deter crime, either. The prison system is all sorts of messed up, for that matter, and makes minor criminals and addicts into real felons.

None of this changes the fact that crime and perceptions of safety are major, major issues for the city of Atlanta. They are issues that will be defining my opinions on the next mayoral race. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't have any new ideas. I don't want to vote for someone who thinks they are "tough on crime" - I need a candidate who actually has a solution. Obviously crime will always exist, but how do we reduce it to a tolerable level?

Is it possible to find what the tipping point number is, and limit Section 8 vouchers per geographical region so that we come in under this tipping point? Is it 20% or 15% poverty rate? 10%? How do we live up to a civic duty that our cities provide housing for all, without
practically inviting crime into our neighborhoods? Is it possible to discuss this issue without hitting all manner of political hot buttons?

One interesting side-note from the Atlantic article regards how simple it can seem to reduce crime. One of the guys that discovered the Section 8/crime relationship started out consulting with the police as a criminologist:
He initially consulted on a program to reduce sexual assaults citywide and quickly made himself useful. He mapped all the incidents and noticed a pattern: many assaults happened outside convenience stores, to women using pay phones that were hidden from view. The police asked store owners to move the phones inside, and the number of assaults fell significantly.
If only it were all that simple...

Saporta on Perdue and commuter rail

Maria Saporta, who has been a leading voice for years on smart growth issues, reacts to Perdue's announcement supporting commuter rail:
At long last, we finally are making tracks towards the future.
She also has some great insight into why Perdue finally changed his mind on the issue, including a talk with Congressman David Scott (D-Atlanta):
“I told the governor, ‘Only you can move it forward at this point. If we don’t move it forward, it puts us in a difficult position,’ ” Scott said.

He said Georgia had “almost become a laughing stock” in Congress.

Given the traffic problems in metro Atlanta, the inaction by the state bewildered Scott’s colleagues in Congress who would have done anything to get that amount of federal funding for commuter rail.
Apparently this line of argument worked. Read the whole article, its is the sort of insight and access that only Saporta can provide, because she has known all these folks forever. It also highlights the vast difference between reporting and blogging (okay, some big deal bloggers have their own sources and break news, but most of us are very reactionary and will never have the kind of access Saporta does).

This story also reminds me of a discussion I had with a friend over the weekend. She expressed a considerable level of despair about politics and her ability to make a difference. She'd written to politicians before on numerous issues, and never felt like it even made a dent. "What's the point?" she asked.

It is true that one voice gets lost in all the clatter of politics. It is easy to get disillusioned. And it is true that Perdue's decision (as Saporta lays out) has much more to do with other political factors and alliances. But without consistent public outcry on the need for commuter rail in particular, Perdue likely would not have came down in support of rail. Almost all political victories have at their heart an organized grassroots movement with votes attached.

I should also mention that savvy politicians know if the person that sends a letter votes, and it does make a difference. It is not hard to construct a database with voter history information that is publicly available. So when a legislator gets a letter from someone who is not registered to vote, it doesn't have nearly same effect as when he gets a letter from someone who has voted in every primary for the last six years. Not only does that person vote, but he is the kind of voter that neighbors ask, "What do you think about these choices?" He is influential, and his voice gets a little more attention in the political maelstrom.

Chamblee on the move

The ABC takes a look at development going on in and around Chamblee. The article makes a number of points about Chamblee's pending revival:
  • Proximity to MARTA rail and the increasing cost of gas

  • Recent legislation promoting mixed-use development

  • Proximity to major draws (Buckhead, Town: Brookhaven, the GM plant redevelopment)
It is good to see at least two things that localities can control (transit, smart-growth legislation) pay off by attracting development. The article also mentions a number of developments and development sites:
  • Ambling Development Partners mixed-use hotel and residential development at Clairmont and P'tree Inds.

  • International Village at Chamblee (Archetype Management Co.), 30-acre mixed use near the MARTA station

  • Chamblee Plaza, a 20 acres site currently for sale and being marketed as a redevelopment opportunity
I am taking Saturday classes next door to Town: Brookhaven, and will take some pictures next week. It will also give me a chance to drive over to these sites and sink my teeth into them. I'm sure I will have something to say about Town: Brookhaven and International Village, since the site plans are available online.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A football post to close out the week

I wasn't very excited to see my fees go up this semester, but GSU is starting a football program so I guess it is necessary. I'm going to withhold my natural instinct to mock this idea, and instead wish it the best of luck. This is the same approach I have used with Brand Atlanta, btw. I can't stop this stuff, so I may as well hope it turns out for the best.

I probably wouldn't have mentioned this at all, except that GSU took Tony Barnhart's advice and announced Bill Curry as the new head coach a few days ago. Bill wasn't on Tony's short list, but he certainly fits the profile (knows how to build/rebuild a program, success recruiting the state). And Bill is one of my favorite announcers, but it is possible that was just because he was from Atlanta. Great hire, I say.

So, this will be the first time I can honestly say "Go Panthers!" ... Even if I do think our colors and mascot are kind of lame.

Weekend round-up

Every week I tag items I see on my Google Reader feeds that I don't have time to dig into but that look like things I want to blog about. Usually these are items that deal with the issues this blog is concerned with (politics, real estate development, transportation), but aren't sexy enough to really grab may attention. Friday is the day I force myself to stop putting them off and take a look.

So today's grab bag:
  • Mayor Franklin went up to Washington with other big city mayors to lobby for a National Infrastructure Bank. While I am conflicted about the role the federal government should play funding local projects, on a practical level Atlanta needs as much help as it can get to fund infrastructure projects.

  • The National Museum of Patriotism is moving!! I always laugh when I drive by this little shop on Spring Street, because I can't believe it exists. I am going to go there someday, though, as a matter of civic duty and amusement.

  • John Sugg profiles Kasim Reed, who is running for mayor of Atlanta. This is actually a piece that interests me very much, I just can't sit decide what I want to say about Kasim Reed. What I will say about this piece is that I find John Sugg's relentless ranting about Mayor Franklin tiresome. I don't have a problem criticizing the Mayor. But Sugg seems to enjoy it a bit too much for my taste. There is a level of venom to his critique that I find counterproductive. He is a prime example of how CL's schtick gets tiresome.

    For now, I'll say this about Sen. Reed - he has done yeoman's work at the Senate, and in my interactions with him when I worked down there he was intelligent, thoughtful, and was not much of an attention seeker. I think he's a great senator, but I am unsure about how I feel about him as a mayor.

  • Richard Florida has the pertinent 'graphs about college towns vs. towns with colleges. It reminds me that I need to go ahead and tackle Emory and AUC's affects on Atlanta.

Development Tracker - Hapeville Ford Plant

Jacoby owns the 122 acre site now. This project was previously mentioned because Jacoby is trying to get MARTA to expand to the site. He wants to build an "aerotropolis". Hopefully can come up with a better word to describe his vision?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Perdue announces transportation plan

As expected, Gov. Perdue held a press conference today to discuss his new transportation plan. Jim Galloway has the goods, as well as a link to the audio (if you want to hear what Perdue said instead of just reading it). I listened to the audio and I'd say there are two big pieces of the speech: 1) Perdue announced support for commuter rail; 2) Perdue finally seems to understand how transportation affects other issues and seems serious about doing something.

Perdue announces support for commuter rail

I was prepared for more lukewarm politi-speak about commuter rail, with Perdue's usual "what about BRT instead?" feint. I said as much yesterday. So I was a little surprised to hear him say, in reference to the DOT, "I am prepared to fully support their efforts on a commuter rail pilot," and then suggest that the rail should go all the way to Griffin instead of stopping at Lovejoy. He also spoke about hoping that all the visions for commuter rail come true. I'm pretty cynical about Perdue and transportation, but he seems fully behind the commuter rail line.

One concern I have about the commuter rail line to Griffin is that Perdue sees it as a pilot program. That is, if it is successful, others can follow. I really wish that the Griffin line weren't the first line built. An Athens line, like the Brain Train folks suggest, would be immensely more successful, and I'd hate to see the Griffin line prohibit commuter rail really getting a fair shake. When introducing a new product, you want to lead with your best product, and I'm afraid the Griffin line wouldn't be the best rail line to introduce Georgia to commuter rail.

Also, I'm afraid to ask, but does this mean that we'll finally get funding for the multi-modal station downtown? That topic is another post entirely, of course. But suffice it to say that I think the multi-modal station is very important to downtown's future.

Perdue finally seems to "get it"

The AJC phrased this point thusly:
Perhaps the most significant shift in Perdue’s outlook is this: Months ago, the governor was a “first that, then this” kind of guy on traffic and transportation. Fix the Department of Transportation, then we’ll talk about more transportation funding.

Today, the operative quote from his press conference was this: “We’ve got to fix it while we’re flying.” Urgency was the one thing missing from his past statements on transportation, and it was a centerpiece of this one.
I think this is accurate, but I wanted to highlight a few other things I heard. Perdue started off by talking about how Georgia needed a world-class transportation system (including transit and greater freight capacity to the ports) if it is going to compete globally. Maybe Perdue has said this before, but all I can think is, "about time." Congestion has begun to make the Atlanta region less competitive in business recruiting, so it's great to see Perdue finally recognize this and to place the proper emphasis on infrastructure as an investment.

Also, when he was talking about buying more buses for the commuter bus program, Perdue mentioned having seen a slide showing that one bus takes 57 cars worth of people off the road. I'm guessing it was something similar to the photo at right. But when Perdue said that, I thought that maybe he was beginning to understand why transit is so important. It sounded like someone who finally saw things "click" on an issue.

So I was more encouraged that I had planned on being. Sure, it's six years too late, but better late than never, right?

Of course, we'll see how it all fares when it comes to getting something through the Legislature. And he still isn't supporting the regional transportation tax, among other things. The plan is pretty limited (commuter rail, more commuter buses), but it is better than nothing.

This is going swimmingly

GSU announced three finalists for its open presidency a week ago. One of the finalists dropped out in a matter of days. And today, another one dropped out (my sentimental favorite, because she had three degrees from U of M).

That leaves one finalist, who, by the way, is also a finalist for the presidency at his current school. This, after five months of searching... can we get a mulligan?

What's in a nickname?

The AJC engages in some navel-gazing about the term Hotlanta. Can't we just deep six this thing? It should not be used around town, and we should heap scorn on out-of-town guests who use the term. Send a memo to sports announcers - "come up with something new". Frankly, I think it killed my soul a little bit just writing the word for a link.

Also, "the ATL" is kosher. We've been using this term for years before they made a movie or a theme song. ATLiens was released in 1996, about a decade earlier than any of that stuff.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Perdue willing to do something on transportation?

The AJC says that Gov. Perdue is going to announce a new transportation initiative Thursday:
In vague outlines to the board, the governor expressed support for commuter rail and for considering funding options such as privately-built toll roads. The governor said he supports measures to increase spending for transportation. Two measures — restoring a portion of the gas tax that now goes to the general fund and returning some bond debt service to general fund — could produce as much as $400 million a year, DOT officials said.
I still don't see why he won't support the local transportation tax the Metro Chamber wants. But hey, support for commuter rail is good. Overall, though, I expect to be underwhelmed. Expect to hear that bus rapid transit will be the solution.

The same article notes that Gina Abraham plans a $5 million department re-organization, but that the re-organization should be revenue neutral. I think what Ms. Abraham is doing at GDOT is way overdue, but I also would like to see more fundamental reorganization of the state's transportation agencies. Gov. Perdue keeps talking about getting the agencies "coordinated". What about consolidating some of it? What about changing how the GDOT board is elected? They have to be the most insulated, conflict-of-interest ridden, unaccountable board in the state.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Google Street View

Google finally rolled out its Street View program for Atlanta. It is so much fun to just poke around town. Or to use it when referencing the many development sites I mention here. For example, tonight I went to the ADNA meeting and toured the old Macy's building that is being redeveloped for multi-tenant retail. These are the three arches which the 180 Peachtree Retail Group will open up to create a new grand entrance:
View Larger Map
I am going to waste a few hours playing with this.

Home prices - urban vs. suburban

Via Yglesias, an article that gives me the data I wanted on how urban environments have fared compared to suburban environments in home values:
Nationwide, home prices in neighborhoods with long commutes and no public transportation are falling faster than prices in communities closer to cities, according to a study by Joseph Cortright, an economist at Impresa Consulting. For example, his study found that prices in distant suburbs of Tampa fell 14 percent in the last 12 months, versus a 9 percent drop in areas nearer the city.
So we are beginning to see that inner city real estate prices are more stable than suburan prices. American cities are beginning to act economically like other cities around the world, at least just a little bit. This leads me to think about affordable housing near city cores, but that is another post (many other posts, in fact).

Yglesias also makes the point that the level of density required to support transit and a true urban environment is not as "dense" as folks think:
I never thought of Cambridge as a particularly high-density place -- it's certainly not dominated by skyscrapers or large apartment towers or anything of the sort. But it turns out to have over 15,700 residents per square mile.
"Density" doesn't mean high-rises necessarily. In fact, high rises can limit the urban environment in my opinion. 500 new units in one high rise does not create the same urban environment as 500 units in three or four mid-rise buildings. For all the density that has gone into Midtown and Buckhead lately, there are still considerable gaps in the urban environment.

Now, of course land prices are a major factor which require high-rise buildings in these areas. But I'm just making the point that "density" can be quaint and have a neighborhood scale, and be just as (if not more-so) beneficial for creating the kind of urban environments our cities need to be to function as complete societies in the coming world.

Cities within cities

The article linked in my last post mentions a number of large redevelopment projects, such as the Hapeville Ford facotry and the Doraville GM factory. Thinking about these projects leads me to a minor rant - the "city within a city" idea. When Metropolitan Center was first announced, the project manager said, "We're trying to create a city within a city." The language is often used to describe Atlantic Station. I think the same mentality exists among large-scale urban developers.

I think both of these developments have lots of commendable aspects, and while Atlantic Station is in many ways a huge disappointment it also did a lot of things right. But whenever I hear the "city within a city" language, I want to scream. Especially something like Metropolitan Center, which is in the heart of Midtown. These developments are part of the city, not separate.

To be fair, they see their place in the city in a more integrated fashion than John Portman ever did with that bomb shelter he calls America'sMart. But the mentality is still there among too many developers, because they want to control as many aspects of the environment as possible. In the end, these developments are all fairly insular, looking in on themselves.

I think you can say this about Atlantic Station, as well as developments like Lindbergh City Center, Glenwood Park, or the old Mead plant in Inman Park. The "hearts" of these developments are on the interior, they aren't fully integrated into the fabric of the city. Don't get me wrong, I think all those developments are great, but I'm trying to identify why certain aspects of them still bother me. All of these developments interact with the surrounding neighborhood fairly well, but they still feel a bit separate, which I think detracts from the authentic urban environment they seek to offer.

MARTA to Hapeville?

I am just now catching up on last week's Business Chronicle, and wanted to mention an article about Jacoby's Ford factory redevelopment project in Hapeville. Basically, Jacoby is talking to MARTA about extending rail service to his development.

I think it is a great idea, but I'm wary. I recall that Atlantic Station was originally sold with the premise of having an transit connection, either to the BeltLine or to MARTA. All the maps early on had a "potential transit station" marked in the NW area of the retail district, by the rail line.

And of course, there is that one big glitch that hasn't been solved:
However, if developers do begin to voice support for more mass-transit options, including heavy and light rail, their ambitions could face a major roadblock -- funding.
I'm pretty sure Jacoby isn't talking to MARTA so he can offer to pay for the expansion. I'm about as big of a city booster as they come, but I'll believe MARTA is going to expand when I see it. I think the BeltLine has a great shot at actually happening, but I'm still pretty skeptical that they'll get the transit built.

The linked article is a good roundup of how transportation and development are intersecting. It mentions one nugget of information that I was unaware of:
MARTA expansion may also continue outside the Perimeter into the suburbs. Gwinnett voters next month will cast ballots in a non-binding referendum on whether they would support an additional penny sales tax to extend the MARTA rail line into the county.
I guess I haven't been paying enough attention. Frankly, sometimes I get depressed enough about the lack of movement on transportation issues here that I write off a lot of stuff and have a hard time sinking my teeth into it.

Photos from Ann Arbor



Photos from my recent trip to Ann Arbor. The above is of the reference room at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan. It was far and away my favorite place to study. You can find out more about the murals here, and a great historic photo of the room here.

Some of the photos were taken on an overcast day, unfortunately. You will also find my commentary on the many new buildings that U of M is building (short version: yack).

Monday, June 9, 2008

Some thoughts on oil

Robert Reich sums up some basics regarding oil prices - rising global demand (India, China), Middle East unrest (Israel, Iran), speculation and a rising bubble in the oil market, decline in the US dollar. Of these, I expect two to sort themselves out eventually - the oil bubble will burst (although I have zero idea how long that will take), and the US dollar will strengthen (again, eventually).

Reich sees gas dropping to $3.50 within a year. I wouldn't be surprised if it dropped lower (or faster) than that - the media always freaks out when oil and gas prices rise, and its always a bit overblown in terms of how long and how brutal it will last. But, the Middle East will most likely be a mess for quite some time to come, and India and China are going to keep growing in size and affluence. So, I think Reich is generally correct when he says:
Bottom line: The days of cheap energy are over, folks. Gas may go down to $3.50 a gallon by this time next year, but you'd be wise to trade in your SUV for an economy car. And you'd be wise to avoid building that new addition to your home and put the money instead into better insulation.
That got me thinking about how expensive energy costs will affect real estate. In the 70's, you saw lots of buildings built with low ceilings to conserve energy. Now-a-days, high ceilings are a must in new construction projects, whether it's retail, or a vaulted ceiling in the kitchen, or 10' ceilings in a new soft-loft multi-family building. All that space is expensive to heat and cool, and much like gasoline, you can't change your usage too much in the short term. You can drive less, or you can turn the temperature down a few degrees. But homeowners take it on the chin when energy prices go up. Does anyone remember how everyone freaked out two winters ago when natural gas prices skyrocketed in Georgia?

Will we see demand for smaller, more energy efficient spaces come back? Certainly green building trends will increase - they are already on the rise, and saving energy is the primary financial driver for this (as opposed to the warm and fuzzies you get for 'living green'). I think gas prices are already driving demand to in-town neighborhoods, although the credit crunch has stalled a lot of that movement.

But I hope that this increase in energy prices will lead people back to in-town areas with smaller bungalows. If Atlanta is going to keep up this positive trend, there needs to be a continual demand for areas like Capitol View, Home Park, etc. I have some serious concerns about what all these foreclosures are doing to these homes, so if high energy prices help bolster demand for affordable in-town homes, then that is a positive side effect to a crummy situation. Also, I like Atlanta's historic bungalows, and I'm tired of seeing them bulldozed or renovated into McMansions.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Development Tracker - Westside Crossing

The Sembler Group wants to build a big-box development near Home Park. This isn't news, at least I've known about it for a while. The fact that its taken until now for Home Park to pitch a fit about it is a little surprising, however.

And, frankly, Home Park should pitch a fit. Home Park worked with the Atlantic Station developers fairly successfully, I don't think their objections are unreasonable. Other developers seem to get along with Home Park:
Meanwhile, Pollack Partners plans to build 600 apartments next to the Sembler site. Burke said Pollack has worked closely with the community improvement association.

"They're acting like they're going to be very good neighbors," he said.
Sembler's response to the neighborhood's demands for structured parking and green space, per the existing master-plan?
But Burke said the company has shrugged off Home Park's ideas.

"Sembler's taking the approach that anytime we suggest something, like multilevel parking, that 'it's too expensive. We can't afford that,' " he said. "They're just not listening."
From what I've seen, Sembler likes to take hard-line approach with neighborhood groups (see their Druid Hills project), and I'm not exactly thrilled with what they build. I will be the first to complain that neighborhood groups can over-react, but I don't think this is one of those times.

Oh, and who is selling Sembler the land for the development? The GT Foundation. The same folks who have stepped in it on the other side of the highway. Sounds like the GT Foundation needs some PR/community relations help. I'm available for a fee... ;)

Weekend round-up

A few links I meant to talk about during the week that I just didn't get to.
  • Thomas Wheatley has a great article about the city's recycling service, and how much money is being flushed down the toilet:
    According to state figures, each person in Georgia generates an average 6.6 pounds of trash per day – double the national average. It costs $90 million annually to throw away 2.6 million tons of cans, bottles and newspapers that are collected and moved to Georgia landfills. Ironically, those items would have an estimated market value of $300 million if they were recycled.
    In b-school, they like to tell us how corporate social responsibility can be utilized in a way that helps your business instead of just trying to make nice and fuzzy headlines. I'd suggest the city look at the recycling program as an investment instead of a political initiative to placate the hippies.

  • The City is considering a 20-year contract with a private company to re-vamp the street vendor program. I think its a good idea, simply because the current vendors look pretty shabby. I think they work hard - I certainly wouldn't want to sit around all day hawking purses and oranges to tourists. I just think an effort to spruce things up is a good idea, even if the market for street vendor fair isn't exactly robust. Sometimes it's important to just act as-if. In this case, as if we still had a bustling downtown.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Keeping an open mind on transportation policy

Gov. Perdue has been pretty consistent about transportation issues - he regularly prevents any advancement on issues like commuter rails or light rail, isn't interested in helping Atlanta fund major infrastructure projects, and just generally wants more roads. He's from the old school Southern school where more roads = economic development. That's great for south Georgia, but it pretty much screws metro Atlanta.

The one little spot of light in this issue is that Gov. Perdue has been just as consistently in support of commuter buses. He currently is making noise that he wants to expand existing commuter bus service by buying more buses. He also says:
"The price of petroleum certainly makes transit a much more attractive option."
Well, at least that is a start...

On a slightly similar note, Ezra Klein draws my attention to public transit stances by both presidential candidates. Obama, unsurprisingly, is pretty strong on public transit and wants to increase the nation's high speed rail network. He also has a good record working to expand public transit to lower income areas. John McCain, conversely, wants to dismantle Amtrak and replace it with smaller, private rail companies.

Now, I'm not going to immediately harp on McCain here. I'm not categorically opposed to privatizing passenger rail service - if it means getting better service and more investment in high speed rail, it might be a very good thing. Amtrak often runs along old freight lines it does not own, for example, which limits the speed and reliability of service. A private company might be more interested in looking at alternatives. Competition does drive innovation, and the American rail industry needs it.

My concern is that privatizing rail service might effectively kill it. I am not a transportation policy expert, but I don't have any reason to think that passenger rail of any sort will fare better than any other form of transportation. As I highlighted the other day, it's not like airlines are exactly economically viable these days.

So I suspect that any privatization of passenger rail service would need to come with healthy government subsidies like the kind we regularly give the airline and automotive industries. Otherwise, I don't see any way it could succeed. Transportation is one area where the magic of free markets isn't going to solve all the problems.

Downtown Macy's building news


I just got an email from the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association informing me that there is some news regarding the downtown Macy's building. Y'know, the big empty one across from the 191 building.

Okay, its not totally empty - the City is moving their 911 operations to the 5th or 6th floor. And Level 3 Communications has some office space there, too. It might even be 50% leased. But from an effective standpoint, it is empty. It is a massive, historic building with an awesome street-facing facade, that the vast majority of Atlantans never have a reason to enter. It is an aesthetic hole on Peachtree Street in the center of the city.

What is in store? The new owners plan to create a mini urban mall:
... the investors plan to open up the front of the building by removing the store windows from three arches in the fa├žade, adding a two-story glass wall behind the arches, and creating a 75-foot-wide "grand avenue" through the center all the way to the back entrance on Carnegie Way, Patterson said.

The grand avenue will then be lined with 20 to 30 indoor shops and restaurants to cater to Atlanta's conventioneers, tourists, daytime office workers and residents, he said.
If you want to find out more, come to the ADNA meeting on June 10 at the downtown library. It includes a building tour. I hope that the ADNA meeting means they have landed an anchor tenant. Also, it is worth mentioning that this is one of my favorite buildings downtown, and I'll be super stoked if something worthwhile goes into the retail space there. The redevelopment concept sounds good so far.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Crum and Forster building update

NPU meetings can be quite the spectacle, and I'm sorry I missed the one last night concerning the GT Foundation's demolition permit for the Crum and Forster building. Maria Saporta has the lowdown, but generally it looks like the GT Foundation got torn a new one. Wish I'd been there - cheaper than a movie, and more entertaining.

Go ahead and sign the petition, call your councilperson, and the planning department. I sent an email to my Council member, as well as the three at-large members, and cc'ed the Council president and the mayor's office. The NPU only gets an advisory opinion - the Bureau of Planning makes the final decision on the permit. I think saving this building a no-brainer.

UPDATE (3:24pm): So far, one response from City Council. At-large member Mary Norwood:
Ben, thank you so much for writing. As you know, I am an avid supporter of historical preservation. I will do everything I can to try to save this building. I’ll keep you updated as we progress. Sincerely, Mary
Also, it's prolly worth bookmarking Save 771 Spring St. - they've got the info on important dates, as well as a few neat sketches and an overview of why the building is worth saving.

They seem to have the correct date for the next event - June 26, there is a Midtown Development Review Committee hearing at the 999 building. I spoke with some folks at the Midtown Alliance, who tell me the meeting has been postponed until the 26th (I've seen a few website that list the meeting as tomorrow).

If, like me, you were unsure of how the DRC process works, it appears to be a parallel track to the NPU system - these sorts of approvals must be heard by the DRC in addition to the NPU, both of which make recommendations to the City, who makes the final decision. I'm told the DRC is made up of Planning department staff, neighborhood folks, engineers, and the like. I didn't ask for a list of members, though. The Midtown Alliance facilitates the DRC for the City, apparently.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gas tax shenanigans

So, Sonny Perdue is freezing the gas tax. And the hopeless state Democrats agree with him.
"We're glad the governor has agreed with us and decided to suspend the gas tax increase, which Democrats called for in the middle of May," Rep. Rob Teilhet (D-Smyrna) said in a release.
That's just great. I'm glad that the state Dems learned absolutely nothing from when a similar thing happened nationally - Hillary Clinton and John McCain suggested suspending the gas tax, while Barack Obama rightfully called it bullshit despite the seeming popularity of the proposal. Everyone was surprised when voters sided with Obama - Clinton got the brunt of the negatives for appearing as a panderer, and Obama's poll numbers climbed.

Now, Perdue is freezing the gas tax so that it won't increase, per a new law passed in 2004, which Perdue presumably signed since he was governor. What was the point of passing the law?? While I'm pretty liberal, I am also generally a believer in free markets - and consumers have shown a remarkable ability to alter their behavior due to gas prices. Transit ridership is breaking records nationally, people are driving less, and buying less gas (from the gas tax article):
Through the first 10 months of the fiscal year, which started July 1, drivers had bought 132 million fewer gallons of fuel than in the same period the year before, a decline of 2.4 percent, according to the state Department of Revenue. Figures for May should be coming out in the next few weeks.
People are proving that they will take transit. And many are finding that they enjoy it more than driving. I think that the market has spoken, in favor of transit. But Perdue and the Georgia legislature are content to prop up a failing system by trying to keep gas prices low. Why don't we get on board with a regional transit tax, expand MARTA service (more frequent service, more rail lines), and finally do something about commuter and high speed rail?

And can we finally retire the canard that because transit doesn't pay for itself it should be abandoned? It's not like any other form of transit pays for itself:
The airline industry will lose $2.3 billion this year because of oil price increases...

Sunday, June 1, 2008

On being a great city

An interesting, if lengthy, commentary on the character of cities, which posits that every great city has a singular message which shapes those who live there:
Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.
The author gives numerous examples - New York tells its inhabitants to be richer, L.A. to be more famous, etc. What message does Atlanta send? Does Atlanta even send a message?

I'm not entirely convinced that Atlanta has a message, but if it does I think it tells people to get ahead on their own terms. Everyone seems to be an entrepreneur, or is planning to be one some day. Even the East Atlanta slackers seem to run their own businesses, whether it's a tattoo parlor, repair shop, or graphic design company. Atlanta tells folks, "hey, if we can con the world into giving us the Olympics, surely you can be a somebody, too."

Atlanta probably doesn't qualify as a "great city" on the scale of NY, Boston, or Chicago, although the author uses localities like Berkeley and Cambridge, and from my experience Ann Arbor would certainly fit in. We are talking about cities that "speak to you." I wrote this post before I left for Ann Arbor, and I am updating it from the Michigan library, where my login still works two and a half years later. I am sure that some of my feelings come from my time living here, but Ann Arbor has always spoken to me, from the first day I came to visit as a high school senior.

Being in Ann Arbor reminded me of what Atlanta lacks. I walked around Ann Arbor for a solid two hours on Friday, taking in the architecture, the people, the general scene. I can't think of the last time I did that in Atlanta. I'm not sure where you could do that - there are plenty of places worth walking around, but you'd have to get in the car and drive somewhere in between them. It's not seamless, like it is in Ann Arbor. Atlanta still speaks to me, but I'm not sure if it would had I not been born here.

I wonder - if the message a city sends is a function of both the physical environment and collection of people living in that environment, what happens when your physical environment encourages isolation and discourages community? Can you be a great city without a distinctive urban environment, or without a message?

It's always mildly depressing to be reminded just how much urban character Atlanta truly lacks. Sometimes I get so caught up in boosterism that it is easy to forget how far Atlanta has to go to be a truly great city.

h/t: Richard Florida