The development scene in Atlanta has come a long way since back in the 1980s, when we were just blasting off into what many called the era of “suburban sprawl.” Business was booming and people were moving to the metro area from all over the world.
Hundreds of large neighborhoods were built up and down I-85 and I-75 throughout Cobb and Gwinnett Counties, then up and down Ga. 400 throughout North Fulton. There was so much demand for goods and services that almost any commercial development that was built became immediately successful. Our level of expectations for the development that surrounded us was not nearly as high as it is today. Most of the cities and counties were thrilled to swell their tax base. It was a land-grab, and our level of sophistication when it came to community planning was comparatively low.
Early in the 2000s, the term “mixed-use” started to become popular. Folks that had been here started looking around their communities and they began wanting more. City planners with better expertise took positions, and people began wanting to have more of a sense of place in the areas where they lived. They wanted a town center feel. The term “strip malls” became an ugly phrase.
We started to see things like Atlantic Station, and people liked that. Suwanee, Duluth and Woodstock began construction on town centers that have since attracted hundreds of new residents, businesses and private-investment development. And we were moving into an era of a new kind of development and everyone wanted mixed-use.
Then the bottom fell out with the crash in 2008.
We emerged into a system where banks demanded more from their developers. Banks wanted to see proof of a project’s long-term viability. No longer was it good enough for a builder to put different uses next to each other and call it “mixed-use.” The developer had to show how those uses played well off of each other, each adding to the area’s micro-economy.
As such, there needed to be a new model for mixed-use development. And that new model was Avalon.
I was lucky last week to host on my radio show Lamar Wakefield. His firm, Wakefield-Beasley, worked with Mark Toro’s North American Properties to develop Avalon. The project led to Wakefield-Beasley designing The Battery at Suntrust Park, Halcyon in Forsyth County, Revel in Gwinnett County and town centers all across the metro area and Avalon-like projects in areas across the country.
It was a fascinating conversation and I encourage you to listen in at atldevelopments.tumblr.com.
For a quality designer and planner like Wakefield-Beasley, there is a significant amount of research that first goes into understanding a project’s surroundings those who live there. He does a specific study to understand everyone in a 3-mile, a 5-mile and a 10-mile radius. Some retailers, like a pizza restaurant for example, will only draw from people within a 3-mile radius. Others, like a Whole Foods, might bring people in from a full 10-mile radius. In the case of Avalon, the 10-mile radius around it was the most affluent 10-mile radius anywhere in the country at the time of construction, Wakefield said.
It was important for them to understand the shopping tendencies of the people in each radius so they could figure out which retailers they wanted to pull into their project. When a developer is betting hundreds of millions of dollars on a development, this kind of information is critical.
My conversation had me wondering if city planners take into account the same information when they look to approve single-use, or smaller-scale variances in their cities. Most of those developers are building with the intention of selling the project after construction is complete. And there should be more pressure on the city planners to determine the project’s economic viability, as well as its economic impact on the surrounding areas.
Citizen groups all over the metro area are being formed to try to determine what residents would like to see developed in their towns. But shouldn’t the first order of business really be to first understand what kinds of development their towns can support? They need the critical information and data that folks like Wakefield collect. They need an expert to understand that data. And they need an artist to show how that data can be incorporated into the development of a site in a way that makes their city better.
Geoff Smith is a mortgage banker with Assurance Financial focusing on residential home loans for refinances and home purchases.
*The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of Assurance Financial Group