Amenities and cachet and shock – a good kind of shock – were my first impressions when I walked into Lennar’s new City Walk apartments on Frazier Street in Roswell. Within 30 seconds I knew I liked this place. I was also able to confirm a hunch I have been nurturing and processing for quite a while might just be right, or at least headed in the right direction.

The hunch is that we all have floated downstream and have just started to go over the falls. The stream is the status quo – our history and values, our expectations, our cultural orientation, how we live and how we perceive life around us. The “falls” is “change” in the form of the arrival of this huge generational bubble that includes millennials but also the generations bookending them.

Much of this “change” is obvious and tangible to us all. It manifests itself in many different ways, such as how these young generations travel — Uber — where they stay – AirBnB — and other things such as their career choices, work ethic and leisure priorities. Millennials are getting married later, renting instead of buying homes and fewer are buying automobiles. And almost every aspect of this generational/demographic bubble impacts us in some way.

However, it can be difficult to see these macro trends. Often our limited frame of reference obscures it. Seeing and understanding these fundamental trends is sort of like floating down the stream and hearing the roar in the background before you realize that the roar is the waterfall in front of you.

Most of us don’t hear the roar and connect its meaning until we are halfway over the falls. Understanding the noise in the background in context is the challenge.

Let me give you a specific, tangible example of that roar in the background but not connecting the dots in real time.

The example is how we generally view “apartments.” In Alpharetta and Roswell/North Fulton, I think it is fair to say that apartments are viewed in a negative light. It doesn’t matter if the apartments happen to be senior housing, upscale luxury apartments or, in this case, an amazing boutique apartment complex such as the in ultra-high-demand City Walk serving a wide age range of generally upscale urban professionals. It is opposed out of hand.

Opposition to apartments is really opposition to “density” – the number of housing units permitted per acre. Housing density/multifamily housing is a political hot potato and a topic few politicians want to broach.

But here is the lack of connecting the dots. Times have changed. Needs have changed. But perceptions to a large degree have not.

Multifamily housing now makes more sense, a lot more sense than ever before. In fact is rapidly becoming a critical economic and social necessity because of the changing and undeniable demographic trends right there under our noses. It’s the waterfall in front of us.

Case study:

Think of how you currently feel about apartments. Now, let me describe Roswell’s City Walk and see if it fits your view.

City Walk is in downtown Roswell off Frazier Street. Lennar Homes – one of the largest track builders of single-family homes in America – built City Walk. It was their second multifamily development; the first one was The Oaks at Johns Creek.

Lennar purchased an old apartment complex in Roswell and gutted it. Originally there were 150 apartments. From that they created 320 new units – 60 percent one-bedroom and 40 percent two-bedroom. They started leasing about 10 months ago and are 95 percent occupied. The average rent is $1,700 a month and the average apartment size is 1,030 square feet. The one-bedrooms average 687 square feet, which, to me, was startling. I would never have thought such a relatively small space could be adequate or, popular. Yet it is. And I believe the popularity of small spaces is a marker that suggests changing tastes and values. An increasing number of people, and not just millennials, do not want the encumbrances of large houses — large utility bills, large tax bills, large maintenance bills and lots of chores.

The units have big balconies, expansive kitchens, roomy closets, high ceilings, and attitude.

I waited in the common area to interview City Walk manager Chris Lee, a veteran apartment community manager, novelist and former marine sniper. He is a student of the Google/Pixar style of organizational management “teams” — open, collaborative, transparent and fraternal.

I was greeted by every person who passed by, including a young Hispanic woman in her 20s, an upbeat and pleasant maintenance man and a middle-aged woman with a New York accent in a workout suit.

She was headed to the expansive and amazingly equipped gym inside the common area (open 24/7)

Art adorned the walls everywhere and, from where I was sitting, I had a great view of a rather large pool in the courtyard. It was obvious that a talented decorator had done extensive work. The area was fresh, secure, bright, current and spotless. I honestly felt like I had just entered the Ritz or at least a place where “friendly, professional and accommodating” ruled.

“Maintain a social environment and operate in a transparent way – sort of like a restaurant where you can see the kitchen and all the cooking going on” is how Chris described his role and that of his staff.

“Everyone on the team engages with everyone else – the residents and the staff. People are comfortable with each other here and interact,” he said.

I asked about the age breakdown of the residents:

  • 25-or-under – 17 percent;
  • 26 to 37 – 40 percent;
  • 38 to 45 – 16 percent;
  • And the remaining 27 percent is 46 or older.

I was surprised at the wide range of ages and also by the higher percentage than I expected of “older residents.”

“Many of my older residents do not want to live in senior/adult-oriented communities,” he said. “They want to be able to mix with younger residents and be in a more dynamic environment. They strive for engagement.”

This didn’t sound like the apartments I know.

I asked about the domestic status of his residents and then about professions. I was in for more surprises.

“Single, middle-age divorced adults are a large part of the mix of tenants,” he said.

Another significant segment, according to Chris, consisted of HEALTH & WELLNESSers who want to downsize and simplify.

I thought about the size of the apartments and questioned him on this.

“They are done. They raised their family and now they just want to have their own personal space and their own time. They don’t need a large apartment for that. They don’t need a lot of stuff. Besides, for those who decide they want to keep a lot of their baggage, we have on-premises storage units,” he said.

I asked him about families with children and he said there were almost none, although they were certainly welcomed.

Values and needs change. Demand for different housing – housing that meets new needs and preferences.

According to Lennar Southeast Division President Christopher Cassidy, “Over the last 50 years, families with children have driven the housing market. Today, less than 25 percent of homes are owned by families with children.”

Cities that do not recognize and adapt to these demographic changes do so at great economic risk. If you do not have the housing that the market wants and needs, buyers will move to a market that does. You must connect the dots.

“We also see an increasing percent of our residents work from home. That is a significant percentage of our residents,” Chris told me.

I thought of all the vacant land in North Fulton currently zoned for large, big box office buildings and, again, about the opposition to the type of housing that seems to be most in demand.

The employment fields of residents did not surprise me. Teachers, people in the financial and medical health sectors, white-collar professionals, and technology employees seemed spread relatively evenly.

Chris did note that, of all the sectors, the biggest might be those employed in technology. It was also by far the fastest growing.

I thought about Gwinnett Tech’s new campus on Old Milton Parkway and smiled. We’re on it – except for the housing part, I mused.

We have the money, the land and the economic situation to leverage this opportunity successfully – if we get our act together and if we have the will to change.

We need to be decisive. We need to be bold. Maybe we should rezone some of that land currently zoned for large office buildings for new multifamily/mixed-use housing complexes – maybe lofts and mini-campuses that offer centrally located living spaces adjacent to office and retail – think Avalon – that is what the market is demanding. The private sector will act, but we need to provide the zoning and incentives to encourage and support them.

I believe however that most current projections – including the recent City of Alpharetta Rental Housing Study - probably significantly underestimate future rental / multi-family housing needs because projections are based on historical trends.

They do not account for the rapid rate of changing taste and needs of the millennials and the generations to follow.

We must be more forward thinking and perhaps not solely rely on history and historical filters and perceptions.

I read in the Atlanta Business Chronicle that a redevelopment of two empty office buildings on 38 acres in Peachtree Corners that targets millennials and seeks to create a live-work-play urban “campus” is before that city council right now.

The project would have the two office buildings demolished and include construction of a mixed-use campus with 295 one- and two-bedroom units geared to millennials. Features include bocce ball courts, fishing and other activities on the lake.

According to Diana Wheeler, the current Peachtree Corners community development director (and also the former community development director of Alpharetta).

She was responsible for much of the successful growth and development in Alpharetta during the ‘90s and 2000s, we are starting to see a retrofitting of suburbia.

Maybe we should embrace multifamily housing and recognize it as the opportunity that it can be – and the necessity that it is.

Maybe we need to have vision and attitude and understand that “density” is simply what makes sense today and what is required for our children and our grandchildren.

Maybe we should step out of the box and try to actually get ahead of these demographic trends and housing needs instead of playing catch up to other markets that are already ahead of the curve.

The long-term importance and impact of heavy rail and fundamental improvement in our transportation infrastructure cannot be underestimated. They are critically important and part and parcel to staying competitive as a city and region. Austin, Charlotte, Dallas and many other cities – most with heavy rail - are not waiting on us to get up to speed. Solving our transportation issues with more buses is a non-starter. It’s not viable if we want to remain competitive and a desirable destination for the primary workforce of the future - millennials and the following generations.

We need to support heavy rail and investing in transportation infrastructure as aggressively as possible.

This is not the time to play politics with issues this important or to be penny-wise and pound-foolish with our children’s future.

So, getting back to apartments and density, if you are one of those folks who automatically oppose “density” in housing, including apartments or condos, do yourself a favor. Drive over to City Walk off Frazier Street in Roswell (off Ga. 9, near Roswell City Hall – 300 Forrest Walk / RoswellCityWalk.com) and take a quick tour.

Talk to the people there. Walk around. Maybe stroll a few blocks to Canton Street in Roswell and have lunch. You could do the same thing at Avalon. Imagine for just a moment you or some of your children are living there. Then ask yourself if you still feel that this awful multifamily thing is really such a bad deal.

Remember, the “density” issue is not really so much about you or your sensibilities today as much as it is about that of your children and grandchildren.

You already have what you want. It’s their turn now. Our goal should be to build and provide housing that our kids and their kids are going to need. If we don’t build it here, many of them will live elsewhere – in other towns and cities that have connected the dots by supporting heavy rail and adapting to the changing housing needs of the future work force.

We are at a crossroads to the future and we can have it all – or begin to lose it.

Connect the dots.

For the sake of transparency, Publisher Ray Appen owns a lot in downtown Alpharetta which could increase in value should additional density be assigned to the property at some point.

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