Atlanta downtown rises again; Traffic is driving Georgia suburbanites back into the city

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- When Joe and Elizabeth Taylor were expecting their first child three years ago, they decided to move out of the city of Atlanta and into the suburbs 25 miles away, looking for good schools, safe streets and other young families who would be their neighbors.

But what the Taylors didn't bargain for was the traffic -- 16 lanes of asphalt clogged with other suburbanites creeping to their jobs in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Fed up, the Taylors moved back to Atlanta last month, joining thousands of others who are returning to the city.

While Baltimore and other old cities continue to lose population, Atlanta has gained 12,000 residents this decade and expects to grow by another 6,000 this year. Many, the region's officials say, are like the Taylors -- suburbanites weary of long commutes, crowded schools and sprawling developments.

"I was spending three hours a day in the car," said Taylor, a 36-year-old real estate construction supervisor. "It was a total waste of time."

Until recently, Atlanta suffered the plight of many of the nation's cities, losing residents in a 20-year exodus that left vacant houses and empty stores. The city's population shrank from 496,983 in 1970 to 415,200 in 1990, and as recently as four years ago planners expected the slide to continue.

But today building cranes loom over the city, erecting new apartments and turning old warehouses into lofts. The city's existing homes are appreciating in price more than twice as fast as the metro area as a whole.

In moving back into Atlanta, the Taylors traded their nearly new $200,000 Colonial in Alpharetta for a $400,000 house that is 25 years old and needs remodeling. But Joe Taylor also traded a 90-minute drive to work for a 10-minute commute.

"It gives me a lot more time with my family," Taylor said. "In the last four years, we haven't been able to keep in inventory," said Scott Askew, president of Fourteen West Realtors, a downtown real estate company. A decade ago, he said, families were moving out of the city in search of larger homes. Today they "are escaping traffic because they can't get to work."

A few are young families like the Taylors who can afford single-family homes in Atlanta's shady, green neighborhoods. Some are older, like Brenda and Paul Sizemore, who moved into a condominium carved out of one of the city's old mansions. Many are single, young professionals like Marlon S. Campbell, a 26-year-old IBM salesman, who is buying a downtown loft in the shell of a 100-year-old building that once housed the city's newspaper.

Campbell recently stood in his unfinished home, admiring its brick walls and exposed beams. A loading-dock door dominated one wall; the floor was concrete. Campbell said he plans to tear down one of his walls to give himself a view of the city. The cost for the project: $140,000 to $180,000.

For the same money, he could buy a four-bedroom house in the suburbs, but Campbell prefers the convenience of the city. "I'm 15 to 20 minutes from everyone," Campbell said.

In part, the city is benefiting from an economy that is bringing between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs a month into the region, said Michael Dobbins, Atlanta's commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation. Three of the nation's fastest-growing counties are in the Atlanta suburbs.

But the city's growth is expected to accelerate as residents and business move back downtown. Already Coca-Cola is looking to consolidate its offices near its downtown headquarters. BellSouth is merging 75 suburban offices into three locations near metro stations. Turner Sports and Entertainment Development, which had planned to build a 20,000-seat sports arena in the suburbs, instead is building the $215 million project downtown next to the CNN Center. New hotels are going up in anticipation of more convention business, and new office buildings are planned.

The 1996 Olympics contributed to the revival, Dobbins said. The city spruced up its neighborhoods, built new sports complexes, constructed the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park on a site once occupied by abandoned buildings and parking lots and renovated housing for the world games.

But increasingly, the return to the city seems to be driven by, well, too much driving. Atlantans drive an average of 34 miles a day -- more than residents of any other city in the nation. The city's beltway, called the Perimeter, and the main artery running through downtown are 16 lanes wide, yet cars creep along bumper to bumper in morning rush hours that start well before sunrise and evening commutes that last until dark.

"Atlanta is being choked by highways," said John Griffith, an Atlanta condominium developer.

Radio stations broadcast traffic reports seven days a week; a kiosk in CNN Center advises tourists on the latest traffic conditions.

Nancy Beck lives in the suburban town of Roswell, just 12 miles from her job in the city, but she leaves for work at 6: 30 a.m. to avoid the rush-hour traffic. If she waited until 7: 30 a.m., the drive would take an hour. Although she would like to try some of Atlanta's popular new restaurants, she never goes downtown in the evenings. "I just don't want to come back downtown after I've made the commute."

Atlanta's traffic congestion envelopes the skyline in smog and places the city on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of "serious" violators of the 1990 Clean Air Act -- a status that jeopardizes around $1 billion in federal transportation dollars. Atlanta's powerful business community worries the congestion might discourage new investors.

"People after a while decide there has got to be a better way," said Hunter Richardson, vice president of development for Turner Sports and Entertainment Development.

One of those to rediscover the benefits of the city is John A. Williams. Thirty years ago, the Atlanta native earned his bread and butter building apartments in the suburbs.

"We did it as well as it could be done," said Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of Post Properties. "But we started noticing our residents were giving us a lot of feedback that they wanted to live somewhere that was different."

In the late 1980s, Post Properties started building in the city and now does the bulk of its work there.

"There is a huge movement of people into intown markets," said Williams, who also builds in other cities. "All of us are concerned about our quality of life. We can't continue to grow using greenfields and 50 acres."

Atlanta still faces some daunting obstacles to luring more young families downtown. City schools on average perform below state standards, and the crime rate places Atlanta on lists of the most dangerous cities in America.

Williams believes, nevertheless, that residents will continue to move downtown. "Atlanta has a reputation of looking at a problem and coming up with a solution," he said.

The optimism is reflected in the recent loft craze in downtown Atlanta. On a seedy-looking street across from a pawn shop and beside the Baptist City Mission, Miller/Gallman Developers is turning old warehouses into lofts that will range from $150,000 to $800,000. Views of the Atlanta skyline are framed by a mammoth U-Haul storage shed and the Atlanta rail yards.

David J. Decker, who finds investors for Miller/Gallman projects, says the trains are a bonus. "They're like a moving urban landscape."

The rough charm appeals to Peter Dierauf, an artist representative who moved out of a trendy Atlanta neighborhood after it became too popular. "I liked the idea of pioneering," he said.

He said he has no concern about crime, and is annoyed only slightly by the homeless men who loiter outside his home. But Dierauf worries that the neighborhood is losing its urban edge.

He has seen the value of his one-bedroom condominium increase from $200,000 to $250,000 in just more than a year and says many of the previous neighbors -- artists who often squatted in rundown apartments -- are being forced to move as property values increase.

The city's old residential neighborhoods, such as Druid Hills, are also rebounding. Once an enclave of Atlanta's rich, including top executives at Coca-Cola, the 80-year-old neighborhood of large frame and brick houses fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the homes were converted to apartments and boarding houses or abandoned altogether.

"In the 1980s, people started moving back in," said John Griffin, a lawyer turned developer in Atlanta's hot real estate market. He is renovating two mansions in Druid Hills and converting them to a 16-unit condominium complex. In a year, he has sold half the units, which range from $400,000 to $800,000.

Brenda and Paul Sizemore gave up a four-bedroom rancher on Lake Lanier 45 miles outside the city for a two-bedroom condominium in Griffith's development. They also gave up an hour and a half commute to work. Now the Sizemores are close to the theaters and museums they love.

"Before, we would go get theater tickets for the season and we would practically have to get a hotel because it was such a long drive back," Brenda Sizemore said.

Now, she said, they know more neighbors than they knew in their old community.

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