Do ‘Master Planned Communities’ like Midtown’s Atlantic Station hurt our city?

master plan ~ what now atlanta

Urbanist, guest columnist, says Atlantic Station is a great example of a “destructive” development.

Atlantic Station (AS), the physical manifestation of Atlanta’s zeal for bright, new, shiny developments, has come at the expense of logic and smart economics.

Prematurely crowned with a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, the only thing that AS has managed victory over is its creditors. There are many reasons – the loitering, the crime, the free parking, but those are secondary to the fact that Master Planned Communities (MPCs) have no place in urban environments.

MPCs are loaded with features that cities should be able to recognize as highly destructive.

First, they are never small developments. At 15 million square feet, Atlantic Station is no exception. With that kind of scope, the resources that are diverted away from other areas of the city are extreme.

Peachtree Street, between Ponce and 17th,  is littered with vacant retail space, large office vacancies, empty lots and the absence of good rental residential. The same can be said for much of West Peachtree and Spring streets and Juniper.

Midtown Atlanta, the heart of Atlanta’s fashionable in-town urban neighborhood, is a fractured mess. Millions of square feet of office, retail, and residential have been constructed in Atlantic Station, while vast amounts of space on Peachtree sits vacant. This is a mis-allocation of resources, which is bad economics at its core.

Second, MPCs are commercial theme parks. They rarely represent a heterogeneous mixture of people living their urban lives, instead offering a day of “fun and activity for the whole family (term used loosely)”. People pour in from the suburbs and other areas, eager to ride the rides. When they’re done, they leave. This dynamic makes MPCs an unattractive place to live, which thereby makes them heavily reliant on inorganic demand, which rarely has staying power.

Third, because of a MPCs scope, they cannot fit directly into a city’s existing infrastructure and often sit disconnected from it, just as Atlantic Station does (something Mark Toro, Atlantic Station’s developer, says he’s working to fix). This leaves the development without any sense of communal attachment. Midtown Atlanta and Atlantic Station are two distinctively different neighborhoods with infrequent resident crossover, outside of a purpose driven trip (movie theater, Target, etc.).

Fourth, they don’t grow with the demands of the surrounding city. When the plans for Atlantic Station were drawn, there was a specific vision, which was followed. They implemented a plan, regardless of the response to that plan. Successful urban growth doesn’t take this approach. Instead, it’s a constant testing of the waters. Find a site, develop a building, and see how the community responds. If it’s favorable, there is room for more development. If there is a negative reaction, then a lesson is learned, and the next development can take that into consideration.

When you develop millions of square feet, according to a master plan, without allowing the community to respond, you lose the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, which is priceless.

Atlantic Station did, however, provide this opportunity to the city and is learning its lesson. Unfortunately, the city is squandering that opportunity, as they proceed forward on the redevelopment of the Gulch.

A lot of scientific research has shown that the inability to learn from your mistakes is likely rooted in your genetic makeup. Perhaps we’re a city that has flawed development DNA and we will continue to pursue headline-grabbing, yet economically destructive, projects despite the repetitive negative reinforcement.

For our offspring’s sake, I certainly hope that somewhere along the way, we pair up with a more intelligent strand of development DNA. If not, the bulldog might be a more appropriate mascot for our city than it is for UGA.