Discussion of Mixed Use Developments

One of the local blogs I frequently read is Bob Strader’s liveinalpharetta.com. Bob is also a real estate agent in this area and his blog is primarily a real estate blog. In a recent post Bob extolled the virtues of mixed use developments in North Fulton County.

The current mixed use fad happens to be one of the topics that really gets my attention so I posted a rather long comment on his blog. But I didn’t want to wear out my welcome and still have more to say so I brought the conversation back here to GA Jim.

You can read Bob’s post at the link above and below is the comment I left on his website:

“Couldn’t disagree with you more on this one Bob. Smart growth is a charade being pushed by developers because it quadruples the density of their speculative parcels thereby quadrupling their profits.

Mixed use with townhomes? That was the good old days. A few years ago Penn Hodge got a 13 story condo tower zoned on Windward Parkway. What’s an extra 12,000 car trips on one of the most congested intersections in town?

And keep in mind that if 24% of people want to live in mixed use developments that means 76% don’t. Vickery Creek and Prospect Park were supposed to be the wave of the future but they were both in trouble long before the economic collapse.

Alpharetta has been the jewel of North Fulton because it is perfect for young families raising children. You say that the demand for our schools will always be there but you overlook the impact of high density development on those schools. If you don’t believe me check the test scores for any elementary school with high density mixed use in the district.

You are right that in the future there will be mixed use developments for the 24% of people that want them. Young, single people and empty nesters will support mixed use in areas like Atlanta, Sandy Springs or Vinings that have already run off the young families.

But high density mixed use won’t succeed in North Fulton until the developers have driven out the families that live here now.”

To give you a little background, my neighborhood was faced with a mixed use zoning in our children’s school district a few years ago. In the course of that zoning battle I learned a lot.  

When I talked to politicians, developers and their circle of defenders I would ask a direct question like,”How can adding 12,000 car trips to a horribly congested intersection improve traffic?” The response was usually some silly talking point like “Mixed use developments reduce traffic” to which I would ask, “How?” and repeat the original question. At that point the other party would usually hem and haw and act as though I were an idiot for not understanding the conventional wisdom of the development community. But I’m no fan of “conventional wisdom” because I find it is rarely conventional or wise. In the end it was clear that nobody could satisfactorily answer the most basic questions.

Another thing I learned is that developers and land speculators spend a fortune promoting the concept of “livable” and “sustainable communities” in Atlanta. There are entire groups like the Livable Communities Coalition devoted to promoting the livable concept and governmental entities like the Atlanta Regional Commission accept their  sustainability as gospel. The thing that struck me as most odd was that sustainable always meant increasing the density of undeveloped land. Not once has the conventional wisdom been that a developer should build four acre parcels with a density so low that traffic would be nonexistent. Wonder why that is?

Some people may think my position is anti-mixed use development but that is not the case. I was glad to see the Vickery development in Forsyth County because it is mixed use with a very low density much like my neighborhood of Windward. And I had no problem with the Milton Park development on Northpoint Parkway. Milton Park is higher density but it is in an area that is  primarily retail.

What I oppose is the simplistic conventional wisdom that “sustainable” mixed use is some kind of panacea. If people wanted these “sustainable” communities so bad the market would demand them organically and developers wouldn’t have to create front groups to advocate for them.  I also don’t believe that high density mixed use is appropriate for suburban areas like Windward and I have yet to find a single piece of evidence that they can succeed in that environment.

4 thoughts on “Discussion of Mixed Use Developments

  1. Hey Jim – Traffic is reduced somewhat because some people will live closer to work and residents in a mixed-use community have the ability to walk to the destinations. But, traffic reduction is only one benefit to these types of communities.

    Mixed-use developments with interconnected streets and open spaces promotes interaction between neighbors and creates a sense of community. They encourage more walking and biking transportation. Suburban developments more often isolate people and consume much more land. They create more sprawl which requires more infrastructure which becomes more tax burden for you and me.

    It’s not an either or solution, we need to have both types of development as there is demand for both. Mixed-use isn’t a panacea but it also isn’t a “one benefit” solution. It offers many benefits other than traffic reduction.

  2. Bob, thanks for coming by and commenting.

    Unfortunately I think you have been misled by people with millions of dollars to gain by promoting these developments. I know there are certain advantages to some types of mixed developments in some settings but traffic reduction is only possible if the density is actually reduced and developers won’t stand for that because it hits them in the pocketbook.

    For example, Windward Mill was rezoned from O&I to mixed use by replacing 10 acres of office space with 458 condominiums. That number of condos will add 12,350 net new vehicular trips per day over the previous O&I zoning. Another example is the proposed Metlife project on Haynes Bridge Road. According to the DRI report filed with the Atlanta Regional Commission that project will also add 12,000 new trips to the corner of Haynes Bridge Road and GA 400. It’s just common sense that cramming more people into less space makes more traffic but somehow developers have convinced people otherwise.

    As for the negative impact of sprawl I think you have once again been misled by people with agendas. The overwhelming majority of people prefer to live in single family homes with a yard and I find the practice of calling that choice “sprawl” offensive. There is nothing inherently wrong with single family homes any more than there is in choosing to live in 13 story condominiums. Dense developments may indeed be more efficient but at what cost? Have you ever looked at a map showing the geograhic distribution of crimes in Alpharetta or Milton? And what about test scores in schools with high density housing?

    I think some of our disagreement, though, is that we have different products in mind. Your descriptions remind me of the recent developments in the Crabapple and Vickery Creek areas and I am a fan of those developments. Their residential components are single family homes, townhomes and a few lofts. They are a great product and an attractive setting.

    But you have to understand that I live closer to GA 400 and mixed use here means high rise condos and/or apartments at densities that boggle the mind. Can you imagine 45 units per acre in Crabapple?

  3. Well, there’s some common ground. I don’t think we need high rise development in Crabapple or Birmingham Crossroads either. And I agree with you that most people want single family homes in neighborhoods like yours. But I still think we need both.

    But I will say I don’t think I’m being mislead by people who want to make money. I think all development (residential, mixed-use, commercial or retail) is initiated by people who want to make money – that includes the developers of our typical “Milpharetta” subdivisions.

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