Will Alpharetta really give up our niche?

Yesterday I was reading this post on the Roots in Alpharetta blog. One comment on the “An Alpharetta Lament” post clearly shows how people supporting Alpharetta’s urbanization want our city to look in a few years. It also provides an opportunity to show why so many people are opposed to that vision. The comment was by another local blogger named Michael Hadden. Michael is a vocal supporter of urbanizing Roswell and Alpharetta and he said:

You can take a look at Reston Town Center in Reston, VA.  They have been planning mixed-use since the early 90′s without connection to transit.  The new Metro Silver Line will be opening with a stop at Reston in the next ~3 years

I appreciate Michael’s willingness to explain his vision of Alpharetta’s future because most of the people trying to change Alpharetta just make vague statements like “mixed use is the future” or “there are plenty of examples of successful mixed use” without ever providing one example of what they consider to be a success. So let’s take Michael’s advice and look at Reston, Virginia.

At one time Reston was similar to Alpharetta, Georgia. That time was back in the 1950’s before Dulles International Airport was built just outside of Reston. Since the 1960’s Reston has been between Washington, DC and the nearest international airport making it geographically much more similar to College Park, Georgia than Alpharetta. And unless Forsyth County builds an international airport in the next few years Alpharetta will never really be comparable to Reston.

But despite that major difference we can still look at what the urbanization of Reston has done to see what urbanization would bring to Alpharetta. First urbanization will bring more traffic. I worked in Reston, Virginia back in the 1990’s and anyone that says high density developments solved their traffic problem has never been there. Stacking people in buildings 5, 10 or 15 stories high does not relieve congestion. It makes it worse. Urban planners know that. They just don’t care because they want to force people out of their cars anyway.

Michael points out that mass transit will come to Reston and that may well be true. Once urban planners have succeeded in making traffic unbearable enough people are willing to spend billions on inefficient rail projects in the hope it will bring relief.

There are three main reasons a transit trains will come to Reston:

1) High density urbanization created a traffic nightmare

2) The traffic nightmare stands between politicians and an airport

3) The politicians are inconvenienced enough that they were willing to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to get the common people off of the roads between themselves and the airport

The second consequence of urbanizing Reston is a mediocre public school system. North Fulton County and South Forsyth County now have some of the best schools in the nation. So let’s see what the future holds if the city of Alpharetta continues down the path being laid by our current City Council. Below are the comparisons of schools in Alpharetta and Reston according to Greatschools.org (You can click on the image to enlarge)

Here are the elementary school ratings:

Alpharetta elementary schools

Reston elementary schools

And here are the high school ratings:

Alpharetta High Schools

Reston high school

There really is no comparison. High density development results in lower test scores. Alpharetta’s low density neighborhoods produce public schools which are among the best in the nation. Reston’s high density developments produce mediocre public schools.

In marketing terms Alpharetta has a “niche” now that brings people to our city when they move to the metro area from all over the world. The Atlanta Regional Commission is trying to change that with the help of our community develoment department and city council. If they succeed our community will be just be another congested concrete jungle with bad schools and nothing special to offer that can’t be found in Buckhead, Sandy Springs or Marietta.

The choice is clear. Alpharetta can continue to draw families with our great public schools and high quality of life much like East Cobb County has for decades. Or we can urbanize and compete with Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Marietta on price alone. The Atlanta Regional Commission and the City of Alpharetta have made their choice obvious. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Will Alpharetta really give up our niche?

  1. These are good points and I do agree that Alpharetta’s growth strategy needs to consider them. However, assertions to the implied causality are fairly difficult to prove or disprove. First, I’d like to point out that no two cities are identical, thankfully. I brought up Reston in the comments of Lee’s post because another commenter, Mark, was seeking projects similar to “Prospect Park, Windward Mill and MetLife, that are configured with condominiums and are located in suburban areas similar to Alpharetta’s population that have been successful?” So, without expounding on the many differences between the two cities, I simply pointed out that Reston Town Center is probably very similar to what those projects would look like and that transit is most likely on its way there. That project did not, in and of itself, do anything to cause the GreatSchools ratings you cited.

    I would like to look at your points though. Let’s look at the education piece first. The point reminds me of a classic scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.. You know, the one where an angry mob brings an alleged witch in front of the de-facto town judge.. He works with the mob to refine their logic on how to tell if she’s a witch or not… “There are ways of telling if she’s a witch… what do you do to witches?… burn them!!… why to witches burn… because they’re made of wood??… how do we tell whether she is made of wood?… Does wood sink in water?… What also floats in water?… very small rocks… a Duck!… So logically, if she weighs the same as a duck.. then she’s a witch..

    I just don’t buy the argument that if a school is in or near a dense urban environment then it must be a poor performing school. I think they perform poorly due to demographic and social issues that have almost nothing to do with how we build our cities. Primary issues with educational attainment are social issues such as student turnover, parental support, divorce, etc. Historically, except for the last 40 years or so, you would not have seen this urban suburban disparity. I think the trend will reverse and slowly begin to favor schools in more urbanized environments again.

    Now, let’s look at the transportation and congestion point. Alpharetta really has no high density ‘urbanization,’ just plans for it. But, it still has some pretty nasty traffic issues on it’s surface streets and highways. I’d much rather drive on the surface streets at 17th and Market Street in Atlantic Station than drive on those at North Point and Old Milton at 6pm in the evening. Essentially, the problem around these parts is one of a Jobs/Housing balance or in Alpharetta’s case a massive imbalance. Currently there is about a 3:1 Jobs to housing imbalance in Alpharetta. This is not a bad problem to have. But it causes an interesting conundrum. A significant number of people have to drive to Alpharetta and then leave Alpharetta each day at peak congestion times. The questions are; can we provide housing alternatives that some of Alpharetta’s non-resident employees would prefer and can we create an environment where some peak hour trips can can be made in something other than a car. I think the best bet for this is development along the 400 corridor akin to MetLife’s proposal.

    As far as Reston is concerned, I’m sure the congestion along the Dulles corridor is brutal. I’ve been there before but I’ve been fortunate to not travel during rush hour. I’m not so sure that the planners knowingly caused the congestion so they could later bring in transit. Demographic and growth trends are fairly predictable and the amount of land available is (usually) a constant. The DC area has grown from 4.8M to 5.6M people since 2010. That’s pretty rapid growth. Not as rapid as Atlanta’s 24% over the same period but still rapid nonetheless.

    Serious and debilitating congestion happens when infrastructure can’t keep up with the growth and/or when design is poor; not when planners put into place insidious plans to rape the populace of time and money and force them onto trains. Tyson’s Corner is on the same corridor as Reston. It’s fairly similar to Perimeter Center except a bit further along it’s lifecycle. Both are horribly designed. Neither would/should be classified as smart growth in their initial design (maybe eventually). Both have implemented Smart Growth strategies that will help improve the situation. Did planners botch them? Absolutely. Are they the same thing as mixed-use projects that are popular in proposals all around the nation? Definitely not. Reston falls into the same category as Tyson’s. But, the project I referred to, Reston Town Center, is but a small project within the larger city of Reston. Will congestion happen? Yes. Can it be mitigated? Yes. Will sprawling development with limited connectivity be the best alternative to mitigate increased demand on the road network? Absolutely not.

    I do want to make one thing very clear lest I be misunderstood. I do not and never have believed that rail transit reduces congestion. Rather, it provides modal choice and redundancy in the system. If gas goes to $6-$7 a gallon (definitely possible), many people will be wishing they had modal choice and I’m not counting the lousy bus lines that pretend to be a transit solution in N.Fulton.

    Only time will tell… but if your bet on all the virtues of sprawling, low-density, low connectivity small town life is wrong, there are going to be a lot of N.Fulton’ers stuck in their homes with gorgeous gas guzzling vehicles and a lot of miles and gallons of gas between them and where they need to go. (side note… Alpharetta hasn’t been a small town for a while now and sprawling subdivisions are about as far from what comprises a true small town as they could possibly be) We’re living in the unprecedented and unsustainable age of cheap oil. If we don’t plan for some interruptions to our comfort zone, we’re in trouble.

    I’ll close with this opinion/prediction, school quality changes over time. Alpharetta will not always have the best schools in the region whether you, I or anyone else likes the thought of that. Density does not in itself determine school quality. Can it cause a strain? Definitely, but it doesn’t have to. Traffic congestion will always exist in some form in and around desirable areas. You should not design a road to be free flowing at the peak commuting hours but you should provide alternative routes and modes. Congestion will generally match travellers’ tolerance levels over time. Finally… Employers follow talent. Talent may not always be interested in working in a city that is expensive and inconvenient to reach.. one that is too short sighted to provide a meaningful range of living alternatives that do not require a tool (car) that may be obsolete in the coming decades to move around.

    Mike

  2. I don’t think it should be a goal to correct the 3:1 job to resident imbalance. To do so would require we either add tens of thousands to the Alpharetta’s population or reduce jobs. I don’t want to see either happen.

  3. Thanks for your post. I am in complete and total agreement. I think the Alpharetta City Council has thrown its residents under the bus and now our town is in fact turning into a Reston. I am from Northern Virginia, and no family that values education, community, and quality of life moves to Reston. Its reputation is that of a place where 20-somethings rent their first place after college and have parties in their condos every weekend. No thank you. It is empty during the day, and downright skeevy at night.

    I would also like to add that because the City of Alpharetta insists on flouting its own zoning laws–basically by rezoning at every opportunity–we will now have all of this high density development centered in one school district: Manning Oaks. This school has been torn down piece by piece (first by thoughtless zoning by the city council, then by even more thoughtless districting by the School Board) in the last 5 years so that it is now a Title 1 school. We basically have a low-income school in the middle of one of the wealthiest communities in the state. This is gerrymandering a district to the detriment of the smallest citizens. Manning Oaks parents have been screaming for years about this, but no one is listening. Mayor Letchas himself told me that he was unwilling to get involved.

    Anyway, Thanks for your blog. I will start following regularly. Keep up the fight!

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