The incredible disappearing transit machine

Last Friday an agenda item about a transit presentation by Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce CEO, Northpoint CID Director and Georgia DOT Board member Brandon Beach magically appeared on the Alpharetta City Council docket for Monday night. I was surprised to see such an item appear out of thin air and wrote about it in this post over the weekend.

Well apparently I wasn’t the only one surprised. Several City Council members told me that they didn’t know anything about it until last Friday either.  Then yesterday, as magically as it appeared, the transit presentation disappeared and never took place. Curious stuff.

Maybe Mr. Beach saw the recent article “The Public Transport Revolution – Why does it never Arrive?” on Newgeography.com and realized that MARTA trains were a waste of time and money. You can read the whole article here but below are a few highlights.

Urban economist, Anthony Downs, writing in “Still Stuck in  Traffic?” reminds us:

“….trying to decrease traffic congestion by raising  residential densities is like trying to improve the position of a painting hung  too high on the living room wall by jacking up the ceiling instead of  moving the painting.”

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One of the arguments used against building more roads – and  especially against more motorways – is that as soon as they are built they  become congested again because of “induced demand.” Such “induced demand” is  surely the natural expression of suppressed demand. It seems unlikely  that motorists will mindlessly drive between different destinations for no  other reason than they can.

However, let us accept for a moment that “induced demand” is  real, and suggests that improving the road network is a fruitless exercise. Advocates  of expensive rail networks claim they will reduce congestion on the roads and  improve the lot of private vehicle users as a consequence.

But surely, if the construction of an expensive rail network  does reduce congestion on the roads then induced demand will rapidly restore  the status quo. Maybe the theory is  sound after all. It would explain why no retrofitted rail networks have  anywhere resulted in reduced congestion.

This is the time to invest in an enhanced roading network while  making incremental investments in flexible public transport. Roads can be  shared by buses, trucks, vans, cars, taxis, shuttle-buses, motor-cycles and  cyclists – unless compulsive regulators say they are for buses only. Railway  lines can be used only by trains and if we build them in the wrong place they  soon run empty. The Romans built roads and we still use them.

So maybe the incredible disappearing transit machine shows that local business leaders now realize raising sales taxes to pay for expensive, inefficient trains is a waste of time and money. And maybe the Georgia Department of Transportation will make up for decades of neglecting roads in what has been one of the fastest growing areas in the nation.

And maybe I’ll ride a flying pig to Braves games this Summer.

Nothing to see here… move along… move along

A curious thing popped up on the city of Alpharetta’s website the other day.

It comes as no surprise that Brandon Beach wants the Alpharetta City Council to accept his billion dollar vision for taxpayer subsidized public mass transit. Mr. Beach simultaneously acts as the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce’s CEO, the North Fulton Community Improvement District’s Executive Director as well as the 6th District representative on the Georgia Department of Transportation and I have personally heard him pitch his vision to the Windward Rotary Club as covered here at the Alpharetta Patch. I have also noticed that local Chamber of Commerce officials along with representatives of area Community Improvement Districts are currently conducting an extensive public relations campaign to promote taxpayer subsidized trains on the northern perimeter of Atlanta. You can see what I mean here and here.

So Mr. Beach’s proposal is not a surprise and there is nothing wrong with businessmen and their employees lobbying Metro Atlanta taxpayers to pay an additional 8 Billion dollars in sales tax which will be spent on transportation projects. When the projects could make them billions of dollars it just makes good business sense. Kind of like when the Cobb County CIDs spent $150,000 to make sure the local SPLOST tax passed.

The only surprise is that once again the Alpharetta City Council is making crucial decisions about the future of our city without actively soliciting the consent of their constituents. I pay a great deal of attention to what is going on in the City of Alpharetta and take care to read every public notice and press release I find. Yet the appearance of the transit item on Monday night’s Council agenda was a complete surprise to me.

I think it is fair to say that 99% of Alpharettans won’t even know the transit issue came up unless the local print media bothers to publish a story after the fact. The decision of approving Mr. Beach’s transit vision of the future is a crucial one. It is a decision that could affect every person in this city for generations to come and may decide how billions of dollars in taxes are spent. Yet there are only a handful of people that even notice what is going on.

Nothing to see here… move along… move along.

When you are kicking the competition’s butt, don’t stop kicking… part 2

In my last post I discussed an article by Pat Fox of the Atlanta Journal Constitution which highlighted Alpharetta’s tremendous success attracting lucrative technology jobs. There was also another article in the AJC about Alpharetta but unfortunately that one is not posted online so I contacted the writer, Rachel Tobin. Ms. Tobin graciously said that I could reprint the article here as long as I give the newspaper credit.

It is an excellent article so I am going to try something different today by posting the whole article with certain key phrases highlighted. After the article you can read my comments.

The big money still heads to Alpharetta
Top industries flock to hot office submarket.Besides company HQs, call and data centers also move into area.
Rachel Tobin / Staff

Thirty years after striking out to attract the executive set by building grand homes around bucolic golf courses and horse farms, Alpharetta has succeeded in its mission of also luring the companies that employ those executives. The result: Alpharetta is no longer just an enclave for well-heeled executives. It’s become a hub of call and data centers for Fortune 100s like Coca-Cola, as well as regional corporate offices for other companies with household names. Think Motorola, Philips, Comcast Cable, health care services firm McKesson Provider Technologies and information service Lexis-Nexis.

Despite the 40-minute-plus drive from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — and sometimes choking traffic — Alpharetta remains one of metro Atlanta’s most competitive office submarkets. It’s successfully been attracting — and keeping — some
of the nation’s hottest industries, from technology to health care. The city was anointed the country’s No. 1 “reloville” by Forbes in 2009. Rival office markets like Central Perimeter have lost big tenants to Alpharetta, which boasts office rental prices that are up to 10 to 15 percent lower.

With housing stock that goes from $85,000 starter homes to multimillion-dollar mansions, Alpharetta is not just for CEOs anymore. Alpharetta’s daily workforce now includes lower- to mid-level staffers at data and call centers as well as regional headquarters for internationally known companies.

Holder Properties has developed 20 to 30 data facilities in north Fulton, said Tim Bright, an executive vice president.
“Because so many data centers have gone there, others are going because of the critical mass of talent, intellectual expertise and vendors that service them, ” he said. “It’s the cool place to be.”

Sarah LaDart, a project manager for the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and Progress Partners, an economic development group, said the area has “been very aware that not every job created in Alpharetta is a $200,000-a-year job. A stone’s throw from the chamber, we have homes that are $100,000.”

Adam Viente with Jones Lang LaSalle describes what he tells potential office tenants at Sanctuary  Park in Alpharetta: “We have million-dollar-plus homes and golf course communities, as well as entry-level housing. And every amenity you could imagine.”

One of those continues to be Alpharetta’s serene setting. On a recent day, traffic was stopped in Sanctuary Park as geese crossed the
road. One of the most popular features at the office park is its softball field, where 16 teams of tenants battle it out for the coveted end-of-season trophy. There’s also a foot path to Verizon Amphitheatre.

Still, “call center” is not exactly what some want the area branded for. “I hate the term because of the connotation that comes with it, ”
Viente said. What Alpharetta has are not sweat shops, where office workers in headsets are corralled into rooms handling difficult customers, then huddle at the exits for 10-minute cigarette breaks, he said. These are sophisticated call centers, he said, handling inside sales calls for companies like Coca-Cola.

Some, for example, are longtime engineers who help restaurants fix beverage machines, added Clint Howell, also with Jones Lang LaSalle, who manages Sanctuary  Park. Many are mid-career and high-paid, he said. “Coca-Cola’s isn’t a call center in the traditional sense of the word, ” Howell said.

One of Alpharetta’s strengths, said Chris Macke, a Washington-based senior real estate strategist with CoStar Group, is its ability to attract companies up Ga. 400 from the Central Perimeter, especially technology firms like Verizon, E-Trade Financial and AT&T that have built campuses in north Fulton.

Many of these businesses will fuel the economy for years, if not decades, to come, Macke said. The result is a stabilization on the north Fulton market, which was hurt when financial service and real estate firms, battered by the recession, shed staff and offices.

Estimates for north Fulton’s overall office vacancy rate vary. CoStar says it was 17 percent in the first quarter, compared to 12.7 percent at the end of 2007. Jones Lang LaSalle reported 19.6 percent for the first quarter, compared to Cushman & Wakefield’s 18.9 percent.

Only the Central Perimeter area and northwest Atlanta have more Class A office space than north Fulton, but North Fulton’s vacancy rate is 15.8 percent, which beats metro Atlanta’s Class A average by more than three points. Central Perimeter’s Class A vacancy
is 18.7 percent, while northwest Atlanta’s is 15.8 percent, according to CoStar.

To be sure, Viente said Class A suburban office buildings aren’t the same as the glittering skyscrapers from downtown to Buckhead. Most Alpharetta office buildings are four to six stories, surrounded by ample parking in manicured settings complete with lakes and waterfalls.

But the office parks and nearby lifestyle continue to be a draw.

“I’m happy where I am right now, ” said Dave Burr, who is consulting business leader for E-Trade Corporate Services, which has a campus on Windward Parkway. He started with E-Trade about two years ago and he loves the campus. “They keep remodeling it and adding more trees and scenery, ” Burr said. “It’s a really pretty office park to come to every morning.” Across the street, there are 10 restaurants, with dozens more a short drive away.

And he raves about another feature: a running group that meets after work Thursdays to take advantage of a nearby 14-mile path that winds through woods. Burr lives in Sandy Springs with his wife, a Midtown lawyer, and their three dogs. He said his commute is a breeze, though he admits his wife’s commute is not.

Clifton Camp, who owns MarketingCamp, a marketing and branding firm, often works from his five-bedroom home in north Fulton.
A Michigan transplant, Camp is on his fifth home since moving here in 2004, continually buying and selling homes after starting with a foreclosure in Country Club of the South. A major plus, he said, is the excellent school system for his three school-aged
kids. By not paying for private school, he said, “I can funnel those funds back into the household so we can have a few of the finer things in life. That is a plus.”

Still, all interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story said that the lack of a rail system is north Fulton’s biggest challenge for both future growth and quality of life.

For Viente, that means a competitive disadvantage for Sanctuary Park. “Central Perimeter has four MARTA stops. We have zero. I think that is the biggest thing this submarket is facing, ” he said. He’d like to see a MARTA stop near North Point Mall.

One of the main jobs of Ann Hanlon, chief operating officer of the North Fulton Community Improvement District, is improving transportation. “The north Fulton area is pretty easy to get around within it, but it’s difficult to get to and from it from somewhere else in the region, ” she said. “It’s a challenge, especially when more and more of our leases are going to call centers, which is pulling employees from other parts of the region.” She said when gas prices skyrocketed a few years ago, she saw people walking
long distances from bus stops in hot temperatures. “It’d be 105 degrees outside and people were walking all over Alpharetta
from the bus stations, ” he said. “We said it’s just not practical.” Her organization, with the help of other groups, is studying transit options. “We’re trying to show the suburbs are ready for transit and make the business case for it and that we can’t live without it anymore, ” she said.

About our series
Metro Atlanta has been a master of reinventing itself ever since the Civil War. In the process, the region has become the undisputed capital of the South, a hub for Fortune 500 companies, with an airport that is the envy of the region. Through it all, landmarks have risen, some have fallen, others were saved and new ones were built. As Atlanta’s ambitions grew, so did unique areas with their own flavor and style, attractions and problems. This year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will embark on an occasional series to check on the skyline. We aim to examine the opportunities and challenges in business districts metrowide.

To send us your ideas for the series, please e-mail Rachel Tobin at rtobin@ajc.com.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Main Edition
Sunday, 4/24/2011, Business, D1

The article is filled with interviews and data that show Alpharetta is kicking the Perimeter area’s butt in attracting technology jobs and corporate headquarters. Alpharetta has higher office occupancy rates and people that have relocated their businesses and families here applaud our quality of life, serene setting and outstanding public schools.

Yet somehow the article concludes that Alpharetta needs to be more like Perimeter Center because, “Central Perimeter has four MARTA stops. We have zero.”

It makes sense that the commercial property owners of the Northpoint CID covet the higher rents of the Perimeter area and it is clear they are pressuring our city council to allow more condos and apartments to accomodate MARTA trains.

But Alpharetta is not like Perimeter Center. That is the key to our success. In the words of Ms. Tobin:

“Thirty years after striking out to attract the executive set by building grand homes around bucolic golf courses and horse farms, Alpharetta has succeeded in its mission of also luring the companies that employ those executives”

Alpharetta’s strategy is working. We are kicking the Perimeter area’s butt. Why should we stop kicking to copy them?

When you are kicking the competition’s butt… don’t stop kicking.

***A special thank you to Rachel Tobin of the AJC for writing an excellent article and allowing me to use it here.***