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?