I decided to go for a drive from the western suburbs of Atlanta into the city for a few hours of site seeing and checking out the newest development. I had no set plan but wanted to travel to different areas to get a sense of what development attributes I may be able take back with me to Jersey. Traveling down I-20 East in Atlanta, you descend into the City of Atlanta (Atlanta sits in a valley), and watch the ever expanding skyline begin to make its mark on the horizon. That's when you know you've arrived.
Atlanta has expanded tremendously in the past twenty years (and has had a population increase of 10% from 2010 to 2015 alone). The pre-recession rush of people from more expensive parts of the country --namely New York/New Jersey, California and the Midwest--has never seemed to stop flowing south, even during the recession. The last time I visited Atlanta, in 2013, development was still going on despite a still weakened construction market in the Southeast. While it's good to see the city back on its feet and expanding vigorously, it was more pleasing to see the type of development that's being built. Atlanta has really embraced mixed-use development and has attempted to get away from dependance on the automobile by building a new streetcar system and planning new walkways, such as the Beltline project.
In order to understand this change in direction, I think a quick look at the history and current status of Atlanta's zoning code is in order. Because of Atlanta growing in a sprawling pattern and the reflected traffic issues in the region, development is entirely dependent on parking. However Atlanta's parking requirements, despite employing form-based codes and other tactics, remains unfair. Newly created zones, such as the Live Work (LW) District, Mixed Residential Commercial (MRC) District and the Multi-family Residential (MR) District are still using exiting parking standards and are not embracing parking reductions or transit centered initiatives (such as transit hub tax benefits or TOD incentives like in New Jersey) that make these types of mixed use and commercial projects successful in the Tri-State area. They instead try to bring their (baseless and strange imho) sprawl parking standards with them into the future. As you'll learn, Atlanta has their own way of doing things.
The varying architectural styles all come together in a way that makes every building belong. It takes into account the history of the city and where it's going. You have traditional architectural designs next to modern designs. Of course this has been the case throughout history, rarely do you see it look so good. For example, New York's ultra modern, typical square office building towers have now aged, and the 60s, 70s and 80s designs are now looking dated and are being replaced by even bluer towers with more radical designs. They never really looked good next to buildings from the 20's and 30's anyway. I feel things will be different in Atlanta.
From my experience on a Planning Board and in Urban Planning/Zoning for a redeveloping city in New Jersey, I know first hand how important street aesthetic is in the planning stages and especially reflected in the as-built conditions. Atlanta and the developer appear to have found a quick and cheaper way to get a different effect without necessitating a variation in materials (which drives up costs). Instead, the developer simply used different colored painted panels on the facade of the building and poured the savings into amenities that cover the first floor and balconies for every unit. The building also sports a street-level parking garage, a private parking deck and bus stops at foot of the building. Nice.
Next I traveled to eastern Atlanta to one of my favorite neighborhoods: Ponce De Leon Avenue, or simply called, Ponce. Ponce is amazing. The old architecture and expanding gentrification has seen different buildings being brought back to life, such as the Sears Roebuck & Co building, which is now an indoor lofty market space for retailers, and now called Ponce Market. It features many high-end retailers, such as a West Elm furniture store, a Whole Foods Market across the street, loft apartments and condos, a private park and artist space. The project has become so successful that its been expanded (and has sparked more development) into the streets surrounding Ponce that at one point people wouldn't even drive down because of high crime and urban decay.
Heading Downtown, here are a few more shots of how well the new and old skyscrapers blend. I think it may be related to the scale of the buildings, varying topography (Atlanta's very hilly) and setbacks that contribute to the acceptability of varied architecture. Overall the area looked amazing. There's a new streetcar system, changes to the 1996 Olympic Park and a new ferris wheel that echoes the London Eye (unfortunately, I couldn't get any photos).
Writing this from home, I reflect on the diversity of plans and the way Atlanta has seemingly allowed developers leeway in design and the use of form-based codes. I wonder if their is a relation between form-based codes and cost savings for developers. Atlanta is showing that a middle ground between developer and the planning authority can exist more easily with form-based codes and architectural design standards that incorporate popular layouts (afterall, how many different ways can you create a strip mall or mixed use building?), and "tried and true" parking standards (even though many don't make sense). Maybe the strenuous project approval process for new developments that I've been exposed to in NJ may be simplified with form-based codes? I'd like to see more of it adopted in New Jersey.