Feb 5, 2016 - Things to Do

How not to become [metro] Atlanta

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Editor’s note: Matt is a long-time Atlanta resident but visits Charlotte often enough to draw some solid parallels. Be sure to read Sen. Jeff Jackson’s piece on Atlanta before diving into this rebuttal.

While there is certainly a lot to be learned from studying the explosive growth Atlanta has endured the past 20+ years, the picture painted in last week’s piece How not to become Atlanta is misleading.

Size matters

It’s important to note that Atlanta, with a population of less than 500,000, is a much smaller city than Charlotte (pop. 800,000). Undoubtedly, Jackson’s analysis refers to the metropolitan Atlanta area, which has a population of 5.6 million and spans more than 8,000 square miles – an area larger than the entire state of Massachusetts.

Atlanta’s expanse results in a metro area governed by a very fragmented, decentralized system comprising 29 counties and 100+ cities and towns, each with their own governing bodies. These stats matter as we dive into the issues impacting smart growth.

Transportation

Transportation improvement plans in Atlanta, including mass transit, requires not just an act of congress, but rather an act of dozens of local congresses in the form of city councils and county commissioners. The lesson for Charlotteans is clear, and it does not start and end with mass transit preceding future growth as the panacea.

In sprawling cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, the mass transit issue isn’t as easy as “build it and they will come.” In fact, it could be argued that the highly successful commuter bus system (and proposed monorails) serving metro Atlanta should be the model going forward rather than the billions of dollars and tens of years it would take to unidirectionally expand heavy rail.

Smart development (and redevelopment)

Civic leaders in Charlotte would be wise to take notice of the outside-the-box thinking metro Atlanta and community leaders have contemplated in tackling congestion and revitalizing the city as needs for future generations change.

First, despite some early controversy and mismanagement, the Atlanta Beltline has been a successful redevelopment project that has spurred private investment and attracted residents back to previously underdeveloped areas of the city of Atlanta. The Atlanta streetcar is another example, but more as a precautionary tale.

For Charlotte to avoid Atlanta’s mistakes it should invest in the infrastructure that makes common sense and will result in the greatest return… as opposed to developing transit that makes political sense and attracts the most federal investment.

With Atlanta’s streetcar, initial studies showed that the north-south corridor exhibited the most potential for ridership and economic development, but these plans were scrapped to focus on an east-west connector (for the aforementioned political and funding reasons). The result was missed deadlines, delayed openings and missed ridership goals (despite offering the service for free).

Developing affordable housing in dense urban and mixed-use zones is another necessary ingredient to successful growth. Atlanta has done a poor job in this regard as rents are soaring, pricing out the middle income folks who demand the mass transit and other amenities of urban living.

Safety

While Charlotte may be moving towards community policing, it can and should learn from the communities in metro Atlanta that are leading the way with citizen involvement. Dozens of residents in the city of Sandy Springs, for example, volunteer in the Citizens on Patrol program.

Sandy Springs is a model for successful cityhood emulated by many communities around the nation, so Jackson is absolutely on point in suggesting the CMPD follow Sandy Springs’s lead in citizen involvement.

Cityhood

On the subject of cityhood, Charlotte should be prepared for when the residents of south Charlotte, for example, decide to vote in favor of cityhood out of frustration for how their tax dollars are being spent (or perhaps misspent) in other parts of the city.

While the fragmented local political scene and competing interests from one community to the next plays a role in slowing efforts aimed at improving Atlanta’s congestion, blocking city-forming is not the answer.

The people of Charlotte will have to decide for themselves what’s in their best interest; however, should secession occur Charlotte’s leaders should foster a collaborative culture aimed at improving overall quality of life for the entire metro area rather than doing the instinctual thing which is to focus insularly.

Can’t we all just get along?

The last point to make is in response to Jackson’s reference to Atlanta’s “Snowmageddon” that halted the city two years ago. I remember this day vividly as neither my wife nor I made it home that night, and the decentralized governing system in metro Atlanta (including public schools) certainly shares much of the blame for the catastrophe.

But it was the ice, not the snow, right? And while Charlotte can certainly learn from Atlanta’s many mistakes, let us not relive this moment as an example to fuel the egos of our friends to the North who already have a bad enough perception of how us Southerners deal with the cold.

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