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REALTORS® Take Action Making Smart Growth Happen

August 2, 2012

The significant impact that smart growth can have on commercial property demand and values is often overlooked by many commercial practitioners. The Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS’® Community Growth Committee set out to create a common approach to examining the benefits of higher density mixed-use and transit-oriented development (TOD).

Smart growth, which emphasizes walkability, higher density, and transportation access as ways to more effectively use land, is not a new concept. Yet, the significant impact that smart growth can have on commercial property demand and values is often overlooked by many commercial practitioners. In Atlanta, the Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS’® Community Growth Committee set out to create a common approach to examining the benefits of higher density mixed-use and transit-oriented development (TOD).

Many of the Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS’® (ACBR) early smart growth initiatives focused on education and liaison with fellow commercial REALTORS® and public officials. But in 2011, the ACBR had the opportunity to take the next step — to actively participate in turning a smart growth plan into a viable commercial/ residential development. The property in question was the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) station at Edgewood/Candler Park. Located in Edgewood, an older suburb of mostly single-family homes southeast of downtown, the 1979-vintage station offered a prime opportunity for redevelopment, according to Dan Reuter, land use chief for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC).

“There is a lot of unrealized potential near many of our rail stations, and with the growing market of Atlanta buyers and renters who want to live in urban, walkable places, many of the stations offer a great place to provide more TOD real estate,” Reuter explained.

In Edgewood’s case, the biggest unrealized asset was a large, but underutilized, parking lot on the seven-acre site. Even at rush hour, the lot was never more than 35 percent full since many of the 1,200 to 1,400 weekday riders walked, came by bus, or were dropped off. The fenced parking lots and deteriorating sidewalks also created a barrier between the station and an adjacent park and isolated the station from nearby multifamily and retail sites.

A stroke of good fortune helped move the project forward. ARC, along with other Atlanta community groups including Southface Energy Institute, were working with Bill Lennertz, executive director of the National Charrette Institute, to learn how to conduct charrettes. As part of the training, Lennertz proposed working on a real project. ARC suggested Edgewood.

A charrette, a collaborative process that allows a variety of project stakeholders to participate in local planning and design decisions, is “very well-suited to complicated projects like transit-oriented development because it allows for collaborative solutions,” said Lennertz.

Reuter agrees, saying charrettes are “a great way to focus on the actionable steps that can lead to real development.”

The charette was possible, in part, because of a $10,000 NAR Smart Growth Action Grant that was awarded to ACBR. ACBR was also involved in the charette and provided important market data information.

“Part of the concept of a charrette is that you reach out to as many constituencies as possible and the real estate and building community is a big piece of that,” said Robert Reed, sustainable communities design director for the nonprofit Southface Energy Institute and one of the driving forces behind the Edgewood charrette. “Markets are shifting as more millennials want to live in urban, walkable places, and real estate professionals understand those market realities.”

Reuter explained that the market data helped direct design decisions during the Edgewood charrette.

“We require a market analysis as part of our smart growth planning process because we want the community to understand what the market potential is for a site and not anticipate uses that aren’t feasible,” said Reuter.

Data provided by ACBR supported the proximity to transit as an important piece of the diverse, affordable housing the Edgewood residents wanted.

“Housing expenses in our region are affordable, averaging 23.7 percent of personal income, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology,” said Robert Broome, government affairs director for the Atlanta Commercial Board of REALTORS’®. But he went on to explain that when factoring in transportation costs, suburban counties that lack public transit exceed the 45 percent of income range for housing and transit that it generally considered affordable.

Two design variations emerged from the charrette process. Each called for three-to-four story residential buildings incorporating approximately 300 rental units. Between 10,000 and 16,000 square feet of restaurants and other retail and between 5,700 to 7,100 square feet of office spaced rounded out the designs. The site would become a destination for home, work and play instead of a concrete island.

Both designs also reflected the community’s desire for green space and civic areas. One final concept called for a large central commons, ideal for farmers markets and concerts. The second approach reduced the size of the commons and added two pocket parks and more street front green space. Both consolidated transit parking into a garage structure and kept bus access lanes unchanged, a major concern for MARTA. A more complete summary of the Edgewood design and the entire charrette process can be found on the Atlanta Regional Commission website.

While ACBR’s role in conducting the Edgewood charrette was important, its activities after the fact were even more critical in moving the smart growth initiative forward.

“We didn’t want to just complete the design and have it sit on a shelf,” explains Broome. The board lobbied to ensure that the Edgewood final report was incorporated into the city’s comprehensive development plan.”

Now, with an Edgewood transit-oriented project securely part of Atlanta’s future, MARTA is negotiating with an active local developer, Columbia Residential, to acquire and develop the site through a public/private partnership with the Atlanta Development Authority. In a few years time, Atlanta’s commercial REALTORS® may be taking on a new role at Edgewood — that of leasing brokers.