Monday, November 9, 2009

Reinventing Atlanta Highway

Friend Johnathan McGinty published a thoughtful piece on the challenges along Atlanta Highway and possible solutions in Sunday's Athens Banner Herald. Many people do not realize that the Atlanta Highway corridor (from Big Lots to past Georgia Square Mall) probably has more jobs and retail square feet than the rest of Athens combined. It is a big economic engine tax wise and for out of town shopping given its proximity to Jackson, Barrow and Oconee counties as well.

Two of the ideas he focuses on are Community Improvement Districts and Tax Allocation Districts. While the tools have different uses (and can be used in tandem at times, although not always), each essentially allows political and private sector leaders to find new revenue streams to jump start infrastructure and planning improvements in designated districts. CIDs rely on a voluntary levy on current property owners; TADs allow for bonds to be issued to install infrastructure that will allow a blighted or under-developed area to be redeveloped. Those bonds are then repaid with the increased tax revenues as the designated area's property tax base increases.

My company works with several CIDs and has helped TAD supported projects in Atlanta, so I am a big supporter these ideas in general. For whatever reasons, local economic development leadership has not seen fit to remove this tool from the economic development toolbox in the Classic City.

Johnathan does a good job of articulating the potential positives: leveraging private funds to get significant public dollars, new streetscapes, public safety improvements, rising property values, potential transit, infrastructure investment, coordinated planning, etc.

Two take aways from the article:

1) One of the commenters says that "those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it." He or she is exactly right. In Oconee, we have the opportunity to learn from Atlanta Highway (and countless other examples in Georgia) and not repeat those mistakes. We can and should require higher-quality buildings, require long lasting trees, develop a different type of street grid that accomodates uses besides big boxes, etc. in our retail zones. Otherwise, as our retail infrastructure expands, the older properties will decay much sooner than we realize.

2) As you can tell by the comments in the article, the most visceral Athens and anti-Athens folks want nothing to change. This is the danger of listening to these types of feedback channels. The fact is, Athens -- rightly or wrongly -- created the mess that is Atlanta Highway. The question is 1) why is that area consistenly ignored by the leadership in Athens (too big a problem to tackle? no voters in the commercial districts?) and 2) what can be done to improve it. A CID would activate the private sector to work on solutions, as opposed to relying on government.

CIDs have been proven as good approaches (assuming you define improving run down retail and commercial areas as good). However, Athens is a different animal. For one thing, I'm not sure that Athens political classes will be comfortable allowing self taxing and relinquishing direct control of the wide ranging improvements a CID can make.

I'm also not sure there is the same type of private sector leadership on the Atlanta Highway corridor that drives and motivates the most successful CIDs in Atlanta, which are found in Buckhead, the Cumberland District, Midtown Alliance, North Fulton, and the Perimeter area.

However, these hurdles are easily overcome if local and regional leadership decides to make "fixing" Atlanta Highway a priority, and embracing an area that is of vital importance to the future of the region.


Oconee Democrat said...

Brian, what are the acronyms CID and TAD standing for? Journalism 101 states you should always write them out full after first usage for people like me that are alway curious but can't remember much. And I would wager other who read your blog would greatly appreciate it too

Brian said...

Thanks Dan. Probably did overlook that critical detail, although I did assume that most people would read Johnathan's story and get their explanation there. You know what they say about assuming -- details added.

ACCBiker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

The problem with CIDs is the fact that they are a voluntarily organization that is funded mostly, if not exclusively by the corridor's commercial property owners. Do you really believe that, in this economy, that a bunch of already struggling retailers located along a struggling corridor is going to self-tax themselves? I just don't see it.

Also, I find it fairly ironic that you are advocating for a densely populated tree lined commercial area - how many trees are there along in the parking lots of Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Kroger, and the other commercial properties along Epps Bridge Parkway?

Brian said...

@john: As you mention, it's not the retailers that pay, it's the owners. The important distiction to note is that these are not usually the same parties.

Owners are usually more interested in the future than the retailers, who are typically leaseholders. 75% of owners have to agree to go into a CID to get it established. Retailers typically support CIDs because it costs them nothing and helps them get things they need -- better access for cars and pedestrians, etc.

As for Epps Bridge, if you follow this blog, you'll know I'm not a fan of that particular area and its design. In Watkinsville, we have adopted a form-based zoning code that requires a different approach for retail, etc.

Thanks for your comments!