Wednesday, December 12, 2012

East Atlanta Renaissance: All due to East Lake Golf Club

There has been quite a bit of debate in twitter-verse and media world regarding the proposed Trinity Forest golf course.  I'm on record as saying, it's a perfectly fine idea for land that isn't terribly useful for much else.  And, more importantly, it is great to swipe the Byron Nelson, which seems to be inevitable.  I hesitate to use the second worst phrase in Dallas development lexicon, "game changer" (behind "world class"), but it is the Byron Nelson that makes this deal even worthwhile.

However, the cheerleading for economic development as the next magic bullet for South Dallas is over the top, politically cynical, and disingenuous.  Even the mayor has been backing away from the "hundreds of millions" rhetoric.  Instead, the Morning News editorial page doubled down, citing pretty superficial census data.  "Hey look. Income is up around it."

Here are the facts.  East Lake Golf Club is over one hundred years old.  It's four miles from downtown Atlanta.  East Atlanta had fallen into decay and blight through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, like every downtown adjacent area in the Sun Belt.  The golf course was then renovated in the 90s.  After which, the course began landing more PGA tournaments.

The kind of money needed to renovate a golf course to those standards certainly creates some spin-off development, but is it really responsible for the rise of East Atlanta?

To better make the analogy of Atlanta to Dallas, the downtowns are fairly similar, but Atlanta's then grows directly into Midtown, which is their equivalent to uptown.  Both of which have seen quite a resurgance over the last twenty years.  The major difference however is that downtown and midtown Atlanta then both blend into neighborhoods toward the east without barrier, ie freeways, making investment moving eastward from downtown and midtown the obvious direction for the next generation of investment and development.

On the map, you can see downtown to the left (middle) and midtown to the top left.  East Lake Golf Club has the google earth pointer.  I have then circled five areas of East Atlanta that have seen a resurgence in the last ten years:  Atkins Park, Little Five Points, Kirkwood, East Atlanta Village, and Downtown Decatur.  Each of these serve as neighborhood centers of gravity for commercial services, amenities, and primarily social exchange (particularly for younger people, ie bars, restaurants, and cafes).

It is important to note that all of these areas (except for Decatur, which is a large historic downtown that Atlanta's growth absorbed long ago) are west of East Lake.  Despite the City of Atlantas efforts to revitalize areas East of East Lake, with significant streetscape expenditures (particularly along Candler Road) it really hasn't happened.  If East Lake was the driver, the revitalization would likely revolve around it rather than what it does, which is expand from downtown and coalesce around streetcar sub-centers.

It is critical to note that the rise and investment in these areas has mostly occurred in the last ten years, in that the development model is significantly different than what occurred around East Lake, which is more conventional suburban in nature.  Meanwhile, these historic streetcar suburbs are more about small-scale infill of existing areas.  The development is much more walkable and urban and it blends into the surrounding areas.  They are very similar to Greenville and Bishop Arts, both in their scale and feel, but also the young professional / hipster demographic they've attracted.  A demographic which is drawn to these places both for the character, towards their similar peer cohort, and the cheap land and attractive, small 30's-ish housing stock left behind by the hollowing out of Sun Belt cities.

Furthermore, when looking at the census data, the median income cited by the Morning News around East Lake is indeed in the 40K range all around the golf course.  However, the census data shows greater improvement around these revitalized neighborhood centers, mostly in the 50s and 60s.  Furthermore, the range of historic and new housing stock is similar throughout the area, between 200,000 and 350,000 with no discernible difference by location or proximity to the golf course, but rather by size of the individual dwelling and its condition.  It is also important to note that these areas actually serve the demographic of the area.  A private golf course isn't an amenity for the demographic that the Morning News is suggesting it is responsible for.  However, these walkable centers do serve the demographic.

Timing and location suggests that the rise of East Atlanta had more to do with broader demographic patterns favoring a shift back towards cities than re-investment in a golf course.  And because of that, we have to relate these lessons back to Dallas and the Trinity Forest course, which is 8 miles away and not set within existing neighborhood fabric.  Instead, as with East Lake, there will be some auxiliary and spin-off development associated, however we can not attribute broader regional gains to any singular investment such as a golf course.