The WalkUP Movement: Shifting Development Patterns to Walkable Communities

According to local legend, Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead district got its colorful name from the head of a deer that founder Henry Irby shot and displayed at his rural tavern in 1837.

Buckhead, which is part of the city of Atlanta, developed into a high-end suburb, featuring mansions housing Atlanta’s elite and long, winding roads. By the year 2000, the commercial center along Peachtree Road was known for its classy hotels, fine restaurants, one of the South’s first premium malls and, a bit incongruously, a rowdy bar scene.

To take advantage of Buckhead’s attractions, however, you needed a car. Until recently, walking from one place to another was something you just didn’t do.

Now Buckhead and greater Atlanta — once the “poster child of sprawl” — are rapidly morphing into models for the wave of walkable urbanism sweeping parts of the nation. Other areas, unfortunately, are lagging behind.

“Buckhead was initially built in a drivable suburban manner and is now transforming into a walkable urban place,” said Christopher Leinberger, the guru of the walkable urbanism movement. “This is the American built environment transformation of this generation, and Buckhead has gotten a head start on most other places. Buckhead is a model for the country.”

A professor at George Washington University, Leinberger is a developer turned scholar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and consultant who studies and analyzes development trends — in other words, walkable urbanism.

Walkable urbanism is based on high-density, mixed-use buildings combining residential, office, retail, dining and drinking establishments and green space in a compact area that’s easily navigated on foot.

In a walkable urbanism setting “you can get most everything we require in our daily life within a distance of 1,500 to 3,000 feet,” Leinberger said.

That’s basically a 10- to 15-minute walk.

The walkable urbanism movement is driving development in many parts of the country, producing premium profits for developers who saw its potential early. The Top 5 walk-able metro areas, according to Leinberger, are Washington, D.C.; New York; Boston; San Francisco and Chicago. Atlanta ranks eighth. Lagging behind, Leinberger said, are most Sunbelt and Midwestern metros.

Drivable suburbs dominated development patterns in this country for the last half of the 20th century, sprawling out into the countryside around major cities. Now, Leinberger said, even suburbs are embracing walkable development of their town centers.

“The concept of city versus suburb is an obsolete concept and should be thrown out,” he said. “In places like Washington, Boston, Seattle, Miami and Los Angeles, the biggest trend that’s coming up in the future is the urbanization of the suburbs. These are places that have a very high percentage of their development in suburban locations.”

Leinberger says there are two kinds of walkable development: regionally significant and locally serving.

“Regionally significant places have concentrations of employment, civic centers, institutions of higher education, major medical centers, and regional retail, as well as one-of-a-kind cultural, entertainment and sports assets,” he said. “Local-serving places are bedroom communities.”

He said the areas he defines as WalkUPs (for walkable urban places) “are emerging as the preferred development pattern of the early 21st Century. Satisfying the pent-up demand will probably take a generation to do.”

The demand for walkable urbanism is there, according to a 2013 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® survey. The NAR survey found 60 percent of potential homebuyers preferred “a neighborhood with a mix of houses and stores and other businesses that are easy to walk to, rather than neighborhoods that require more driving between home, work and recreation.”

WalkUPs offer a variety of transportation options in addition to shoe leather: bikes, light rail, trolleys and buses among them. Cars still come into play, Leinberger said, but are a significantly less important option than they are in the drivable suburbs. One of the signs of a good walk-able urban district, he said, is a reduction in the number of parking places required to serve the people who live, work and play there. A growing number of those people are living car-free lives, he said.

Based on his detailed studies of walkable places in Atlanta, Washington and Boston, Leinberger concluded that Walk-UPs occupy just one percent of the land mass in the 30 largest metro areas. He said there are 45 WalkUPs averaging 408 acres in size in Washington and 27 averaging 374 acres in Atlanta.

WalkUPs in those cities produce economic benefits all out of proportion to their size, Leinberger said, confirming that walkable urbanism is the economic, as well as developmental, wave of the future.

“Average rent in all real estate products in established Walk-UPs is 112 percent higher on a rent-per-square-foot basis than drivable suburban real estate,” he said.

Denver developer Mark Falcone, who built a pace-setting transportation hub at the city’s historic Union Station, said, “The price premium for walkable urban development is anywhere from 40 to 200 percent on a square-foot basis. That’s pretty stunning.”

Since 2009, Leinberger said, WalkUPs in Washington and Atlanta have accounted for half of all the office, hotel and rental apartment construction in those areas. In Atlanta, half of all new retail development since 2009 has occurred in WalkUPs, he said.

“Twenty-five years ago, downtown D.C. was dead,” Leinberger said. He said 14th Street, which was devastated in the riots triggered by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination in 1968, has become a hot spot for walkable development.

“Going north from the White House last year, 20 new restaurants opened, Trader Joe’s opened,” he said. “It’s been completely rebuilt. It’s just remarkable what’s happened there.”

Leinberger said Downtown Washington now generates $1 billion a year in tax revenue, enough to pay for the D.C. public school system.

Another impressive example of walkable urbanism is Buck-head Atlanta, a $1-billion, mixed-use development that opened earlier this year. Built on the site of some of those rowdy bars that offended neighbors, Buckhead Atlanta comprises 300,000 square feet of upscale retail, restaurants and cafes; 400,000 square feet of high-rise residential and 100,000 square feet of luxury office space. Spanx, the fashionable shapewear company, is locating its headquarters at Buckhead Atlanta.

Buckhead Atlanta is promising upscale shoppers “an experience that rivals that of New York’s 5th Avenue and San Francisco’s Union Square.”

Falcone said the massive project under construction around Union Station in Denver’s LoDo District, short for Lower Downtown, will come in at about $3 billion.

“It’s probably one of the largest developments going on in the country right now, and it’s also the only one with that ambitious transportation plan already in place,” Falcone said.

“In Denver, there are nearly 40,000 apartment units in planning or under construction right now. Of those 40,000 units, nearly half of them are happening in and around downtown Denver. By definition it’s all walkable.”

Leinberger said the best walkable urbanism projects are happening in cities that have developed public-private partnerships such as business improvement districts to facilitate development.

Property owners on the north side of Atlanta formed the Buckhead Community Improvement District, levying a three-mill tax on themselves to pay for improvements to public spaces to encourage walkable development. District Executive Director Jim Durrett said the tax brings in about $4 million a year.

He said Buckhead pedestrian projects include a foot bridge over a busy freeway that split the district and planning for a biking and walking corridor along the highway.

“As a result of the investments we’ve made, you’re seeing a lot more people out on Peachtree walking,” Durrett said.

A smaller city that Leinberger said has done a good job of developing walkable urbanism in its downtown core is Boise, the capital of Idaho. Boise’s Capital City Development Corporation relies on tax increment financing to pay for infrastructure improvements and assists private developers.

Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have opened stores in downtown Boise, developers have built a large number of apartments housing Boise State University students on the edge of downtown and several tech companies have located downtown, creating valuable jobs that attract young techies, said Derrick O’Neill, Boise planning director.

Another employment center is in the works, O’Neill said, as Boise State has announced plans to move its College of Computer Science downtown.

“For our downtown and close surrounding area, we have really good bones,” he said. “We have a great street grid system, we have good block sizes and we have good infrastructure in terms of sidewalks and alleys.”

Jeff Speck, a Washington consultant who studied downtown Boise’s street grid and recommended improvements, said the city needs to work with Ada County to make the streets narrower, widen sidewalks, slow traffic, add bike lanes and improve parking.

“If you were to fix the streets in Boise you would have almost a perfect little downtown,” Speck said.

Meanwhile, O’Neill said, Boise is engaged in an alternative transportation study and will consider future options including rail. About 617,000 people live in the Boise metro area, according to the 2010 Census.

Developing walkable urbanism is challenging, Leinberger said, requiring developers to learn new skills and think big. “You need to put in a critical mass of development in the first place,” he said. “More than 340,000 square feet of retail as well as offices, residential and parks all concentrated in one place. That’s really difficult to pull off.”

A major issue for walkable urbanism developers, Leinberger and Falcone said, is outdated federal, state and local transportation, tax, zoning and other policies.

Falcone said he felt like he was banging his head against the wall when he converted an old shipyard in Kirkland, Washington, a Seattle suburb, into a highly regarded walk-able urbanism project featuring a marina.

“It cost me millions of dollars and years of headaches to get the zoning change to allow me to build what I built,” he said.

How should local government address the zoning issues that complicate the lives and frustrate the planning of walkable urbanism developers?

“The very first thing is to make it legal,” Falcone said. “In 95 percent of the jurisdictions in this country, building mixed-use, high-density WalkUP urban development is not legal. It does not meet the zoning.”

He said he has built 12 WalkUP projects “and all 12 were illegal when I proposed them.”

Smart Growth America has formed LOCUS, a coalition of real estate developers and investors, to lobby Congress for changes in transportation, housing and tax policies that would support walkable urbanism. Leinberger is the chairman.

LOCUS Managing Director Christopher A. Coes said LOCUS is calling for a new federal transportation funding formula that would redirect a substantial portion of funds from building roads and bridges to developing walkability, bike lanes and mass transit. He said the current split is 80 percent auto-driven and only 20 percent for alternative transportation.

Another factor that must be considered by developers, Coes said, is the cost of renting or buying housing units in WalkUPs. There is a gentrification aspect to walkable urbanism as a number of WalkUPs were developed in lower-income areas. Residents of those areas may not be able to afford the sparkling new housing replacing the places where they used to live.

“Developers and cities need to work on affordability,” Coes said. “Teachers, fire fighters and mid-level managers can’t afford walkable housing in cities. They need home buying incentives for millennials, tax incentives and rehabilitation of older buildings in rundown neighborhoods.”

In the near future, Leinberger said, walkable urbanism will continue to spread into areas where it has been slower to develop. He predicts that Miami and Atlanta will move into his list of Top 5 walkable places, replacing San Francisco and Chicago, and Tampa, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston will move into the Top 15.

“If you ascribe any wisdom to sophisticated capital providers,” Falcone said, “they’re clearly voting with their purses. Hundreds of millions, billions, of dollars are being directed to projects that have some kind of walkable amenity within them.”

John Van Gieson is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee, Fla. He owns and runs Van Gieson Media Relations, Inc. 

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