Atlanta downtown rises again

Traffic is driving Georgia suburbanites back into the city

September 21, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- When Joe and Elizabeth Taylor were expecting their first child three years ago, they decided to move out of the city of Atlanta and into the suburbs 25 miles away, looking for good schools, safe streets and other young families who would be their neighbors.

But what the Taylors didn't bargain for was the traffic -- 16 lanes of asphalt clogged with other suburbanites creeping to their jobs in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Fed up, the Taylors moved back to Atlanta last month, joining thousands of others who are returning to the city.

While Baltimore and other old cities continue to lose population, Atlanta has gained 12,000 residents this decade and expects to grow by another 6,000 this year. Many, the region's officials say, are like the Taylors -- suburbanites weary of long commutes, crowded schools and sprawling developments.

"I was spending three hours a day in the car," said Taylor, a 36-year-old real estate construction supervisor. "It was a total waste of time."

Until recently, Atlanta suffered the plight of many of the nation's cities, losing residents in a 20-year exodus that left vacant houses and empty stores. The city's population shrank from 496,983 in 1970 to 415,200 in 1990, and as recently as four years ago planners expected the slide to continue.

But today building cranes loom over the city, erecting new apartments and turning old warehouses into lofts. The city's existing homes are appreciating in price more than twice as fast as the metro area as a whole.

In moving back into Atlanta, the Taylors traded their nearly new $200,000 Colonial in Alpharetta for a $400,000 house that is 25 years old and needs remodeling. But Joe Taylor also traded a 90-minute drive to work for a 10-minute commute.

"It gives me a lot more time with my family," Taylor said. "In the last four years, we haven't been able to keep in inventory," said Scott Askew, president of Fourteen West Realtors, a downtown real estate company. A decade ago, he said, families were moving out of the city in search of larger homes. Today they "are escaping traffic because they can't get to work."

A few are young families like the Taylors who can afford single-family homes in Atlanta's shady, green neighborhoods. Some are older, like Brenda and Paul Sizemore, who moved into a condominium carved out of one of the city's old mansions. Many are single, young professionals like Marlon S. Campbell, a 26-year-old IBM salesman, who is buying a downtown loft in the shell of a 100-year-old building that once housed the city's newspaper.

Campbell recently stood in his unfinished home, admiring its brick walls and exposed beams. A loading-dock door dominated one wall; the floor was concrete. Campbell said he plans to tear down one of his walls to give himself a view of the city. The cost for the project: $140,000 to $180,000.

For the same money, he could buy a four-bedroom house in the suburbs, but Campbell prefers the convenience of the city. "I'm 15 to 20 minutes from everyone," Campbell said.

In part, the city is benefiting from an economy that is bringing between 6,000 and 7,000 jobs a month into the region, said Michael Dobbins, Atlanta's commissioner of planning, development and neighborhood conservation. Three of the nation's fastest-growing counties are in the Atlanta suburbs.

But the city's growth is expected to accelerate as residents and business move back downtown. Already Coca-Cola is looking to consolidate its offices near its downtown headquarters. BellSouth is merging 75 suburban offices into three locations near metro stations. Turner Sports and Entertainment Development, which had planned to build a 20,000-seat sports arena in the suburbs, instead is building the $215 million project downtown next to the CNN Center. New hotels are going up in anticipation of more convention business, and new office buildings are planned.

The 1996 Olympics contributed to the revival, Dobbins said. The city spruced up its neighborhoods, built new sports complexes, constructed the 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park on a site once occupied by abandoned buildings and parking lots and renovated housing for the world games.

But increasingly, the return to the city seems to be driven by, well, too much driving. Atlantans drive an average of 34 miles a day -- more than residents of any other city in the nation. The city's beltway, called the Perimeter, and the main artery running through downtown are 16 lanes wide, yet cars creep along bumper to bumper in morning rush hours that start well before sunrise and evening commutes that last until dark.

"Atlanta is being choked by highways," said John Griffith, an Atlanta condominium developer.

Radio stations broadcast traffic reports seven days a week; a kiosk in CNN Center advises tourists on the latest traffic conditions.

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