MARTA + Integral + Transwestern

MARTA has chosen a team from Integral and Transwestern–working under the name of Brookhaven City Center Partners–to be the developers of the Brookhaven MARTA Station site.  They were one of 7 teams that submitted.  Their proposal is built around a major civic plaza that anchors the Peachtree Road side, with a wide green promenade leading from the plaza to  Apple Valley on the east.  It will be a “continuous urban park” in their words.

They are proposing a boutique hotel and an office building along Peachtree, with senior housing, multi-family, civic space and some local retail on the Apple Valley side.  They would like to slow down traffic on Apple Valley and re-design it as a neighborhood street.  The entire development will be focused on pedestrian access and use.

Here are some artist’s sketches. [Note:   The photos shown in the Atlanta Business Chronicle article announcing the selection derive from the LCI Study and a 2008 consultant’s study and have no relationship to Brookhaven City Center Partners’ proposal.]


View from Peachtree

View from Peachtree

View from Apple Valley

View from Apple Valley


View from Apple Valley

View from Apple Valley




Why Mixed-Use Matters

What is “mixed-use development” and why is everyone talking about it?  Don’t most towns, by their nature, already have a mixture of uses?  What’s newsworthy?  [read more]

MARTA Project RFP Finalists

Below is a list of the seven developers who have passed MARTA’s RFQ (Request for Qualifications) process for Brookhaven and are permitted to compete in the RFP (Request for Proposals) process. They have been invited to meet individually with the Brookhaven MARTA-CRB to learn more about Brookhaven’s planning for the site.  You can find scheduled meetings on the City’s Public Meeting calendar at the City’s website.


Brookhaven City Center Partners, LLC   [The Integral Group/Transwestern with Cooper Cary Architects]

Brookhaven TOD Joint Venture     [Atlantic Realty]

Brookhaven TOD Partners LLC     [Regent Partners]

Buckingham Companies

North American/H.J. Russell

The Georgetown Company

Fuqua Development



Too Much Traffic!

Who likes to be stuck in a car going nowhere? It’s frustrating any time, and particularly when you’ve allowed exactly 20 minutes to get to your appointment a few miles away.  Meanwhile, motorists are stopped in front of you, oblivious to your predicament.   [Click this link for full article]

What Density Is Right for Central Brookhaven?

More dense development is spun into Brookhaven’s DNA.  Since the planning of the north MARTA line in the 1970s and the decision by MARTA and DeKalb County to locate a MARTA station along Peachtree at Dresden, it has been understood that the area would redevelop with more density.  It is a basic urban planning principle that mass transit stations are located in dense urban nodes–mass transit economics depend on a critical mass of riders, and that means serving locations where people live and where they want to go.

Brookhaven is ‘just up Peachtree’ (Atlanta’s Main Street) from Lenox.  Several “station area” planning studies have been done over the years showing taller buildings and greater density around the MARTA station, with the LCI Study plan and the MARTA Charrette plan being the most recent.  It has taken longer for re-development to come to Brookhaven than planners predicted, but it appears that now it is imminent.

How is Density Measured?

Density can be measured in at least three different ways for planning purposes.

Units/acre is a common measure of residential density: its limitation is that it only accounts for people who make their home in the defined area.

Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is another common measure: it measures overall building density by comparing building floor area to land area.  It does not distinguish by building use, and it assumes that the people using each building will be roughly proportional to building floor area. Its advantage is that it presumably includes both people who live in an area and people who work or visit an area.

Occupants/area is a third measure, with “area”in this ratio usually being a square block or square mile. This is usually an after-the-fact empirical measurement and can be difficult to use for presciptive planning criteria.

The Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay Zoning District uses, by implication, an FAR approach. It specifies a footprint size and building height, resulting in a building volume that can be used for any of a mix of specified uses.  It encourages ground floor retail space but doesn’t require it.  Brookhaven currently interprets the Overlay as not specifying residential densities, meaning that the Overlay’s FAR approach can only be applied if no residential units are included in a development.  This interpretation has the net effect of requiring all new development that includes housing to go through a public hearing and rezoning process to determine the housing density.

There are two separate, but related, ways to understand density for central Brookhaven:  1) what is the right density from an urban planning perspective?, and 2) what is the right density from an economic (and property rights) perspective?


The Urban Planning Approach

So what density is right for central Brookhaven?  The LCI Study (Urban Collage, 2005) suggested a density and use mix as did the MARTA Study (EDAW, 2009).  Their recommendations are summarized in the chart below.

As to an optimal density, there is no factual answer in the urban planning universe other than, “a fairly dense urban development is an essential feature of a successful public transit system.”  That’s taken from a 2011 Cal-Berkeley study entitled “Urban Densities and Transit: A Multi-Dimensional Perspective” ( UC-Berkeley Study)  The study goes on to review 24 mass transit systems in major cities throughout the US (including Atlanta), and the authors conclude that 45 residents per gross acre within a ½ mile radius of a heavy rail station is a sound number for financial viability.  They also conclude that what’s as or more important than nearby residents to a mass-transit station’s success are JOBS concentrated within a ¼ mile radius of the station. “The magnitude of the relationship between employment density and transit ridership is twice as large as that between residential density and transit ridership.” ” (PPIC Report “Making the Most of Transit”).

So what is the right mix of jobs and residents to support a MARTA station?  From two more studies, we learn that MARTA rail has cost about $175 million per mile (Transportation Decision Making: Principles of Project Evaluation and Programming, Sinha and Labi) and that at least 145 jobs and/or people are needed per acre within a ½ mile radius to support a rail station associated with that level of capital expense (UCTC Study).

[Reader warning: math alert! …next 2 paragraphs. Skip down to the chart if you don’t care how the numbers are arrived at.]

Doing the math, one can conclude that a healthy density for areas within ¼ mile of a mass transit station would provide 45 residents and 100 jobs per gross acre.** If we assume one gross acre results in 0.5 net acres of developable land, that results in 90 residents and 200 jobs per developable acre.  Extrapolating to actual building area, we can posit about 60 residential units and 60,000 SF of office/retail space (300 SF/employee) per developable acre as a healthy development density for a heavy rail station like Brookhaven.

These numbers actually work well with the building heights and footprints allowed in the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District at the MARTA station (Subarea 1—along Peachtree and around MARTA).  The Overlay allows 6 story buildings in Subarea 1—with up to 2 bonus stories for providing certain public benefits.  By back-of-the-envelope calculation, we can assume residential units at 1200 SF gross x 60 units = 72,000 SF/acre.  Add to that 60,000 SF of office/retail area and we get a total of 132,000 SF of developed building per gross acre of land.  If we assume 50% net development efficiency per acre–allowing for streets, sidewalks, parking and open space—we end up with 21,780 SF of available building footprint per gross acre of land.  From this, we can project 6 story buildings (132,000 SF/21,780 SF) to accommodate, approximately, the projected building area.


MARTA Station Densities from Various Urban Planning Analyses

                        Residential     Hotel/Office Retail/         Library/             Parking

(Units)            Commercial  Restaurant      Civic             (spaces)


LCI Study            300                 200,000          40,000            18,000+             1600


MARTA Study    575               200,000          unspecified       18,000+             2000

(EDAW, 2008)

UC-Berkeley,    600               600,000           included           included         unspecified

et al.

**The resident/jobs mix can be viewed as averaged over several transit stations.  Thus if one transit station—say, Lenox—is heavy on jobs, another—say, Brookhaven—could overweight residences.


The Development Economics Approach

Let’s look at this further, this time from an development economics perspective.  The real estate market sets property values, and property values drive development density.  Central Brookhaven has two recent apartment developments on Dresden we can look to for market land value.  @1377 paid $1.6 M/acre for land (2012) according to property records, netting 65 units/acre on the property, or roughly $24,000/unit;  Brookhaven Alta paid $2.2 M/acre (2012), and netted 73 units/acre, or $29,000/unit.  Property on Peachtree, we can fairly assume, will be somewhat higher—currently asking prices are $2.5-3.0 M/acre. For a purely residential project then, we can expect densities in the 80 – 100 unit/acre range to maintain a workable land/unit price.  To the extent that office/retail space is added to the mix, fewer residential units are needed.

In fact, MARTA owns much of the developable land in central Brookhaven and has shown willingness to use pricing flexibility to get the type of development it wants.  MARTA will likely accept a somewhat lower-than-market land price, for example, that allows developers to include some affordable housing and significant green space on the Brookhaven site, as well as to build MARTA’s required replacement parking.


Property Rights and Density

To the extent there is strong building precedent in the area, the property values established by recent prior buildings help determine a minimum “legal” price for property.  Due to basic American liberties, named in or extrapolated from the US Constitution, property owners have rights that allow them a “reasonable economic use of their property.” In practice, this comes down to “a similar economic return to that of one’s neighbors” or “an economic use that’s supported by public planning.”  Property rights, in other words, underpin the land values and anticipated density of the properties in central Brookhaven.  If a would-be developer is not satisfied with the density Brookhaven agrees to permit, he/she can make the case to Superior Court based on property rights principles.

To be clear, the data presented above are projections of the most general nature, and the economics of each specific location—land cost, infrastructure cost, construction cost, market demand & pricing—drives the density and use mix of any specific project such as Brookhaven.  Urban planning analysis can help us make projections, but hard development proposals will tell us what is real.

If we accept the need for modest density, the question becomes, what kind of development?  Apartments?  Offices?  Retail centers?  We as Brookhaven citizens have had something to say about this through the LCI Study and Charrette processes and have said, “a mixture” because a mixture of uses creates an urban center that is most livable and sustainable.  We will get to reiterate our views in the public rezoning process that is sure to be part of most new development.

This leads us to another question—why mixed-use?  This will be the subject of a future post.

Are Apartments Bad for Brookhaven?

Single-family home owners tend to be skeptical of apartments, and Brookhaven homeowners are no exception.  The perception is that 1) apartments will be a drag on property values, 2) apartment renters will not be vested in the well-being of the community, and 3) apartment renters will create traffic congestion on Peachtree and Dresden.  Are these ideas supported by urban studies and economics?

Let’s look at each perception more carefully.

1) Apartments will be a drag on property values

You’ve probably heard the old adage that real estate value is determined by “location, location, location,” and therefore we want to be cautious in generalizing from studies.  However, in 2007 a Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies’ research paper looked at this question in detail by reviewing a number of previous studies.


Many of the reviewed studies focused on the question, ‘do lower-income or workforce-income focused apartment developments lower the property value of surrounding single-family houses?’  All studies concluded that this was not the case.  While individual results would be neighborhood-specific, the overriding conclusion was captured by the statement, “We find that large, dense, multi-family rental developments….do not negatively impact the sales price of nearby single-family homes.”  Interestingly, the inverse was often true—homes located near dense multi-family developments appreciated about 0.5% faster than homes located further away.

In the case of Brookhaven—location, location, location–we can find good reasons to expect the latter (faster appreciation) to be true.  First, all new apartment projects in Brookhaven have been “luxury” Class A quality with rents in the $1.80 – $2.20/SF range.  That means a 1,200 SF 2 bedroom apartment will rent for about $2,400/month, a rent that can only be handled by well-paid or well-off households.  Secondly, all of these apartments are built to “condominium standards” with the expectation that they can be converted to condominium home-ownership when market and financing conditions are favorable. There is nothing shoddy about the construction or sound-proofing. Thirdly, the influx of apartment renters increases local street and retail activity, confirming the popularity of Brookhaven and making it known and attractive to a wider group of metro-Atlantans.  More “buyers” per seller equals upward pricing pressure in the Brookhaven market.  Fourthly, young apartment dwellers become a key part of the home-buying market as they couple up and/or have children.  Presumably, many of them like living in Brookhaven and will want to stay as they search for a single-family home. This also serves to drive up the price of Brookhaven single-family housing.


2) Apartment renters will not be vested in the well-being of the community

This perception often takes the form of two subsidiary assumptions: 1) apartment dwellers do not engage in local social and civic activity and 2) the presence of apartments increases crime.

It seems self-evident that if you don’t own, you care less. After all, you can leave at any time (almost). The Harvard study referenced above looked at this question and found the evidence less clear.

Yes, apartment dwellers are less likely to vote in elections than homeowners—47% vs. 78%.  This supports the “care less” argument.  On the other hand, apartment dwellers were more likely to socialize with their neighbors (33% vs. 17%), just as likely to engage with local social groups (book clubs, recreational sports leagues, dinner clubs), almost as likely to identify closely with their city, and only moderately less likely to identify closely with their neighborhood.  While it may be true to say that homeowners are generally MORE invested in the community, it would be inaccurate to characterize apartment occupants as “uninvested.”

Do apartments correspond with higher local crime rates?  The Harvard report reviewed three studies, all of which found “no connection between crime and housing density.”  While there is a statistical connection between crime and socio-economic status, this would not apply to apartments in the Brookhaven Overlay area as, given the costs of apartment living in Brookhaven, there would be little statistical difference in socio-economic status.


3) Apartment renters will create traffic congestion on Peachtree and Dresden

New apartments bring greater density to central Brookhaven and therefore more cars.  Do more cars equal more congestion?  This is not as simple an answer as it would seem since it depends on frequency and timing of car trips, unused road capacity, and traffic engineering, but let’s assume that more cars will create at least some more congestion.  Will this make Peachtree and Dresden impossible to navigate?

To answer this question, Brookhaven’s new Comprehensive Traffic Plan uses traffic engineering protocols to study Peachtree and Dresden.  The pertinent descriptor is “Level of Service” (LOS) of each road, and the Comp Plan analyzes today’s LOS and that of 2034 based on development and growth projections.  Peachtree is currently rated a “C” and Dreden a “D”.  In 2034, Peachtree is projected to have an LOS of “D”, and Dresden is projected to remain a “D”.  Here is the definition of those LOS ratings, from the Comp Plan text:

At LOS C, traffic flow is stable with a level of comfort and convenience for the driver. However, at LOS D, speed and freedom to maneuver in traffic become more restrictive. LOS E indicates that a road is nearing its capacity to serve traffic and flow is unstable, driver comfort and convenience are poor, and “stop and go” conditions are present.

 In other words, despite our intuitive assumptions that “things will get much worse with more cars”, the traffic engineering analysis suggests that Dresden has the capacity to handle the additional cars without more congestion, while Peachtree will experience more congestion—at least by 2034 when all sites along Peachtree are built out. Note that the Comp Plan goes on to recommend “technical analysis” of the Peachtree/Dresden and Peachtree/N. Druid Hills intersections with an eye to improvements to ease future congestion.  In other words, roadway and intersection improvements are available to mitigate congestion.

In summary, there’s no documented reason to think apartments are bad for Brookhaven.  If anything, higher density housing– whether apartments or condominiums–bring a greater variety of housing stock to Brookhaven, and “Diverse housing stock, in fact, is the key to creating a vibrant and diverse community.”  [Bradley Calvert.]  In addition, more households in a compact area will support more shops and restaurants, which in turn give all Brookhaven residents more eating/shopping/service choices.

The Harvard study goes on to note, “Experience suggests that opponents who live near apartment developments are often hard to convince.  For some, opposition to apartments may be more emotional than analytical.  Anecdotes trump statistics.”

There may be other views rooted in analysis on this subject.  Responses based on studies and statistics are welcome and will be posted to further this discussion.

Growth That Works

By MIKE MORGAN, an Atlanta-based landscape architect and urban designer 

Growth has been, for decades, one of the Atlanta’s primary economic forces. Development, infrastructure, manufacturing, engineering, and architecture are all part of the growth economy.

In aggregate, the markets that enable growth have been second only to the energy markets (fuels and electricity) in Atlanta.

Successful industries require innovation and investment. The growth industry is no different. Lately though,accommodations needed for growth have been out of balance.

In particular, the arteries of transportation are becoming ever more congested, and the public realm has come to be seen as hostile. New and wider roads have been the normal solution to the problem.

However, an ever expanding sea of asphalt has begun to tear at the fabric of urban life. Increases in congestion and asphalt have begun to damage much that has made the city attractive. The “city in a forest” has come to be seen as the city of traffic jams, pavement and heat.

A recent event opened my eyes to another view of Atlanta. A colleague from Boston was in town for meetingsand commented that she wished that Boston’s public transportation system was as good as Atlanta’s. I was floored by her comment. Isn’t Boston’s system excellent and Atlanta’s second-tier?

My colleague had flown into ATL, boarded the MARTA train to Decatur, walked from the Decatur station to a downtown Decatur hotel. She spent a pleasant evening in Decatur, and the next morning she took the train north to Doraville for meeting preparations. Around noon we took the train downtown for our meetings. She then hopped a train back to the airport and debarked for home.

As a visitor, she experienced an Atlanta that few auto-bound residents perceive. Atlantans, however, seem trapped in a belief that roadway improvements are the only way forward and that huge inputs of public funding are required to make the city more inviting. Perhaps an alternate vision is called for rather than a bigger road network.

Fortunately, we do not have go very far to find a great example the results that can be achieved through a change of direction.

Decatur is the place, and it is right next door. Decatur made a radical choice to reorient itself to the realm of the pedestrian. They went on a road diet. They narrowed Ponce De Leon Ave. to two lanes. They replaced auto capacity with shady sidewalks, on-street parking, and bike lanes. They focused a vibrant living environment right on top of their fine downtown train station.

Rather than separating residents from transit with vast expanses of asphalt, Decatur actually mandates a mix of uses – residential, working, and recreation all together within the compact area of downtown. They placed emphasis on livability over throughput, and the yield has been one of the most desirable urban environments in the US.

Atlanta, to date, lacks a focused commitment to an urbane lifestyle. Look at the areas surrounding most of the intown train stations. While originally envisioned as community centers, policies were never put in place to make transit development desirable.

Stations are separated from users by blasted looking parking lots, high fences, atrocious urban design, dangerous roadways and sprawling commercial districts. The stations are not friendly to pedestrians or bicyclists. Is there any wonder that few people use them?

Much of Atlanta is actively hostile to people who are not in cars. Just walk along the edges of Piedmont Park if you don’t believe it.

Atlanta’s most popular park is separated from adjacent neighborhoods by four lane arterial streets with dangerously narrow sidewalks and fast traffic. Sidewalks everywhere in Atlanta are irregular and full of obstacles.

And yet the City’s priorities appear to be on big ticket roadway expansion and transit projects.

A really interesting fact about urbane environments is that they are not expensive. With few exceptions, the changes that have made Decatur so alluring have been the result of a switch to people-oriented development patterns.

Looking further afield, Manhattan, of all places, has been on a road-diet binge in recent years. Where money is scarce for pedestrian and bicycle projects, impatient

Manhattanites have simply narrowed roads by installing boulders and planters in the streets thus converting roadway to bike lanes and people areas. Portions of Broadway near Times Square have been closed and famously filled with plastic lawn furniture.

The west side freeway is now a beautiful parkway. People love it. Manhattan now sees thousands of people riding bicycles in simple dedicated bike lanes for both work and fun.

Urbanity is a state of mind. Great cities do not become great by building freeways. Never have, never will.

It is imperative to remember that cities are, first, places for people. When this attitude takes hold in Atlanta we can begin a return to healthy growth.

The old way is gone.