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Could 700,000 More People Solve Atlanta's Affordability, Mobility Problems?

Atlanta Department of Planning Commissioner Timothy Keane

There may be a solution to Atlanta's growing housing affordability problem: another 700,000-plus people.

Cost of housing and even more commuting options can be helped by the City of Atlanta attracting more people as residents, Atlanta Department of City Planning Commissioner Timothy Keane said. Even with a projected 1.2 million people inside the city, Keane said Atlanta would still be on the lower side of population densities compared to other major global cities, with more than 9,000 people per square mile.

Today, even with the apartment boom within the city limits, the population density ranks around 3,500 people per square mile, he said. That is a far cry from being among the densest cities in the world; Dhaka, Bangladesh, touts more than 114,000 people per square mile.

A recent report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors predicts that Metro Atlanta will surpass 8 million residents by 2046 from 5.7 million people today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported. That would make the area the country's sixth-largest.

With more people, issues with affordability and mobility will become easier to deal with, Keane said at Bisnow's Development & Construction event last week.

“The problem with cities is not enough growth. Come on, every city is congested. We'll have congestion. The best cities of the world have more congestion,” he said. “That's not the point. It's what else do you have other than congestion. That's what differentiates the great cities of the world.”

At a December Bisnow event, Keane warned that Atlanta's coming population boom could complicate planning and growth, but lauded a recent sales tax passage that in part is funding MARTA expansions.

“These investments in transit that are coming really are fundamentally important because Atlanta can't build any more roads,” Keane said. When the onslaught of new residents comes to Atlanta, "let's hope they don't have to drive as much as we do.”

Keane — who is in the process of streamlining the city's permitting process — called on developers to focus on the design of new buildings and how that design will interact with the public realm.

“It will make things better for everyone,” he said. “And it's essential to making a great city.”

DPR Construction Atlanta Unit Leader Chris Bontrager, Portman Holdings Executive Vice President Hunter Richardson and Cherry Bekaert partner Wesley Hudson

Panelists at Bisnow's Development & Construction event also touched on a variety of other issues facing the industry, from recycling water and the evolution of office amenities to how the pitch for Amazon's $5B HQ2 project is teaching the industry to work as a region.

As Coda — the $375M, 770K SF high-performance computing center tower — rises up in Midtown, Portman Holdings Executive Vice President Hunter Richardson said the project's 80K SF data center will be using a lot of water: 55 gallons per minute. But the data center — which will be operated by Next Tier HD — will recycle nearly every gallon of that water in perpetuity, Richardson said.

DPR Construction Unit Leader Chris Bontrager said amenities in new office developments are becoming more elaborate: multimedia areas, yoga studios and dog parks.

“Really, some of the same amenities you're seeing in multifamily … we're seeing in office,” Bontrager said.

Holder Properties Vice President Andy Barfield, Whiting-Turner Group Manager Trevor Pitt, Pickard Chilton principal Jon PIckard, Hines Interests Senior Managing Director John Heagy and The Graham Group Managing Partner Jeffrey Graham

Pickard Chilton principal Jon Pickard said new office developments no longer just have gyms “shoved into the worst space in the building,” they now have wellness centers. Amenities are about company employees and its ability to recruit talent to its ranks and that is spilling over to real estate.

“Everything we do has to change the game. People are looking for unique, rich experiences,” Pickard said. “These trends are global.”

Holder Properties Vice President Andy Barfield said millennials are being trained from college to expect a rich amenity base in their workplace. After all, even student housing projects have things like concierge services that do their laundry for them.

The Integral Group COO Matt Samuelson and Selig Development Chief Development and Operating Officer Steve Baile

Selig Development Chief Development and Operating Officer Steve Baile said the state's pursuit of Amazon's HQ2 project brought the various cities together to work as a region, similar to how Atlanta secured the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. It is a strategy the region needs to continue.

“It is where we need to be in the future,” Baile said. “There are a lot of other headquarter deals in the future.”