By John Ruch and Joe Earle
Thousands of apartments and apartment-renting millennials are coming to Buckhead and the neighborhood should embrace the changes they bring, Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell says.
“These renters…they will be tomorrow’s leaders in Buckhead and we had better be their friends,” Massell told the Buckhead Business Association at its April 7 meeting during his annual “State of the Community” address. “Buckhead will no longer be just a commune of old-money homeowners. It will be a mixture of old money and fresh thinking.”
Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and long-time Buckhead booster, said the community will have to deal with the “tremendous impact” of the apartment boom that he estimated will bring 24,000 new residents—a 30 percent population increase—in the next four to five years. “Believe me, they are coming,” Massell said “A positive reaction can ensure the continuation of Buckhead’s pleasant personality, plus its progress and prosperity.”
Massell said his biggest concern is that some Buckhead leaders aren’t acknowledging the changes underway. He said that since the apartment construction boom started in 2012, the number of units proposed, under construction or in the rental phase has increased 117 percent. The Buckhead Coalition has counted 48 complexes with 14,953 units, he said.
Massell said he is concerned with the character and quality of some of those new buildings, which “won’t look very good in 10 years.” He is also worried about losing small business with neighborhood-oriented businesses, which he wants to address with “affordable retail” set-asides, like policies that require a certain percentage of housing units in a large building to be priced affordably.
Contacted after Massell’s speech, several Buckhead community leaders said they generally agree with him. In emailed comments this week, some worried about traffic and the quality of construction being done, but said continued growth is coming.
“Change is inevitable,” Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said. “We knew in the boom days of the ’90s that zoning decisions made in the ’80s would produce major changes, and we saw significant change in Buckhead in the ’90s. We will see more ahead. Mayor Massell is correct that Buckhead should embrace the apartment dwellers, as it has always embraced change.”
Andrea Bennett, chair of the board of Neighborhood Planning Unit B, which covers much of Buckhead, agreed growth was inevitable in Buckhead, but, like Massell, she worried about the quality of the some of the buildings being constructed.
“We need to do our best to see that new construction is of a caliber that will hold its value over time,” she wrote. “Since we’re building the future now, we should be thinking about how things will look 15 to 20 years down the road. That includes not only the buildings themselves but also our pedestrian and vehicle infrastructure.”
Massell described the influx of millennials into Buckhead in much the way some global leaders talk about international immigration—a big cultural change that is best handled by embracing it. He suggested business association members reach out individually to young newcomers.
Massell also recalled that he came to Buckhead in 1952 as a tenant of a $50-a-month apartment, then went on to become mayor of Atlanta as well as president of the City Council and the business association itself. “So dismiss any concept that renters are second-class citizens,” he said.
Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook also said he assumed many current leaders and innovators “were tenants at some point in their lives, so that should hold true for tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.”
“From a social and political perspective, demographic data as well as my experience suggests that although single-family homeowners may constitute a minority—and shrinking share — of Buckhead’s residents, they will continue to represent the vast majority of those with the ability and desire to make their voices heard in a coordinated fashion,” Shook said.
“Notwithstanding the above, these units will add traffic to already heavily congested streets. From a policy perspective, I believe that this boom is, by itself, grounds to deny future density increases in Buckhead. You can’t fit a fifth quart in a gallon jar.”
Wes Lyle of the Peachtree Park Civic Association also flagged increased traffic as a major problem. “As a Buckhead native, I also welcome all to Buckhead,” Lyle said. “I do have increasing concerns over traffic issues affecting our quality of life, though. This is obviously not the fault of those that want to move here, so I put no burden on them. What I would like to see is significant impact fees on the developers, and rental owners (those that stand to profit) on these units – be they apartments, condos, or hotels. Those fees should be invested in improved and alternative transportation projects relevant to the area.”
But Gordon Certain, president of the North Buckhead Civic Association, said one problem the neighborhood faces is the way city officials assess those impact fees. “Adding traffic on already crowded Buckhead streets costs far more to address than it does in areas of the city where streets are underutilized and land is cheap. Yet the fees are the same,” he said. “The result is that new developments, such as apartments, are subsidized here and are discouraged in parts of the city that badly need revitalization. We need our city and county (and, if necessary, state) leaders to fix these abuses. ”
On April 7, Massell’s speech was met with applause, but audience members had questions about various traffic and development impacts.
One member wanted to know what Massell meant by his “old money” and “fresh thinking” comments. “I’m just talking about the people who built Buckhead. I don’t mean to disparage anybody,” Massell said. “I don’t expect the millennials to all be millionaires, but they definitely have fresh thinking,” he added, suggesting that people visit Atlanta Tech Village “and you’ll get a taste of what fresh thinking is all about.”