The suburbs: New Urbanism’s new frontier?
In 1978, a visitor passing through the concourses of Atlanta's shiny new Hartsfield International Airport could not avoid exposure to Chamber of Commerce posters pronouncing the city's brash promise of the future: “Atlanta, City Without Limits.”
Atlanta had it all, and plenty of it—land, water, transportation, and suburban governments eager to welcome the transferees who were flocking to the self-proclaimed capital of the New South.
Now, some 30 years later, the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area still affords plenty of land for new communities, but most of it stretches 25 to 40 miles from the city's center. Gripped by unusually dry weather, the city's water sources are stressed. Interstate highways that span 14 lanes in many places cannot spare residents from some of the longest commute times in the nation. And while tolerant of growth, suburban municipalities cannot offer the cultural and recreational amenities of intown Atlanta.
Nevertheless, Atlanta continues to grow. The city has been adding 50,000 new jobs per year and is a magnet for the highly-prized 25- to 34-year-old, college-educated demographic known as “The Young & Restless.”
A 2006 New York Times analysis of data compiled by chambers of commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau showed that Atlanta's Y&R population increased 46 percent from 1990 to 2000, and accounted for 9 percent of the metro area's total at the close of the century. People who were aged 25 to 34 between 1990 and 2000 were largely members of Generation X.
While some of Atlanta's Y&R gains came at the expense of cities nationwide (notable among them are New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia) the city came by much of its young population the old-fashioned way—it bred them, educated them, and has held them with a growing economy and an active lifestyle. A substantial portion are the children of the young transferees who flocked to Atlanta in the 1970s and 80s.
Atlanta has always been skilled at redefining itself, and these young people have been welcomed with a wealth of fresh intown housing options that include skyline-altering condo towers, mixed-use developments on reclaimed industrial sites, and new infill housing in inner-city neighborhoods.
Active, young Atlantans, who form a—and possibly the—significant demographic for Atlanta housing, value what Atlanta's intown neighborhoods have to offer: pedestrian orientation, authentic architecture, convenient access to employment centers and recreation, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of community they associate with small towns. But as they begin to form families, personal security, home size, and family finances grow in importance. Consequently, many Generation X Atlantans find themselves less willing to pioneer transitional intown neighborhoods and unable to afford a home of their liking in established and desirable intown neighborhoods where single-family detached home prices often start well over $750,000.
Why not the suburbs?
People who can't find what they want in an urban setting look to the suburbs. But there, new development has largely adhered to timeworn design themes: auto-oriented neighborhoods with beige-box homes and predictable, centrally located amenities. The few suburban Atlanta communities that have embraced live/shop/play ideals and traditional neighborhood development are located far beyond the gravitational pull of the center city's business districts and entertainment attractions. And even some of these sport starting prices of $600,000, well above what most Atlantans would term “affordable.”
By 2003, the growing importance of Gen X buyers and the apparent lack of a community meeting their affordability and lifestyle requirements had revealed an opportunity in Atlanta's housing market that has since become Tributary, a new community with a small town atmosphere and a variety of housing and neighborhood choices designed especially for Gen X individuals, couples, and families. Launching Tributary required us to answer four questions:
Are New Urbanism and affordability mutually exclusive?
The close of World War II marked a turning point in U.S. housing. America had mobilized 16 million people for military service during the war. As they returned home, long-delayed family formation began in earnest. To meet skyrocketing demand for housing, the technology of mass production, perfected during the war, was applied to home construction. Builders specialized in a few designs and a few styles, but on a grand scale. In the post-war era of residential development, affordability, availability, and automobiles were victorious. Community character was a casualty.
Traditional neighborhood development has sought to reclaim community character through the reintroduction of those design elements that were sacrificed to affordability. But must affordability now be sacrificed to achieve a sense of place even when the place is in the suburbs?
Like a chorus, a community is an amalgam of different voices in harmony, distinct but complementary. The classic American neighborhoods prize both homes and streetscape. They distinguish between private spaces and public spaces, but bring them into contact with one another. They create opportunities for neighborliness inside and outside the home.
In theory, the elements that give classic American neighborhoods much of their character—human scale, tree-lined sidewalks, and green spaces, among them—should be more easily incorporated into suburban neighborhoods where greater land availability affords larger, less obstructed canvases on which to paint. In fact, however, transporting urban development to suburban locations has its complications:
What do Gen X buyers want?
In the postwar period, people sought to put space between themselves and others—bigger houses on bigger lots for bigger families. In 1970, 21 percent of households had five or more people, but today only 10 percent do. During the same period, the average number of people per household decreased 18 percent from 3.14 to 2.57. Households are smaller, and younger buyers are more concerned with quality than quantity. As the New York Times reported in a 2006 story that profiled Tributary, “Younger buyers want better, not bigger.”
Gen Xers prize their standards and their standing within their peer group. They will not accept being perceived as “selling out.” It is important to retain neighborhood traits that make intown living attractive to them. In our surveys of Gen X prospects for an intown community in the suburbs, they identified several community features as critical:
In addition, to lure these buyers to the suburbs, it would be necessary to provide amenities not readily available in intown neighborhoods:
Is the Tributary site up to the task?
The site planned for Tributary has proven capable of satisfying all of the target market’s requirements.
Tributary’s location along Interstate 20 just eight miles west of Interstate 285 places it within 20 minutes of downtown Atlanta, 15 minutes of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and 30 minutes of three of Atlanta's other major employment centers.
Bordered by the Chattahoochee River on the south and Sweetwater Creek State Park on the north—and bisected by Sweetwater Creek itself—it offers countless opportunities for nature activities. Several streams run around and through the property. Its rugged terrain is heavily forested. Ridgetops afford views of the Sweetwater Creek Basin, wooded conservation areas, and the downtown Atlanta skyline.
At 2,500 acres, Sweetwater Creek State Park is home to the 215-acre George Sparks Reservoir, a popular site for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Sweetwater Creek itself includes a four-mile run of rapids that bump up to class 5. There are fishing docks, playgrounds, picnic sites, and nine miles of woodland trails that wind along streams and past the Civil War ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company's textile mills, then climb rocky bluffs to provide views of the creek's shoals. All trails are interconnected throughout Tributary.
Prior to the start of development, Tributary ownership donated 500 acres of the site to Sweetwater Creek State Park (bringing the park’s total acreage to the current 2,500) and 13 historic sites on the property to a trust created and managed by the City of Douglasville.
The Master Plan
The size of the Tributary site allows for a truly mixed-use master plan integrating and interconnecting a range of residential neighborhoods, a village center with boutique retailers, a town center for national retailers, a supermarket-anchored community center, and a park of commerce with mid-rise office buildings.
The variety of housing types permits buyers to view Tributary as a community in which they can raise families through several stages of the family life cycle.
Easily the largest residential component is the Village, where single-family, detached homes are priced from the mid-$200’s to more than $1 million. Townhomes in the Village are priced from the low-$200’s. In addition, there are “Park Court” homes that front enclosed parks rather than streets, a configuration ideal for parents of young children.
“River Homes” feature more typical suburban designs with front or side-entry garages on larger home sites, many on cul-de-sacs and built on basements, and priced from the mid-$200’s to the $500’s.
“Ridge Homes” are custom homes on estate-sized sites. Many afford dramatic ridgetop views.
The Village is the Gen X touchstone of Tributary. Like intown neighborhoods, it is pedestrian-oriented. Almost all homes (except those on the perimeter of the property) feature alley-fed garages so streetscapes showcase the people spaces of homes rather than auto spaces. All homes feature usable “rocking chair” front porches that introduce residents to their neighbors. All are built on elevated pads that create a 24-inch pedestal on which the home rests. The three-tiered streetscape rises from the street to tree-lined sidewalks to front porch. Individual landscaping lightly separates the public space of the sidewalk from the private space of the porch.
Like intown neighborhoods, Village homes are not price-segregated. They look right together even when a $250,000 home sits beside a $500,000 home. Each elevation is based on a photo of an actual pre-1940s home submitted by its builder to the town architect.
Green Space & Construction
Gen X buyers are cause-oriented. They want to do the right thing, especially if the right thing will lower the operating expense of their home, add to its value, and create a healthier living environment for their families.
Tributary represents the largest commitment to green building in Atlanta and one of the largest in America. All of its nearly 3,000 homes—single-family detached, townhomes, and multi-family—are being built to the exacting specifications of the EarthCraft House™ program of the Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association.
EarthCraft House is a voluntary builder program dedicated to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly home design and construction. EarthCraft House-certified builders must meet the program's stringent requirements in heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems, ductwork, attic insulation, erosion control, exterior cladding, and window and door openings, among others.
Although builders have flexibility in selecting the EarthCraft approaches best suited to their homes, they must submit a worksheet stating which measures they plan to incorporate. These include but are not limited to site planning, energy-efficient building envelope and systems, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, resource-efficient design and building materials, waste management, indoor air quality, and efficient indoor water use. The worksheet is detailed and must be verified by an EarthCraft House inspector.
Tree-lined, five-foot sidewalks grace both sides of every street in every neighborhood. They shape community fellowship by linking residents to each other and to recreational amenities and gathering places.
More than 35 percent of Tributary's 1,475 acres will be dedicated to green space and recreation.
Recreation: Nature, Fitness, Athletics & Extreme Sports
The Tributary master plan takes a unique approach to recreation, dispersing opportunities throughout the community to make them more accessible to all residents rather than concentrating them all in one central area. All recreational amenities are open to all residents. A full-time activities director and staff orchestrate a stream of community events.
Technology & Connectivity
Gen Xers are prolific and proficient users of technology who regard it as a necessity, not a luxury. Tributary’s fiber optic network delivers an economical communications bundle with local and long-distance telephone, high-speed Internet access, email, and cable television with premium channels, the cost of which is included in homeowners association dues. Residents are kept abreast of community activities by browsing the community Intranet. Neighborhood activity centers and several parks afford password-protected wireless Internet access.
Having structured our offering, we were faced with one final question:
How do you convince the Gen-X buyer?
People buy homes when their lives change, and nothing motivates a home purchase as powerfully as the introduction of children into the family. The number of Gen Xers beginning families is what makes them an attractive market. But Gen Xers are psychographically different buyers—self-assuredly hip, unwilling to sell out, and skeptical. Gregarious, they travel in packs. Quality driven, they insist on authenticity. They welcome diversity.
They are especially unlike their Baby Boomer parents in their media habits. Traditionally, new home marketing campaigns have relied on newspapers, outdoor media, and to a lesser degree, magazines. In Atlanta, where Realtor presence and influence has been strong, agent outreach programs have also been important.
But Gen Xers have altered the marketing landscape. They don’t read newspapers; they get their information online. And they don’t rely on outsiders—like real estate agents—to do their research; they do that online and within their peer group. Once they have found their home on their terms, they will engage a real estate agent to represent them in the purchase.
Because Gen Xers eschew print media, we saw the need to launch Tributary with intrusive radio advertising that could seek out our prospective buyers well beyond the eight-mile radius that typically feeds new home communities, and to speak to them in their language and on their terms. (Listen to the radio spots: SUV Living and OTP vs. ITP.)
Radio spots present Tributary as a solution to transporting kids to activities, spousal relationships, and the Gen X third-rail issue—moving to the suburbs or OTP (outside the Perimeter). The spots were designed to drive traffic to a website—www.TributaryGA.com—rich in content, flash, video, music, and lifestyle and streetscape photography.
Gen Xers place a premium on individuality. To showcase the broad selection of available housing styles and floor plans, we opened with seven decorated models in the Village, added five more when we opened River Banks, and two more when we introduced the Village townhomes.
Selling to Gen Xers is an art, an advanced form of soft-selling that borders on enabling discovery. Stay in touch, but don’t push. Keep them interested. They want to be wanted; they don’t want to be sold. Marketing materials must read and look modern as if they were written and designed by someone their age. They must see themselves in ads, brochures and displays as they want to be seen—casual, cool, and caring.
Did it work?
Within six months of its launch, Tributary had established itself as the most talked-about new home community in Atlanta, and one of the best-selling. The marketing campaign was successfully driving traffic and the product was selling itself. Within a year, it was the best-selling community in its price range, a position it has held despite the recent softening of the Atlanta housing market.
“Smart growth” is the catchphrase among community planners, but too often it’s the planner telling the buyer what’s smart. That isn’t how the marketplace works, especially with the generation that now drives residential development. Listening is paramount.
Advocates for New Urbanism and smart growth who are anxious to see their ideas advanced must recognize the important role that affordability plays in the home purchase and the importance of the suburbs to affordable housing. Transporting New Urbanism and green building concepts to suburban locations is achievable, but it requires a methodical approach to market research, property development, product development, and marketing—an approach that is working at Tributary for “the Young & the Restless” and beyond.
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