Photo by Counse on Flickr.

Once known for sprawl, Atlanta has become a bastion of smart growth and transit-oriented development. In our region, it could be a model for Prince George’s County, which struggles with the same issues.

New research from George Washington University professor Christopher Leinberger reveals that most of the Atlanta region’s office, retail, and rental residential construction now occurs in walkable urban places, or WalkUPs. The study, The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta, is a follow-up to previous research of the DC area and reveals several fascinating facts about Atlanta’s development landscape during the most recent real estate cycle, from 2009 to the present.

Leinberger, who led the study in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Regional Commission, said it was as significant as the announcement of the closing of the American frontier after the 1890 census. “This is indicative that we’re seeing the end of sprawl,” he declared.

The study generally follows the same methodology as the DC study, and found similar results. Like in the DC area, Metropolitan Atlanta’s 36 established and emerging WalkUPs are located on less than one percent of the region’s total land area. 29 of them are located within the I-285 Perimeter, Atlanta’s version of the Capital Beltway. And they’re 16 times more densely developed than the rest of the region, in terms of gross floor area ratio (FAR).

More than 60% of the Atlanta region’s income-producing property, which includes office, apartment, retail, institutional, and all other non-for-sale real estate, is located in the 36 WalkUPs. Meanwhile, 73% of the development in established WalkUPs and 85% of the development in emerging WalkUPs occurred near MARTA rail stations, the region’s transit authority.

Multifamily rental housing drove real estate growth in established WalkUPs, which captured 88% of the region’s multifamily units. And established WalkUPs are home to 50% of the Atlanta region’s newly constructed office space.

Leinberger describes the Washington and Atlanta metropolitan areas as “peas in a pod” and “as comparable as any two large metropolitan areas in the country,” in terms of population, character, development form, traffic, rail transit, and status as government and regional capitals.

Prince George’s today looks like Atlanta yesterday

As comparable as the Washington region may be to metropolitan Atlanta, Prince George’s County most resembles Atlanta in its sprawling past. The county has just three of the region’s WalkUPs, even though it has 15 Metrorail stations, more than any other suburban jurisdiction.


Blighted conditions at Prince George’s Addison Road Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.


The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) reports that over the past decade, more than 60% of Prince George’s non-residential, income-producing development has occurred outside of the Beltway, in automobile-oriented locations far away from transit.

Additionally, nearly 80% of the approved-but-unbuilt residential development in Prince George’s County consists of single-family homes planned for automobile-oriented outer-Beltway suburbia. Only 11% of the nearly 17,000 housing units in the pipeline are of multifamily homes, and only one-third of those, or 616 units, are planned for inside the Beltway.

Rather than revitalizing and developing around Metro stations and inside the Beltway, Prince George’s County prefers to tout greenfield edge cities like Westphalia, or to promote elaborate automobile-oriented venues like a proposed billion dollar Bellagio-style casino or a Tanger Outlets center. M-NCPPC has long warned that unless the county reverses course, it will be ill-equipped to handle future market demand and get left behind.

Glimmers of hope for smarter growth

That’s not to say that there aren’t occasionally glimmers of hope for smarter growth in Prince George’s. In recent months, the county has voiced support for two significant proposed transit-oriented developments: a new regional hospital at Largo Town Center and an FBI headquarters building at Greenbelt. Unfortunately, the county’s overall approach to TOD tends to be unfocused and haphazard.

Additionally, as M-NCPPC has noted, the county’s occasional TOD successes are vastly overshadowed and undermined by its continued support of massive sprawl projects, which thwart the county’s ability to concentrate growth in the right places. It is the proverbial problem of “one step forward, two steps back.”

There are lots of local examples of how Prince George’s could grow differently, notably Arlington County, which has become a national model for how to embrace TOD. But Atlanta’s burgeoning TOD transformation may hold even better lessons for the county. In my next post, I will talk about what Prince George’s could learn from them.

This article is cross-posted on Prince George’s Urbanist.