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Talkin 'bout my generation: Downtown developers on Millennials and the Atlanta Streetcar

For the past ten years, nonprofit organizations Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District have brought together Downtown businesses for a day of economic boosterism, toasting the past year’s successes and touting upcoming projects. Downtown Development Day, held yesterday at AmericasMart, has a real estate bent, so it was no surprise that its panel on the Atlanta Streetcar, called “Re-Shaping Atlanta Streetcar Neighborhoods for the Millennials,” included prominent real estate developers.

(Disclosure: Atlanta magazine is a sponsor of the event. Check out our design director's cameo in the actually-pretty-lovely promo video; he's the one buying coffee).

More surprising, maybe, was that the panel had no actual Millennials. Which means there was lots of talk about what “they”— those of us born between 1982 and 2002; alternately referred to as “the kids”—do and don’t like. Turn-ons include walkability, transit, and robust data plans. Turn-offs include long commutes and soulless suburbs.

You knew these things already, but you may not have realized how quickly the local demographics are changing. Panel moderator Sarah Kirsch of Urban Land Institute Atlanta quoted a rather impressive stat from a group called CEOs for Cities: The number of 25- to 34-year-olds with four-year degrees or higher who live in metro Atlanta’s “close-in neighborhoods” grew by 61 percent between 2000 and 2009. (Check out the study here.) To think, pundits were agog that the youth vote in the presidential election increased by a mere 1 percent.

So how can the Atlanta Streetcar—expected to be operational in one year—and surrounding neighborhoods leverage this new wave of enthused urbanists? The panel offered some insights.

Safety is key. Perennial Properties principal Aaron Goldman drew another parallel between the U.S. electorate and our local demographics, noting the prevalence of women who live in his company’s Downtown properties. “The implied thought is when you’re investing X millions of dollars in the streetcar, it’s got to have the security presence as well as the critical mass to make people feel safe in the neighborhoods,” he said.

Panelist Michelle Morgan, founder of Grant Park co-working space HUB Atlanta, said she’d balked at locating her business in the area south of Five Points—in spite of a sweet real estate deal—because of safety issues or the perception of safety issues. “[It’s] a problem that unfortunately most people don’t want to talk about, which is, I don’t feel safe here,” she said.

Homelessness hinders (re)development. Show a lender a potential storefront with three people sleeping in the doorway, said Goldman, and “your showing’s not going to go so well.” It doesn’t matter how forward-thinking the developer is if he or she can't finance the project.

Fortunately the city has ramped up efforts to combat homelessness, thanks in part to a $3.1 million grant from Michael Bloomberg’s foundation. It remains to be seen whether these efforts can make a dent in what has been a decades-long problem for Downtown.

Make the streetcar efficient for short hops. For now anyway, the planned streetcar route is just 2.7 miles long, running from Centennial Olympic Park to Sweet Auburn. Goldman believes Georgia State students and Downtown dwellers will want to use the streetcar to travel even just a few blocks. Thanks to Atlanta's wonky street grid and rolling topography, a walkable distance often "doesn't feel that walkable," he said.

Here's the catch: The current plan is to run the streetcars every fifteen minutes. Will folks be willing to wait around for a ride if they can hoof it to their destination in roughly the same amount of time? Some think no.

For retail, small is the new big. Aspiring Downtown retailers should be encouraged by the success of the new CVS at Peachtree Center, which can barely keep its shelves stocked, said Matthew Winn of brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield. “You’ve got a change in the grocery store format, where [stores] have gone from 50,000 square feet to 22, 23,000 square feet. They’ve figured out that people shop for 80 percent of the same things every week, so, 'Let’s just carry those, and then people will drive for the other 20 percent.'” When people can walk to their corner shop, they can buy less at a time and shop more frequently.

Winn added: “It’s sort of funny to say we’re going back to the future, but if you look at Europe, this is the way they shop. And they’ve got 2,500 years of city planning on us.”