Like roughly 70 percent of people reading this, I’m not originally from Atlanta.
But like many kids growing up in the 1980s, I spent a few years in awe of Dominique Wilkins. And Spud Webb. I grew up, though, in basketball-crazed Indiana, where Larry “Legend” Bird loomed like a twangy Greek god with a bad mustache and the mystique of Hoosiers and stories of cranky Bobby Knight will never die. I interviewed Dominique not too long ago; I annoyed him asking so many questions—completely off topic—about why Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were such badass basketball players. I wanted to hear about NBA basketball way back then—when the spectacle of the playoffs consumed America and even my grandma watched the Finals.
When I moved to Atlanta more than a decade ago, the Hawks coach at the time, Mike Woodson, was from my previous neighborhood in Indianapolis, Broad Ripple. This sounds ridiculous, but Woodson felt like a little piece of what had been home. (Ditto for Indianapolis-bred Jeff Teague.) That’s where my adoration for the Hawks organization as a whole began. The seeds of a strange but wonderful allegiance—rooting for a fun, good team that no one ever gives a chance, a squad no one outside Atlanta ever expects to be great.
Woodson, who’s now come full circle as Indiana University’s head coach, once said this about growing up immersed in Hoosier Hysteria: “Every yard had courts, little basketball hoops in the yard. If you didn’t have it, you had neighbors two doors down that had it.” That conjures images of dirt courts, netless rims, backdrops of red barns and cornfields. Hawks Hysteria—this era that’s dawning before us right now—is nothing like that. Hawks faithful play pick-up games on the courts you see all over the city emblazoned with the team’s logo. They take MARTA trains to the arena. And attending a Hawks game is less about stoic sports tradition than having a DJ in the rafters, craft beer flowing everywhere, and what feels like one gigantic, diverse dance party.
I once worked in the suburbs for a company that had access to great, free Hawks tickets. I always scored them because interest in driving downtown to see pro basketball was so low. (True story: During a Christmas raffle at that job, I was the lone bidder—$10—for an authentic, autographed Josh Smith jersey that still hangs in my closet; don’t be a jerk and say I overpaid.) With those almost-floor-seat tickets, I used to take writer pals to Hawks games and go buck wild screaming for the likes of Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and J-J-J-Joe Johnson. It was a different type of hysteria, a milder version, one that you knew in your bones could take you only so far into the postseason promised land. Kind of like that excellent 60-win team of six years ago. The team I watched get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the nosebleeds, next to my crestfallen eldest daughter.
Speaking of Lola, the girl was born for watching good (and bad) basketball. I’ve never seen a kid—a baby, even, a decade ago—get so swept up in the energy of a live Hawks game. From the time she could speak, she’s been chanting “DEE-FENSE!” at the arena—and at home where nobody hears it but me. For years she’s danced with her kid sister, Marley, on her seat at games—but tragically never made the Dance Cam on the jumbotrons. She’s been able to name the starting five since the Dwight year. She wanted a Trae Young jersey after the first time she saw him play, nearly three years ago. Long before your aunt could spell Trae’s name correctly, before Ice Trae made fools of Gotham’s mayor and fanbase, my daughter recognized that a 20-year-old dynamo rookie dropping 49 points in the NBA wasn’t normal. She knows The Bow at midcourt in Madison Square Garden is the opposite of—and possibly the antidote for—28-3.
When the pandemic hit last year, I wrote for this magazine about how I’d lost my job—but even worse, the seats to an April Hawks game I’d bought my daughter for her birthday. A year later, this past April, we were finally able to use those tickets and attend a socially distanced Hawks games—coincidentally against the Indiana Pacers. The bandwagon I’d boarded so long ago for an adopted team was just starting to feel crowded, finally. Its destination was a playoff spectacle that’s consumed an American city—if not the full country again—like the Dominique days. And as the fourth quarter rolled around, just before the final horn in another convincing Hawks victory, Lola broke into a spastic Fortnite dance, and her lifelong dream of making the Dance Cam came true.
Josh Green, an Atlanta magazine contributor since 2011, is an editor, award-winning journalist, and published fiction writer who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two daughters. The former editor of Curbed Atlanta, he is now the editor of Urbanize Atlanta.
About the commercial centerUnrecognizable from a decade ago, downtown Alpharetta’s vintage storefronts now are flanked by 40 single-family homes, 168 high-end apartments, a new office building, and a $130 million explosion of commercial activity that includes 25 retail shops and a dozen patio-heavy, nonchain restaurants. The hub covers six pedestrian-friendly blocks, anchored by an open greenspace.
Key attractions Upscale seafood house Lapeer and a downtown location of homegrown Jekyll Brewing draw crowds. A 9,000-square-foot, speakeasy-inspired entertainment hub called Roaring Social is expected to join the mix soon at the forthcoming Hamilton Hotel. Sections of the planned BeltLine-style Alpha Loop have begun to open, including a link from downtown to Avalon, located a mile east.
Housing types Options within a short walk of Alpharetta’s core are dominated by newer construction, be it modern-leaning townhouses or relatively dense single-family clusters.
Cost of living Searching for a low-cost suburban alternative? You might need to keep looking. One-bedroom rents at the aforementioned apartments, Amorance, clock in at $1,800 for about 700 square feet. Larger condos have fetched well over $800,000—and townhomes more than $1 million—in the past year.
Who lives here? Alpharetta’s been a particular hit lately with Gen Xers moving from larger, denser cities, often for jobs in the city’s blossoming tech sector. A recent survey showed just 2 percent of Alpharettans were born there.
You might be surprised Prior to the turn of the century, when Alpharetta city leaders began assembling rundown buildings and parking lots to create a town center, no significant projects had been developed here for almost 30 years.
Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Hats off to architects and developers, led by Atlanta-based Morris & Fellows, for devising a ground-up new section of downtown that invites activity while feeling mostly organic.
Key attractions Newer points of interest include John R. Lewis Memorial Park on King Arnold Street, a skatepark at the Tom E. Morris Sports Complex, and the downtown pedestrian bridge—colorfully reimagined recently by artists Micah and Whitney Stansell—with 360-degree views.
Housing types Hapeville offers cottages built in the first half of the 20th century and Craftsman-style offerings less than 20 years old, with an injection of denser townhomes and mixed-use apartment hubs on the way. At a new 18-home townhome venture called the Clyde, as one example, two-bedroom units start at $305,000.
Cost of living For a location closer to downtown Atlanta than, say, Decatur, Hapeville could seem an under-the-radar bargain, with typical home values a hair over $200,000 and rising, per Zillow.
Who lives here? Popular with airline pilots, airport workers, and young families seeking cost-friendlier alternatives to intown living without sacrificing ITP hipness.
You might be surprised Yehimi Cambrón’s seven-story mural We Give Each Other the World, which covers the side of a North Central Avenue building, is one of metro Atlanta’s largest.
Charm-o-meter Rating 7. Hapeville achieved “Main Street City” designation back in 2003. Now, new development and splashes of public art are lending a contemporary bent.
About the commercial center Handsomely revitalized over the past decade and a half, downtown LaGrange claims a dozen restaurants, an AMC movie theater, a picturesque fountain replicating one in France, and one of the first segments of the Thread, a BeltLine-like multiuse trail that will eventually stretch for 26 miles.
Key attractions Sweetland Amphitheatre, circa-1831 LaGrange College (Georgia’s oldest private college), and nearby Great Wolf Lodge. At downtown’s southern end, award-winning Wild Leap Brew Co. claimed a vacant tire center three years ago to become a linchpin for growth.
Housing types Homes run the gamut from 1990s-era infill to brick traditional estates designed by hallowed Atlanta architectural firm Ivey and Crook.
Cost of living Median home prices in LaGrange’s core clock in at $296,000, but century-old four-bedrooms with storybook charm can be found for less than $200,000.
Who lives here? LaGrange’s 30,500 population is steadily climbing, with international businesspeople (attracted by nearby Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia and a growing business park) and others seeking a respite from city life without sacrificing airport access.
You might be surprised Nearby West Point Lake was among the first built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers specifically for recreation.
Charm-o-meter Rating 9. For inimitable small-town architecture with a progressive spirit, downtown LaGrange stands out.
About the commercial center Among Lawrenceville’s many openings and mixed-use additions, the arts and cultural center has generated the most buzz recently; scheduled to open this spring, it will house a 500-seat mainstage room and Aurora Theatre, the state’s second-largest performing arts space. Like Roswell and Duluth, Lawrenceville adopted an open-container ordinance in 2019, permitting drinks to be carried in plastic cups within a limited zone.
Key attractions Dubbed “the DTL,” downtown Lawrenceville opened two new eateries during 2020’s pandemic doldrums—Ironshield Brewing and D’Floridian Cuban restaurant—to join staples such as Local Republic and Dominick’s family-style Italian. Events abound around the square, including a summer concert series. A 120-key boutique hotel, the Lawrence, is planned to open this year with architectural detailing (red brick and arched windows with mullioned glass) that echoes the past.
Housing types Restored bungalows near the square occasionally come up for grabs, but Lawrenceville’s bread and butter of late has been infill housing, especially townhomes. At one new venture, Urban Square at South Lawn, trilevel, four-bedroom units with nearly 2,500 square feet are listed for just shy of $400,000.
Cost of living In 2020, Lawrenceville’s median home values jumped about 9 percent to $254,403.
Who lives here? Younger families and empty-nesters have gravitated toward Lawrenceville’s townhomes, condos, and preserved original houses. It’s also drawing grads of nearby Georgia Gwinnett College, the fastest-growing institution within the University System of Georgia.
You might be surprised Lawrenceville is metro Atlanta’s oldest incorporated city—two years older than Decatur.
Charm-o-meter Rating 10. The town-square center of Gwinnett’s county seat hums with fresh commercial activity, all punctuated by a lovingly preserved, landmark courthouse.
About the commercial center The early-20th-century core of Marietta—one of Atlanta’s largest suburbs—is home to about 50 restaurants and 35 retailers ranging from a record shop to purveyors of upscale women’s clothing, six museums, three theaters, and a host of art galleries. Commercial activity continues to expand outwardly down several side streets.
Key attractions Downtown made waves in 2019 with the debut of Marietta Square Market, an adaptive-reuse food hall with 20 food options reminiscent of Krog Street Market. Other recent additions include Glover Park Brewery, which has helped lure foot traffic down Atlanta Street, Mac’s Chophouse, and speakeasy-style cocktail lounge the Third Door.
Housing types The downtown boom has lured builders of newer subdivisions and townhome clusters within a quick bike ride of the action, while historic thoroughfares such as Church Street are loaded with well-kept, grander century-old dwellings.
Cost of living The rather steep median home price, $454,210, reflects the prevalence of larger, restored estate homes that can fetch more than $850,000. More affordable bungalows and ranches can be found further off the square.
Who lives here? Popular with young families and retirees—and, more recently, fans of the Atlanta Braves, who play ball eight miles away.
You might be surprised This past fall, Yelp and Zillow declared Marietta the number eight suburb in the U.S. for affordability with a big-city feel.
Charm-o-meter Rating 10. With its impressively preserved houses, gorgeous square, and growing slate of sophisticated culinary options, this city center is where Mayberry meets Inman Park.
About the commercial center Norcross was born about 150 years ago as a railroad line’s first stop out of Atlanta, and many of the community’s boutique shops and eateries still face the active railroad tracks. These days, the historic depot is the Crossing, a family-owned steakhouse.
Key attractions With its splashpad and tiered greenspaces, Lillian Webb Park is a can’t-miss for families that acts as a gateway to Buford Highway eats next door. The Rectory, a restored building from the early 1900s, now houses the nonprofit Lionheart Theatre. For international bites, try Mojitos (Cuban), Paizanos (Italian), or the Iron Horse Tavern (English-style pub).
Housing types The city’s older sections near Thrasher Park and along South Peachtree Street are studded with Victorians and quaint bungalows that rarely trade hands, but blocks of newer houses and townhomes in the Craftsman vein are more readily available. A luxury apartment venture that opened last year, Broadstone Junction, has brought 200 rentals to just south of the commercial district.
Cost of living The median home price is $206,868, and average rents clock in at $1,491.
Who lives here? The city center’s post millennium housing stock, with prices cheaper than most of intown, makes it popular with younger couples and families seeking small-town quaintness with easy proximity to places like Brookhaven and Buckhead.
You might be surprised Gwinnett is speckled with lovely downtowns rich in history, but Norcross—once dubbed “Atlanta’s Summer Resort”—was the county’s first to earn a place on the National Register of Historic Places in the early 1980s.
Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Norcross’s railroad-bisected, park-laden nucleus might not be as expansive as that of some north-OTP enclaves, but that’s sort of the point.
About the commercial center More than 30 independent businesses call Serenbe home, including six new retailers that opened in 2020, all clustered in four quiet hamlets with specific themes, such as art and agriculture.
Key attractions Serenbe is home to five restaurants, including the Blue Eyed Daisy bakeshop and fine-dining mainstay the Farmhouse at the community’s elegantly rustic inn. All within shouting distance of nature trails, open greenspaces, and the 25-acre organic farm that helps feed the town.
Housing types It’s quite a mix, ranging from condos and cottages to large estate lots and “farmettes” for anyone seeking breathing room with up to 25 acres. More than 350 homes are finished, with about 70 more in the pipeline for 2021.
Cost of living Serenbe is remote by design, but don’t expect rural price points. Homes start in the mid-$400,000s and commonly sell for well over $1 million.
Who lives here? Seventy percent of Serenbe homeowners live here full-time. The rest are weekenders or second-home residents from as far away as Los Angeles and New York.
You might be surprised About a third of Serenbe’s 750 residents are age 35 or younger, including 150 kids.
Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Serenbe was just rolling farmland 15 years ago, so it’s hardly a hub of timeworn history. Instead, the appeal is holistic design and a dazzling range of residential architecture, from ecofriendly modern to neo-Victorian.
About the commercial center Encompassing just 1.7 square miles in the shadow of Georgia’s most visited tourist attraction, Stone Mountain’s throwback Main Street and surrounding blocks are home to a growing slate of more than 50 unique restaurants, shops, and other businesses, such as the eight-room Stone Mountain Manor hotel.
Housing types Ranges from renovated, sub-$100,000 condos to country cottages in the $200,000 range. The village’s first new residential development in 20 years, Hearthstone, is building 34 houses priced from the mid-$300,000s.
Cost of living Median home prices for Stone Mountain’s city center are $191,271 and rents $1,555.
Who lives here? Creatives tired of astronomical intown prices, budget-conscious renters, and more established residents who scooped up older homes in the village and aren’t budging.
You might be surprised Stone Mountain’s granite was used to construct landmarks around the world, including Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, Fort Knox’s gold depository, and the Lincoln Memorial’s foundation.
Charm-o-meter Rating 8. Despite its troubled racial history and years of disinvestment, the village’s bones remain largely intact, and as recent entrepreneurial activity indicates, the future is bright.
About the commercial center Located across from the nation’s second-largest purpose-built movie studio, which carries the same name and was home to many Avengers productions, Trilith is a 235-acre planned community that is expected to eventually have 6,000 residents, between its homes and apartments. The 25-acre town center will feature around a dozen local restaurants. The community is 20 miles south of the airport and technically located in Fayetteville.
Housing types In the megaproject’s first phase, 161 Trilith homes have been completed, ranging from two-bedroom cottages to three-bedroom townhomes and five-bedroom, modernistic dwellings. A tiny homes enclave is the latest addition.
Cost of living Prices have ranged from the low $400,000s for two-story cottages to just shy of $1.5 million.
Who lives here? According to brokers, buyers in the initial phase have included actors, actresses, film-industry personnel, creators, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and families.
You might be surprised To boost the community’s ecofriendly appeal, all stand-alone houses are geothermal-powered and situated directly on parks or within one block.
Charm-o-meter Rating 7. While it’s a grand example of a master-planned community with eye-catching design, Trilith remains a relative infant. Look for it to gain steam quickly.
About the commercial center In the early 2000s, a downtown master plan, supported with a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, helped transform sleepy central Woodstock into a bustling destination, where $950 million in investment has materialized in and around the downtown core. Thousands of new housing units have cropped up around Main Street, along with some 20 restaurants, helping swell the city’s 1990s population by nearly 760 percent.
Key attractions The Elm Street Cultural Arts Village is expected to produce a new gallery and pottery studio this year, following the 2020 debut of the Elm Street playground. Next door is the huge patio of Reformation Brewery and some 45 independent retailers—from spas and a local bookstore to a custom men’s clothier and an outdoor outfitter—within a one-beer walking distance in the open-container district. A free concert series at Northside Hospital–Cherokee Amphitheater, a 7,500-capacity venue covering 2.7 acres downtown, is scheduled this summer.
Housing types Runs the gamut from penthouse condos in a 2007 building with both city and mountain views to massive Craftsman-style estate homes in newer communities where plantation shutters and shiplap abound.
Cost of living In Woodstock’s city center, median home prices are $229,744, with a majority of that stock less than 20 years old. Smaller condos can be found in the very heart of town for the low $200,000s.
Who lives here? Newcomers especially are a mix of younger singles, families, and empty-nesters. An influx of international residents is beginning to diversify the food scene.
You might be surprised From a makeshift stage on Woodstock’s Main Street, President George H.W. Bush launched his ill-fated 1992 reelection campaign against Bill Clinton.
Charm-o-meter Rating 9. Cherokee County’s most populous city has evolved into an alluring mix of both old and new urban-style architecture, performance art, and nature.
If you’ve recently visited the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, driven down Interstate 75 near the Chattahoochee River, or ridden MARTA near the airport, you’ve passed a part of the city touched by architect Jordache Avery. Not yet 40, the Florida native has built a practice that is now one of the busiest boutique firms in the city, having completed more than $100 million worth of projects.
But success was far from certain when he arrived in Atlanta on the brink of the Great Recession—a fresh college grad inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright in a city more enamored with Philip Trammell Shutze. Moreover, while storied Black-owned firms like Turner Associates and Stanley, Love-Stanley are nationally recognized commercial practices here, Black residential architects are still rare. So, Avery started small, by tearing down his own house.
It began in 2006, when Avery spotted a 1940s, two-bedroom bungalow in Ormewood Park with a shoddy addition and exterior vinyl so raggedy it appeared to be melting. But the neighborhood was buzzing with new construction, and the home’s tree-shaded lot had primo city views. Avery’s girlfriend wasn’t feeling it. “Um, no,” protested Rashida Allen, a few months before they would become engaged. “This is a teardown shack.”
Still, Avery bought the house, and together, the couple dove into elbow-grease renovations, determined to make it livable on a shoestring while Avery launched his career and Rashida finished her training at Morehouse School of Medicine.
Just a week after they’d moved in, Avery was sitting alone in the kitchen when he heard a commotion outside. Men’s voices, low and cautious. Burglars, he thought. Panicked, Avery shot up from his chair and went to find a bat, a tool, anything that might pass for a weapon. That’s when he heard the command, shouted through a window: Freeze!
The house, yelled the voice, was surrounded by police. Get on the floor and stay there. Avery complied, and, though he couldn’t see the guns, he could feel their aim on his skin.
“How’d you get in there?” the Atlanta police officer asked, as Avery recalls.
“I came through the door,” Avery replied, still lying on the floor.
“Get up slowly, walk over, and open it.”
“I can’t,” said Avery. “There’s a deadbolt on it. The key’s in my pocket.” He didn’t dare reach toward his waist.
Finally, Avery cautiously stood up and unlocked his own front door. The officers looked surprised when he produced mail with a name that matched his ID. When he asked why they’d come, one officer said a neighbor had reported a burglary in progress. Avery peered across his yard, up his new street, into a city he’d only barely come to know, and asked, “Which neighbor?”
• • •
On a crisp October morning under cloudless blue skies, Avery is touring a construction project he designed called Poncey Haus. It’s a geometric puzzle of two duplexes and a stand-alone house—all white stucco, expansive rooftop decks, and sharp modern angles—occupying a formerly overgrown lot and homeless encampment near Ponce City Market. Talk to his friends, colleagues, and wife, and certain adjectives are often used to describe Avery: mellow, thoughtful, humble. But on a job site, he’s all business.
At age 39, Avery has tightly cropped hair with the first signs of salt. He’s wearing a black long-sleeve button-up, Air Force Ones, and a black protective mask. Wandering through a spartan three-story residence, surrounded by the smell of latex paint and fresh wood, Avery extols the virtues of clerestory windows, the balance of voids and mass, and the living room’s view of downtown high-rises. He stresses the importance of perfectly straight lines. The master bathroom, he notes, was redesigned three times. The drive for perfection makes sense. Living here will cost between $1.05 and $1.35 million, beckoning well-heeled buyers in a city that finally has embraced contemporary residential architecture.
Avery believes the adage that cities are the museums of our culture, telling the story of our time by way of current architecture, and his goal is to design houses that reflect human advancement. Modernism has always intrigued him because it’s challenging, and when done right, it evokes uniqueness and an absence of physical constraints. “We have the capacity to have larger open spaces, to cantilever over the landscape, and open up a room with a wall of glass,” he says. “Those are the types of things you couldn’t do back in the day, just from an energy perspective. As time passes, the profession should keep up.”
His idealism started early, when Avery was growing up in Jacksonville. Named for his mother Rene’s favorite 1980s actor, Rudy Jordache (not the iconic high-waisted jeans), he built cities out of cardboard boxes in his closet. His father, Ken, was a senior planner for the city and would take Jordache and his older brother to evening citizens’ planning meetings. Ken recalls, “Jordache used to be real curious, asking, Daddy, why’d they disagree with you on that development? Why don’t they want it here? At a young age, he started picking up on that information.” After meetings, Ken would lug home blueprints and pore over zoning codes and setback requirements with Jordache beside him.
At Jacksonville’s highly ranked Stanton College Preparatory School, Avery explored engineering but found it too mired in math and calculations—and not creative enough. Nothing about engineering was as timelessly cool as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater—one of Avery’s favorite houses in the world—or Philip Johnson’s simple, transparent Glass House. After graduation he enrolled at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, where he entered the architecture program on a one-semester trial basis and never looked back.
Degree in hand, Avery itched to return to an urban environment that wasn’t Jacksonville. He considered taking a chance on Los Angeles but opted for more affordable Atlanta. When he had visited an uncle here during the early 1990s, Avery had been awed by a Black mecca that felt like a boomtown, where monolithic new towers were still rising, especially in Midtown. He chose a city that was still changing, still restless in its adolescence, a place he hoped to help guide toward smarter urbanism.
• • •
Avery’s first big project was designing a five-story apartment building called the Oxford Hapeville for architect Michael Corcoran—a free-spirited Brit who moonlights as a rock guitarist and who’d been designing hotels, homes, and full communities around the city since the early 1970s. “He’s the most talented guy I’ve had,” says Corcoran. “He’s got a very nice way of detailing in the modern materials, in the metals and stuff, a clean crisp way of presenting something in its three-dimensional form . . . He can do anything.”
But as 2008 wore on, work started drying up. The financial crisis deepened. And fresh from his honeymoon, Avery was laid off that December.
For a year, Avery scrounged for work, at one point designing technology closets for a healthcare company. “I was literally drawing up freakin’ server racks in AutoCAD,” Avery recalls.
Finally, he launched his own company and named it Xmetrical—a nod to the home designs he dreamed of, ones that aren’t symmetrical or asymmetrical but something different, their balance and definition of space not so easily defined. He began designing small projects for a home-flipper and investor in intown neighborhoods like Kirkwood. It was steady income, and he gained invaluable field experience, scheduling crews, overseeing framing, wrangling building permits, calling in inspectors—but he longed to push the envelope. At last, a couple came to the builders asking for a more contemporary house. Avery eagerly drew up two schemes: one a cutting-edge modern he was proud of, the other a Craftsman-style traditional like those found all over Atlanta. “The morning before we took the schemes to the client, [the company owner] made a decision not to show the modern, which really pissed me off,” says Avery. “They didn’t know enough about the construction costs and how to build it.”
That settled it. Avery counted his resources and made a bet on himself, lingering recession be damned. He and Rashida moved into a neighbor’s guest house. Then, he bulldozed his bungalow and built his first ground-up modern, a three-story dwelling with rooftop views clear to Midtown and downtown. It became the billboard that launched his company—before it was even finished.
“Who’s building that?” people would ask while driving by.
“I am,” Avery would say, in his yard.
“Well, can you do it again?”
• • •
The real turning point came in 2014 when Avery’s personal home was featured on the MA! Architecture Tour as part of the Atlanta Design Festival—scoring him two commissions. According to MA! cofounder Elayne DeLeo, new modern projects and remodels have increased annually between 30 and 40 percent since the tour launched in 2007, reflecting at least $1 billion in value and impact to Atlanta’s economy.
Also in 2014, Corcoran, Avery’s old boss, commissioned him to help design the Encore, a $50 million upscale apartment project that peers down on Interstate 75 next to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
In the seven years since, Avery’s risen from an industry neophyte to a trendsetter in the realm of approachable modern. “He knows how to maximize the footprint of his projects so that they feel larger and lighter,” says DeLeo. “I think he speaks to the younger homebuyers who’re looking for comfort and style on an affordable scale.” As of last fall, Avery had completed more than $100 million in residential and commercial office projects in 20 neighborhoods. That includes 36 modern houses in neighborhoods from Buckhead to Edgewood. Another $40 million’s worth is under construction or on Avery’s drafting table now. One midcentury-modern renovation in Collier Heights was a finalist for an AIA Atlanta design award, and a recent Xmetrical home in Reynoldstown brought a near record-breaking price. “It’s shocking to me,” says Avery, “how fast we’re growing.”
His firm has grown to six employees, all of them people of color, including Shreya Gera, an interior designer who’s relocated from Brooklyn. Their profiles on the firm’s website are magnets for top minority candidates across the country. “We don’t get a huge pool,” Avery says. “But I do want to promote diversity in architecture, and it’s working out so far.”
David Southerland, AIA Atlanta and AIA Georgia executive director, recognizes that architecture traditionally hasn’t been as diverse in Atlanta as other professions, despite notable exceptions such as the late J.W. Robinson, Oscar Harris, William Stanley III, and Ivenue Love-Stanley. Moreover, of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ local chapter’s 120 members, only about 10 percent predominantly design single-family residences. Pinpointing exactly why is difficult. Factors include barriers into the profession itself, volatility of the home-design sector, and lack of diversity in architecture overall, says NOMAtlanta president Ralph Raymond.
Avery suspects the root cause begins with exposure—that many Black youths don’t see architects in their communities, or physical examples of their work to aspire toward. “Growing up, you don’t really know many Black architects,” Avery says. “You didn’t have that Black uncle doing architecture.”
Southerland applauds Avery’s doggedness, noting that, during the Great Recession, “we lost an entire generation of architects” who opted to start over in other industries. “For [Avery] to stay in the profession as a leader, to not [have] abandoned it during the worst recession we’ve had since the 1930s, that’s huge,” says Southerland. “The fact that he did it with the obvious racism that’s out there—kudos to him.”
• • •
Avery never found out who reported him as a burglar in his own house. Protocol prevented officers from disclosing who had called 911, but as they left his home, they pulled up to a house one street over and spoke with a man there. By the time Avery attended a community meeting at that same house a year or so later, a single woman had purchased it, and the former occupant’s name remained a mystery Avery didn’t pursue. Water under an old bridge.
On a warm autumn evening at home, a more relaxed Avery wears checkered socks and sips Bulleit Bourbon next to his new saltwater pool. Spurred by the pandemic lockdown, he’s added a fifth bedroom, a two-car garage, and palm-studded professional landscaping to his now-3,600-square-foot home. His squirrelly children—Jaiden, eight; Jace, three; and Jordyn, two—slap patio glass and play peek-a-boo around corners, excited by a rare, masked visitor. Rashida, now a Grady Health System pediatric physician, gets a kick out of driving around Atlanta and hearing her kids accurately identify their father’s work: townhouse communities, angular new homes, or mixed-use ventures taking full street corners—all projects she’d first seen as raw sketches on their kitchen table.
For Avery, the near future holds more of the urban infill he’s been conceptualizing since that cardboard metropolis in his boyhood closet. A project in Old Fourth Ward near the BeltLine, for instance, is transforming a blighted lot into three townhomes and an office. He points to the commercial core of Inman Park as urbanism done right in recent years but scoffs at parts of Midtown, for instance, that may have developed too quickly and exude all the blandness of beachfront high-rises and parking garages.
Avery also is turning his focus to the city’s historically underserved areas in an effort to bolster diversity in the field and provide more affordable housing where it’s most needed. That includes a townhome venture, with units to be sold at 80 percent of the area median income, with the Atlanta Land Trust in Oakland City and a 72-unit apartment complex, in collaboration with the Atlanta Housing Authority and Integral Group, both in planning stages. The latter project would rise near the Atlanta University Center. Avery hopes it will serve as tangible, modernistic proof for HBCU students that persistence in architecture can pay off.
Park over Georgia Highway 400
This year could see Buckhead’s highway-capping, nine-acre park concept emerge from Covid-induced hibernation. HUB404 would create a tapestry of trails and grassy park settings out of thin air above Georgia Highway 400, at a reported cost of $200 million or more. After years of planning and research, an official fundraising launch and publicity push in late 2019 lent the clearest vision to date—only to be torpedoed by the pandemic. “We plan to have the funds identified and raised to get back on track with engineering and final cost estimation [this year],” says Jim Durrett, head of Buckhead Coalition and Buckhead CID. “The nonprofit board is growing, and we’re eager to make progress.”
One of Atlanta’s closest-watched megaproposals in recent memory—the 50-acre redevelopment of downtown’s subterranean Gulch, now branded Centennial Yards—is beginning to rumble to life. California developer CIM Group has begun permitting and infrastructure work for what could be a $5 billion mix of apartments, retail, offices, and hotel rooms, all backed by a nearly $2 billion tax-incentive package, the largest in city history and subject of pending litigation. Meanwhile, the initial phase, a redevelopment of former Norfolk Southern buildings along the Gulch’s southern rim, is expected to open this year. An exact breakdown of uses is TBD, but officials say 20 percent of apartments will qualify as affordable.
“Fourth Ward Project”
Led by a veteran of Ponce City Market’s revival, New City Properties’ Jim Irwin, this multipronged, potentially billion-dollar venture could make the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail feel more downtown than any other development to date. Infrastructure work at the 12-acre site is underway, and digital marketing behemoth Mailchimp is expected to fill two-thirds of the first two towers by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, a boutique hotel with its own brand is on track to break ground in late 2021 or early 2022, as a 359-unit apartment building—with 10 percent of rentals qualifying as “affordable” for anyone earning 60 percent of the area’s median income—gets underway this year, too.
PATH400 Five years after its first multiuse mile debuted, Buckhead’s answer to the BeltLine is now 80 percent finished and longer than four miles. Popular with exercisers and local event organizers, PATH400 cleared a major hurdle last year in opening a picturesque segment that snakes from Miami Circle to near Lenox Square. Additional pieces—including key connections in the Lindbergh area—are scheduled to begin construction in the second half of 2021.
Plans for Atlanta’s largest park—percolating for more than 15 years, through three mayoral administrations—finally should start coming to fruition in 2021 with the initial phase of Westside Park near the old Bellwood Quarry. The projected $44 million project is expected to eventually be a 280-acre greenspace (that’s 100 acres larger than Piedmont Park) built around a city reservoir now filled with a month’s worth of emergency drinking water. The pandemic stalled public access, but officials say the first section should open by early summer, offering a 2.5-mile bike and walking trail, playground, a sculpture, parking, and a jaw-dropping “grand overlook” of the reservoir and skyline beyond.
Buckhead’s outdoor shopping district
Adaptive-reuse pioneers Jamestown, creators of Westside Provisions District and Ponce City Market, bought the flailing Shops Buckhead Atlanta in 2019. They’ve since rolled out a new name—simply, Buckhead Village—for the project, which spans six city blocks, plus more upbeat and colorful branding and a cozy, public-accessible veranda, with promises of more family-friendly and affordable attractions joining the luxury brands. Look for Fetch dog park, Italian wine bar Storico Vino, and local entrepreneurs and makers hub Village Supply.
In Milton, a former intown diehard found suburban bliss
Debra Shigley | Freelance writer, TV journalist
In my mind, I’m a very cosmopolitan, urban person. I’ve lived in New York, Mexico City, Atlanta. And I never, ever in a million years thought I’d move to the suburbs. I would drive outside the Perimeter—for work, maybe doing a story—and almost get hives.
We’d been in East Lake about eight years. We had five kids [ages two to 10] in a four-bedroom—a good-sized house for intown, newer construction right by the golf course—a live-in au pair, and a second nanny. But there was never going to be a guest room. So, we were kind of soft-looking, just passing thoughts, no action.
When everything started happening with Covid, my husband and I were working from home, and the kids were all virtual. What shifted is not this idea of wanting to have more space in the ’burbs; it was, What if life really revolved around my nuclear family unit? Is this the best we can do? I’m not going to museums. I’m not going out to dinner. Date night is like once a year—it takes two babysitters. It all kind of came into focus with quarantine.
I don’t think I’d ever even been to Milton. We just started driving around a bit, a couple of weekends. It felt like we were going to Tennessee, really. I believe in God and faith, and I just felt there was a wind pushing us in a different direction, but it wasn’t very definitive. We wanted an amazing school system and more space. My husband really wanted a pool. And I, for some strange reason, really wanted a barn. I didn’t have any animals, but it was just this image of pastoral bliss. Like, one day, my kids might get married in this barn.
Our Realtor sent us a video of this property. It had the barn, the pool, a playing field—just this unicorn. Four families saw it the next morning. We toured it and thought there was no way we’d get this house. It was my little Joanna Gaines dream. After a night of two bottles of wine, we raised our own offer. The next day, our agent called: “You got a house in Milton! Woo-hoo!” We closed in September.
We have a little under four acres. It’s sort of like a farmhouse, built in 1993, about 7,500 square feet and six bedrooms, wraparound porches where I spend a lot of time writing or doing yoga. There’s a garden beside the house with a potting shed. We inherited the former owner’s two pot-bellied pigs.
The number one, life-changing [benefit] is that the school bus arrives at my front door and picks up my children at the crack of dawn, takes them to school, and brings them home. This has dramatically changed my life. When I’m forcing my kids to get off their devices and go play, there are a lot of options. Sometimes, we just sit and watch the birds—swallows, pigeons, bluebirds, finches, blue jays. I appreciate how magical this place is, but Publix is right down the street.
I loved my life in East Lake—our neighbors, the experience. There was never this feeling of, Oh, we’ve got to get out, we’re bursting at the seams. We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, this feeling of giving our kids this experience they don’t even fully appreciate yet—we’ll be able to look back and feel that was really special. I think that was the driving hope behind making such a big change.
A Cobb County expat ditched her massive house for a cozy intown condo
Anna Caraballo |Former co-owner, Atlanta Movie Tours
With Atlanta Movie Tours, we took people around by huge buses to show them where everything was filmed. It’s pretty hard to get people on a bus when there’s a global pandemic. We closed it up completely. There was no foreseeable future where it was going to work, and it was an incredibly hard decision. But things happen, and they happen for a reason.
We lived on a preserve in the middle of East Cobb. Six thousand square feet, five other houses in the neighborhood, completely secluded, had to drive the car to go anywhere. Two cars in a three-car garage because our son moved out. My husband and I looked at each other and said, This is ridiculous. There are rooms that we don’t see for months. What are we doing?
I ended up listing it on my own in maybe July, for sale by owner, and, 10 days later, we got an offer. Really, it was the best time to sell, to not let the pandemic stand in our way. The buyers lived in Buckhead, looking for more of a suburban neighborhood, doing what I think most people are doing right now.
Midtown checked all the boxes: walkability, the people, location. You don’t need a car here at all. I walked to the dentist this morning, a half mile. The vet is a mile away. Every morning, I’m in Piedmont Park. Literally, we have this bubble, and we’re making sure we don’t have to drive in it.
We bought near the top of a high-rise. An 800-square-foot condo. It’s almost like the whole building is our sanctuary now. If I want a patio setting, I’ll sit outside on the club deck and look out at the skyline instead of a creek.
It’s definitely been challenging coming to a place where, when the elevator doors open, you have to make the decision of whether you’re going to step in with the other people or wait. It’s almost like island life, where you can’t be in a hurry. And social distancing goes out the window when dogs are involved. I don’t know if our dog [Pai Mei, a shih tzu] knew what another dog was before; but when he spots one on the sidewalk now, all of a sudden, that other person is right in your face, so your dogs can meet. Pai Mei wasn’t used to people, or noise, but he likes it.
Some people were definitely curious why we decided to make this move now, of all years. There are concerns with the pandemic, with violence in the city. We’ve met a lot of empty-nesters, but nobody that’s done it during the pandemic.
Not one regret. It’s an entirely different world, and the freedom to be able to leave your house and walk practically anywhere, to anything you want to do, it’s unbeatable. I don’t understand why everybody wouldn’t want this.
For this new Atlantan, lockdown in a high-rise was too much
Hannah Katherine |Financial analyst, blogger
I moved directly from the University of Delaware, where I graduated, to work in finance in Atlanta, sight unseen. I took a one-way flight on June 2, 2019. I didn’t come down with a car, and I’d always wanted to walk to work, to be in the heart of a city. I did a lot of research, and Midtown with its nightlife and restaurants just made sense.
We started working from home in early March, a week after I started my blog, Belle on the Beltline. Midtown has so much construction I couldn’t focus. I was just listening to jackhammers, and there was terrible smoke, so I couldn’t use my [third-floor] balcony. They would start at 6 a.m. And from a Covid perspective, it was impossible to go outside and avoid people if I wanted to take a walk. All the reasons I’d moved there—the nightlife and the restaurants—I wasn’t really utilizing as much. A lot of what I was paying for in that building were the amenities, and with Covid, they were closed. I was like, Why am I paying $2,000 per month for two outdoor pools I can’t use?
A friend of mine, we were both working from home and pretty lonely, so we moved into an apartment on the BeltLine in Old Fourth Ward. Now, we have greenspace everywhere. Even simple things like not having to use a lobby elevator have been nice. I decided to get a scooter for only, like, $300 online at Walmart. I can go from one end of the BeltLine to the other in eight minutes. I’m walking distance to Kroger. It sounds silly, but it’s quiet and peaceful, nice to get up in the morning and hear birds instead of jackhammers.
A longtime Midtown resident says, To hell with it—let’s get an RV.
Joe Binns |Political consultant
We were freaked out by flying, or staying in hotels, so we looked for a way to get out and go places with our two kids [and dog, Roscoe]. When it became clear the kids were going to be learning virtually, and that I could do my work anywhere, we decided to jump into an RV search in May, thinking we were getting in early.
When we got to the dealership, these guys were trying to juggle three customers and write four contracts at the same time. It was clearly a sellers’ market, and I suspect they jacked up prices. We sat down in a typical used-car dealer scene. They say this thing costs, like, $65,000. So, my wife [Melissa Mullinax, MARTA’s chief of staff] slides a number, $55,000, on a piece of paper across the table, like, Let’s do this. And instead of countering, they said, Sorry. We get in the car, start driving home, and I called them back and threw my wife under the bus, told them just to hold that thing for us.
It’s a 2017, 32-foot Forest River Forester, a drivable house on wheels. We named it Lucinda [for musician Lucinda Williams]. It sleeps 10, with a kitchen, master bedroom, bunkbeds, and generator. It gets eight miles per gallon; we insisted our son, who just turned 16, buy an electric car to offset the massive carbon footprint we’ve incurred.
Our first trip was to a Lake Lanier campground, and we realized how compatible, incredible, and fun it was. It’s pretty intense in there with two conference calls and school happening. Headphones are really important. Wi-Fi bandwidth is superimportant.
We did a loop around West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, to state parks and a lot of lakes. For Thanksgiving, we did Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and kept going all the way out to White Sands, New Mexico. We were going to go to Colorado to visit friends, but Covid got too hot. We ended up just having the family Thanksgiving in Ozark National Forest.
You run into all these things on the road that become really great educational experiences for the kids. These massive windfarms in Texas and Oklahoma, we read up and studied them. And less consequential sites like the World’s Largest Pistachio.
The neighbors [in Midtown, near Piedmont Park] have been really cool. We got the RV home and she took up like six parking spaces. We finally found a place to park [securely, for a fee] on DeKalb Industrial.
What we came away with was that just getting out of town was important to our mental health during these really crazy times. We’re going to keep exploring the United States. We’ll drive as far as that thing will take us.
Georgia Tech grad student Ryan Gravel submits a master’s thesis describing a “belt line” loop of multiuse trails and transit along 22 miles of railroad corridor. City Council President Cathy Woolard soon champions the idea.
Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, an engine for raising funds and awareness, is formed. Its mission is to enable construction of parks and trails, engage the public, and empower residents of the BeltLine’s 45 neighborhoods.
City buys the dormant, 300-acre Bellwood Quarry for roughly $40 million, in hopes of one day building Atlanta’s largest park and water reservoir, west of Midtown.
Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s community engagement and master planning begins; the Atlanta BeltLine Tax Allocation District Advisory Committee is formed to oversee use of public money.
ABI buys the first section of BeltLine right-of-way, a 4.5-mile piece called the Northeast Corridor.
Built by the PATH Foundation, the West End Trail’s initial 1.5-mile phase debuts, marking the first paved BeltLine segment. (It’s now 2.4 miles.)
A one-mile section of Buckhead’s Northside Trail opens.
The annual BeltLine Lantern Parade debuts with a few hundred people. (It’s later moved to September. Attendance will skyrocket to 70,000 by 2019.)
In Southeast Atlanta, eight-acre D.H. Stanton Park opens as the first of many planned BeltLine-adjacent parks—or “emerald gems” on the 22-mile necklace.
Totaling 17 acres, Historic Fourth Ward Park and Skatepark (the city’s first) debuts, with skateboard legend Tony Hawk in attendance.
Boulevard Crossing Park’s initial phase (five acres) opens south of Grant Park, along the BeltLine’s future Southside Trail.
The first BeltLine section to be built in the former railroad corridor, the 2.25-mile Eastside Trail, opens. Immediately, it’s immensely popular.
Along the Southside Trail corridor, median home sale prices in the Capitol View neighborhood are $51,500. (Within five years, that number will explode by 327 percent to $220,000.)
At a ceremony in Luxembourg, the International Real Estate Federation names the BeltLine the best environmental rehab project in the world.
The 69-unit Reynoldstown Senior Residences, an affordable complex for residents age 62 and over, breaks ground.
BeltLine visionary Gravel and equity expert Nathaniel Smith quit the BeltLine Partnership’s board, criticizing a lack of emphasis on equality and affordable housing.
Atlanta voters pass TSPLOST and MARTA tax referenda—a source of revenue for buying remaining BeltLine right-of-way.
BeltLine CEO Paul Morris announces his resignation in the wake of an AJC and Georgia News Lab investigation showing the agency’s efforts to build 5,600 affordable housing units by 2030 were “anemic.”
The three-mile Westside Trail opens, linking 11 neighborhoods and four parks, amid rising concerns of BeltLine-induced gentrification, a national news topic.
Eastside Trail’s first southern extension opens, expanding a mile through Cabbagetown into Reynoldstown.
City leaders announce the $26-million purchase of the 4.5-mile Southside Trail corridor from train company CSX. The crescent-shaped swath will one day connect the Westside and Eastside trails, but funding is still undetermined.
The city buys the final requisite piece of abandoned railroad, the 1.8-mile “Kudzu Line” on the Westside near downtown. ABI issues a report with eight recommendations to meet the goal of creating 5,600 affordable housing units.
Ground breaks on the $26.5 million first phase of what’s now called Westside Park near the old Bellwood Quarry, with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms heralding it as an economic driver for nearby neighborhoods.
Clyde Higgs is appointed president and CEO of ABI.
The Eastside Trail’s final phase wraps, providing an alternate transportation route from Midtown to Memorial Drive.
Private investment along the BeltLine exceeds $6 billion—equivalent to four Mercedes-Benz Stadiums. ABI announces purchase of nearly 400 affordable units, with 700 more in the pipeline.
Plans emerge for a condo tower at the edge of Historic Fourth Ward Park with prices topping $2 million.
Mayor Bottoms places a development moratorium on neighborhoods near Westside Park, citing overheated gentrification.
The BeltLine launches a grant program, funded by corporate donations, designed to help keep longtime “legacy residents” in their homes near trails.
Four projects are expected to finish: the Northeast Trail’s initial mile; an interim Eastside-Southside trail link through Glenwood Park; the Southside Trail’s first .8 mile; and a connector from downtown to the quarry park and Westside Trail.
It’s a sunny afternoon on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Atlanta, and a walk through the Westside is a study in contrasts, a microcosm of a restless city caught between light and dark.
Howell Mill Road teems with construction workers in bright yellow vests finishing major projects—Star Metals (both residences and offices), plus the initial facets of a new mixed-use development, the Interlock—together worth well over half a billion dollars. But just two blocks away, the carcass of longstanding social hub Octane Coffee is neighbored by vacant retail spaces that used to be 5 Seasons Brewing and Hop City. Along the Marietta Street corridor, “Coming Soon” signs for the likes of upscale market Savi Provisions are outnumbered by “For Lease” placards and the papered-over windows of former dining rooms. Deeper into downtown, in the shadow of new luxury apartments for college students and the forthcoming Margaritaville resort, volunteers operate a makeshift soup kitchen on folding tables for men living in a parking lot’s new tent encampment. It’s all a snapshot of Atlanta’s disparate Covid-19 recovery, a juxtaposition of post-lockdown winners and losers in a city known for both civil rights and glaring economic disparity.
After nearly a year of pandemic malaise, 93,200 fewer jobs, and closing in on 800,000 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide, similar contrasts have spread across the metro.
“The Atlanta market is kind of like the old joke about averages: To the man who has his head in a refrigerator and his rear-end in an oven—on average, it’s room temperature,” says Emory University finance professor Roy Black, director of Goizueta Business School’s real-estate program. “The real estate’s generally doing well in areas where the money flows.” Black grades Atlanta’s recovery as a B+, so far.
His colleague Thomas Smith, a Goizueta associate professor in finance, credits the metro’s diverse mix of industries for its relative buoyancy: By December, the U.S. average for 2020 job losses was more than three times higher than Georgia’s. “Atlanta’s home to many multinational companies,” says Smith, “and among those, we’ve seen Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Company hit hard, but Home Depot’s stock price has almost doubled.”
Atlanta’s population has continued to grow. Updater, a tech company that helps people and companies relocate, examined a sample of 1.5 million moves nationwide throughout most of 2020 and found that metro Atlanta ranked sixth for inbound relocations among major cities. Each city in Updater’s top 10 except Denver was in the Sunbelt, and their findings showed Atlanta accrued more expats from greater New York than from anywhere else.
“The quality of life, overall cost of living, and strong economic base continue to be a draw,” says Cynthia Lippert, Atlanta Realtors Association president. Anecdotally, at least, everybody seems to know somebody who’s uprooted to ATL lately. “I have five or six friends that have moved from New England to Atlanta during Covid because it’s a place where they can do their jobs but also walk outside, have a yard, and socialize,” says developer Jim Irwin, New City Properties president.
Karen Hatcher, Sovereign Realty and Management CEO and broker and an intown specialist, has noticed an influx from the other coast: “I’ve seen relocations from California, from buyers and renters. Their reasoning was they had to get out because it’s closed, and Georgia is open,” says Hatcher. “They felt like they couldn’t make any money.”
“It’s puzzling, in a way, because we all hear the news that unemployment has skyrocketed, and there’s such economic despair out there, so how is it possible that the demand remains so high? I’m not sure I can explain it.”
Atlanta was one of the few metros where rents actually have ticked up instead of cratering in 2020, according to Zumper. On the other hand, almost 23 percent of Georgia renters have fallen behind on payments—the fourth-highest rate of any state in the nation, according to a recent LendingTree analysis of Census data. Although President Biden has extended the federal eviction moratorium, housing insecurity looms for many Atlantans in a city with a chronic housing affordability crisis.
Consider the dilemma of a 34-year-old single mother in southwest Atlanta who asked to be called “W.B.” Laid off as a patient-care technician last May and bound to her two-bedroom apartment with a teenage son who struggles with asthma, W.B. was at her wit’s end trying to collect unemployment for several months—“checking, calling, emails, faxing, the whole nine, each day,” she says—when someone told her about an eviction-relief fund provided by nonprofit Star-C. Since the outbreak, that program has partnered with more than 270 landlords and apartment communities, representing 60,000 units, to help keep metro Atlantans in their homes or from falling severely behind in rent. “We’ve fielded thousands of phone calls, and the predominant demographic is service-industry workers or people with positions in the public [sector],” says Star-C founder Marjy Stagmeier. “There are a lot of hardworking, proud Atlantans who’ve swallowed their pride and applied for rental assistance.”
That includes W.B., who calls the support a godsend as she’s applying for jobs. “I’ve had very high stress levels—mentally and physically it takes a toll,” she says. “You pretty much have to be strong and have something to live for, and [I’ve got] my son.”
Prospects are also mixed for Atlanta homeowners. Not nearly as many of them are 90 days or more behind in their mortgage payments as they were during the height of the recession (5.5 percent last fall versus 16 percent in January 2010), according to CoreLogic. However, the number who are more than 30 days overdue is not far off—8 percent in late 2020 versus 9.3 percent in January 2010.
One thing is certain: Record-low interest rates have triggered a frenzy of homebuilding, moving, buying, refinancing, and upgrading. Georgia MLS brokers and agents tallied all-time highs in 2020 for home sales volumes and closings in a single year, representing more than $27 billion and besting 2019’s previous record by more than $3 billion. Median sale prices for Atlanta’s 12 core counties jumped almost 10 percent in a year to $279,990. Hatcher, the intown property specialist, pulled stats for an area covering most of ITP and North Fulton; in that zone, by September, the average sale prices for homes, townhouses, and condos had crested $500,000. And, overall, says Lippert with the Realtors association, the Atlanta housing market “is expected to see one of the country’s steepest rises in home prices” in 2021.
The combination of dwindling supply and ballooning prices has been challenging for first-time homebuyers like 27-year-old David Choi. At one point in 2020, he spotted a $315,000 house in Chamblee and called the agent hours after it had listed. “And she straight-up goes, Well, we’ve already got 11 offers, and if yours isn’t going to be at least $10,000 over asking, don’t even bother,” says Choi, a licensed agent himself. “I’m like, Well, shit!” Choi switched his target to Midway Woods, an older starter-home neighborhood near downtown Decatur, and eventually landed a 1,600-square-foot brick ranch for $303,000.
Although anecdotal reports abound of intown buyers fleeing to the suburbs, reliable data is not yet available to measure whether that’s an actual trend. Lippert says there’s no indication Atlantans fled the city en masse, as with parts of New York City, although “we certainly have seen an increase in people searching for homes OTP,” she says. “Time will tell if these moves are temporary, based on Covid, or if they represent a larger, more permanent shift.”
Among those 2020 OTP newbies was Carmen Coe. Since 2014, Coe and her husband had been living what felt like walkable, urban bliss—raising four kids, ages eight to 14, in a century-old Midtown bungalow they’d remodeled six blocks from Piedmont Park. Then came the lockdown. And a feeling of claustrophobia. Strange fatigue. They decided to explore the massive, rising, planned community Trilith south of the city, where the Acton Academy’s unique schooling structure intrigued them. What sealed the deal was a four-bedroom townhome with a 1,700-square-foot layout that is one of the smartest that Coe, a real-estate agent, had ever seen. “I tell people all the time it feels like a bubble here, like the way things should be, and it makes no sense to me why I like it so much,” says Coe. “I was against living in the suburbs, the commute, for so many years, but something like Covid turns everything upside down.”
Like other urban areas, Atlanta suffered in 2020. Planning commissioner Tim Keane calls retail vacancies and the impact on restaurants and hotels a “great concern.” But the city remains so flush with new investment that it could become a national outlier.
“I was pretty bullish on Atlanta going into the pandemic, and certainly coming out of it,” says Leo Wiener, Ackerman and Company’s president of retail. Wiener’s company bought the Lee + White warehouse district along the BeltLine in West End just months before lockdown. Despite so much turbulence in the retail sector, he says demand for his proposed food hall there is so strong, “we could fill it up today.”
In fact, property around the BeltLine has remained so hot that the city recently extended a development moratorium on neighborhoods near Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry to slow gentrification. In the last economic crisis, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership was criticized for easing its commitment to affordable housing after the recession. This time, zoning regulations that require apartment developers to include affordable units have held firm, though 16 new projects in the last three years have yielded only 60 units for the lowest-income earners. In January, the city also approved $50 million worth of bonds to produce and preserve affordable housing.
The total number of Atlanta residential and commercial building permits dipped slightly in 2020, but as Keane points out, the value of all construction in city limits—$5 billion, from backyard decks to skyscrapers—was still ahead of 2018, if less than the $5.4 billion record set in 2019. “I talk to developers and builders all the time, and the consistent message I hear is that demand is outpacing supply,” says Keane. “It’s puzzling, in a way, because we all hear the news that unemployment has skyrocketed, and there’s such economic despair out there, so how is it possible that the demand remains so high? I’m not sure I can explain it.”
Keane doesn’t believe the pandemic will curtail Atlanta’s metamorphosis into a denser urban environment—or prove that sprawl was virtuous after all. Irwin, the New City developer, believes it will only accelerate trends toward wellness through design, human connections in planned communities, and an appreciation of the outdoors, which metro Atlanta has counted as key attractions for generations.
“It has all the attributes of a sophisticated big city that people are looking for but also a compelling cost of living,” says Irwin. “You never want to frame it in terms of wins and losses, but the great things about Atlanta are winning out.”
more volume in Atlanta home sales in 2020 than in 2019
of Georgia renters have fallen behind on payments
of Atlanta mortgages are at least 30 days overdue
jobs lost in 2020
Atlanta’s ranking for most inbound relocations among major cities
Long before Covid-19 clamped down upon so many Atlantans’ livelihoods, skyrocketing housing costs and other ills of gentrification were forcing city dwellers—especially younger ones—to get creative when it came to living arrangements. That trend has only accelerated since the pandemic, and in some cases, developers are doing the adapting. The result could be revolutionary new ways of living in metro Atlanta—all efforts to keep housing affordable beyond buddying up with extra roommates. A quick rundown:
In December, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms supported a plan outlined in the Atlanta City Design Housing Initiative to allow rentable accessory dwelling units (ADUs) throughout the city, rather than just in specified districts. As the ordinance stands, “guest houses” are widely allowable, but renting that unit long-term classifies it as a more restricted ADU. Proposed zoning changes would make it easier for renters to lease a basement apartment, garage conversion, or tiny home around back.
Sales are already underway in Clarkston at what’s billed as Georgia’s first “tiny home neighborhood,” with eight offerings ranging from just 250 to 500 square feet on a half acre. Prices at Cottages on Vaughan have ranged from about $100,000 to $145,000. Meanwhile, south of town at the mixed-use Trilith community, a more posh version of tiny living has sprouted with 13 cottages—seven former rentals with a modern bent and five French Provençal–style options announced last April. Those microhomes max out at 535 square feet, and brokers say typical sales prices have been in the high $200,000s.
It might seem counterintuitive, but the pandemic seems to have whetted Atlanta’s appetite for coliving rentals, where multiple tenants share some common areas. The concept was introduced here by an organization called the Guild, which turned a building on Auburn Avenue into Awethu House, affordable housing for creatives and “changemakers.” Now, plans for coliving buildings with hundreds of units are moving forward in Reynoldstown and along the BeltLine’s Southside Trail, and a 31-story coliving tower has been proposed in Midtown.
They might not qualify as affordable, but microapartments continue to be mainstays at flashy new intown sky-rises. Those include sub-500-square-foot studios fetching about $1,500 monthly at the recently finished Generation building that overlooks Centennial Olympic Park.
Even Ponce City Market is dipping its toes in outside-the-box housing concepts, with plans brewing for a 400-unit, hotel-ish “hospitality living” tower. Occupants of the one- or two-bedroom flats could stay either for a single night or for several years. Prices TBD.
Since the Great Recession, glassy towers have reshaped the skylines of Midtown, Buckhead, and parts of downtown, but relatively few of those stacked new units have been for sale. Instead, they’re apartments, catering to millennial professionals who’ve preferred renting over buying, transient businesspeople, and college students. That’s a stark contrast from Atlanta’s pre-recession building trends, when condos ruled.
“In the early 2000s, there was the boom going on, when [the market] was overinflated because of the subprime crisis and everything else,” says Ladson Haddow, managing partner of Haddow & Company, an Atlanta real estate consulting firm. “Then, the ’08 and ’09 recession happened, and [condo development] was flat. That’s largely because so many developers and banks—and buyers, frankly—got burned. For developers, it’s much easier to get an apartment project financed.”
Anecdotally, the condo market has shown signs of reactivation, signaled by projects such as the 279-unit Seven88 West Midtown. But for the most part, new condo developments have been relegated to the million-dollar luxury sector, with smaller new buildings such as the Charles (57 units) and Graydon Buckhead, which has 22 stories but just 47 homes. Notes Haddow: “The days of seeing a lot of 300-unit condominium towers going up haven’t returned.”
Intent to combine two passions of mine—urban bicycling and fatherhood—I latched my two daughters to my Trek hybrid bicycle when they were tots, beginning nine years ago with the eldest. They started as passengers in a little green carrier on the handlebars, then graduated to a trailer-bike behind, charming the spandex off joggers as they sang the choruses of “Lean On Me” and “Let It Go.” More importantly, they learned Atlanta with an intimacy that driving rarely affords, marveling at Krog Street muralists, the BeltLine’s vibrancy, and wafting hickory smoke from their favorite barbecue joints. But then, they got bigger and earned their own bikes. Which posed vexing questions: Can you ever feel comfortable letting children bike solo around a city with countless hills and roaring cars, one that’s still recovering from generations of autocentric planning? Is that traditional rite-of-passage still safe?
The answer, as I’ve proudly watched firsthand, is yes. If you’re careful. I took a DIY approach, one city block at a time. I affixed the brightest, flashiest USB taillights I could find to the girls’ seat posts and slowly let them venture from sidewalks onto quiet eastside streets and later into bike lanes. I hovered around them on my own bike like a paranoid daddy orca. When the hills were too much, I placed a hand on their backs and tugged them along, lending what my youngest calls “boosts.” Graduating my oldest to a larger bike with gears—more capable of handling elevation changes—has been a game-changer. No more boosts required.
But more formalized training options are available. They’re offered for free by the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition (exclusively virtual, for now) or a handful of licensed teachers around town who provide private lessons. Such options, plus the additional bike lanes and improvements the city builds as it urbanizes, could help parents warm to the idea of letting children skip the bus in favor of a bike. In the late 1960s, 50 percent of Americans biked to school, as opposed to less than 15 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to Schools.
Stephen Spring, ABC education program manager, says the nonprofit has taught nearly 1,000 kids a bike-safety course and, with its partner Bearings Bicycles, donated hundreds of bikes in 18 elementary schools across the city, with the program growing rapidly prior to the pandemic. Implementing the training district-wide would make Atlanta only the second U.S. city to do so, following Washington D.C. Spring says starting at age seven or eight, whether in school or at home, is key. “That’s when children start desiring to go a little farther, and their hangout circle becomes more than the kid across the street,” he says. “They start socializing more at school, reading, and they’re able to navigate the city better.”
In terms of DIY tips, Spring recommends that novice pedalers begin on bright, sunny days on off-road paths, streets with protected bike lanes, and on quieter streets in their own neighborhoods or bike-friendly communities like West End or Ormewood Park. (Note: It’s legal per state and city law to ride a bicycle on sidewalks until you’re 13, and legal experts Spring has consulted have never heard of a parent being ticketed for accompanying them.) Other recommendations for kids: snug helmets, bright clothing, flashing lights for handlebars and seat posts at all times, and a thorough inspection of routes before using them. “If they’re going to start riding bikes to school,” says Spring, “you should do it with them for a while, so they can feel that support.”
As for my daughters’ progress, they haven’t graduated to daily rides to school yet. But my six-year-old, who struggled to stay upright on a bike less than a year ago, now rips off 12-mile family rides to Piedmont Park and back like it’s second-nature, whooping “yahoo!” down hills all the while. Trying to keep up, and watch out, I always nod, because I know the feeling.
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