|case study: bellsouth's atlanta metro plan|
A case study in employer-driven "smart growth"
By David Goldberg
Abstract: In January of 1999, BellSouth, an Atlanta-based telecommunications corporation, announced that the company would close its scattered suburban offices and consolidate 10,500 employees at three locations on the MARTA rapid rail system. Although the decision was made purely for business reasons, it has been hailed locally and nationally as a case in which a company's enlightened self-interest also performed a valuable service for a region awash in traffic congestion and smog.
Background and context
The year 1998 was a rough one for metropolitan Atlanta. Two years after basking in the international glow of the Olympic Games, the region was getting unwanted attention as the national poster child for suburban sprawl. A story in the Wall Street Journal asked whether Atlanta, with it's unrelenting smog and rapidly growing traffic congestion, was becoming the "L.A. of the South." Perhaps worst of all, the region had lost the right to spend federal transportation money on new road expansion projects because it had failed to come up with a transportation plan that met emissions limits. That summer, top business leaders and government officials convened an emergency series of "summit" meetings on the road-funding crisis. They hoped to get a handle on what had gone wrong in order to make recommendations to the governor who would be elected that fall.
By the time Roy Barnes
entered the governor's office the following January, Atlanta's transportation
and air quality issues had leapt to the top of his agenda. He vowed to
use his first legislative session to create a regional transportation "super-agency"
with the teeth to expand the mass transit system and guide the region's
future development so as not to compound growth-related problems. It would
be a tall order. As 1999 began, metro
It was in this context
that BellSouth announced an ambitious plan that appeared to herald a paradigm
shift in the corporate role in growth and development. While other companies
were attempting to flee traffic congestion by locating farther from the
core, typically up the increasingly beleaguered Georgia 400 corridor to
the north where many executives dwelled, BellSouth decided to close its
far-flung suburban operations. Instead,
The Metro Plan
by Atlanta's second-largest employer (after Delta Air Lines) brought a
torrent of accolades. The plan was such a departure from the norm, and
so important a symbol of positive change, that it was front-page news for
several days in the local papers. "Corporate Atlanta is finally getting
it," wrote Atlanta Journal-Constitution business columnist Maria Saporta.
Gov. Roy Barnes was effusive: "BellSouth's innovation is a
But BellSouth Chairman and CEO F. Duane Ackerman insisted that the socially beneficial aspects of the plan were secondary to the business implications. Since becoming independent of AT&T in 1984, the company had grown from a local phone service to a $23-billion-a-year telecommunications powerhouse, with a hand in the Internet, data transmission and wireless businesses. It had sprawled into 75 different office locations, many of whose leases were set to expire, with rents likely to rise. Meanwhile, the increasingly dicey traffic situation in the region led to unpredictable travel times to and between its scattered sites. Both costs and frustration had been growing. Consolidating its disparate units was expected to improve productivity, by easing those frustrations and taking advantage of the "synergies" possible with proximity, company officials said. In making the announcement, Ackerman said: "Our decision is grounded in quality-of-life issues for the Atlanta metro region as a whole. We think it solves our problem of pulling together like functions in like locations and doing it in an environmentally friendly way. We have business issues to fix, and while doing that, we are looking ahead to tomorrow to help with Atlanta's pollution problem and also help move our people."
The plan to reduce 75 office
sites to three huge "business centers" was to cost $750 million over four
years of implementation. At the time, about 6,500 of BellSouth's
roughly 18,000 metro area employees worked in the city of Atlanta; by 2004,
up to 17,000 were expected to be housed within I-285. In 1998, 30 percent
of workers had access to transit. That would grow to 80-85 percent when
the plan was fully implemented in 2003. The company would build 3
million square feet of office space in six buildings, with two at each
of the three spots. At the Lindbergh station, BellSouth's wireless and
Internet units would become the prime tenant in a "transit-oriented development"
already being planned on a huge parking lot and other property owned by
MARTA. In Midtown, BellSouth would locate its network services at a site
then occupied by the vacant First Baptist Church, within
Devising the plan
In devising the metro plan, BellSouth considered several key questions, company officials say: What's the best design for a telecom workplace of the future? What is our part in helping Atlanta's congestion and air quality problems? How do we group the various functions? And where do our employees live, where are they likely to live in the future, and how will they get to work?
The company began by
plotting the geographical distribution of its employees' home addresses
on a map. As they suspected, workers were commuting from every direction,
but the geographic center of the highest concentrations was to the north
of downtown Atlanta. The temptation to go farther north was tempered by
two factors: the tenuousness of highway capacity and lack of rail service
much beyond I-285, and the knowledge that many of the young, highly-skilled
knowledge workers they hoped to attract from around the country preferred
an urban environment to suburban living. When it came down to picking actual
sites, planners took into account the existing zoning -- the area around
most stations in the city of Atlanta is zoned for very high density
-- and quality of life factors, from crime to surrounding amenities, such
as restaurants, shopping and services. The three northside
BellSouth made a conscious
choice not to build isolated campuses, but to try to integrate itself into
the surrounding urban fabric. Each of the three sites presented a different
sort of context. The Midtown site, on Peachtree between 4th and 5th streets,
sits in a densely developed area near the city's downtown core. It is surrounded
by a grid network of streets, large office buildings, some classic older
structures and cultural attractions, such as the Fox Theater. One of the
hottest markets in the region in the last few years, Midtown is healing
old wounds in its architecture with new projects such as the Federal Reserve
Bank at 10th and Peachtree and the universally acclaimed Post Parkside
apartments at 10th
The Lindbergh site, at
MARTA's second-busiest station, is between Midtown and Buckhead, in area
that developed along a more suburban model in the 1950s and '60s. The transit-oriented
development there represents and opportunity to replicate and extend the
moderate-density fabric of Midtown north along the rail line. The challenge
here is for the more-intensive use of what are now parking lots to co-exist
with well-established single
Challenges to implementation
As might be expected in a project of this magnitude, not everything about implementation has gone entirely smoothly. By choosing intown locations that had long been zoned for high density, BellSouth avoided the pain of a drawn-out fight over rezoning that is a standard feature of suburban development in Atlanta these days. But the sites in long-established parts of town came with their own challenges. After the initial buzz of goodwill, the company found itself enmeshed in controversies of varying seriousness at each of its building sites.
The most challenging was at Lindbergh. Months before the BellSouth announcement, MARTA had put out a request for proposals from a master developer to create the system's first transit-oriented development. MARTA had hoped to demonstrate the viability of its station areas for mixed use, high-density urban villages that would focus more destinations around its stations. By developing on its own property, MARTA also would gain revenue from leases. The contract had been awarded to Carter & Associates, a large commercial developer that had assembled a team that included Post Properties to develop apartments and another condominium developer. Its design team had come up with a new urbanist style plan oriented along a newly created Main Street, with offices and apartments over ground-floor retail in medium-rise buildings of no more than 10 stories. Structured parking would be kept hidden and at a minimum. Overall density would be reduced from the 11 million square feet allowable under the existing zoning to 5.5 million. The concepts had been shared with the five surrounding neighborhood groups, who had reacted with enthusiasm.
But when BellSouth
came in as a super-tenant, the tenor of the project changed. BellSouth
needed two towers, not a series of mid-rises. More importantly, the developer
was insistent that in order to supply BellSouth's needs and secure financing
for the project, it would need more much more parking than originally contemplated.
This sent the neighbors through the roof. They were fearful that the parking
would invite thousands more
BellSouth ran into trouble in Midtown when it came time to tear down the old First Baptist Church, which had been closed for some time. Preservationists wanted to save the 1920s brick structure, of a type common in the South. At the same time, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was talking about a new symphony hall, and some community leaders hoped the church could be salvaged as part of that complex. BellSouth was willing to talk about such a deal, but the ASO had a very limited time in which to come up with the money to make it work. Meanwhile, design problems rendered the plan all but unworkable, and the lack of financing ultimately killed the deal. In the face of continued, but somewhat muted protests, BellSouth proceeded with the demolition. By August of 2001 the first building's exterior had been completed.
Lenox Park was a former
golf course that had been begun as a suburban-style mixed use development,
with apartments and offices in separate pods separated by parking and berms.
While much of the residential had been built, the office had been slow
to take off. By the time BellSouth was set to begin construction in late
summer 1999, many of the residents had become attached to a mini-forest
of aged oaks that stood on the site. After
Positive spin-off effects
In the past
few years, many large metro employers have risen to the challenge of providing
alternative commuting programs to their workers, but BellSouth will set
a new standard. By design, the three business centers will provide parking
only for about half the workforce. On any given day, BellSouth expects
about a third to arrive by MARTA and another significant share by van and
car pool. BellSouth will accomplish this with a combinations of incentives
and economic penalties. Many employees who choose to arrive by MARTA
will be able to reserve a parking space at one of the garages being built
at four outlying stations, which will be secured and free. Those who park
at the three corporate centers will pay $60 a month for the privilege.
The company will subsidize MARTA passes, valued at about $50 a month, at
$20, which declines to $12 after allowable tax deductions.
There are other positives
to the larger community, as well. BellSouth will be a boon to MARTA and
those who depend on it. Low-skilled, mainly minority workers on Atlanta's
southside and in other intown neighborhoods have missed out on the region's
job explosion because so many of the jobs have located in the northern
suburbs, well away from the region's constrained transit network. BellSouth,
with an aggressive training and retention
BellSouth's planned presence at Lindbergh also has spawned redevelopment efforts on other nearby properties. Plans are in the works to extend the urban village fabric, with a mix of shopping, housing and offices, across Piedmont, where a 1950s shopping center struggles. The city has adopted a special zoning overlay to guide and encourage that.
Since BellSouth's announcement, a number of other employers have renewed or expanded their commitment to locating jobs at transit-accessible locations. But no other company has yet matched BellSouth in comprehensiveness and aggressiveness, says Paul Vesperman, MARTA's assistant general manager for transit-oriented development. "BellSouth is on the leading edge. However, we haven't gotten the others to make that kind of commitment. But when other companies get tired of the freeway, we'll still be here."
BellSouth: Joe Chandler, spokesman for
Georgia operations, 770-391-2484.
David Goldberg has written about growth-related
issues for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1993. He now is a member
of the editorial board of