case study: bellsouth's atlanta metro plan
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
Atlanta was leading the nation in job growth and was seeing more newcomers move in than any region except Los Angeles. They were consuming an acre of  land for every two arrivals, spreading across north Georgia in an auto-only sprawl that made traffic problems even harder to solve. Three of nation's  fastest growing counties, Forsyth, Henry and Paulding lay on the region's exurban fringe. Metro Atlantans drove more miles per day per person, 34, than any other major metro area in the country.

     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 so-called Metro Plan would consolidate 10,500 employees in three centers adjacent or very near to MARTA rapid rail stations, within the city of Atlanta. (Atlanta's metro rail system consists of two lines, one north-south and the other east-west, which intersect downtown; the system is largely confined within the I-285 beltway, where about 15 percent of the region's population lives.)

The Metro Plan

     The announcement 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
model for responsible action. This plan means fewer cars, less pollution and congestion, and a greater reliance on public transportation. That's good for Georgia."

    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
easy walking distance of the Midtown MARTA station. In Buckhead, the city's silk-stocking district on the north side, the company would locate its customer and administrative operations at Lenox Park, a mixed-use development on a former golf course about a mile from the Lenox station; BellSouth would offer a shuttle service to the station in conjunction with other businesses. To help employees make further use of the rail system,
BellSouth would build parking structures at four outlying MARTA stations. Each was to have a small "business center" with computer hookups and phones that can provide a place for teleworkers or travelling employees to conduct small-scale business without going all the way into town. All three sites have a variety of housing types close by, so that some workers may chose to live within walking or biking distance of the office.

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
sites won hands down, company officials said. While praising BellSouth's pro-transit impulse, some critics have faulted the company for choosing already upscale areas rather than taking the opportunity to pick stations in neighborhoods that could use a boost. But BellSouth counters that employee retention is key reason for undertaking the plan, so that it only made sense to locate in areas that were most appealing to its workers, both in travel times and amenities.

     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
and Piedmont on the city's Piedmont Park. For the BellSouth project, the buildings are built to the sidewalk, with a smaller scale facade projecting to the street so that the towers are set back and don't overshadow pedestrians below. A pocket park and plaza are incorporated. BellSouth worked closely with the Midtown Alliance, a business and civic group, to follow its "Blueprint Midtown" plan.

     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
family neighborhoods. The Lenox site presents the greatest challenge to creating a transit and pedestrian-friendly environment, because it is isolated  in a mixed use development off of Roxboro Road, a mile from the train station. Because of the poorly designed, automobile-oriented environment, employees are not likely to walk either to MARTA or to Lenox Mall and the multitudinous shopping and dining opportunities; BellSouth is likely to have to maintain its shuttle bus indefinitely. However, the rolling green terrain of the former golf course provides a pleasant environment.

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
vehicles to the site via Piedmont Road, a state highway arterial that is congested much of the day, but for which there is no viable alternative. MARTA's response that the 12,000 proposed spaces was significantly lower than the 19,000 that would be required elsewhere in the city was of little comfort. Opponents said, with some justification, that the huge parking supply undermined claims that the development would be transit-oriented. To
stave off a a lawsuit, MARTA and the developer negotiated with the five neighborhoods. Three later settled, after the developers promised to cap the total permissible parking at 10,461 spaces and to pay for streetscape and traffic calming improvements and a study of possible improvements to Piedmont. Two other groups sued but appear unlikely to prevail. In the meantime, construction of the first BellSouth buildings is well under way, and plans for the residential, retail and a movie theater are progressing. The project is being built in two phases, the first of which will have 5,467 spaces at a ratio of 2.3 per thousand square feet. BellSouth has committed to a fairly aggressive transit incentive program for its employees. If it is successful, the developer hopes to build the second phase with fewer than the permissible spaces.

     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
emotional protests that the trees deserved protection, both as an amenity and to mitigate Atlanta's heat and bad air, BellSouth officials considered but rejected the idea of altering the building's footprint to save more of the trees. Instead, the company agreed to plant hundreds there and elsewhere. The protesters were not appeased and continued to picket and demand negotiations up until the trees were cut.

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.
MARTA officials believe that, as freeway traffic continues to grow and travel times become less predictable, transit will come to account for as many as 40 percent of the trips to the Lindbergh site. Such a mode split, as transportation planners call it, would be impressive, but not entirely unheardof; about 30 percent of BellSouth's workers use transit at its 1980 BellSouth Center, the first Atlanta office building built atop MARTA. "We're getting some grousing about the parking and inability for everyone to have their own car now," says BellSouth spokesman Joe Chandler. "But we believe that as time goes on, the ability to have a more-predictable trip to work will come to be seen as an advantage to the workers and to the company, in the form of  better productivity."

     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
policy, has now put both entry-level jobs and a potential career ladder within access to those populations. The company even has begun advertising for workers with ads on MARTA trains.

     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."

To learn more about the BellSouth Metro Plan:

BellSouth: Joe Chandler, spokesman for Georgia operations, 770-391-2484.
MARTA: Paul Vesperman, assistant general manager for transit-oriented development, 404-848-5176.
Carter & Assoc., developers for BellSouth: Jim Carson, Chairman, 404-888-3245.

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
The Atlanta Constitution.