La France Walk: Looking Back and Thinking Forward
We’ve had a lot of time to think through housing challenges and opportunities facing Atlanta. La France Walk is a unique chance to explore this issue firsthand. From the beginning, the core question for La France Walk has been, “How do you create a place, and what type of housing would that place include?” – or from a technical standpoint, “What is the most appropriate type of housing to build on a site adjacent to a heavy rail transit station and surrounded by a two-family zoned neighborhood with a single-family feel?”
Access to Transit
Metro Atlanta is experiencing an ongoing population surge, and more and more people want to live adjacent to transit. Businesses have recognized that proximity to MARTA has become a critical amenity in attracting talent, and are choosing to locate their offices accordingly – making living next to MARTA even more attractive. The old adage that “MARTA doesn’t go anywhere” is becoming less and less valid.
In addition to observing changes in use of mass transit, we are also carefully following the trend in autonomous vehicle (AV) progress and the deployment of these AVs in Transportation as a Service (TaaS). Uber and Lyft are already filling an important bridge role between mass transit for folks without cars. The cost of Uber and Lyft is very competitive compared to owning a new car if you live in-town. According to AVs are expected to drive the cost down for these services by 50%-70%, meaning that it will be cheaper to use these services than to own an inexpensive used car. This will transform larger urban centers by dramatically decreasing the need to for dedicated parking at individual sites. The projected timeline for these changes is now estimated to start in 2021 – less than 3 ½ years from now. Georgia has already legalized the use of AVs on our roadways.
In the current development paradigm, parking is everything. It determines and limits how much you can build, and requires surprisingly large financial and material resources just on its own. TaaS and improved MARTA usability look to significantly disrupt this relationship in walkable, connected places. In terms of immediate transitioning, we are seeing many households shift from two car families to single car. Even seemingly minor changes like this free up a range of new development possibilities for a project like La France Walk.
Adjusting to Changing Needs
Since its original conception in 2002, a lot has changed in the project. At that time, Edgewood was a transitioning neighborhood, and there was significant concern that people would require one or two car garages. MARTA proximity was seen as a nicety, but not something a majority of people would pay any extra for. The community was squarely convinced that it needed more detached single-family homes to attract more nuclear families.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and the demand for detached single-family homes with two car garages is still high. Part of this demand is due to a general lack of new for sale housing being built inside the city. Many baby boomers are looking to cash out of their 4,500 SF house in the suburbs and downsize to a 3,000 SF home in town with a two-car garage. However, there is more demand for alternatives to these larger houses, and most developers are only aware of townhomes as an alternative. Townhomes have their own set of challenges. The typical three-story solution still ends up with a larger square footage when many folks are looking for less space, or simply a more affordable purchase price.
Over the course of the project we have considered all of these factors and how La France Walk could pivot to better address these needs. We recently took the project through another rezoning. The approved proposal takes seven units previously approved as single-family houses and converts them to duplexes. The structures will have the look and feel of a single-family home, but provide a pair of 1-3 bedroom homes instead of one 5-6 bedroom house. The critical component in making this work is a commitment to only provide one parking space per duplex for some of the units.
As we watch demographic trends, we see that over 70% of US households are made up of 1-2 people. Some of these households will choose a five-bedroom house because they have the means to afford excess space. However, oversized single-family homes do not respond to the bulk of the housing needs in our city. Smaller units are better tailored to this need, and they have more attainable price points based on this smaller size. The overall housing shortage in our city is driving up prices, making it harder for folks across a range of price points to find housing that meets their budgets. We have to find creative ways to provide more supply of housing, in more interesting ways than simply single-family homes or large scale apartment complexes.
Studies show that these smaller households are often made up of millennials deferring having children until later in life and careers, Gen Xers divorced, often with 1-2 kids as a shared responsibility, and Baby Boomers looking to downsize and move intown now that their kids have left the nest. The majority of all of these people would prefer to live in a walkable community, with some form of amenity within a few blocks of where they live.
Designing for Flexibility
We are also pushing the notion of flexible housing within each unit in the community. The majority of the homes are designed with a separate live-work studio equipped with a sink, toilet, and shower. This attached space is designed with maximum flexibility in mind, capable of providing a dignified space for a compliant home occupancy type of business, a guest suite for an aging parent, or an AirBnB apartment for income security. First and foremost, it is a space that can transition across all this things over time based upon the needs of the homeowner.
Including this live-work piece has been a critical test, as it comes with the cost of eliminating one garage space. We’ve learned that folks still want garages, but they don’t always plan to store their car(s) in it. They need a place for their stuff – and bicycles, camping gear, and yard equipment don’t require an 8’ wide door facing the street for access like a car would. We’ve been able to pivot to provide storage for this gear with access from side and rear yards, allowing folks to have a studio and storage simultaneously.
The core challenge in making great places is prioritizing space for people to be and flourish, and to minimize space for automobiles. Minimizing space for cars opens up tremendous possibilities in placemaking but it also involves taking risks. We feel taking these risks are both important and much less than perceived by others. More and more people are finally realizing that driving everywhere no longer represents freedom in Atlanta, but instead is a crippling hindrance to happiness.
The first phase of the project is completed. There is much work left to do, but the course of the community has been charted on a positive, walkable, bikable course.