Alpharetta – Suburban Wasteland?

Alpharetta is a suburban wasteland, full of strip malls, disconnected communities and traffic. The “suburban experiment” this country engaged in has failed.

From time to time I hear urbanists spout things like this. Certainly what we recognize as modern suburbia will dwindle and die out, right? Eventually no one will want to live here.

Or better yet, urbanists will follow this fill-in-the-blank model with their logic. “If Alpharetta doesn’t ______, then ______ will happen.” You can fill in the blanks with just about anything. How about – If Alpharetta doesn’t adopt the tenants of new urbanism then young people won’t move here and employers will leave. Or how about – If we don’t pass T-SPLOST, employers won’t relocate here.

If Alpharetta is truly a suburban wasteland, why is this city such an amazing place to live? Why do people and companies keep coming here? Just look at the news in the last few weeks.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports that Alpharetta’s Windward Parkway is on a short list of possible locations for General Motors’ new 1,500 employee IT innovation center. GM, being from Detroit, certainly knows what a wasteland looks like. Alpharetta is no wasteland.

Or how about Gwinnett Tech choosing Alpharetta over every other city in north Fulton? Certainly the strong workforce here was a factor. The Georgia Department of Labor reported last week that Alpharetta’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%, the lowest in Georgia. Wastelands have large swaths of struggling, unemployed citizens. Alpharetta doesn’t.

The real estate market here is doing surprisingly well given the national economy. We’re starting to see new development of single family home neighborhoods again. Realtor Bob Strader declared on his blog last week that we’re in a seller’s market! People can’t sell homes in wastelands.

Reports of Alpharetta’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It boggles the mind to think that politicians, policy makers, city staff or others would dare tinker with the recipe that brought Alpharetta such sweet success.

This community is thriving. Job prospects in Alpharetta are good, quality of life fantastic and school system exceptional. This is a great place to live, work or raise a family – by any measure. I challenge you to find news today that suggests otherwise.

Photo Credit: Alpharetta CVB (creative commons)

13 Responses to “Alpharetta – Suburban Wasteland?”

  1. Eric October 31, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Lee, good points. For my family, living in this area isn’t ideal, but that’s because we’re looking for a modern city to live in, but that doesn’t take away from Alpharetta for what it is.

    The Alpharetta area from employment to shopping to dining has outstanding options. Drive around here and for the most part, the roads are smooth, greenery is abound, and there are choices for many things. I think that if Avalon pans out as advertised and the downtown area comes to fruition, this area really is primed up for further excellence. To me, the lack of a true city center or town feel is what Alpharetta is sorely lacking and add that into the mix and this area really has all of the components.

    A really good example of a suburb that is akin to Alpharetta is Naperville, IL, which is a suburb of Chicago. Same type of size, income, schools, etc. The one thing that I clearly saw there was their city core, it makes the difference. Several blocks of a real downtown where people can walk, dine, work, etc.

    Outside of a few areas in the metro area, complaining about this area is just coming from those jealous or simply of the mindset that ITP is simply better.

  2. Kevin October 31, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    I originally moved to Alpharetta in the early 90′s when my family was relocated to the area from the Northeast. At the time, my parents looked around and choose Alpharetta for the schools, family activities and housing.

    After college, I choose to move closer to Atlanta, with my fingers crossed that the schools would get better by the time I had kids. We waited year after year, but no one in our neighborhood would be the guinea pigs and send their kids to the local elementary school. The second a child hit about 4 years old, you would see a For Sale sign up in the yard. As people had to sell, they were willing to take about anything for their house. We were in the same boat, and had to get out of our home before the kids reached school age.

    So, when we started looking for areas, we found ourself having the same criteria as my parents did 20 years ago. We wanted good schools, and lots of family friendly activities. At the same time, I had a number of other friends that were in the same predicament as me. Schools that were bad, and young children that were approaching kindergarten. Within one year, five of my friends have moved to the North Fulton area from parts of Atlanta mainly because of the schools. We moved to a “New” subdivision, and many of our neighbors are also relocations from other parts of Atlanta for the same reasons. All of these other areas had more mass transportation, apartments, etc, but it didn’t have the schools.

    As long as the schools are good, there will be a very high demand for the area. We look back, and wish we would have bought here 12 years ago, instead of investing in an area that will never improve. The only thing that could hurt this area would be a decline in the schools. Alpharetta doesn’t need to be everything to everyone.

  3. Julie Hogg October 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    @Eric I’ve heard Alpharetta compared to Napierville before so interesting you should mention.
    Lee, what can I say? The things you mention are true. And after 16 years I’m finally comfortable here. Truly comfortable really. But there are reasons why it took me so long, one of which is that although Alpharetta is pleasant, it can also have a distant and vacant feel, for lack of better words. I am struggling to define what it is that is lacking but it has to do with working people who are busy working and not necessarily connecting….with each other. I still find Alpharetta a very desirable place to be and live, but I do think it lacks soul. Sorry to be so negative. But on a more positive note I’m convinced that soul is actually there and is longing to be touched and tapped which is why I do the things I do and say the things I say.

  4. JAH November 1, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    @Julie Alpharetta doesn’t have that soul feeling because so many here are transplants, and the collective community doesn’t have a shared history that binds. I like to believe those ties will develop over time via subseqent generations. At the same time, having such a diverse population gives us a different, and perhaps better vibe all the same. I’m thrilled that my kids are growing up around children from so many different backgrounds and countries – they are getting an education and don’t even realize it! Just in my neighborhood, we have families from Korea, Japan, Columbia, Brazil, and even New York (LOL)! Add to that the families that are in our kid’s school, and it’s wonderful. I’m glad I chose Alpharetta years ago when I came ‘home’.

  5. Kim November 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    First, I <3 my suburban wasteland called Alpharetta.

    Maybe we are all sentimental and all long for the "good 'ol days?" We chase our childhoods but it has all changed due to prosperity, technology, transfers, immigration, etc. Yet people who long for "soul" manage to find their kindred spirits in other places now such as church or sports or school.

    Yes, it looks different than it used to when we grew up. Our children don't roam the neighborhood from dawn til dusk like we did. Neighbors rarely stop and have hour-long conversations over the fence or in the middle of the street. But we have elbow room and privacy — our own little slices of heaven to come back to when we retire from our day of "soulful" activity elsewhere.

    I come home to sit on my back porch and have a private conversation. Where are the neighbors? They are hidden away enjoying their private time too. And yet we all know we are there for each other if we ever need it.


  6. Julie Hogg November 1, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    @JAH “ties that bind via subsequent generations”…I think those subsequent generations are arriving so I hope to see the binding in my lifetime. Naturally, all of you responding to a blog called “Roots in Alpharetta” probably want to believe this is so…
    I do think we, as a community, have to work more at making community happen via the so called town square i.e., patronizing local restaurants, preserving history and greenspace, indulging our senses in the cultural arts, attending churches or synagogues, etc.
    Isn’t it interesting that we do not have a locally and well-read obituary? Not to be morbid…but since death is a fact of life, the day we are all reading the obits to see and regret those who passed is the day we really are a community.

  7. Christoph November 2, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    I think it all depends on what your barometer of success is.

    If you’re talking about middle to upper-middle class white collar jobs, Alpharetta is a success. Even moreso if you’re talking about IT.

    If you’re talking about family friendly and safe, then sure, things are great.

    If you’re looking for interesting things to do that fall outside of standard faire every other burb offers, Alpharetta is a cultural wasteland. This is emblematic of ALL of the metro-Atlanta area frankly. Every cool and unique offering this area has either gets commoditized or dies. Atlantic Station is probably the textbook example of commoditization and there are so many dying Atlanta landmarks that people “support” with a sticker but let it die by not patronizing the actual business it’s just sad.

  8. Michael Hadden November 2, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    Lee, we haven’t had this exchange in a long time but I think you’ve taken my long term predictions for the suburban experiment the wrong way. Alpharetta and the larger suburban experiment in which most of our country lives isn’t going to shrivel up and die overnight. However, 10-15 years from now, we may be looking at a strikingly different environment.

    Maybe I’m completely wrong about the long term prospects of the suburban experiment. Yes it is an experiment. No other civilization in human history has lived the way we do in American suburbia with the ability to live in large houses on large lots, transport ourselves great distances with ease and speed, and eat whatever we desire all at an extremely cheap price. This lifestyle have been enabled by cheap energy and financial/governmental policies almost exclusively geared toward suburban development. All good things come to an end and this experiment will too whether it is in our lifetimes or not and whether we like it or not.

    To some, it may be unthinkable given current trends in housing and employment to think that Alpharetta will need to eventually evolve from its current single-use subdivisions, strip malls, big-box stores and office parks in order to continue thriving for years to come. Maybe I’m wrong to believe, as virtually all surveys and polls indicate, that most future demand lies in more walkable places where people can live, work and play without the need for a car for every trip.

    But, maybe I’m not wrong. At the moment, the only development pattern in Alpharetta generating any real buzz is walkable urbanism. You don’t hear people talking about the next Windward or the next subdivision. There are three marquee projects in Alpharetta that center around proximity and walkability, Alpharetta City Center, Avalon and Gwinnett Tech. These will work together with their surroundings to create mixed-use places where people will truly be able to live-work-learn-play without getting into their cars for every trip. Companies, schools and people looking to relocate to Alpharetta will take note. Right now, Alpharetta is making most of the right moves.

    In the short term, Alpharetta’s primarily drivable suburban model is working really well and it will likely work longer than other cities with the same model due to the sheer affluence and the strong IT business environment. Not many drivable suburban cities have it as good as Alpharetta. However, in the long term, Alpharetta will need more proximity oriented development that moves people away from purely car based mobility in order to continue its momentum.

    Can’t wait to see the quality urbanism that Alpharetta is creating!

  9. Greg November 4, 2012 at 7:52 pm #


    It’s funny that you mention “the next Windward.” I live in Windward, and as I was reading through other comments lamenting a lack of community, I was thinking, “You should move to Windward!”

    Our kids do in fact roam the neighborhood playing with friends. Many neighborhoods can walk or ride bikes to the park or the greenway. And, of course, Windward’s size affords it the space to have its own lake, parks, and greenspace – things Avalon will be sorely lacking, unless you count a detention pond.

    I’m also one of those people who drives a long distance to work in downtown Atlanta. I choose to do that because I want the park-like setting and sense of community, along with excellent schools, at a price I can afford. I work with people who live in town, but all but one is childless, and that one is looking into private schools. And for what it’s worth, every one of them still gets in a car to get to work.

    The fact is the world needs variety. Alpharettans moved here because they didn’t want to live in an urban environment. People in downtown Atlanta live there because they like urbanism. I could never be so obnoxious as to tell them they should make their neighborhood look like Alpharetta. I can’t imagine someone doing the reverse here.

  10. Lee November 4, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    @Kevin – You’re exactly right in that Alpharetta doesn’t need to be all things to all people. But if you read documents like the land use plan, that’s exactly the direction the city tries to go. On the flip side, communities like Milton know exactly what they want to be. I envy that in a way.

    @Michael – If you spend several hundred million dollars on any project, you’re gonna generate buzz.

    I think Alpharetta can create walkable environments that don’t include maximum density like Peridot or Windward Mill. Downtown Alpharetta would be cool if the core of the business district were surrounded with less intense townhomes within walking distance. Crabapple has achieved this without stacking condos and apartments sky high. Unfortunately I fear Alpharetta’s council will stack residential above downtown’s shops. They don’t have the guts to discuss use at this point in the project.

  11. Greg November 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    All of the buzz I’ve heard has to do with the retail – what it will look like, who’s coming in, etc. I’d be willing to bet that the exact same project, minus the residential and office components, would have generated the same buzz.

  12. Kim November 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    @Greg – Listening to you describe Windward is interesting. We live on the west side of town and I do think the two sides are different. There is room for both in Alpharetta that reflects two different flavors of suburbia — one not better than the other. We over here on the west side are still trying to hang on to our little bit of “Milton” suburbia that is more rural in character.

  13. John Peltier November 18, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    I am happy to live within walking distance of Milton and Hwy 9, and look forward to more shops and activity there. It’s one of the reasons we chose our location. Walkable Alpharetta is coming, and it doesn’t require building more apartments or townhomes. It’s already here if you’re judicious about your choices.

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