Downtown Atlanta will bounce back, says urban planning expert

Everyone is wrong about downtowns dying, one urban planning expert says.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 12:19 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 12:26 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Take a drive through downtown Atlanta, and you’ll notice many of the once-prominent office towers have a lot of empty space for lease.

Recent headlines have suggested that downtowns in the U.S. are dying because the COVID-19 pandemic showed that people can work from anywhere.

“There may be a grain of truth in that, but there’s a pound of truth in the reality that most people actually can’t work remotely,” said urban planning expert Tracy Hadden Loh. “Even jobs that are remote-ready, the majority of those will remain hybrid.”

Loh is a fellow at the think-tank Brookings Metro. In a presentation Wednesday to stakeholders with the nonprofit group Central Atlanta Progress, she explained why everyone is wrong about downtowns and made suggestions on what cities can do about it.

“Proximity between home and work is something that will continue to have value and be the central value proposition of cities,” she said.

The problem, Loh said, is most owners of major commercial properties don’t like to take risks. They’re holding them as investment assets instead of thinking of them as “living buildings” that could be converted to housing or perhaps retail, light manufacturing – even lab space.

“It can take time for a conservative investor to realize that the market has shifted and that they need a new business model,” said Loh.

Without capital investments, she said, property owners will end up selling their buildings for a loss, which creates opportunity for new owners who can use that discount to revamp the buildings.

In the meantime, she had this message to leaders of cities like Atlanta: Do your part to address public safety, transportation, homelessness, and persistent vacancies.

“Do something. Do anything,” she said. “That’s better than nothing.”