Southern Sprawl

Article excerpt

Expensive housing, crowded schools, long commutes. How can CEOs attract top talent? BY PETER GALUSZKA

Spectacular views of greater Atlanta dominate the 16th floor headquarters of Cousins Properties, a major real estate firm. Stone Mountain, a local landmark, rises as a purple smudge on the eastern horizon. The Atlanta skyline looms 10 miles to the south surrounded by crowded rings of freeways. Just below the oversized windows is a thick jungle of trees on either side of the narrow Chattahoochee River, the dominant drinking water source for this booming metropolis of nearly 4 million people.

Taken together, these vistas bespeak the tremendous draw that has fueled big population growth in Atlanta and much of the rest of the Sun Belt. And, taken together, they represent its worst enemies-traffic jams and water and air pollution.

That message is keenly evident to Thomas D. Bell Jr., CEO, vice chairman and president of Cousins, which, ironically, has helped build the congested sprawl that is Atlanta. Bell, a recent import from New York City, where he was chairman and CEO of the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, is leading an unusual, business-oriented drive to contain urban sprawl. "We've never seen business and local government attack these problems head-on in this way," says Bell, who leads the Quality Growth Task Force, an initiative of local officials and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. The goal is to stem sprawl by directing future development closer to the center city, create more affordable housing and boost urban transit.

Up until now, the hodgepodge, unguided expansion typical of Atlanta became a dominant land-use pattern during the latter 20th century. For CEOs interested in expanding or relocating in a booming area, sprawl was just something that went with the territory.

Now, it is abundantly evident that this pattern of growth has created major, far-reaching problems. Locations once considered desirable by CEOs are becoming nightmares as the very attributes that attracted companies to them in the first place are being destroyed. Workers can t operate at peak efficiency if they face two-hour commutes. Schools become overcrowded, housing more expensive and relaxation time more difficult, making it harder to attract top talent. "Many CEOs are just beginning to understand what is at stake for them," says George P. Mitchell, a longtime Texas oil baron and CEO of a Houston real estate firm. He has spent the past 30 years building a 27,000-acre, mixed use project hailed because it will eventually cut 7 million car trips a year in the Houston area.

Worst Sprawl in America?

Sprawl conditions appear to be worse in the Southeast than anywhere else in the country. Of the 10 states that are chewing up forests and fields the quickest, five of them-Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina and Tennessee-are in the South. Virginia ranks No. 12. In the 10 counties around Nashville, land is being developed at the rate of 60 acres a day, says Trip Pollard, director of the Charlottesville, Va.-based Southern Environmental Law Center. In Florida, growth has endangered water supplies and such natural treasures as the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. The Interstate 85 corridor stretching across most major business centers has become such a jammed mess that the cities along it seemingly jell into one. Wags joke about "Charlantingham" for the glopped-together cities of Charlotte, Atlanta and Birmingham.

This out-of-control spiral has assumed a political force of its own in some spots. Loudonn County, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C., has become the single fastest-growing county in the U.S. as attempts to slow the pace have failed. Several years ago, the county Board of Supervisors adopted "smart growth" policies, such as limiting lot size for houses. In 2003, the real estate community retaliated, pouring in thousands of dollars to elect a progrowth majority that has since reopened the doors for rampant development. …