Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Students' impact on Atlanta

The AJC reports that Atlanta is seventh among major metropolitan areas in college student population. This, in my opinion, is pretty good news, especially the growth rate:
That is up seven spots from 1989, and Atlanta's enrollment rate is growing faster than that of any other major metro area with more than 100,000 students
Now, the study referenced includes UGA, so we should take note of that when using this study to talk about how all these students impact the city. From a larger perspective, I'm sure there are good reasons to include UGA in the study because having UGA right down the road certainly has a major impact on Atlanta's economy.

But my interests in the story are more about the impact that students have on a city's culture and vitality. These UGA students aren't renting housing, eating out, or partying in Atlanta - they are keeping all that "college culture" in Athens. Sure, folks come into town for concerts and the like, but they aren't really adding to the vitality of the city.

Georgia State University and Georgia Tech have certainly had major impacts on the city, and the growth of GSU in particular is one of the best things to happen to downtown in ages. For all the publicity that the aquarium and whatever new convention destination the chamber is pursuing (think NASCAR or the College Football Hall of Fame), GSU has done boat loads more for downtown. Just walk down Broad Street and see how the Aderhold Center has helped turn Fairlie-Poplar into an awesome urban neighborhood. Tech's expansion across the interstate was an important part of Midtown's emergence over the last ten years as an urban, pedestrian neighborhood.

The challenge for Atlanta is to find a way to capitalize on this large student population to continue to turn areas like downtown around. The new dorm that opened up recently is a good start, and GSU has an ambitious plan to build greek housing near campus as well. GSU says they want 20% of students living on campus by 2015, which is a great goal.

There theoretically should be ample opportunities for private developers to build student housing, but I think the reality of land and construction prices may make this difficult. Most properties in the area with conversion potential also have outrageous asking prices. At first blush, it is just too hard to make the numbers work.

I suspect there is some latent demand for quality, affordable, student housing downtown. Empirical evidence suggests otherwise, though - rents at places like Muse's Lofts look decent, about the same as a student would pay going through GSU. In addition, I have heard mixed results about the success of University Place at Underground, a private adaptive-reuse project that opened up a few years ago. I don't think they have exactly made a killing.

Until someone goes out on a limb, builds a quality product, and finds financial success, I don't think there will be much private development for student housing. Given the number of students living in town, there should be more opportunities, though. Perhaps what is missing is a definable college culture. Hopefully, these new GSU dorms can be the seed for that and create a unique driver for students to want to live downtown.

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