Friday, May 20, 2011

Le Corbusier, Rejoice

By Matthew Tester, Project Associate. 

The big news out of Atlanta last week was the unveiling of Porsche North America’s plans to relocate their headquarters from Sandy Springs (north of City of Atlanta) to a site adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (south of the City). The move turned heads not only because such southward migration is extremely rare in Atlanta’s office scene, but because it marked a watershed moment for Aerotropolis, the mixed-use redevelopment project on the old Hapeville Ford factory site. Aerotropolis is the next landmark project of the Jacoby Group, developer of the nationally recognized Atlantic Station in midtown Atlanta, and carries the nameplate of a development pattern that some urban theorists expect to shape the future.

The aerotropolis concept was developed over two decades a go by John Kasarda, a business professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. It is a place planned around an airport, where the functions and flows of global commerce are manifest, and is rooted in the historical notion that transportation shapes urban development. In a global economy increasingly connected by air travel, the airport becomes the center of location, infrastructural, and design considerations.  Detractors warn that it is the next iteration of Le Corbusier’s vision of the city as “a machine for living,” where human culture plays second fiddle to economic utility, and suggest that peak oil and climate change will undermine its economic viability anyway.  Proponents note that the realities of the global economy have already pushed air travel to the front lines of economic development and that competition dictates that maximizing efficiency is critical to a region’s prosperity.

Jacoby’s Aerotropolis is a bold vision for Atlanta’s airport zone – a mixed-use development with 2.1 million square feet of office space, a hotel, and retail on 130 acres. It will re-purpose the dormant Hapeville Ford site and bring jobs and prestige to Atlanta’s south side. Although the recession has put the project a year behind schedule, the Porsche announcement is a massive shot in the arm. In addition to the 300 employees from its Sandy Springs headquarters, Porsche is consolidating and relocating the 100 employees in its Chicago-based finance and insurance divisions. Their 26-acre campus will include a headquarters building, a 1.6-mile test track for visitors, and marketing attractions like a restoration shop and a restaurant. A powerful and prestigious brand like Porsche is expected to generate interest from other multinationals and add credibility to the concept.

While Memphis and Louisville have leveraged their status as FedEx and UPS hubs, respectively, to launch aerotropolis planning efforts, the Porsche announcement pushes Atlanta to the head of the pack (at least in the US). It suggests that airport noise and overhead flight paths are no longer deal-breakers for sophisticated office tenants. And, on a deeper level, it underscores the fierceness of global competition by demonstrating how it can shape urban form. Whether all that makes you nod your head in assent or shake it in lament, Le Corbusier told you so.

To read the announcement: Atlanta Business Chronicle story

To read an excellent interview with Aerotropolis co-author Greg Lindsay: BLDG BLOG interview