News out this week includes an interview with HealthSouth CEO, Jay Grinney, on his company’s move from 280 to Liberty Park. Bhamarchitect covered this on his blog, however, I would like to delve further into the story. While interesting, the story is also disappointing and I want to examine Mr. Grinney’s reasoning for the move and share a similar, personal story about a company staying in downtown.
HealthSouth, in planning for a new office, considered moving to an area in the Parkside/Southside district of downtown. They instead have decided to move to Liberty Park. Nothing groundbreaking about that. What is interesting about this story is that the company surveyed their employees and asked if they would rather work in Downtown or Liberty Park. The response was a large majority wanting to work in Liberty Park. Despite the recent positive developments in downtown, I am in no way surprised by the response from Mr. Grinney’s employees. Why? Do HealthSouth employees hate downtown? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but that is not the main reason why they voted against moving to Parkside. HealthSouth’s office is currently on 280 at Grandview Parkway. The majority of these employees live in this area or around the greater 459 corridor. Of course they are not going to want to have to commute further to get to their jobs. Even those that would otherwise be ok with working downtown do not want the dreaded commute that is simply known by the numbers: 2 & 80.
What makes me angry about this article is that Mr. Grinney passes the blame for this to the city! He laments that if an elevated toll road had been built on 280 that “we probably would be going downtown, because traffic congestion would be a moot point.” Ha! That is nonsense. The elevated “expressway” on 280 was a terrible idea that only would have benefit Chelsea and further suburban sprawl and made life worse for those that would have to live next to the expressway and deal with the increased traffic, noise, pollution and difficulty of navigating around it. There is also enormous pressure for suburban sprawl in that area and induced demand would mean that in 10 or 20 years traffic would be even worse, not better. What people fail to understand is that traffic on 280 is not terrible because of any poor design with the road, it is terrible because so many people live on south 280 and commute to the city for work. Currently, the traffic on 280 deters more people from moving to the surrounding areas; this is a positive. Recently there has been much discussion about induced demand with roads, how expanding roadways often does not make traffic better in the long run. This has even been talked about with the 20/59 expansion. What is less discussed is how expanding roads under such conditions actually makes driving far more miserable. I was reminded of this last weekend when I visited Atlanta. Would you rather drive on a 4 lane highway with terrible traffic or a 10 lane highway with terrible traffic?
Having the 280 elevated expressway would not change employees desire to be as close as possible to work. If Birmingham is to grow and prosper, it must be attractional not just to businesses but residents. If people live in the city, jobs will follow. I will deal with this topic in future post, but Birmingham in some respects doesn’t need more jobs. Of course more jobs and more companies locating downtown is great and is welcomed, but Birmingham already has far more jobs than residents. This is why so many people commute to Birmingham. What Birmingham really needs is more residents.
This brings me to my own experience with a company polling its employees in regards to office location. This company is actually where my wife works, Atlas RFID Solutions. They are currently in the Innovation Depot and have transitioned from start-up to “resident mentor” and now are graduating to their own office space. Atlas asked its employees where the new office should be, giving several OTM choices and downtown. I personally know that a large majority of those employees live OTM. So what was the vote? To stay in downtown. They will move next year to the Booker T. Washington building once renovations are finished. Why did even many of those that live OTM vote to stay downtown? I think it’s because they recognize working downtown has allowed the company to grow and foster a creative, fun work environment. While locating OTM might give some of them an easier commute, it might also jeopardize the unique work environment Atlas has built and keep the company from retaining and attracting the kind of talent it needs to be successful.