October 18, 2016
Don’t we all take pride in our neighborhoods? Of course we do, why else would you make your kid cut the grass every week? Our homes, and the neighborhoods they reside in, say a lot about us. For some, their domicile says to the world, “Look how successful I am. My personal abode is the size of Rhode Island”, for others their dwelling is the embodiment of their little piece of the American dream complete with a wife, a couple kids and a dog named Scrappy, and, for the less conventional, their choice of neighborhood can mean anything from “I’m not bound by societal convention” to “You don’t want to visit me after dark”. In pretty much every case, we like our neighborhood the way it is, and we’re not always wild about prospective newcomers. For example, I once lived near a neighborhood where Walmart wanted to build a new super store. The residents were less than welcoming, one even spelled out “No Walmart” in Christmas lights, and only after months of acrimony were they allowed to erect a much smaller “neighborhood market” on their desired plot of land. This same type of territorial tussle is currently happening in the pleasant suburb of Alpharetta, Georgia, only with a bit of a “man bites dog” twist.
At issue is a rezoning request in the city’s northeast quadrant that would allow Sharp Residential to build 82 three-story town homes of approximately 2,600 square feet with prices ranging from $500,000 to $525,000. In the spirit of “No Walmart”, the area’s data center owners are positively apoplectic about the prospect of 82 upper middle class families taking some of their turf. I think we can all understand why. Let them in, and the next thing you know you’ve got kids playing hide and seek in the yard, and how is anybody supposed to get any work done if they constantly have to toss soccer balls back over the security fence? And that’s not the least of it, just who do you think is going to be inconvenienced by all the overflow traffic from the neighborhood block party, or have families camped out on their security berms to get a better look at the fireworks on the 4th, and are you going to have to bring in an extra technician to hand out candy to the kiddies on Halloween? What a mess, and when you’re housing millions of compute and storage gear moving isn’t exactly an option.
To protect their domains, the data center owners are fighting the good fight by pointing out how difficult it may be for their prospective new neighbors to adjust to their established routines. In the spirit of full disclosure, they freely admit that they can be a tad noisy from time to time, and the proposed town homes’ proximity to their diesel fuel storage tanks may have a negative impact on future property values. Concern over potential contention for water and power resources is also a factor that the data center operators feel are issues that prospective homeowners might want to consider. It’s kind of like when you find out the guy next door uses the spigot on the side of your house to fill his pool–no one wants things to get ugly. Naturally they have also voiced their concerns regarding security, since all it takes is one rogue middle schooler to hop a security fence, figure out how to fool the card reader into unlocking the door, race by the security guard, pass through the biometric security to access the data center floor, and the next thing you know Putin’s got the marketing department’s email list.
I suspect that the Alpharetta Planning Commission will resolve this conflict in a fair and equitable manner, but this also may be the first of many data center/residential developer conflicts. As changing data patterns drive data centers ever closer to the consumers of their applications, the need for prime suburban real estate will continue to mount, forcing the unique needs of providers and homeowners into contention for desirable acreage with both sides rightly saying, “not in my backyard”.