Georgia 400: Designing For Destiny

Communities along Georgia 400 seek to handle growing population

Through Metro Atlanta, from Sandy Springs to Roswell to Alpharetta and farther north, GA 400 has both sparked and flamed the metro area’s continual push to the north.

Along the highway are some of the state’s most affluent communities, as well as the headquarters of any number of high-tech companies. It’s easy to say that GA 400 has, in some respects, been paved with gold. But it’s also been clogged with cars, as growth stresses adjacent communities and roads.

All the communities along 400 are grappling with growth, and what it means for the future of their towns. Close in, many of Atlanta’s traditional suburbs, where land is scarce, are facing questions about high-density development that’s more typical in urban areas. Farther north in Forsyth County, where there’s still plenty of land available, officials work to stay ahead of growth, even while courting it.

Roswell Mayor Jere Wood says Atlanta has two basic choices: “It can continue to sprawl, or it will learn to develop at higher density. Sandy Springs is moving in that direction. Alpharetta is flirting with it. Roswell is struggling with it. But we will continue to grow; that’s not a choice. So either we will decide to consume our greenspace with sprawling development or we will preserve our greenspace with higher density development.”



Rising High


In the newly minted city of Sandy Springs, Mayor Eva Galambos is straightforward about the density debate – one she says is already over in this mature community just north of Atlanta. “Whatever you see along the 400 corridor that isn’t high-rise now will be,” she says. “We accept the fact that development along 400 will be high density. We’re asking developers to consider mixed use projects rather than just retail or office.”

The situation is a little different along Roswell Road (State Route 9), which, like 400, runs north-south. Although development at the intersection of this major artery and I-285 will be high density, the city hopes to maintain more “medium density” along the rest of the Roswell Road corridor.

“We know the buildings that get built there won’t be two stories, but we’d like to see four or six,” Galambos says. “Again, we’re looking at mixed use. And we’d prefer to limit retail to certain nodes, so we don’t have curb cuts all up and down Roswell Road, just adding to the traffic.”

The city would be willing to approve some projects that rise higher in a few areas, but is emphasizing the need for greenspace – something sorely lacking along Roswell Road. “We’re telling developers, ‘We’ll let you go higher, but you need to give us some space at ground level,” Galambos says. “It could be a plaza, a lawn – something that is human scale and inviting at ground level.”

She points to the City Walk development at the corner of Hammond and Roswell Road, a mixed use project featuring retail, townhomes and condos. “It has put a lot of spark into the downtown area,” Galambos says. “We welcome mixed use in the downtown area.”

Like most cities along 400 – indeed, most communities in Metro Atlanta – Sandy Springs has a traffic problem, which will only be exacerbated by new development. It’s especially bad, says the mayor, along Hammond Drive. “We are very aware of how congested Hammond Drive is,” she says.

To manage the situation, the city and other organizations are looking at some new approaches. The Perimeter Community Improvement District is seeking funding for a half-diamond interchange for Hammond Drive. On Roswell Road, the city is looking at a novel way to deal with the extreme bottleneck at the intersection of I-285: tunneling under the bridge.

“If you can’t widen the bridge, go under it,” Galambos says. “We’re told it’s easier to build a tunnel than to build a bridge. So we’re looking at it, and it looks promising.”



Density Debate


The density debate is alive and well in Roswell, where several high-density projects are just breaking ground and others wait on the drawing board. It’s a significant transformation for this historic town that’s long been an upscale suburb of Atlanta and now finds itself grappling with development more common to the urban center.

Fueled by the boom along 400, good schools and easy access to many of Atlanta’s employment centers, Roswell keeps growing – and given the relative lack of land in this established community, growth is likely going to be high density.

East Village, a $100 million mixed-use project – primarily retail, with about 380,000 square feet of shops – broke ground in June. It’s designed to have a “Main Street” feel, with smaller shops and boutiques fronting Holcomb Bridge Road and bigger box stores (including a SuperTarget) in the back. Although it’s retail heavy, its design makes it more pedestrian-friendly, says Roswell’s Economic Development Manager Jennifer Fine.

Just down the road on Holcomb Bridge, Centennial Walk is scheduled to break ground early this fall. It features more residential units (high-end condos) with a sprinkling of upscale retail. Centennial Walk “is really the project that started our mixed-use conversation,” Fine says.

Until the developer, Griffin & Co., proposed a project at the site, the city didn’t really have a way to address high-density mixed-use developments – projects that “won’t get a rubber-stamp approval, that require conversations and some give and take,” Fine says. “Now we have a way to get projects on the table and have comment on them. The developers have a better idea of what the city wants, and the city has more opportunities to talk to the developers.”

The city council approved a zoning change that will allow increased density in Roswell’s historic area, encouraging a redevelopment plan that was drafted by volunteers, led by local architect Lew Oliver. Along Roswell’s town square, the plans call for a mix of newly constructed and redeveloped buildings (none more than three stories). A portion of South Atlanta Street, across from the antebellum mansion Barrington Hall, would be transformed into a broad piazza with small shops, condos and boutique hotel.

“This was led by citizens, not by me or the council,” says Mayor Wood. “With such strong community support, it won the support of the council and they approved rewriting the zoning code.”

Plans for the square are the “first green light we’ve given to a redevelopment project since we decided years ago that redevelopment was a priority,” Wood says. Maybe, he adds, it’s a sign that the ice is melting on redevelopment.

But the city remains wary of high density. “Half the 400 corridor in Roswell is occupied by 30-year-old apartment complexes,” Wood says. “I think the city council would like to see that area redeveloped at medium density, but I’m afraid economically we won’t get redevelopment unless we allow higher density. That’s the big debate – everybody supports redevelopment, but many people are opposed to higher density. That’s why the project on the square is important, because it’s the first time the council has allowed higher density to encourage redevelopment.”

Wood cautions, however, that the plans are just that – nothing has been approved yet. “It’s a limited change, not a sweeping change,” he says. “But it’s a high-profile area, and it’s a positive development.”

A larger plan encompasses the area called Midtown Roswell, adjacent to the historic district and continuing along Alpharetta Street (State Route 9) to Holcomb Bridge Road. “It’s an area of about 15 acres,” Fine says. “And it’s an important corner. I hope within the next two years we’ll see some dirt turned and have a mixed use development that bridges the gap between our city hall, the Canton Street historic area and Alpharetta Street, which is our commercial strip.”

But the biggest development – one that will change the face of Roswell significantly – is still on the drawing board, though it’s been discussed for several years. Roswell East, a proposed development at the intersection of Holcomb Bridge and 400, is a $2 billion project that rivals Midtown Atlanta’s Atlantic Station in size and scope. Since the project was first proposed, debates have continued about the height of the buildings (the original proposal had some at 20 stories), the size of the complex and the traffic it would spill onto Holcomb Bridge Road – and 400.

“Dealing with Roswell East will be a defining moment for the city in terms of how we deal with density,” Fine says. “It’s brought up issues that are of concern regardless of the development, mainly the Holcomb Bridge-400 intersection. What do you do when you have tremendous congestion on Holcomb Bridge, primarily due to commuting traffic? How much should you carry the burden?”

Until those questions are answered – and the Department of Transportation weighs in on plans for the intersection – “big developments will just be a conversation,” Fine says.



Ambitious Plans


If Alpharetta is “flirting” with high density, it looks like the relationship is getting serious. An 85-acre development at Old Milton Parkway and 400, called Prospect Park, will feature high-end retail, office space and a 140-room luxury hotel.

Another developer, Barry Real Estate, is arguing with the city over the size of its proposed development adjacent to Prospect Park – the city council recently reduced the amount of office space it approved for the site from 1.2 million square feet to about 560,000. Either way, the development will be massive.

Add to that the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre a few miles away, where the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will play, and it’s no joke when the city’s economic development coordinator, James Drinkard, says Alpharetta is starting to look like the Buckhead of the north.

“The retail at Prospect Park will be the kind of designer shops you’d see at Lenox Mall or Phipps Plaza,” he says. “And the amphitheatre, with 12,000 seats, is about double the size of the Chastain Park Amphitheatre. We believe it will spark an explosion in our arts and cultural community, which is the next ingredient we need in our recipe for success.”

Even having the naming rights go to Verizon, Drinkard says, fit perfectly into Alpharetta’s reputation as a center for high-tech jobs. Other corporate residents, in addition to Verizon, include IBM, ChoicePoint and Siemens.

The city also has high hopes for its downtown, a 9-acre site called City Center. Plans call for a mixed-use development that incorporates a new city hall, greenspace, and shops and condos, all in the style of a small Georgia town – circa 1850s, when Alpharetta was founded.

“We’ve really been working on downtown since 1993, when we began streetscapes improvements,” Drinkard says. “This is the next phase.”

But already the area has seen some benefit: Retail lease rates have risen from between $8 and $10 per square foot to $23 to $25 per square foot, and private investment in downtown has increased. “And we don’t even have the project built yet,” Drinkard says.



Solid Infrastructure


Density isn’t yet an issue in Forsyth County, but if growth continues as it has, it may not be far off.

Brian Dill, vice president of economic development at the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce, lets the numbers tell the story: In 2006, the chamber announced eight new business projects bringing a total of 2,300 jobs and $248 million in capital investment. In 2007, he says those numbers could go as high as 8,000 jobs and $1 billion in capital investment.

GA 400 has certainly helped drive Forsyth’s growth, but Dill says other factors have helped, too, including a top-notch infrastructure that’s attractive to tech companies.

Also attractive is Forsyth’s reputation for affluence. Dill says the county recently ranked at the top of the state’s wealth list.

“That’s good and bad from a recruiting standpoint, because you have to be particular about what you can and can’t attract,” he says. “Our average hourly wage rate is $18.25. So to go after a company that pays below that would be putting the company’s success in jeopardy.”

A new study will help the county identify which businesses fit best in the local economy, and which the economy can support long-term. After all, Dill says, “We tell people when we recruit that you’re a new company today but an existing one tomorrow, and our success rests on how we support those existing industries.” Data centers have proven to be a good bet for Forsyth, with both ChoicePoint and MetLife maintaining facilities there.

The biggest challenge for existing industries, Dill says, is workforce housing and the ability to live, work and play within a small radius – also a hallmark of mixed use communities. But, he says, the county has a number of plusses, starting with its educational infrastructure. Forsyth is opening a new high school for fall 2007 and plans for another already are in the works.

“Given the state law that you have to have a child in place before you can have the facility, the county has done a tremendous job of keeping kids out of [classroom] trailers,” Dill says.

Cumming has also taken a proactive approach to wastewater treatment, investing in a $30 million project. And even retail, which has lagged behind the residential and business growth, has begun to blossom. The Avenues Forsyth, an upscale shopping center, is scheduled to open in April 2008.

“These are not things you can get overnight,” Dill says. “You either have them in place and are ready to go, or you don’t. And if you don’t have them, you get cut off a company’s list and you don’t even know it. Our comfort level is high when we are recruiting because our infrastructure is in place.”



GA 400 At-A-Glance



North Fulton


Population


(2008 projected)


200,977



Median Income


$ 70,157



Top Employers


Northside Hospital, 4,000; State Farm Insurance, 3,500; Associated Distributors, 3,000; AT&T, 2,400; Kimberly-Clark Corp., 2,000; CIBA Vision, 1,800



Forsyth County


Population


(2006)


150,968


(2010 projected)


183,430



Median Income


$74,379 (2004)



Top Employers


Scientific Games International, 1,100; Tyson Poultry, 1,100; American Proteins, 900; Siemens Energy & Automation, 800; Northside Hospital, 700



Sources:


Greater North Fulton Chamber, Cumming-Forsyth Chamber, Georgia Dept. of Labor



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