Cobb County: Revitalization And Redevelopment
A suburban powerhouse proves the value of collaboration
Cobb County is maturing into an efficient, multifaceted blend of urban and suburban cultures.
In some ways it's a small-town enigma snuggling up to the core of downtown Atlanta, but it also has grown into an intricate network of county, cities, businesses, higher education and self-taxing districts tackling challenges in tandem. The county's highly-lauded response to Hurricane Katrina shows across-the-board coordination is paying off: However rocked with traffic and growing pains, Cobb has become significantly more dense without losing either small town charm or emphasis on services, commendable in an era of runaway over-development.
Economically, Cobb continues to dominate suburban business growth, this year attracting a new, consolidated headquarters for Home Depot with 750 employees in three new buildings. Printpack announced it would move its corporate headquarters from Atlanta to Cobb. Continued investment in the Windy Hill area, includes efforts to redevelop the Galleria Mall and a $65 million renovation of neighboring Cumberland Mall. Cobb is also constructing the $140 million Cobb Energy Centre for the Performing Arts (opening in early 2007), all of which is helping make the county irresistible to corporations.
Leaders here clearly enjoy taking modern approaches, such as reuse, to solving old problems. Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Sam Olens enthuses over having moved several county offices into the site of a former Kroger in Marietta, which, because of its proximity to a former drycleaners in the now-vacant strip, became a brownfield cleanup. "Where we've always talked the talk, now we're walking the walk," Olens says. "And we're saving a lot of money by doing it."
As it inches toward maximum density, Cobb has also become a proving ground for revitalization. The Marietta Housing Authority has made great progress in this movement, by selling two former public housing projects to developers planning mixed-use neighborhoods within walking distance of the square and considering the sale of a third. Award-winning revitalization in Smyrna has also brought deserved attention to South Cobb, and nearby cities Powder Springs and Austell are gearing to upgrade. In the north, Acworth is investing to get a handle on booming commercial and residential growth.
Olens dislikes the "distractions" in the media - stories that hone in on stickers in biology textbooks or controversial plans to purchase laptops. In spite of all its award-winning services, and its rare triple AAA bond rating, Cobb's highest card is its schools, Olens says. "Our schools are great - the number one reason folks move to Cobb, Fayette and Gwinnett counties is not the low taxes. It's the school systems."
The county is also proud of its response to Hurricane Katrina. Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police President Bryan Golden wrote that "the law enforcement agencies of Cobb County have provided an excellent example of local police departments and the county sheriff's office working together ... with Dobbins Air Force Base to provide items needed in areas affected [by Katrina]." Memos like Golden's are the sort of thing local governments ooh and ahh over, but the general public rarely hears about.
"Our community really came together with Dobbins and the Red Cross," says Olens of the Katrina response, "and our faith-based community stepped to the forefront from the onset. Kennesaw City Councilman Bill Thrash even volunteered his municipal officers to augment the county police and firemen [on the Gulf Coast]."
Such teamwork suggests a renewed spirit of cooperation among the sometimes-fractious communities. "I'd say city and county relations are better than they've been in 10 years," says Acworth Assistant City Manager Bryan Binzer.
A Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum that passed this year further demonstrates solidarity behind local government. County investments into transit are starting to pay off for cities congested by traffic cutting through Cobb from adjacent counties to reach Atlanta or the Galleria. Cobb's latest transit projects link Douglas County to the Galleria along a Georgia Regional Transit Authority route, and Canton to Woodstock and then to downtown Atlanta.
"We put an additional $1 million into transit each year since I've been chair," Olens says. "That's resulted in greater levels of service. We've updated our bus fleet and are negotiating to lease more parking lots, as demand exceeds availability. For the fourth straight year we've seen a minimum 10 percent increase in ridership; and since gas prices went up, ridership's gone up 20 percent."
The transit investments will reap long-term benefits as cities implement regulations and streetscape improvements to correspond with roadwork through Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grants. Each municipality has an LCI project, which qualifies it for funding to create livable (i.e., walkable) communities.
The cities are using another tool, the Tax Allocation District (TAD), to tackle problem areas such as contaminated lots. Acworth created a TAD to clean up the site of an old flea market on Highway 41; the property was eventually purchased by North American Properties to be redeveloped as a SuperTarget site (Lakeside Market). "It's a great example of utilizing the TAD in the most appropriate way," says Bill Cooper, Cobb Chamber of Commerce CEO.
Acworth is a good example of the "old Cobb," having annexed some 200 acres of land over the past several years. But the city has absorbed some strange development in the process. Later this year, for example, it will be home to two Wal-Mart Supercenters within three miles of one another (with a SuperTarget in between). City Council candidates this fall also expressed concern over preserving the quality of Lake Allatoona, the drinking water source.
Though the city is still annexing steadily, Binzer says he thinks Acworth's growth will plateau in about five years. "We'll run out of land, at some point, and growth will even off. The focus then is going to be on redevelopment."
Marietta, which saw its third TAD go into effect at the first of this month, is deep into that process at the moment. Hedgewood Development recently closed on the 17-acre Manget site with plans for a mixed-use project including 265 residences. The Marietta Housing Authority is expecting to close soon on the sale of 11.77 acres of land, including the former Clay Homes public housing site, to Winter Properties, which plans mid-rise townhomes in a mixed-use retail district extending from the square.
Downtown, The Myrick Company is purchasing the 10.68-acre Johnny Walker Homes public housing project for $3.1 million to redevelop into offices, retail, condos, townhomes and houses. "All the mayors are now looking at TADs," says Cobb Chamber COO Don Beaver. "Every city is addressing redevelopment in a positive way."
Some cities have good reason. Powder Springs and Austell each have imposed a moratorium on residential development to let services catch up with demand; in Austell, some 100 homes were damaged this year by storms. But even in the midst of recovery, these cities are also aggressively pursuing redevelopment opportunities: Powder Springs has invested $2 million in streetscapes, is building a railroad overpass and recently created its first economic development office. Austell purchased the Threadmill building in 2001 - a 230,000-square-foot former Coats & Clark textile mill turned shopping mall that closed in the '90s - and now it is almost fully occupied.
'The proximity to downtown Atlanta further opens up South Cobb to the infill influx; Mableton's Mable House Barnes Amphitheater, which opened in 2003, has established itself as a premier performing arts center and, with that has come quality business growth. "The Barnes Amphitheater has been a very successful collaboration between the business community and the county government," Beaver says. "It shows that if you're going to do it, it pays to do it right."
Speaking of culture, Beaver believes the Cobb Energy Centre for the Performing Arts, scheduled for completion in 2007, will rival any performing arts center in the United States and could help generate more than $1.5 billion in development.
Wendy Riggs, the center's managing director, says the Cobb facility, near the Galleria, will be a good fit for some touring productions intended for small theaters. "They're used to a theater with around 3,000 seats, and the Fox, which has 4,500, is a huge jump for them to make." Beaver says the Cobb Center will draw patrons from all counties in the region.
In terms of attracting corporations, Olens says that both "national and international companies" have been looking at the Galleria area, which could also eventually link to Atlanta by rapid transit bus.
Investments into this multifaceted complex are expected to draw upscale developments to the Cumberland Community Improvement District's slick, high-density environment. "It will all be live-work-play, everything from housing to commercial, restaurants, hotels and offices," Cooper says. "The roads have been done. You can get around the Galleria on the Kennedy Interchange better than you can any other place in Atlanta. It's a magnet for attracting business."
In fact, for three years the Cumberland-Galleria area has been recognized as a "Best Workplaces for Commuters" district by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Cumberland CID Commuter Club, which offers vanpools for $50 a month to area residents, has also proven popular.
Quality Of Life
Quality of life is an area where collaboration between cities and counties may benefit Cobb residents most. "Now we're finished fighting, we get to do the neat stuff," Olens says. "There's no city we're not working with for win-wins." Construction of the South Cobb Regional Library is under way, along with the Ron Anderson Recreation Center in Powder Springs. The South Cobb Aquatic Center opened in July.
In Kennesaw, which has seen development booming around ever-growing Kennesaw State University, the county has agreed to pay a third of the cost of the Ken Gilbert Botanical Garden, which along with the Civil War Museum and an LCI grant is expected to boost tourism and revitalize the downtown area.
With so many projects in the offing, it may pay to know that the county doesn't rush decisions. Olens says he supports delaying the addition of High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on Interstate 75 in order to study adding Truck Only Lanes to the project. "The move to include truck lanes would delay the project approximately a year. But with a $1.5 billion project, you want it constructed correctly the first time."
Olens is quick to credit Marietta Mayor Bill Dunaway with sparking the collaborative energy that is revitalizing so much of Cobb County. "I give a lot of credit to Mayor Dunaway with his push for redevelopment in the urban core, as Smyrna has done previously. Several of our other cities are encouraging redevelopment also," Olens says.
Gary Mongeon, director of Marietta Redevelopment Corporation, agrees that leadership over the last four years on the part of Dunaway and the city council has been a "catalyst" for much of the city's revitalization efforts, but also credits private entities for implementing changes in the county's landscape. "You have to give major credit to the development community, which has begun to recognize the value of Marietta as a location," he says. "It takes risk-taking."
One example of private development going gangbusters in Marietta is WellStar Health System. "It's absolutely amazing, to see how much medical office expansion has occurred out there in less than 18 months,"
Mongeon says. "In addition to the expansion of Kennestone itself, the transportation improvements around the hospital - including the Tower Road Underpass - have opened up the whole area. It wouldn't surprise me if there were more than 250,000 square feet of medical office space around the hospital, not including the actual campus." Loft and office development has in turn erupted along the corridor linking Kennestone to the Marietta Square.
Still, the zoning that enables redevelopment comes ultimately from local government. Olens cites a shift in attitude away from annexation and toward redevelopment. Instead of trying to grow from without, he says, the cities are trying to grow from redevelopment, which bodes well for all of us.
"I really commend the cities," Olens says. "Is it pretty? No. Are there mistakes? Yes. But you have to encourage redevelopment in blighted areas, rather than pushing your density out. It really takes courage - too few have courage."