Town Center CID: A Decade Of Improvements
As it approaches the 10-year mark, Cobb County's Town Center CID has new projects in the works.
These days, you can hardly throw a stone in Metro Atlanta without hitting a CID, or, as it's officially known, Community Improvement District, be it in Gwinnett, around Perimeter Mall or near Cumberland Mall in Cobb County.
The catchy acronym signifies an entity formed when a group of property owners in a defined area agrees to pay higher property taxes in order to fund improvements in the region. Frequently, these changes are transportation related (aimed at relieving traffic and congestion), but some CIDs focus on stopping crime; others on general beautification. There are 12 CIDs in Georgia - all of them in the Metro Atlanta area.
At the western edge of Metro Atlanta, the Town Center CID, located near busy Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, is one of Georgia's oldest. Fronted by constantly congested Ernest Barrett Parkway and nestled between busy arteries I-75 and I-575, the CID extends, roughly, from Chastain Road to the North, Barrett Parkway to the south, Bells Ferry Road to the east and Cobb Parkway to the west.
Formed in 1997, the CID is approaching its 10th anniversary and leaders are taking the opportunity to look back at their accomplishments and forward toward a set of still-lofty goals. The organization owes its existence to the nearby Cumberland CID, the state's first, located in East Cobb. In 1984 the legislature amended the state constitution, paving the way for the establishment of CIDs. In 1987, property owners in the Cumberland Mall area organized a CID.
T.E. "Skip" Spann, one of the Town Center CID's organizers and chairman since its inception, recalls how his organization got its start: "One day we were at a meeting, and [real estate developer] Tad Leithead was talking about the Cumberland CID," he recalls. "I was in the audience, and he looked right at me and said, 'You're going to need one up here [at Town Center].'"
Spann took Leithead's advice and started "putting folks together." Lanie Shipp, who was active in Town Center area civic associations, heard that Spann and others were talking about forming a CID. She contacted them and met with the organizers on a weekly basis for about two years as they worked to define the area that the CID would encompass and to identify the property owners they needed to contact. (A majority of property owners who represent 75 percent of the total assessed value of the proposed CID must agree to the increase in taxes before a CID can be formed. Once this criterion is achieved, property owners must get approval from the county government to actually form the CID.)
In the early organizing days of the Town Center Area CID, Shipp recalls, "We had the area created, but not a lot of property owners. We had nothing to offer them." That was in 1995 and 1996. By 1998, Shipp says, the CID realized a 40 percent increase in property owners who were willing to join. When the Town Center Area CID became official in 1997, the board hired Shipp as administrative secretary. Later, she assumed her current role, executive director.
What would the Town Center area look like today if leaders hadn't established a CID there nearly a decade ago? Spann answers with one word: gridlock.
"I think we've accomplished a number of things," says Spann, who knows the area well, having been recruited from Shreveport, La., to serve as general manager of Town Center Mall in 1997. "Number one we take a very serious look at transportation up here. This area is growing so fast with residential, commercial and the [Kennesaw State] university - and all of that puts cars on the road. I believe that had we not taken the initiative and started this CID and tried to stay ahead of the curve that we would be in deep trouble right now."
One improvement Shipp is particularly proud of is the sidewalks within the Town Center Area CID. She remembers when they first began talking of adding sidewalks. "There were so many who said, 'Let's don't put our money into sidewalks. People will never walk on sidewalks here.' It just delights my heart to see, during lunchtime hours, how many people go out and walk on those sidewalks. Whether they are exercising or walking to get lunch, you see this more and more everywhere."
On The Horizon
With sidewalks in place and almost a decade's worth of other improvements under its belt, the Town Center CID now has so many projects either ongoing, planned or under discussion, that it's difficult to zero in on one that's more important than the others. But there is one that seems to stand out - a planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Station.
Bus Rapid Transit is an affordable alternative to rail that allows buses to use either special busways or High Occupancy Vehicle lanes for rapid movement and minimal passenger waiting time. Four other BRT stations are in the planning stages for Cobb County.
"We are working closely with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), the Georgia Department of Transportation and Cobb County in planning the station," Shipp says. "It will not only provide access to buses and be a vanpool and carpool destination, but it also will be built to provide private enterprise, where there might be a coffee shop, a dry cleaners or other types of entities that will provide services."
In other words, the station is a perfect place for mixed-use development. That's right in line with the Town Center Design Guidelines and Zoning Recommendations, which note the availability of "undeveloped or underutilized land (older low density retail)" which is "likely to redevelop in the near future."
GRTA planning for the proposed transit stations began in March 2005 and continued through that summer, with 350 representatives from businesses, neighborhoods and organizations participating. Phase II, which began this past January, focuses on design guidelines, circulation and pedestrian access.
CID leaders also hope the BRT station will help strengthen bonds to another nearby draw, Kennesaw State University (KSU). According to the guidelines, the site would be an ideal location for affordable housing facilities for KSU students.
The KSU connection bodes well for the new project. Why? Shipp says that in the CID's early days members thought retail would be the primary driver. Later, they decided it would be offices. "Now," she says, "it's going to be KSU that will drive it."
There's a deeper level of affiliation at play here: Spann, a former college football player, left retail in 2002 and is now associate director of development for athletics at for Kennesaw State.
Shipp describes Spann's affiliation with the school as "wonderful for us. We probably have a better relationship over there than we've ever had." She and others at the Town Center Area CID want to extend the look of KSU's campus - which boasts lampposts and benches - throughout the CID.
In The Meantime
That's not the only link Town Center's leaders hope to forge. In addition to riders using Bus Rapid Transit to travel to KSU, Spann says, "I think if we have a system that can move people between, say, the Town Center area and Cumberland Mall area and even farther on down to Atlanta proper, I think there are a lot of people who would take advantage of it."
Since it will be a while before a Town Center BRT Station comes online, the Town Center Area CID is planning an area-wide shuttle to help relieve traffic congestion in the short term. It could be operational as soon as the second quarter of next year, Shipp says.
"We're working with GRTA and the Atlanta Regional Commission right now to institute a small, year-round bus," she says. "It would loop through the campus of KSU, through the Town Park office park, down Chastain Road, to Town Center Mall and then back up to KSU."
The shuttle would run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., operating on about a 15-minute loop. If it works and is popular, Shipp says, the Town Center Area CID would seek funding to keep it going and possibly add more buses.
Transportation improvements take time, and, Shipp says, sometimes people notice a lot of disturbance before they notice any positive changes, but then, at some point, the construction is done and there are sidewalks or a Bus Rapid Transit Station, and it all seems worthwhile.