A short video explaining why I support Ben Burnett for Alpharetta City Council. Please vote this Tuesday, November 7th.
It has been nearly a month since I wrote this article about Alpharetta’s ongoing City Council election. Since that time I have seen no local newspaper coverage of the most important election the City of Alpharetta has had since 2011 when Mayor Belle Isle and I were elected.
But six years ago when we ran for office both local papers ran profiles of every candidate within two weeks and there were forums and debates. On September 7th of 2011 the Alpharetta Revue ran a profile of some unknown candidate named Jim Gilvin on September 7th of that year. You can still read that article here but only if you promise to forgive the 20 year old real estate picture accompanying it.
And as I go back and read that profile now I am surprised to see how similar the current election is to that one.
Traffic and high density development still seem to be the most critical issues. One of the current candidates promises to provide a much needed voice for the residents of Alpharetta and the commercial property owners, builders and developers are once again displaying giant signs for the other candidate.
Yet even though so many of the issues are still the same the local media coverage has been much different. Actually it has been nonexistent.
There hasn’t even been a newspaper article about the city council race except for the article announcing there was one. Alpharetta is halfway through its most important election in six years and there has been no profile of the candidates.
Not one local reporter has thought to ask Councilman Kennedy why he didn’t let his constituents know he wasn’t running for reelection until it was too late for other candidates to qualify. Not a single media outlet has bothered to ask candidate Ben Easterling what prompted him to qualify as a candidate for Councilman Kennedy’s seat on the first morning of qualifying when no one in the public had any idea Councilman Kennedy wasn’t running.
I know I’m just an elected official who blogs on the side but it certainly seems like those are the kinds of things local newspapers should do to inform their readers. At least they used to.
On June 19th Mayor Belle Isle and the Alpharetta City Council approved the seventh high density mixed use zoning case to come before us since I was elected in 2011. The vote Monday night was 4-2 in favor of the project with Councilman Jason Binder joining me to vote against it.
That latest project was called Northwinds Summit and will contain 140 apartments, 32 condos, 1.2 million square feet of office space, 30,000 square feet of retail and a 140 room hotel. It is projected to add more than 14,000 cars a day to the intersection of GA 400 and Haynes Bridge Road. Northwinds will be right across the street from the Tech 360 project approved last month which will add another 13,000 cars. Those projects will now draw 27,000 more cars a day to what was already one of the busiest intersections in Alpharetta.
And while 27,000 more cars a day may seem like a lot it is only a fraction of the traffic residents should expect from projects approved over the past six years. The seven urban mixed use projects approved alone are projected to add more than 100,000 cars a day to our already congested roadways.
But even that number doesn’t include the thousands of cars coming from all the acreage recently clear cut on Old Milton Parkway. Or the cars coming soon from property cleared on Kimball Bridge Road. Or cars coming from more developments approved on Webb Bridge Road. Or the houses, town houses and condos being built on Mayfield Road, Rucker Road, Canton Street, Academy Street and nearly every other congested corridor in the city.
When I ran for office in 2011 there were three candidates running for Mayor and six candidates running for three city council positions. For ten weeks the nine of us spent every possible moment hosting events, knocking on doors and attending debates to explain why the people of Alpharetta should vote for us. The one issue that all nine candidates acknowledged as a top priority for everyone was Alpharetta’s traffic.
Every candidate promised we were going to do something about the horrific traffic that has plagued this city for years. Yet here we are six years later and city council has approved developments that will add well over 100,000 cars a day while we are still years away from traffic improvements that could ease congestion.
Don’t get me wrong. Development is not bad and I am not anti-growth.
I am proud of much that our mayor and council have accomplished over the past six years. Cooperation between the City of Alpharetta, our business community and the commercial property owners who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars help make Alpharetta a shining star in the state of Georgia.
But when I promised to do something about traffic I was committed to supporting a pace and scale of development that our infrastructure could support. Many of my fellow candidates promised the same thing.
Rush hour in Alpharetta is already frustrating and over the next five years it is going to get worse before it gets better. Construction is about to begin along every major roadway in the city. Critical corridors like Rucker Road and McGinnis Ferry may need to be closed for a while as bridges and roundabouts are constructed. All of this will happen just as new developments start to add tens of thousands of cars to our traffic. You can find more detailed information about the planned projects at this link.
The long term affects of that congestion along with the impact such rapid growth will have on schools and crime rates are going to be immense. I am concerned that it is just too much too fast. And I know a lot of other Alpharetta residents are concerned too because they ask me about it everywhere I go.
People ask me what’s going to be built on the latest piece of land where the trees are suddenly gone. People ask me why the city didn’t do something about traffic before approving so many developments. People ask me why I’m usually the only council member voting against some of the mixed use apartment projects.
Then people ask me the one question I just can’t answer,”We’ve lost so many trees and traffic just keeps getting worse, why does the city keep approving all of this?” All I can say to that is,”I don’t know.”
Another rezoning application has been filed with the City of Alpharetta for yet another high density urban mixed use development. This one calls for 200 apartments in a 6 story building, 80 condos in 5 story building, 64 townhouses or homes and more than 130,000 square feet of office, retail and commercial space on about 12 acres of land. That works out to nearly 30 residential units and more than 10,000 square feet of office, retail and commercial built per acre of land.
To help you understand how dense that is just picture a high school football field without the end zones. Then imagine a typical Trader Joe’s with 29 apartments, condos or townhomes stacked on top in that little space.
Every property owner in Alpharetta has a constitutional right to apply for rezoning on their property and I will do my best to consider how such a dense urban core could ever be in the best interests of our community. But over the years I have consistently stated my belief that dense, urban development will absolutely destroy the very qualities that have made Alpharetta the greatest place in Georgia to raise a family and do business so it is hard to imagine hearing any justification that I haven’t already heard a thousand times.
For the time being though, I will just shake my head in disappointment that prior decisions by our mayor and council have lead property owners and developers to believe this type of urban core density is appropriate for such a site in Alpharetta.
You can find the application and supporting documents on the city website here.
Last week’s Alpharetta Herald contained a good article providing insight into the public discussion among our Mayor and City Council members about increasing taxpayer subsidies for the city center project in downtown Alpharetta. You can read the whole thing here.
The reporter, Pat Fox, accurately describes my comments as:
He said he also thinks the project has strayed too far from the image he had of a village-style development and become too heavily focused on mixed-use.
“I don’t believe this plan ever met the spirit of what was sold to the public in the original bond issue back in 2011
The illustration below was published with the article.
Do you notice the huge expanses of green space with trees that serve as the focal point for the development? Do you notice how the heights of buildings within each block of development vary as if they were built over time rather than all at once? It looks pretty good doesn’t it?
Unfortunately the picture above is not the development which our mayor and council just voted to further subsidize with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. The actual proposal to be built downtown is shown below.
As you can see the “village style” city center used to promote bonds for the development has now been transformed into something more resembling Bull Street in downtown Savannah. But even Bull Street doesn’t have a four story apartment building with more than 130 units covering an entire city block. The stark contrast between what was originally sold to residents and what is actually being built provides a timely illustration of the current urbanization taking place in Downtown Alpharetta.
Back in 2011 Alpharetta was mired in the depths of a severe recession. The top priority for our mayor and council at that point was getting Alpharetta’s economy back on track. I am proud to say that when we all worked together toward that common vision the results were overwhelming.
But this is no longer 2011. This is 2016 and today Alpharetta has a booming economy.
The size and density of the numerous development projects approved over the past five years are going to transform this community in ways we can only begin to appreciate. Avalon is only half complete and the developments along Old Milton Parkway and Thompson Street have just started. Thousands of apartments, town houses and homes have been approved but not yet built while nearly every week another large swath of trees is clear cut for more development.
Back in 2011 the people of Alpharetta and their elected officials could only hope for that day when we could face the challenge of how to manage explosive growth. That day is here now.
Mayor Belle Isle and our city council have shown what we can accomplish when we share the same vision. We brought tremendous growth back to this community and we can manage that growth to protect those qualities which make Alpharetta so special.
But when you look at the drastic differences in the two visions above it is no longer clear we still share the same vision. And until we agree on where we are going it will be impossible for us to agree about how we get there.
The article below was written by Mayor David Belle Isle, the mayor of Alpharetta, who gave me permission to share it with you here.
Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?
I’m a vision guy. I love looking at something and imagining what it could be; what it could be like; and how to get there. I love chasing a vision and seeing the pieces fall into place. But, for a vision to be worth the chase, the promise of “what could be” has to be better than “what is.”
Last week, I found myself in a makeshift room midway up the interior back stairs of the State Capitol. The room was packed. The air was hot. I was there to testify on behalf of Alpharetta at a committee hearing on the proposed MARTA expansion bill, SB 330. To my surprise, the room was not full of concerned every day citizens seeking faster commute times to home and work. Rather, it was filled with developers, lobbyists, and employees of chamber and public policy groups. Indeed, a total of 7 lobbying firms have been retained to make sure this MARTA bill gets passed and that you vote for it. Big money. Big stakes. Big supporters.
Among others, two developers spoke of how wonderful the MARTA expansion would be for the economy, specifically their economy. They introduced a new phrase: “transit premium.” This is the concept by which the properties serviced by the rail will increase in value by 50%. This is fantastic! Fantastic, that is, if you’re a property owner or developer near a proposed new transit station.
On the whole, I firmly believe that the expansion of public transit is part of the solution as we look to shorten our drive times to home and to work. But, the current $8 Billion proposal has me scratching my head:
I truly want to see us, as a region, take on traffic and develop a comprehensive plan. I can see it. That’s my vision. It is imprinted on my mind. Yet, we need to look at all the options openly: heavy rail, new roads, light rail, additional lanes, bus-rapid-transit, managed lanes, bus circulator programs, intersection improvements, signal timing, adaptive traffic, Uber, driverless cars. If we’re not careful, we’ll spend more than half of our transportation dollars on 3% of our commuters. “What could be” will be no better than “what is,” except we’ll have the pleasure of paying for “what should never have been.” The best answer probably lies in some combination of travel methods. We don’t know. But before we vote, let’s find out if this vision is worth the chase.
Last night the Alpharetta Mayor and City Council unanimously supported a resolution asking members of the Georgia state legislature to allow Fulton County to finish the transportation improvement process begun last year under House Bill 170. It is my understanding that the Mayor and City Council of Johns Creek have also adopted this resolution.
Last year’s House Bill 170 laid out a well designed plan for investing in the diverse infrastructure needs of a county the size of Fulton. The resolution below would preserve that ongoing process while still providing municipalities more flexibility to expand transit within that framework as needed. You can click on the photo below to read the whole thing.