Despite Guidelines, Alpharetta Housing Growth is Dominated by Rentals

Apartments and their impact on Alpharetta have been a touchy subject for as long as I can remember. My first introduction to the issue was when a next door neighbor applied for zoning to turn his single family home into an apartment complex nearly twenty years ago and I have written 22 articles discussing apartments going back as far as  this article about urbanization and MARTA written in 2011.

For that entire time the City of Alpharetta has had specific goals regarding apartments or rental properties. There have been at least three different official goals for the city’s housing ratios that I remember. Curiously the only thing consistent about each of those standards is that they have all been ignored by the people elected to achieve them.

Alpharetta’s current housing goal as stated in the Comprehensive Land Use Plan was passed unanimously just last year. It says that the city’s goal is to maintain less than 1/3rd (32%) of our housing stock as rental properties. That ratio is to be measured by U. S. Census Bureau data. The latest numbers available are for 2015 and those numbers show that Alpharetta had 22,824 total housing units and 8,537 of them were renter occupied at the time. That means the current ratio of renter occupied homes to owner occupied homes is 37.4%.

echo-alpharetta

Which means Alpharetta had 1233 rental units more than the the city’s stated goal. To make matters worse there are already 700 more on the way if you include the additional 276 apartments opening this year in Avalon, the 168 apartments being built in front of city hall, the 129 apartments just approved on Devore Road and 111 apartments in the Echo complex on Westside Parkway. That would put Alpharetta 2,000 households over the comprehensive plan goal without even considering the 320 apartments proposed for the Fuqua project on Haynes Bridge Road or any of the senior housing facilities being built all over town. Most of the senior housing projects are not considered to be apartments.

That is a snapshot of how much Alpharetta’s percentage of rental housing exceeded the city’s guidelines in 2015. But what was the overall trend? Did Alpharetta make any progress at all in reducing rental housing ratios between 2010 and 2016? No. Quite the opposite.

The ratio of rentals to owner occupied housing in Alpharetta has gotten substantially worse since 2010. Census numbers show that Alpharetta had a total of 20,454 housing units in 2010 but that grew to 22,824 by 2015 for a net growth of 2,370 households. Of those additional households, 1,752 were identified as renter occupied which means 74% of Alpharetta’s housing growth over that time was fueled by renters.

Click on the pictures below to see the census data.

 

Such rapid growth in apartments and rental homes drove the ratio of renters to owners from 33.2% up to 37.4%. A 13% move in the wrong direction over a five year period. Once again that does not include the thousands of rentals already approved, built or on the way in the next few years and there is no reason to believe that is going to change in the near future. The number of single family homes being built compared to townhouses, condos and apartments is dwindling as available land disappears.

As mentioned earlier the topic of apartments has been a hot button issue in this city for a long time and reasonable people can disagree about the impact of attracting a much more transient population to Alpharetta. But the fact is that Alpharetta has very specific standards for what should be the appropriate mix of housing to maintain the health, safety and quality of life we enjoy…  yet the city moves further and further from those published goals every time we approve more apartments.

For those of you concerned about the impact of zoning decisions on your school district I am including maps of Alpharetta’s three largest high school districts below with numbers of apartments zoned for each. Note that there continues to be an extraordinary concentration of apartments in the Alpharetta High School district. The 6,000+ apartments zoned for Alpharetta High School is more than double those in Milton High school district and twenty one times the number of apartments in the Cambridge High School district.

Alpharetta High School – 6,161    apartment units

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Milton High School – 2,381    apartment units

milton-high-school-zone-map

Cambridge High School – 292 apartment units

cambridge-high-school-attendance-zone

High Density Mixed Use Developments Make Traffic Worse

devore-hd-mu

On December 12th the Alpharetta City Council was scheduled to hear a zoning application for the most dense development in the history of our city. The case is referred to as the Perling development on Devore Road and I have written about it previously here. At the last minute the applicant chose to defer the case until a later date so it was not heard but will presumably come to city council for a final decision in the next few weeks.

A zoning application of this scale is very complex and there are numerous consequences both intentional and unintentional resulting from such a zoning change so I spent weeks researching the case in an effort to make an informed decision. I reviewed the property owner’s zoning application, the video of the planning commission’s hearing and the report of Alpharetta’s Community Development staff who evaluated the application before recommending approval of the project with some changes and conditions. You can review those materials yourself at the links highlighted above in blue.

The Devore Road project is an example of the high density mixed use developments which are currently all the rage among commercial property owners and developers. A mixed use rezoning allows the property owner to exponentially increase the density permitted on a piece of land which then creates a corresponding increase in their property values. The increase in property value frequently amounts to tens of millions of dollars so it is no surprise that property owners, developers and the people who work for them tend to be huge supporters of such projects. That makes good business sense.

But as cities evaluate zoning applications we have the responsibility to balance the right of a property owner to develop their property with the responsibility of a municipal government to provide the infrastructure and public services for those developments in perpetuity. While a property owner and a development team can cash out after a rezoning or after the project is built the impact on the community is permanent.

So even though many developers and urban planners tend to portray high density mixed use developments as if they miraculously reduce traffic and the demand for other public services by creating a “live, work, play” environment it is our responsibility as elected officials to look beyond the sales pitch to determine the truth. The truth is that mixed use developments do not reduce the impact of development on public infrastructure and services when they exponentially increase the number of people and cars permitted on the property.

While cramming more people and cars onto a parcel of land may be good business for  property owners and can be a useful economic development tool for a city, in no way does it reduce the impact on public infrastructure and services. At best it allows a minor cost efficiency to be realized by allowing the higher amount of infrastructure and  service expenses to be spread over a smaller geographic area.

Adding tens of thousands of cars to Alpharetta roads every day does not reduce congestion. Adding thousands of apartments and homes to Manning Oaks Elementary, Northwestern Middle School and Milton High School school districts does not reduce overcrowding. Adding thousands of residents who can walk to a brewery or a restaurant serving alcohol will not reduce crime in that area.

Increased levels of density increase the demand for public infrastructure, facilities and services. It really is that simple. Yet time after time the supporters of high density mixed use developments make unsubstantiated or demonstrably false claims in an effort to convince people that mixed use developments are a solution for problems they actually make worse.

For example, in the Devore Road zoning application they request approval for a 5 story condo building with 80 units, a 6 story apartment building with 200 units and 64 townhouses in addition to more than 125,000 square feet of office space, restaurants, retail space and a brewery. So with a mixed use zoning designation the applicant wants to build 344 apartments, condos and townhouses in addition to the commercial uses which are already permitted under current zoning. All of that on less than 13 acres.

However based on the traffic study supplied by the applicant for the Devore Road development that project would add 5188 to the roads between downtown Alpharetta and GA 400 every weekday. And of those additional 5188 cars on the road 488 of them would be added during the peak morning rush hour and 384 more cars would be added during the peak afternoon rush hour.

So after traffic engineers have accounted for the “efficiency” of a mixed use development, the Perling project would add 872 more cars to Alpharetta roads during just the 2 hours when congestion is already at its most miserable. Adding 872 cars to Alpharetta roads between GA 400 and downtown during what is already the worst time for congestion does not reduce traffic. It will make traffic worse… much worse.

Yet discussing the Devore Road development in isolation doesn’t adequately illustrate the full impact mixed use developments will have on Alpharetta traffic. The mixed use development planned around City Hall should begin construction very soon. That city center development will include 168 apartments in addition to more than 100,000 square feet of office, retail and restaurant space. The traffic study performed for City Center estimates it will add an additional 5,893 car trips per day to downtown congestion including 880 more cars added during just the two peak rush hours.

And that’s not all. There is already another zoning application  for a high density mixed use development at the southwest corner of Haynes Bridge Road and GA 400. The hearings for that case are scheduled for February.

peridot-2

The applicant, TPA-Fuqua-Peridot, is requesting 430 apartments, 70 townhomes and more than 600,000 square feet of office, retail, hotel and restaurant space. Their traffic study projects an increase of 15,737 cars a day from the development with an additional burden of more than 3,000 cars a day during just the two worst hours of congestion each weekday.

So there are currently three urban, high density mixed use developments proposed along the Haynes Bridge corridor between downtown and GA 400. As planned those three mixed use developments are projected to add almost 27,000 car trips to traffic every weekday. Of the 27,000 extra cars on the road we can expect 4,853 of them to be added during what are already the two worst hours of congestion and that doesn’t even include additional traffic from Avalon.

Avalon is only half completed so far. The total impact of Avalon’s additional traffic once it is finished is projected to be more than 28,000 additional cars every weekday. That is even more than City Center, Devore Road and Peridot combined. So when added with those projects it will mean that high density mixed use developments on the west side town will add more than 55,000 extra cars a day between those Alpharetta residents and GA 400. It will mean almost 10,000 more cars on those roads during just the two worst hours of traffic each week day if you can imagine that.

Now obviously I can’t speak for everyone but the majority of residents I talk to about the pace of development in Alpharetta overwhelmingly agree that adding more than 55,000 extra cars a day  between downtown and GA 400 is unacceptable. But good people can disagree and there are bound to be some people who believe the economic impact of all those high density mixed use developments would be worth adding 55,000 cars to Alpharetta’s current congestion.

However, facts are still facts. And it is not acceptable for proponents of high density mixed use developments to mislead residents into thinking they will ease traffic or lessen the burden on taxpayers for providing infrastructure and services. That is just not true.

High density mixed use developments make traffic worse. There is just no denying it.

Urban Core Density proposed for Devore Road in Alpharetta

devore-hd-mu

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.

 

Urbanization of Downtown Alpharetta

Last week I wrote about the renewed effort to urbanize the City of Alpharetta. This week we will take a closer look at the current transformation of downtown Alpharetta into an urban core.

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.

alpharetta-urban-collage

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.

alpharetta-city-center-2016

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.

 

 

Another 111 apartments slated for Alpharetta’s Milton High School district

ECHO on Westside

An article in yesterday’s Atlanta Business Chronicle announced yet another apartment complex to be built in Alpharetta’s Milton High School district. This new development would be in addition to the 400+ apartments already being proposed right down the street by MetLife and Lincoln Properties in an effort to urbanize the Northpoint area.

Pollack Shores Real Estate Group is building a 111-unit luxury apartment community with 5,600 square feet of retail space in Alpharetta.

ECHO at North Point Center will be built at 10105 Westside Parkway, Alpharetta, Ga., 30009

Click on the picture above to read the full article with more details.

Let the fun begin!

Last week I qualified to run for a second term on the Alpharetta City Council and no one registered to oppose me. So barring unforeseen circumstances I have again been granted the opportunity to serve as the elected representative of the 60,000+ people who call Alpharetta home. For that I will always be grateful.

And as I continue the work begun in 2012 I am determined to do a better job of keeping the public informed during this next term. One of the best ways I can think to do that is using this blog to update and interact with the people of Alpharetta about issues affecting our city.

A few years before I considered running for office this blog was created to let people know about current events which shape the future of this place we call home. Over time it was the insight gained from writing those articles that drove me to public service. I could no longer just stand by and report as the relentless pressure to urbanize Alpharetta threatened to destroy the quality of life that makes it so special.

Back in 2008 a recession brought urbanization to a grinding halt for a while. Three enormous mixed use developments approved during the previous real estate bubble sat dormant and the people who were pushing for Alpharetta to be just another urban core with bad schools, high crime and MARTA stations were nursing badly depreciated investments.

The biggest concern for our city council at that point was how we could breathe life back into our local economy… and we did. But our success has again fueled a determined few to rejoin their quest of turning Alpharetta into a dense urban core.

In the last four years more than 1000 new apartments have been built or approved in the City of Alpharetta. And our community development department is recommending 400+ more in an urban mixed use development already approved for Milton High School district. All of this is added to the hundreds of townhouses and single family homes on tiny lots that have also been approved. This type of urban density threatens our schools and crowds our roads. We have to be more careful or Alpharetta is going to end up just like any other concrete jungle at the end of a MARTA line.

As a community we cannot build a wall around Alpharetta and refuse to change. But as a community we need to evolve in ways consistent with the vision of the people who live and vote here. That is the only way we can assure Alpharetta will remain the greatest place to do business and raise a family in the state of Georgia.

So it is time to revive GA Jim. I have to do a better job of letting all of you know about the issues shaping our city’s future so it is once again time for me to host this forum called GA Jim.

To foster a healthy discussion commenting is encouraged but understand this is not an official City of Alpharetta website. This website belongs to me and while I hope you will use it to exchange information and views this will all be conducted at my discretion. Any disrespect shown to me, other commenters, elected officials or city employees will not be tolerated. Life is too short for that kind of crap.

So let the fun begin!