High Density Mixed Use Developments Make Traffic Worse

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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.

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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.

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Urbanization of Alpharetta Continues

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Once again a zoning application has been filed for another high density mixed use development with hundreds of apartments at the southwest corner of Haynes Bridge Road and Georgia 400. This is just the most recent of several proposals planned for this property since Alpharetta’s City Council began an unprecedented push for urbanization in 2006.

This latest proposal would be similar in scale to Avalon adding 430 apartments, 70 townhomes and more than half a million square feet of offices, restaurants and retail. And in fact it was the rezoning of the MetLife parcel to high density mixed use in 2011 that drove me to run for city council against a council member who voted for it so I have written about the property extensively.

Below are links to some of those articles for those of you interested in the history of the Peridot/MetLife parcel.

I began writing those posts in 2011. A lot has changed since then.

Back in 2011 I wasn’t an elected official. I was an Alpharetta resident who cared deeply about this community and was frustrated by a mayor and city council who unanimously ignored the pleas of moderation from me and my neighbors.

Back in 2011 the Alpharetta city council members would at least pretend they didn’t support high density developments that made traffic worse and negatively impacted our quality of life. Back then they would tell us that the high density mixed use developments they approved would never have apartments because “for the foreseeable future” the city wasn’t going to violate the 85/15 ratio of homes to apartments outlined in their Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

Back in 2011 we had no way of knowing “the foreseeable future” was less than a year away. Now just five years later more than 1000 apartments have been built or approved in urban, high density mixed use developments and the 85/15 rule is a distant memory.

But one thing that hasn’t changed. There is still a concerted effort to urbanize Alpharetta at the expense of our schools and the quality of life that attracted people from all over the world to raise their families and do business here.

So once again I look forward to the opportunity of discussing this unrelenting effort to urbanize Alpharetta as it relates to a parcel that has figured prominently in MARTA’s plan to bring a heavy rail station to the site with the help of developers and elected officials.