Question Everything

EintsteinQuestionEverything1

Almost two decades ago I was introduced to government land use and zoning policies. As I began talking to elected officials and city planners I was astounded by the misinformation used to justify the land use policies.

Almost every city official and planner I spoke to was relying on false or misleading information. I began to question everything.

When people told me that high density mixed use developments reduce traffic I asked them to prove it. But they couldn’t. Because it wasn’t true. 

When proponents of urbanization told me high density transit oriented developments would pave the way for MARTA trains that would reduce congestion I asked them to prove it. But they couldn’t. Because it wasn’t true.

When supporters of transit oriented developments told me that heavy rail would bring more jobs to Alpharetta I asked them to prove it. But they couldn’t. Because it wasn’t true.

And as I questioned claim after claim about the benefits of urbanization a website called NewGeography.com became invaluable for research. The website currently features an article about the challenges city planners face today and how difficult it is for them to respond to a rapidly changing world that doesn’t conform to many previously held biases and preconceived notions.

Below are a couple of excerpts from the article De’ja’ Vu and the Dilemma for Planners which was written by Steven Poltzin:

Planner AngstPlanner's Aspirations

 

You should read the whole article here.

Unfortunately everything is more politicized today than ever before. That is especially true of zoning decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  But facts are facts even when the “conventional wisdom” of developers, consultants and urban planners may not agree.

Question everything.

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Urbanization of Alpharetta Continues

peridot-2

 

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.

Is The Current MARTA Vision Worth The Chase?

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:

  1. What About the 97%ers? Only 3% of commuters within reach of the current rail use MARTA and ridership is down over the past 10 years.
  2. Convenience Factor. For most, using rail involves a six-part process: a drive to the station, a wait for the train, a ride on the rail, a wait for a bus, a ride to a bus stop, and a walk to their building. Real people will weigh that time and hassle against driving straight to work.
  3. Transit for Everyone… Else. Many who support the expansion of MARTA rail are laboring under the hope that others will take the train so that their drive downtown won’t take so long.
  4. Until Death Do It Tax. 43 years is a long time to pay a tax on everything you purchase. This puts the full payment outside my life expectancy. I’m 40.
  5. Bait and Switch. The MARTA project list is disposable. MARTA is not obligated to build the projects the voters are being asked to fund. They should be.
  6. Hadn’t Thought of That. No one has thought to measure the expected improvement, if any, along Georgia 400. For an informed vote, we need to know how much quicker our drives will be.
  7. Federal Match? The proposed expansion is dependent on federal matching funds of $4 Billion. There is no obligation by the Fed to commit these funds. Before MARTA expansion hits a ballot, there should be.
  8. I’m Against What? The ballot question is worded in a way that a “No” vote implies you oppose traffic relief and economic development. The question should be neutral.
  9. Stacked Deck for Alpharetta. If successful, 3 new transit stations will attract 3 new streams of traffic from surrounding areas and require 3 new 2,500-car parking decks constructed MARTA-style.

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.

 

 

Resolution of the Mayor and Council Regarding MARTA Tax Increase

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.

 

Alpharetta SB 330 Resolution_edited-1

Opinion of Mayor David Belle Isle

For months Fulton County mayors have been meeting to negotiate an agreement regarding a transportation sales tax which was authorized in House Bill 170 passed by the Georgia legislature in 2015. Below is a press release issued today by Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle regarding the matter.

I support our Mayor’s critical approach to an issue that is vital to the future of our region and our state. I am proud to serve with a man who has the courage to stand up for what we both know is right regardless of which way the prevailing political winds may be blowing. You can click below to view the whole statement.

 

DBI MARTA statement

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Supporters of Georgia State Senator Brandon Beach’s MARTA tax increase bill, SB 313, have made many claims about public support for the legislation. As an elected representative of 63,000 people who live in Alpharetta I know many of those claims are inconsistent with the truth. That is why I am pleased to release the findings of an objective, statistically valid poll which demonstrates the people of North Fulton overwhelmingly oppose such a tax increase for the purpose of extending heavy rail in the region.

Legitimate Poll shows Overwhelming Opposition to Rail in North Fulton

Voters in the 5 major cities of North Fulton county have spoken and oppose a massive tax increase to support a Marta heavy rail extension.  When presented with a reasonable and accurate set of facts, the poll showed a clear landslide rebuttal.  Women opposed the tax increase and rail line by almost 63% and Republicans by almost 69%.  Democrats also opposed by a slim majority and African-Americans opposed by over 66%.  All age demographics were a majority against the tax increase and rail line. The poll was conducted by Landmark Communications a respected, non-biased firm.

 

Landmark MARTA poll

A decision of this magnitude deserves better

In an earlier post I wrote about my experience at the state capital last week. For more background you should also read this article about the hearing at GeorgiaPol.com.

As I testified at the senate hearing Senator Beach commented, “We can disagree without being disagreeable” and I couldn’t agree more. That is why some of the comments made by him and others supporting his 50% MARTA tax increase are so troublesome.

That doesn’t make sense to Beach. MARTA’s opponents, he said, are desperate for solutions. “Some of the politicians are saying, well, nobody is going to use it, and then in the next sentence they’re saying it’s going to create so much congestion coming into it. Well, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to have all this congestion, you’re going to have ridership. Just tell me one or the other.”

“The politicians are scared to death” of MARTA expansion, Beach said in an interview earlier this week.

What a perfect example of heavy rail supporters insulting their opponents and misleading the public without addressing the facts laid out by their opposition. Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say, “nobody is going to use it” is just false hyperbole.

I have never heard it said by any opponent of heavy rail. However I have repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. Census shows only 2% of Fulton County residents ride heavy rail to work.

Yet while Senator Beach’s assertion that politicians say “nobody” is going to ride MARTA is false, his assertion that some say it’s going to cause more congestion is true and supported by facts.

Only 5% of the people who live in the zip code surrounding the North Springs MARTA station in Sandy Springs use heavy rail to get to work.

Commute chart Sandy Springs

And since only 846 people who live within walking distance of the station take trains to work MARTA had to build enormous parking garages. Why? Because most of the people who ride the trains have to drive cars to the station.

That is why rush hour traffic around North Springs is so bad the state of Georgia is spending a billion dollars trying to fix the problem while Sandy Springs is considering building monorails and the Perimeter CID is designing ways to expand surface streets to accommodate more cars, buses and trolleys at taxpayer expense.

So when Mr. Beach demands to know whether it is “one or the other” the response is “the other” because no politician says nobody will ride MARTA trains. Instead informed politicians say that while a small group of people around train stations will ride them the overwhelming majority of riders are forced to drive cars to the station making traffic worse.

Which means a bill dictating MARTA must expand using expensive, inflexible heavy rail lines along GA 400 will force commuters to crowd surrounding streets exacerbating congestion. The only public transportation that can effectively address existing congestion issues while improving economic development opportunities is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

The people of North Fulton are tired of congestion on the arterial roads and surface streets around GA 400. Of course other people have a vested interest in making sure transit forces people to visit the Georgia 400 corridor.

That’s why it was perfectly reasonable for Senator Beach to sponsor Senate Bill 313. Senator Beach is President of the North Fulton Community Improvement District (CID) a tax district created specifically to increase the property values of commercial properties along GA 400.

Understanding that, it makes sense for Senator Beach to pretend that North Fulton is doomed if taxpayers don’t spend billions of tax dollars to extend heavy rail into the CID there. No law forces political decisions to be decided on objective facts. So if Senator Beach supports a regressive tax increase which takes money from single moms in East Point to build train stations on three properties within the North Fulton CID it is perfectly fine. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’s good business for the CID.

Which is why it was also perfectly reasonable for Mr. Mark Toro to speak in favor of Senator Beach’s MARTA tax increase. Mr. Toro is a partner in North American Properties, the company now selling their Avalon mixed use development in Alpharetta. If Avalon is worth $500 million now it should be worth tens of millions more with a MARTA station. That’s just good business.

That’s the same reason Mr. Toro was a vocal supporter of the failed Tsplost tax that would have brought heavy rail to Atlantic Station in 2012. Now that North American has sold Atlantic Station and has Avalon on the market it is no surprise he supports a bill forcing Johns Creek retirees to pay for a MARTA station there.

And if Mr. Toro has to tell people who live in the City of Atlanta that objections to Senator Beach’s proposal are based on “racism” and a “bunch of old white guys”… so be it. If that’s what it takes to convince minority taxpayers in Atlanta they should pay for a 2.4 billion dollar amenity in the North Fulton CID, that’s just good business.

But the truth is that most elected officials in North Fulton support expanding some form of transit. Objections to Senator Beach’s 50% MARTA tax increase are not based on racism, irrational fears or muddled thinking but on sound reasoning and fiscal responsibility.

SB 313 diverts billions of dollars from efforts to build a sustainable transportation network that can support a vibrant region and directs them to an overpriced, inflexible mode of transportation that primarily benefits the commercial properties like Avalon within the North Fulton CID. To characterize principled, informed opposition to Senate Bill as irrational fear or uninformed reactionary politics is insulting.

A decision of this magnitude deserves better.