Question Everything

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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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Urban Core Density proposed for Devore Road in Alpharetta

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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.

 

 

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.

The Avalon project in Alpharetta moves forward

Below is a statement released yesterday by the City of Alpharetta. It is a call for public input on the zoning application submitted for a new development to replace the rotting parking garage currently sitting at the doorstep of our city on Old Milton Parkway.

I encourage all of you to participate in this process. It will have an enormous impact on our community, our quality of life and our property values for years to come.

We Want To Hear From You

North American Properties, the new owner of the 80-acre site at the northwest corner of GA-400 and Old Milton Parkway that was formerly known as Prospect Park, has submitted to the City ofAlpharetta their proposed plan for developing the site. As envisioned by the owner, the project, now named “Avalon”, would be a development consisting of retail, office, hotel, and residential uses with additional outparcels set aside for future sale or development.

While the formal public hearings for the Avalon Proposal are tentatively scheduled to begin on March 1st when the proposal is presented to the Planning Commission, the City ofAlpharetta is seeking early feedback on the owner’s plans.

Please take a few moments to visit our Open City Hall online discussion about the new Avalon Proposal.  There you can view the proposed site plan for Avalon and the table comparing the uses proposed by North American Properties to those that were approved for the formerProspectPark.  Then, let us know your initial impressions, thoughts, concerns or suggestions. Your comments may be helpful to North American Properties as its plans are further refined and may also assist the Planning Commission and the City Council as they consider the proposal.

Also, please consider sharing this opportunity with your friends and neighbors.  We want to hear from all interested citizens.

Thank you for your participation.

James T. Drinkard
Assistant City Administrator, City of Alpharetta

The future of Alpharetta

Tonight the City of Alpharetta had planned to approve a new Comprehensive Land Use Plan that would forever change the complexion of our community. The plan was designed to serve as a blueprint for development in Alpharetta for the next twenty years and you can find the full report here on the city’s website. But late last week the city unexpectedly postponed the vote for the proposal and it will now be decided after the November election.

Why the change?

In recent years the people of Alpharetta have been busy trying to support their families in the middle of a devastating recession and very few have had the time or energy to follow the minutiae of local zoning issues. That is why I have worked so hard to help my fellow Alpharettans understand organizations like the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and the Georgia Department of Transportation have been busy working with developers and Alpharetta’s Community Development Department to devise a new blueprint for our city. A blueprint which calls for thousands and thousands of high density housing units to be added within mixed use developments all along Northpoint Parkway, Haynes Bridge Road and Highway 9.

If that blueprint is approved in its current form the future of Alpharetta will be one of more traffic, lower quality of life and endless cycles of school redistricting forced on our children. To help you see what I am talking about I have illustrated the vast acreage which would be designated for high density and mixed use residential complexes in the new plan. You can click on the image to enlarge it:

Alpharetta would never be the same.

People who support the urbanization of Alpharetta have tried to minimize the effects of this drastic change but Alpharettans need only look at what happened to Sandy Springs when this kind of development occurred there. The schools suffered, the quality of life completely changed and the traffic is worse than ever before despite the addition of four MARTA stations.

Fortunately our current election season has brought a great deal of scrutiny upon the revised land use plan and as a result none of our elected officials seem anxious to vote for the proposal before facing the voters next month. Although our current mayor and city council have unanimously supported the development plan in the past, some of them may be having second thoughts. So the city has decided to postpone the decision until after the election

But let there be no misunderstanding. My opponent fully supports the plan to urbanize Alpharetta. In her four years on city council she has already approved two enormous high density mixed use projects which are stalled by the economy. And to quote her campaign website,”Cheryl pushed a new comprehensive land use plan…”.

The choice is clear. If you want our city’s future to be more high density developments with thousands and thousands of high-rise condos or apartments… you should vote for my opponent.

On the other hand if you want a city council representative whose vision of Alpharetta is one that will always be a special place to live… you should vote for Jim Gilvin on November 8th.

It really is that simple. Thank you for your support.

High density mixed use means high traffic… period

A local blog called New Urban Roswell serves as a platform for blogger Mike Hadden to tout the various urban planning concepts he supports. Mike is a knowledgeable guy and often makes some good points as he did in this post entitled “Traffic Misconceptions”. The article does clear up some common misconceptions but unfortunately it also perpetuates one about mixed use housing.

The truth is that high density mixed use means high traffic… period. But when it comes to the fans of high density mixed use developments they all seem to display an “Imperviousness to evidence” as characterized by Mona Charen in this article at National Review online.

Here is what Mike wrote:

High Density Development Creates Traffic – This one is legitimate under the assumption that you pack people into condos and create a
dense SINGLE USE environment. Single use environments are a sure fire way to create traffic.

I know that mixed use fanatics want that statement to be true but that doesn’t make it so. Look at the actual numbers.

According to the traffic analysis submitted for the MetLife mixed use development in Alpharetta they will build 532 units of high density housing on approximately 8 acres of land. That is a lot of units for 8 acres but each condominium does create fewer vehicular trips than a single family home and they even get a 2% trip reduction factor for being in a mixed use development.

Now let’s compare that to the horrible old sprawl that urban planners abhor but the people in Alpharetta love to call home. To be generous we will say that “sprawl” would create a density of 4 units per acre. That number is awfully high if you are going to put in some of those loathsome cul de sacs but we’ll give the mixed use fanatics the benefit of the doubt. That means that 32 single family homes could be built on the same 8 acres of land that MetLife will use to cram in 532 units. That is 500 more families on 8 acres of land.

So how do 500 additional families reduce traffic? They don’t and the dirty little secret is that any urban planner worth their salt knows it. High density mixed use is just a way for developers to make more money and urban planners to achieve their other goals of mass transit and affordable housing.

Let’s look at the traffic numbers. MetLife submitted a traffic analysis that shows the 532 condos were expected to create about 3,000 additional trips from 8 acres of land. Single family homes usually cause about twice as many trips as condos so we could have expected about 180 trips if the property had been developed as a typical Alpharetta neighborhood. That means the MetLife condos added 2,820 more car trips than single family homes would have. That’s a 1466% increase in traffic!

There is an old saying that goes something like this, “Don’t pee on my head and tell me it’s raining”. Well just to be safe the next time a fan of a high density mixed use development tells you that it will reduce traffic I suggest you have an umbrella handy.