Alpharetta City Council Meeting Agenda for January 23, 2017

Friday afternoon I was notified that the developer requesting zoning approval for the most dense mixed use development in the history of our city will be presenting their case tomorrow evening. I apologize for the late notice but last month the applicant chose to defer their case an hour before the hearing and I was only notified of this week’s City Council meeting agenda after I was my on my way out of town for a previously scheduled trip.

Fortunately in my absence there have been a number of concerned residents who stepped up to make their neighbors aware of this precedent setting case. This morning as I was driving back to Alpharetta a reader of this blog identified as “Christine” even took the time to post a comment on this previous blog entry about the additional 55,000 cars a day which mixed use developments will soon be adding to the roads between Downtown Alpharetta and GA 400. I have previously written about the Perling/Devore Rd application here and Christine’s summary with a link to tomorrow night’s agenda is below.

The high-density development application for S Main St and Devore will be presented at the City Council meeting Monday, Jan 23, at 6:30 p.m. The developer has slightly changed his proposal from what the planning commission heard and recommended denial for, but the density is still 2.5x that of Avalon and 2x that of downtown. He is still proposing apartments, a large brewery to be the focal point for the “entranceway into Alpharetta,” and a warehouse style architecture which is very different from the downtown code. The agenda packet with all the information is posted on the Alpharetta city website under the meeting manager portal: http://www.alpharetta.ga.us/government/agendas-summaries/meeting-manager-portal
There was a good amount of opposition from residents at the Planning Commission meeting which helped them determine to deny the application. If you are concerned with the amount of high density development in the heart of Alpharetta, please attend the city council meeting and voice your concerns.

Thank you for taking the time to stay informed about the future of Alpharetta. I appreciate those of you, like Christine, who care enough about our community to stay informed and keep your neighbors informed about the issues that affect our families, our schools and our businesses.

In addition to the Perling/Devore Road case there are other important zoning cases and items on the agenda. We will also take a few minutes to recognize the outstanding contributions of  retiring Public Safety Director Gary George.

Regardless of your position on the other items I hope you will come celebrate with us as Alpharetta recognizes a dedicated public servant who has spent more than 47 years of his life serving the people of this great nation in uniform. Alpharetta would not be the place it is today without Director Gary George. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

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.

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.

 

Growth and Traffic in Fulton County

 

Transportation funding will be a crucial issue for Fulton County in 2016 as mentioned in this previous article. Transportation can often be a complex issue to discuss but in Fulton County it is further complicated because it involves a million people stretched over 90 miles including the high density urban areas of Atlanta, medium density suburban areas and extremely low density rural areas concentrated at either end of the county.

The county’s demographics are as varied as the geography as well. Over the last 40 years Fulton County has become a true melting pot with people from all over the world representing every economic background imaginable.

Given these characteristics it is important to understand that there is no universal solution to solving transportation issues. Expecting a single solution that would allow a million people from varied geographic, cultural and economic backgrounds to reach unanimous consent would be unreasonable. But it is reasonable to believe that an objective evaluation of current options could result in a reasonable proposal that an overwhelming majority of residents can agree on.

The first step of that process is to objectively assess our current situation so let’s take a look at the numbers. The largest city in Fulton County is Atlanta and our metropolitan area was one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation from the year 2000 to 2010.

As you can see in the charts below the Atlanta metro population increased by more than 1.1 million people between the last two censuses taken. The population of Atlanta actually decreased slightly over that decade but the population of Fulton county as a whole increased by more than 100,000 people.

Fulton growth 00-10Atlanta-MSA comparison

In the year 2000 Roswell and Alpharetta were the only cities which existed in North Fulton county but they only accounted for 130,000 of the 297,000 people who lived in the area. The other 167,000 residents lived in areas of unincorporated Fulton County until the municipalities of Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton were formed.

The formation of the new cities took place before the 2010 Census which showed the population of North Fulton to be over 347,000. So over ten years there was a total increase of approximately 50,000 residents in the region which equals a 17% growth rate.

That means North Fulton County has been one of the fastest growing areas in one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan regions in the United States over the last 15 years. So it is only natural an area experiencing such growth would also experience growing pains. In North Fulton the growing pain most often complained about is rush hour traffic.

And while traffic is definitely an issue most areas only experience congestion for a few hours a week. In Alpharetta we generally have complete mobility for about 20 hours a day during the week and any time on the weekend. During the summer when schools are out there is hardly any rush hour at all in most areas.

For example on an average Tuesday morning at 11:00 a.m. a person can drive anywhere in Alpharetta in about 20 minutes. They could get to I-285 on GA 400 in about thirty minutes or even reach Hartsfield Airport in less than an hour.

So as we assess infrastructure needs in North Fulton county it is important to realize that most roads flow freely except for about 4 hours a day, five days a week. The other 88% of the time we already have an abundance of transportation capacity.

The issue North Fulton faces isn’t really a lack of road capacity but rather a problem of poor traffic flows during peak hours. The distinction won’t make you feel better when you’re  sitting through 3 cycles of a red light to get through an intersection during rush hour… but we have to identify the right problem if we want to find the right solution.

However as we discuss what to do about traffic in 2016 let us not lose sight of the fact that it is only an issue because North Fulton provides one of the most attractive places in the world to live, raise a family and do business. As a region we have successfully created a place where people and companies from all over the world want to be. That is a good thing and we should not take it for granted.

Success does bring challenges but they are the challenges we should welcome as we work to resolve them.

 

 

 

MARTA gets money to promote high density development

050519 - ATLANTA, GA -- MARTA maintenance crews work on clearance testing trains at the new MARTA Armour Rd. maintenance yard. (BILLY SMITH II/AJC staff)

050519 – ATLANTA, GA — MARTA maintenance crews work on clearance testing trains at the new MARTA Armour Rd. maintenance yard. (BILLY SMITH II/AJC staff)

Todays AJC contains an article explaining that the Federal Transit Administration is giving MARTA money to foster high density developments which will make traffic worse and justify the expansion of routes not dense enough for heavy rail yet. Click on the picture above to read the whole thing. Below are two excerpts:

MARTA and the Atlanta Beltline have been chosen to receive federal grants to help spur denser development around future transit lines, the Federal Transit Administration announced Tuesday.

MARTA was awarded $1.6 million, while the Beltline received $500,000 as part of a pilot program of the FTA. The money cannot be used to build future transit lines or buy the rail cars or streetcars that would run on them.

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It must be used to plan and promote future development of businesses and homes along proposed transit lines – the kind of development that will attract built-in customers for those transit lines one day. (Think high-rise office buildings, condos and apartment towers.)

Such “transit-oriented development” or “transit supportive development” is helpful in obtaining future FTA grants, because it demonstrates that the new trains or streetcars would be able to draw riders, said Janide Sidifall, a senior project manager for MARTA.

While the money is designated for MARTA’s I-20 corridor the article specifically mentions Alpharetta as a possible alternative for expansion.

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.