An Alpharetta Lament

Before I get into my lament, I first have a confession to make. I don’t live within the political boundaries of the city of Alpharetta. I write a blog about Alpharetta, so what gives? I live just a short distance inside Forsyth County yet am still in the Alpahretta zip code of 30005. I spend the vast majority of my time south of McGinnis Ferry Road. That includes work, my son’s pre-school and my church (in which my family is very active). I suppose I have the best of both worlds; an Alpharetta lifestyle with none of the Fulton County taxes.

If my readers wish to discount anything I have to say about Alpharetta, especially politics, I would completely understand. I think I walk a fine line in writing about city politics considering I don’t have a vote. As such I try to stay on the periphery and will never suggest or endorse a candidate.

Only recently have I begun to pay attention to the happenings in Alpharetta city hall. The main reason for my focus is because I think Alpharetta about to make a change for the worse. Tuesday night’s unveiling of the 2030 vision is the closing act. I lament that the Alpharetta I’ve come to love won’t be the same for very long.

Alpharetta, a Mini-RTP

For one semester during my college years I worked a co-op job in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. I was with Nortel on their beautiful RTP campus. When I first discovered Alpharetta it reminded me a lot of RTP. There was a similar base of high tech companies. The research aspect isn’t exactly the same here as RTP draws from a huge pool of nearby colleges. Yet the corporate campus environment is very similar. Zoning kept both places beautiful with large buffers of natural trees surrounding medium-sized buildings. Never did any building really exceed the height of the native pine trees. Not far away were safe, upper middle class neighborhoods for families.

Alpharetta, a Mini-Perimeter

The 2030 vision of Alpharetta moves away from this Alpahretta that I’ve come to enjoy. It will make us feel more like the perimeter area of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. High rise office buildings and condos will dot the landscape. Planners will tell you that this is alright since they are close to GA-400. At the perimeter every high rise is along GA-400 or I-285 (or both). The surface streets have been a disaster there for more than a decade. Commuters leaving the perimeter heading north may spend half their commute navigating surface roads before even getting onto GA-400. I fear this will happen in Alpharetta.

It Is Too Late to Reverse

The other thing I lament is that it is too late to do anything about this. The political reality is that the current Alpharetta City Council is unanimous in their desire to move in this direction. Unlike other suburban councils or county commissions, there seem to be no homeowner-friendly politicians currently in power. I hear none speaking out against density or height of buildings. And even with some members up for re-election this year, I doubt voters can flip the balance of power in a single election cycle.

It’s too late to reverse the zonings already on the books, namely Windward Mill, Prospect Park and Peridot. The North Point LCI is already set, with a downtown to follow and this 2030 vision which will be rubber stamped soon.

Sadly I think most in Alpharetta won’t become aware of this change until the enormous tower cranes appear, hoisting beams high into the sky. People will begin to ask, “What is this new construction going in at North Point?” Oh, that’s a 16 story office and condominium. It’ll be far too late to stop it then as it is too late to stop it even now.

So maybe Alpharetta residents will organize and rise up against these changes. But color be pessimistic, I think opportunity to stop this was years ago. The Alpharetta that attracted most of us won’t be the same in a few years. New Urbanism, as they call it, is here for good.

Photo Credit: Markhoward

25 Responses to “An Alpharetta Lament”

  1. Jane March 24, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Under Plan A of the latest Fulton County Schools redistricting, students who will someday live in the 470 condos in Prospect Park and the 472 condos in the Peridot project will go to school at the new Bethany Bend HS in Milton, located north of Windward Parkway. The new high school is projected to be just 50 students below capacity when it opens in 2012. I recognize that these two projects may be years away from being built, but there is no additional high school on the planning horizon and no SPLOST money left to build one.

    To get to Bethany Bend HS, the Peridot students will have to travel on or across Haynes Bridge Road, Old Milton Parkway, Highway 9 and Windward Parkway during rush hour.

    So much for the live/work/play/study? of New Urbanism.

  2. Kim March 24, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    :-(

  3. Kim March 24, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    Planners will tell you that this is alright since they are close to GA-400. At the perimeter every high rise is along GA-400 or I-285 (or both). The surface streets have been a disaster there for more than a decade. Commuters leaving the perimeter heading north may spend half their commute navigating surface roads before even getting onto GA-400. I fear this will happen in Alpharetta.

    No, no, no! City Council told us this would reduce traffic. Adding 500 condos reduces traffic. Hmmmm…. Does not compute.

    Would you rather plan trips around known rush hour times on M-F? Or fight 500-1000 new cars dumping out on the road at unpredictable times every day of the week, including Saturday — the only day many people have to run their errands. BTW, has anyone else noticed the increased traffic around here on Saturdays?

    Now fast-forward to Christmas time around the mall. Can you say nightmare?

    Of course the main doctrine of the Church of Sustainability and New Urbanism is that cars are sinful. Because you will not see this sin for what it is, you are a heretic. You will have to suffer one of Torquemada’s tortures — that of severe traffic congestion. Hopefully this Inquisition tool will make you see the error of your ways so that you will park your car and jump on the MARTA rail, for this is the only way to salvation.

  4. Michael Hadden March 24, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    Lee, I feel like you put that last sentence in just to see if I was reading. I do read your blog and enjoy it. But, I need to clarify that Perimeter Center is ABSOLUTELY NOT new urbanism. Probably the best example of new urbanism integrated in an urban environment here in Atlanta is Glenwood Park. Check out Downtown Woodstock too (not as urban though). Let’s not forget Milton/Crabapple.

    The cousin of NU, smart growth, is really where you are directing your lament. However, it isn’t well represented in Perimeter Center either. The best (whether you like it or not) example of SG in Atlanta is Atlantic Station.

    Neither is a scheme to take away choice, property rights or quality of life. I owned a 2500 square foot home with a 2 car garage with a quarter acre yard, picket fence.. the whole nine yards. It was in a NU community, Baxter Village, near Charlotte. The only real difference between that home and most of the ones in the other subdivisions in the area was that I had actual amenities that I could WALK to in my neighborhood (pool, restaurants, dentist, library, elementary school, daycare, 3 pools, Starbucks, etc. :) .

    There are different levels of NU intensity of course but very, very rarely will you ever see a truly NU community with high rise condos. SG is what you are concerned with, not new urbanism. But, any assertion that Perimeter Center or anything like it are on-the-ground examples of SG or NU is dead wrong. Now, Perimeter Center has adopted SG principles in its development plans but that doesn’t make it a poster child of SG. Having sidewalks doesn’t make a community new urbanist either.

    If anyone is interested, these two links give a primer on NU & SG:

    http://www.newurbanism.org/newurbanism/principles.html

    http://www.smartgrowthonlineaudio.org/pdf/TISG_2006_8-5×11.pdf

  5. jimgilvin March 25, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    A beautifully written piece Lee. I do live in the city and I share your lament. So do most of my neighbors and friends. It’s just too bad none of them are on City Council.

    There are some good people on city council and I bear them no ill will. But not one of them represents me, my family or the overwhelming majority of my friends and neighbors. That has to change.

    I don’t think it is too late to save what makes Alpharetta a great place to live, yet. None of the most egregious projects have been built and the new land use plan hasn’t been approved. But it won’t be long and time is of the essence.

  6. Larry March 25, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    Times are changing! The suburban sprawl that you so much enjoy is becoming a thing of the past. The post World War II concept of suburban growth has outlived its usefulness. It is time to step into the 21st century.
    We can no longer continue to build more subdivisions isolated from centers of commerce, nor can we continue to build office parks isolated from residences. Our highways cannot sustain the impact. With your vision the Peridot project would be 47 acres of asphalt and office buildings. It would require workers to clog up the highways in their commute to work from the subdivisions daily. This model is outdated and although you may think that developers are greedy and unconcerned about the public, that is not the case. More and more people are looking at mixed use as a solution to a growing problem of suburban sprawl. Not everyone wants to live in a subdivision. Some citizens choose to be able to walk to work, goods and services. Open your mind and realizes that not everyone thinks the way that you do. (Nor should they).
    I encourage you to read the book Suburban Nation, by Duany, Plater-Zyberk. Try to read it with an open mind not clouded by your love for suburbia. It does an excellent job of explaining where we have been and where we are going with regard to growth in America today.
    Also if you are so passionate about Alpharetta why not be a true citizen and move there to pay the county and city taxes that pay the salaries of our city official. Then you can have a real voice!

  7. jimgilvin March 25, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    Larry,

    You are right. Not everyone wants to live in a beautiful small town with quiet cul de sacs, great public schools, low crime rates and no MARTA train. Those people can live in Sandy Springs.

    Since you feel qualified to give Lee advice about moving might I suggest you check out one of those fabulously sustainable mixed use developments down there.

  8. Kim March 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    I don’t take advice from people who have suited men rushing over to them after the vote to shake hands and congratulate them. It makes me feel like that person’s input might not be objective.

    I don’t know if you are that same Larry, but if you are, go make your money at the expense of our community, but don’t tell people how to think or where they should live.

    I have read Duany. I’ve also read people on the other side. Maybe I have too much American rugged individualism bred into me, but it strikes me as “collectivist” that every city is adopting the exact same policies all based on debunked global warming junk science.

    Go read “The Ideal Communist City” and report back how many tenets of Smart Growth parallel this “ideal.”

  9. Lee March 25, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Kim, this probably isn’t the Larry you’re thinking of.

    Larry, the current residents of Alpharetta didn’t move here to be in an urban environment. For lack of a better word, we like sprawl and we like acres of office buildings. We also like cars, cul-de-sacs and the feel of soft bermuda grass between our toes. We’re strange like that. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Kim March 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Two bumper stickers:
    I <3 Sprawl, and
    Save the Cul-de-sacs!

  11. Kim March 25, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    Apologies if you are a different Larry, though I still think you should peruse the book I mentioned.

  12. Donald March 25, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    Kim, I think there are many people who would love to keep the village like feel here in Alpharetta. When you look at mixed use concepts, they date back to medieval times. Communities were surrounded by churches/temples, businesses on the ground floors and living spaces on the higher levels. All through Europe and ancient asia you can find these planned communities. Urban sprawl is not a question of if but when. The projected growth in America’s urban areas is forcasted to grow beyond 80% of our population within 50 years. I would rather our committed city council members plan growth that is beautiful and upscale than most of the other horrible and poorly planned communities that we see around Atlanta. There are tons of studies that suggest that mixed use developments stagger traffic better than developments such as malls, office complexes and single focused developments do.

    More often than not the things that people dread the most with growth, involves our fears of having new people and cultures move into our safe, white, Monotheistic communities. We also fear that our life will be worse off if these types of people move into our community. I am certain that all of the farmers with their lands that our suburbs have replaced once felt threatened by change as well. If we are left with only single family dwellings in the future then the free market economy will determine the direction of our development and not our wishes. If we are to protect our wonderful village like feel here in Alpharetta then we will consciously think about growth with proper planning. Otherwise we will see it overtake our communities based solely on market decisions based only on high density financial profit. A single family dwelling doesn’t stand a chance against these types of high rises. I would much rather see a development that includes parks, businesses, offices and condominiums. We can no longer build suburbs as they are not sustainable with all of the infrastructure and land required to build these.

    The way I see it is Alpharetta is doing a terrific job of planning for future growth while maintaining an upscale feel to our community. Just compare it to what has happened in Cumming and Roswell. These areas had virtually no civic planning, no restrictions and no vision. Alpharetta is the way it is today because it has been planned and has set it’s standards high. It isn’t perfect but when you compare it to other areas it looks like an oasis in the middle of out of control suburban sprawl. This is one of the many reasons why Alpharetta’s property values have not experienced the same dip that others have. A failure to plan is a plan to fail. We cannot risk not having proper city planning, the result is the horrid nightmare we all should dread.

  13. Lee March 25, 2011 at 10:38 pm #

    Donald – I’m not afraid of the new, and potentially non-white people who might move here. And frankly I take offense at the insinuation I think you’re making. I’ve written about suburban diversity before. Jimmy Gilvin wrote a terrific article about it this week in his blog. I’ve also been one of the lone voices in support of mosques in Alpharetta and south Forsyth. Check my archives.

    But getting back to your main point. Alpharetta needs to realize that it doesn’t have to grow at the rates they have over the last two decades. The only way to maintain those growth rates is density. Let’s accept a much more reasonable growth rate that we can sustain without packing people in like sardines.

    Michael – Sorry I didn’t approve your comment sooner. It landed in my spam folder. I wasn’t referring to any particular development at the perimeter. And I also am not up on the new buzzwords de jour. I simply don’t want density and high rises. I’ll trust you to label me accordingly.

  14. Kim March 26, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Donald, I echo Lee’s comment on the insinuations you are making. Do I have a problem with crime coming into our community with MARTA? Yes. Do I have a problem with color of skin? Absolutely not. It is you who are insinuating a connection between the two. Character does not equal color.

    For the record, one of my friends of color has commented to me about the Smart Growth in her community (Woodstock). She grew up in the Chicago projects and her family worked very hard to get out. Her comment on all this, “They can slap any name on it they want, but it is still the ghetto and they aren’t putting me back into it.”

    She is right. See Portland’s affordability (and traffic congestion) w/ years of Smart Growth policy. Smart Growth policies force people into dwellings that are not preferred because there is so much congestion (due to density) that you are forced into moving closer in. But closer in means high prices.

    Case in point, when we looked out on the West Coast we would have had to live in a condo or townhome because we simply could not afford anything else. The planners would say, “See, look at all the people ‘choosing’ to live there! This is their preference!” But that would have been a false assumption. We were forced into choosing something we didn’t desire because there were no other affordable choices.
    These Smart Growth policies rob people of the American Dream and that is wrong. (Especially so in Portland where the define an Urban Growth Boundary. Development is circumscribed within a defined area. But UGBs have at least been discussed in the ARC 2040 plan.)

    Now am I suggesting there isn’t a place for planning? Certainly not. But there is also a difference between planning and having standards that developers must abide by. We can avoid unsightly development by our standards.

    A certain amount of planning is appropriate but it must be flexible. What if someone had given a 20-year plan back in 1990 on how we should communicate and conduct business in 2010? No cell phones then. No Internet. Etc. Too much planning runs the risk of locking you in and does not consider free-market innovations.

    Also as Lee said, planning does not automatically have to assume past levels of growth. We can control growth by our policies and standards IF we have the will to do it.

  15. Greg March 26, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    You can throw out terms (and argue terms), cite studies, and claim racism, but here’s the bottom line:

    I work downtown, in the middle of a bunch of highrises with very few trees. I chose (recently) to move to Alpharetta because it has lots of trees and no highrises. If I wanted to live in the middle of highrises, I would live downtown.

    Did the city council approve these projects because the citizens they represent asked for them, or because a developer wanted to make a bunch of money?

  16. Mark March 26, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Donald and Larry – glad to see some mixed-use experts commenting on this blog. Perhaps you can help me get some of my questions answered:

    1)Why have all of the mixed-use projects approved in Alpharetta never been developed as originally zoned? Milton Park, Cousins Westside and Prospect Park have been rezoned many times. The all appear to have been watered down from the “grand vision” pitched by the developers.

    2) Why are so many mixed-use projects throughout the country converting the residential component to apartments from condominiums? Should Alpharetta examine this trend and factor it into their zoning decisions? MetLife realizes the condo market is dead and stated it could take as long as six years to start the project? I’m still wondering what the rush to rezone this was by the City? All MetLife originally wanted was a simple stream variance because their permit with the Army Corp of Engineers was expiring.

    3) Can you post some examples of projects like Prospect Park, Windward Mill and MetLife, that are configured with condominiums and are located in suburban areas similar to Alpharetta’s population that have been successful? I’ve asked this question to the Mayor and City Council but didn’t get an answer. I also asked this question to the MACTEC Comprehensive Land Use Plan Consultant. He couldn’t give me an example either.

  17. Kim March 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    Mark,
    On #3, you should qualify by asking to cite successful suburban examples not on rail, since that would be comparable to Alpharetta.

  18. Michael Hadden March 27, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    Mark,

    I know your questions weren’t addressed to me but I thought they were intriguing. Here are some of my thoughts:

    1) Vision and reality – They often never match up. There is a constant give and take as things make their way from drawing board to reality. The key is whether the general vision is followed or if a 90 degree turn is taken somewhere along the way.. Honestly, it’s one of those things that will always happen.

    2) The Economy. If the demand isn’t there, developers will take an alternate path to make money. The problem with all of the empty condos in areas is that there was a perceived demand… let’s not forget that there are a lot of empty single family units as well due to that same perceived demand. At least it’s relatively easy to turn the condos into apartments. Also, the empty SFUs just aren’t as big so they aren’t as noticeable. Not sure if there is really a legitimate rush to approve MU by the CC. But if they are rushing it might be to define the vision which may or may not match up to yours. The more likely it is that you will get commitment from developers and builders. If there is a curve, do you want to be ahead of or behind it?

    3) You can take a look at Reston Town Center in Reston, VA. They have been planning mixed-use since the early 90′s without connection to transit. The new Metro Silver Line will be opening with a stop at Reston in the next ~3 years.

    Also check out Legacy Town Center in Plano, TX. It was one of the first places to create mixed-use infill by building in an existing office park which would be similar to MetLife.

    Both areas are pretty similar to Alpharetta but at different stages in their development life cycles.

    Also, I just want to add that in the 13 years I have lived in North Fulton, it has always been overtly obvious that MARTA was going to eventually look to Alpharetta and I’ve only heard positive things about that expansion until just recently. Maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong people.

  19. Mark March 27, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    Michael – thanks for your comments. I took a quick look at the projects you mentioned and I don’t believe they meet the criteria stated in my question. Legacy Park has apartments, not condos. It also appears that Reston Town Center has apartments as well. If I’m wrong please let me know.

    I agree that vision and reality are often far apart and North Fulton is a prime example. Letting developers prescribe development trends and drive the rezoning in areas of our city has not been a huge success story. The commercial vacancies alone in Alpharetta are staggering. Add in Johns Creek, Milton and Roswell and it’s even worse. Office space vacancy in the area is also up. I believe the “build it and they will come” approach has failed miserably. If opposition to this approach is viewed as being “behind the curve” I’m OK with it.

    We are in a global economy now and many of the technology jobs the developers factored into their growth plans are being exported. As soon as corporate taxes are raised to help pay for our exploding federal debt, businesses may find foreign locations even more attractive and may elect to exit the Country as well.

    If you look at Alpharetta’s Vision Statement it states “Alpharetta will be the Signature City in the Region, distinguished by the following characteristics”:

    Number one on the list is “It is safe, secure and livable”. Chief George and his Officers do an outstanding job given the fact that they are dealing with crimes normally found in larger cities. It’s scary to think about what is going on in our City. Thank god we have them. On average apartments bring more crime, traffic and school enrollment to an area. It’s surprising how cavalier you are about the ease in which condos can be converted to apartments. We are already 10% over the allowable number of apartments in Alpharetta as a result of the annexations several years ago. Michael, I don’t know you but I would guess your profession is in development or design services.

    Number six on the Vision Statement list is “It maintains its small town feel”. For the life of me I can’t understand how spreading mixed-use around Alpharetta is going to support this? I guess it all depends on how you define “small town feel”.

    I think that Lee is dead on when he said people won’t become aware of the mixed use situation until the cranes start appearing. It’s basic human nature that people don’t pay attention to something unless they are feeling some sort of pain from it. The current High School redistricting is a great example. The first redistricting meeting had about 450 people attend. When the first drafts of the redistricting maps were released the second meeting attendance tripled. People are involved now because they are feeling the pain that their kids may have to go to another school. There is so much pain that the Roswell and Milton City Governments held special meetings about it. The funny thing is they actually have no control over the redistricting process if you go by the rules the county school board outlined. I guess people are hoping that political pressure is the only thing that will save their interest now.

    At the same time, these people are not yet feeling any pain from what Alpharetta is currently doing with their land use plan. I am confident that future mixed use in Alpharetta will be configured with apartments. Since the condo market is dead this must happen to make the projects viable. How long can developers like MetLife and Penn Hodge be expected to hold on to their investments along GA 400 without making a profit? And when the apartments come, the impact to the Alpharetta, Bethany Bend, Milton and Roswell High Schools will be significant. Then, the citizens will rally again and ask the city leaders for another special meeting. But by then it will simply be too late.

    The situation in Alpharetta is that the developers and officials play off of this citizen apathy and they surround themselves with project supporters who in some way benefit from these developments, either politically or professionally. The politicians will argue that the supporters are citizens too! Hey, it’s hard to argue their point.

  20. Lee March 27, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    A few comments on Mark’s post:

    “We are in a global economy now and many of the technology jobs the developers factored into their growth plans are being exported.”

    I track job openings in Alpharetta and tend to get excited when we have hundreds of openings. But that doesn’t factor in what you mention. I know from my own experiences working for a large Windward tech company… our parking lot isn’t nearly as full as it was 3 or 4 years ago. The difference is outsourcing.

    “…they(developers/officials) surround themselves with project supporters who in some way benefit from these developments, either politically or professionally.”

    One thing I’ve noticed is that nearly everyone who has publicly spoken in favor of this stuff has a conflict of some kind (Mike Hadden is an exception as far as I can tell). They are either current/former politicians, land owners, CID/Chamber members or in the real estate business somehow. I’m still researching this, but it may be a future post here on my blog.

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

  21. Michael Hadden March 27, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    Mark, Legacy Town Park does have condos and town homes. It was initially developed as an apartment only development. However, subsequent phases have added some condos & townhomes on the north end. The reason i included it is due to its similarity to the MetLife project. Mainly, that they are current office parks where the developer occupies and controls the land.

    Concerning Reston, it is very built out. There are multiple condo buildings there; Savoy, MidTown Reston, Market Street and Carlton House. I cited Reston because it is, in my opinion, what Alpharetta might look like in 25-30 years. They will use the exact same trains as MARTA and have already built up mixed-use nodes along the new route.

    As far as commercial vacancies are concerned, they are unreal. There are many reasons not the least of which is oversupply. However, my opinion is that the current situation in NF is not going to be desirable to a meaningful number of employers, retailers, and workers in 5-6 years when/if the economy really turns. (I’m not a believer in the ‘recovery’ we are experiencing)

    Trends are showing an increasing demand for urban environments (not necessarily city cores a la Chicago’s decrease in pop.) similar to Reston TC and Jersey City, NJ (which are both technically classified as suburbs). So, if the trend is for workers to want to live in more urban environments (be they in the ‘suburbs’ or the urban cores) and Alpharetta wants to continue to be a jobs center, it would make sense that they would need to provide more urban choices for some. I know this isn’t a popular point but if companies can’t get the talent they want/require, they will move.

    Also, you can have a small town feel and still have an mixed-use in an urban environment. Chattanooga has done this quite well.

  22. Able Body March 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    I have mixed opinions on mixed use, but there is one thought I’d like to contribute:

    I was able to find a number of (mostly older) homes within walking distance of the square in Alpharetta, which provide the walkability that a minority seek in a relatively authentic neighborhood arrangement. This was after finding numerous homes within walking distance of Roswell square.

    It is certainly not the same type of mixed use as Glenwood Park [which is well executed, by the way], but the homes i mention are within walking distance of small businesses like dentists, restaurants, gas stations, offices and other amenities.

    One need not move into the expansive sprawl to live in Roswell/Alpharetta.

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