An Open Letter to the Alpharetta Council

The following is an open letter emailed to the Alpharetta City Council and MACTEC Engineering regarding the proposed 2030 Comprehensive Plan.

Dear Council Members,

I write about Alpharetta and local issues in a blog called Roots in Alpharetta. I recently studied the 2030 Comprehensive Plan from MACTEC and attended the open house on March 22nd. I applaud the Council for being forward thinkers and for considering something like this. The plan does a good job identifying Alpharetta’s neighborhoods and their key features. However, I have some deep concerns.

The plan reclassifies large swaths of land into high density or mixed use development (which could support high density). In some cases low density areas are moved straight into the high density category. Recent zoning decisions by the Council suggest a willingness to approve densities up to the maximum allowed, even in mixed use. The proposed changes would encourage that to continue, adding many thousands of condominiums.

Secondly, many of the other concepts discussed in the plan seem to suggest an endorsement of the concept of New Urbanism. The plan would dramatically alter the character of this area. Most residents relocated here because of a safe suburban environment, robust economy and outstanding schools. An urban environment with high density housing is not the will of the people who live, work and play in Alpharetta. That belief has recently been reinforced in my mind. I’ve observed very few speaking publicly in favor of high density (with the exception of those in the political or business community).

The 2030 plan begs this question… Is it the will of the City Council to create a high density, urban environment for Alpharetta? If the answer is yes then let’s have a frank discussion with the community on this very topic. If the answer is no then wholesale changes need to be made to this comprehensive plan.

Thanks for considering what I have to say. I invite you to join the conversation already taking place online. These issues are discussed not only on my blog but on several others both pro and con. I’d be happy to share links on your request. And I offer kudos to Councilman Kennedy for his past participation.

Sincerely,

S. Lee Guy
www.rootsinalpharetta.com
lee@rootsinalpharetta.com

16 Responses to “An Open Letter to the Alpharetta Council”

  1. Mark April 21, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    Lee – I suggest that you don’t hold your breath waiting for a reply. Hats off to you for trying to initiate a dialog.

  2. Kim April 21, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    Crickets chirping.

  3. Lee April 21, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    I got an email back from DC Aiken with some information. But he asked me to give him a call to discuss. In the IT world, we call this “taking it offline.”

    I’d imagine these guys may be a bit gun shy to engage in online conversation with a blogger based on past experiences. Perhaps I could have worded my letter differently. While I occasionally make use of sarcasm and satire, my intentions are straightforward and sincere.

    Nevertheless, the invitation is out there to engage the community in meaningful dialogue.

  4. Kim April 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    It is the government intervention and crony capitalism aspects to all this that most disturb me. As the economist in this video describes, good intentions lead to unintended consequences which lead to more government intervention. The cycle goes on infinitely meanwhile gobbling up more of our individual liberties.

    Listen up to what the economist says about eminent domain and about developers to fund their own projects. No more back doors to public payment for your gradiose ideas that we abhor! Meanwhile our City Council sits by idly and does nothing to address the problem.

  5. Tom Miller April 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Well said, Lee. I applaud Mike Kennedy for participating in the conversation, even if we don’t agree.

    Where are Mayor Letchas and Councilmen Derito and Paine and former Councilman Belle Isle? They have voted for the Mixed Use zonings to date, except when they had to recuse themselves for business conflicts, even when told that the projects did not comply with the current Comprehensive Plan and the zoning code.

    Derito, Paine and Belle Isle may want to be Mayor, but where will they lead the City of Alpharetta? If past votes are a guide, they vote for almost everything. Where is the balance for the citizens?

  6. Kim April 21, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Past voting records + Silence = Assumed Support

  7. Lee April 21, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I forwarded this email to David Belle Isle with the same invitation to join the discussion.

  8. David Belle Isle April 21, 2011 at 5:15 pm #

    Hello everyone. Lee, thank you for inviting me to the discussion this afternoon. I appreciate the invite.

    First, I want to applaud all who care enough about this City to enter a sincere opinion as to what we are and what we should or should not be. We need more of us. Its what makes this City a home.

    I would also like to point out for the record, that I have never voted for or against a mixed use project. For Alpharetta, I am only aware of three such projects that have been proposed to the Council. The vote on Prospect Park occurred before I was on Council. I recused myself from Windward Mill due to a client relationship, and I was not on Council when the latest Peridot proposal occurred.

    As for the future, I believe plans like the 2030 Comprehensive Plan can be useful. My bigger fear, however, is that such plans commit the Council to future proposals by future applicants with few specifics. I do not think we should handcuff ourselves to hypothetical proposals. This is the same apprehension I have about the Atlanta Regional Commission’s broad brush proposals that frequently come to the Council along with carrots and sticks for consideration.

    I don’t want to rush a response to the bigger question. You deserve a thoughtful response, which I desperately want to give you. I will follow up with another post shortly. But, right now my kids and wife are waiting for me to come home and eat. I just didn’t want the day to get away without responding.

    Thank you,

    David Belle Isle
    404-310-1336(c)

  9. matt g April 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    We need more citizens like Lee Guy and Tom Miller involved in local politics. For those who don’t know, Tom ran a true “grass roots” campaign for city council and lost by a very slim margin against a candidate who probably out spent him 5 to 1. I believe that most of the city council members are honest and have true intentions, but too often, the council members are blinded by idealogical visions of “new urbanism.” Some are out of touch with why the majority of the citizens live here – lower cost of living, reasonable taxes, excellent schools, and an all around great quality of life. That quality of life would be at risk if we allowed this area to evolve into a traffic-jamming, high density sprawl like Dunwoody or Sandy Springs.

    For the folks in my area, these topics are consistently mentioned as the top priorities and concerns for this area:

    1 – Improve commuting on 400- lobby DOT to add more driving lanes and pressure the debt holder of Prospect park to complete westside parkway (we all drive cars – MARTA is not the solution)

    2 – Recruit and provide tax incentives to high tech and fortune 100 firms to move their headquarters to Alpharetta – for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to work here, we all would love more mgmt job opportunities in this area as an alternative so we wouldn’t have to commute in the first place.

    3 – Aggressively push for a solution for Prospect Park – either through tax incentives or penalties for every day it goes undeveloped.

    4 – Parks – one of our greatest strengths — let’s continue to invest in the greenway and add more park amenities, features, and park related festivals

    I could probably go on and on, but items 1 and 2 above are honestly the most important items for the folks in my neighborhood.

    Lee, thanks for creating this blog and getting involved.

  10. Lee April 21, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Mr Belle Isle, thanks for responding. I look forward to your participation.

    The fact that you don’t have a mixed use voting record is a negative in my mind. However you have the opportunity to set the record straight. How would you have voted on MetLife/Peridot?

    My blog readers are very concerned with the urbanization of Alpharetta, which was the core issue of this article. Should Alpharetta adopt the concept of New Urbanism?

    I could pepper you with a lot of questions, but we’re a long way from November. I’ll leave it at this for now. Thanks.

  11. Michael Hadden April 21, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    To be fair to the principles of the New Urbanism (of which there are many misconceptions), I’d like to quote from the Charter of the New Urbanism:

    “We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

    We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”

    There’s much more that goes into the New Urbanism than just density and mixed-use. The points made in the charter weren’t made up just because some planner or developer thought they could make a buck by selling the public a bill of goods about how great diversity, density, mixed-use and sustainability are. The movement is very pragmatic and focuses on what works over the long run rather than short term fads. The annual congress works to refine the principles and learn from mistakes. New Urbanist communities range from very light density to very high density.

    If anyone is interested in educating themselves about what the New Urbanism actually is, they can go to CNU.org. The Charter is available under the ‘About’ menu.

    My answer to your question… If adopting the principles of the New Urbanism means being as successful as places like Seaside, FL, Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA … then… Yes, Alpharetta should adopt the principles of the New Urbanism.

  12. mattg April 22, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    Michael, well said and I love the dialogue. But here’s the deal:

    Places like Charleston, Savannah, and other “European like” towns (Georgetown, DC; areas of Boston & Philly) are great pedestrian friendly towns & incredible places to visit. But the ideal of “new urbanism” will never work in Alpharetta. Charleston and Savannah were “born that way.” Alpharetta will never be like Charleston and Savannah. The only way to achieve the ideal of “new urbanism” is to either be “born that way”, or to be absolutely newly created (i.e. Vickery). Vickery was a solid effort – but ultimately failed due to its location (I’ll save Vickery for another thread).

    Alpharetta is the land of large lots, leafy trees, roomy houses, big wide sidewalks, excellent schools, and big box retail. When it comes to city planning, we shouldn’t try to be something that we are not. We need to focus on this community’s strengths and easing the pain of the weaknesses. We SHOULDN’T try to “be diverse in use and population.” I want my neighborhood to be 100% residential, & yes, I do want diversity from an ethnic and racial background perspective. I do NOT want income level diversity as I prefer living in an affluent area. I value lower crime and great public schools. Would you rather send your children to Alpharetta High or whatever public high school serves downtown Charleston, SC or Savannah, GA?

    I do agree that the ideals of new urbanism are very attractive. I’d love to live “south of broad” in Charleston or near Hyde Park in London. But Alpharetta offers something else – it offers excellent & affordable housing ($/sqft), great public schools, clean and fun parks, and a quality of life for upper middle class households that is difficult to find in many areas of Atlanta.

    Instead of pushing mixed-use and high density, I believe we should pursue the retail/town center concept – Think Destin Commons in the Destin Florida area. Or somewhere inbetween “Forsythe Avenue” and “Downtown Disney”. There are many other areas like this in California that have these pedestrian friendly outdoor retail concepts with restaurants, coffee shops, center fountains, wine bars, Movie Theatres, and Town Hall lawns for free concerts/Christmas trees, etc. A developer could easily build this at the Prospect Park location. This would be a great addition to the city, but it should exclude office space and residential. We have enough unleased corp office space as is and we have many great single family residence neighborhoods to choose from at varying price points.

    Let’s focus on our strengths and stop trying to be something that we are not…

  13. Kim April 22, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    The movement is very pragmatic and focuses on what works over the long run rather than short term fads. The annual congress works to refine the principles and learn from mistakes. New Urbanist communities range from very light density to very high density.

    And the urban planners debated and debated as to what would be the best way for the people to live their lives. And all the while they forget to consider if it was even their question to ask in the first place.

  14. Mike April 25, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    Lee,

    It is not the intention of the City Council to create a high density, urban environment in Alpharetta, nor do I believe the proposed Land Use Plan does so.

    As currently proposed, only slightly over 4% of the total acreage in Alpharetta is being proposed as future mixed use. Approximately 95% of Alpharetta land is not proposed for any type of change under the proposed Comprehensive Plan. The vast majority of the land proposed for change to Mixed Use is already zoned Office-Institutional, Commercial or Retail. I am not aware of any residential property that is being proposed for future mixed use. In any area where mixed use is developed, the office and retail components will be reduced.

    Of the 4.45% that is proposed to be changed to mixed use, one third (1.4% of total Alpharetta acreage) of the properties have already been rezoned: Prospect Park, Windward Mill and Peridot. Another 25% of total property proposed to be future mixed use is North Point Mall and surrounding retail. All of the proposed mixed use parcels are in areas that are already high in traffic and density, either along GA 400 or along Highway 9.

    The elephant in the room (or at least on the blogs) is condo/townhome density. Yes, it is condo/townhome density, not apartment density. Already included in the existing Comprehensive Plan is a city policy outlining a goal of 85% for sale housing and 15% rental housing in the city. Currently that ratio is 75% for sale and 25% for rent. In order to satisfy that goal, it’s estimated that around 12,000 “for sale” housing units will have to be built. I don’t know what our current housing absorption rate is, but I’m guessing it will take several decades to build and sell 12,000 “for sale” housing units in Alpharetta.

    A couple of caveats to that. There are a handful of parcels (I don’t know the exact number) in the city that are already zoned for apartments and need no council approval for construction. Also, the 85/15 goal is just that, a goal. It can be changed or exceptions granted at any time. I can see possible exceptions in the future for the right type of senior housing. I can only say that the 85/15 goal is the policy of the current council and is reflected in the current and proposed Comprehensive Plan. It’s still a stronger statement than I have heard from any other city.

    I am certainly open to reconsidering the densities allowed in our Mixed Use Zoning Ordinance. Finding a way to incentivize or require more townhomes and fewer condos might also be a possibility. I don’t think we need 12-story condo buildings in Alpharetta. I welcome ideas that would improve our MU code. My email address is mkennedy@alpharetta.ga.us.

    In the end, I don’t believe we are dramatically changing the city into some sort of urban jungle by changing only 4% of the city’s property from O-I, commercial or very high traffic retail to mixed use. I do believe, however, that there is potential to make that 4% better.

  15. Lee April 25, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Thanks for the comment, Mike. A few things…

    It is always the denominator of the fraction that tricks up these numbers. What’s the percentage of new MU/high density as a function of undeveloped land? Obviously Alpharetta can’t urbanize Windward. We’re urbanizing what’s left of the city.

    So are we using the 85/15 ratio as justification to approve 12,000 more “for sale” units that are likely condos/townhomes? Seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. We’re taking something to protect us from too many apartments and using it to justify condo density? What am I missing?

    There is an elephant in the room, but it isn’t apartments.

  16. Kim April 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm #

    Lee,
    You are right. Let’s change that denominator to existing undeveloped land and see if that picture looks so rosy.

    And yes that twisted 85/15 excuse is one way they are justifying the condos. But we have to go back into history for the complete picture….

    The comprehensive plan originally stated the 85/15 ratio as single-family/multi-family. Multifamily used to mean stacked units of any flavor — that would be for-rent apartment or for-sale condos. This is also what it means in every other municipality. The City has been challenged to produce us just one example, but they either can’t or won’t. In fact multi-family also includes townhomes in many towns. But I digress.

    To get around this inconvenient truth, they had to do a Clinton-esque change to the meaning of multi-family to include only apartments. To obscure what they were doing they started using “for sale” v. “for rent” nomenclature.

    They think we are too stupid to see the sleight of hand. They think they are so slick to follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law in the way it was changed and not subjected to adequate public review. But those of us paying attention know exactly what is going on and aren’t so easily fooled.

    The other thing is that no one can guarantee the future of these condos once they are built. What if they don’t sell? Well, Council will tell you that can’t guarantee what a future Council will do. And the developer will not even give a verbal agreement that they won’t pursue changing them to apartments, not even for a few years out. What else are the citizens to believe with non-commitments like that?

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