WHI Avalon Letter to City Council

The following is a letter from Tom Miller of the Windward Homeowners Inc to the City Council regarding the Avalon project. It is offered here as a guest post with the permission of Mr. Miller. Alpharetta’s City Council will consider Avalon tonight.

Dear Mayor Belle Isle and City Council,

I would like to let you know that the following resolution was passed unanimously by the Windward Homeowners Inc. Board of Directors, on which I am zoning coordinator:

WHI supports the Avalon project, provided that the project is within the approved apartment ratio currently approved by City Council, which is 85/15.

For background, the WHI Board wants to express our support for City Council’s decision to approve the 85/15 for sale/for rent ratio in 2005 and its unanimous re-approval on November 28, 2011 in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan.  If Avalon can stay within the 85/15 by purchasing apartment development rights of any of the 5,500+ apartments already built or approved, or if the developer changes to 100% for sale units, then WHI will support the Avalon project.

I would like to add my personal comments for your consideration of Avalon:

1. Please approve Avalon with the conditions that were approved by the Planning Commission.  These conditions are reasonable and will not deter North American Properties from having a successful project.  The Planning Commission conditions, similar to Community Development staff recommendations, will create a win for Alpharetta and for NAP.  If City Council accepts the bare-bones conditions from NAP as-is, then Avalon may be a success for NAP, but it will not be good for Alpharetta’s residents or businesses.  It will set precedents and erode the protections that led us to invest in Alpharetta.

2. Regarding the apartments, Alpharetta has denied or discouraged more than 1,000 apartments since 2005, and approval of Avalon apartments will set a precedent for many more apartments regardless of any specific zoning conditions.  Avalon’s apartments are high end, but new apartments trigger older apartments to reduce rents and accept lower quality tenants.  Police reports and school test scores easily confirm the effect that Avalon will have on many older apartments.  The 2030 Plan says that future development will be redevelopment, and in the case of rentals, Alpharetta is built out.  Period.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Alpharetta already has a highest percentage of rental vs. owner-occupied homes among our neighboring cities.  The Census says that 35% of Alpharetta households rent (vs. 65% own).  We are worse than Roswell (33%), Milton (26%) and Johns Creek (20%).  Alpharetta already has the highest transient population north of the river; how could be justify adding more rentals?

3. Regarding the public space, please enforce the Mixed Use zoning code that has been in place since 2005.  Planning Commission conditions just reiterated what is a code requirement.  Avalon should have 8.7 acres of public space amenity where people can gather.  NAP boasts about providing two football fields of sidewalks and medians, but a football field is only 1.3 acres between the goal posts, and NAP’s drawings show their football fields include space within the stores.  No reasonable person would say that Avalon’s public space should include sidewalks in front of the stores, a dry retention pond, an HOA managed lawn, or a buffer along GA 400 that is required by law to be undisturbed.  There is no reason why NAP cannot provide the 10% of gross acres for a public space amenity, and we shouldn’t apologize for requiring it.  Santana Row had to provide 8.25 acres (20%) public space and finally settled by paying the City of San Jose $4.5M to satisfy the remaining public space not provided.  The City of San Jose specifically did not let Santana Row count the Marketplace area, the similar area to Avalon’s “football fields”.  Please stand by the MU zoning code which is quite clear.

4. Please allow no drive thru.  This is a project to “get people out of their cars”, and an upscale mall doesn’t need fast food, drive thrus, or gas stations, so prohibit them.

5. Regarding the protection of our existing retail from predatory Avalon leases, NAP spins this as a Constitutional issue.  In fact this is the wrong way to look at this issue.  The Prospect Park zoning from 2005-2008 required a luxury mall with stores from Lenox and Phipps.  Economic studies were done to show that Alpharetta could support this different type of retail without impacting North Point or Downtown Alpharetta.  I have not seen any studies that show that Alpharetta could support two similar malls (Avalon and North Point) so close to each other with our incomes and densities.

No other Atlanta malls are as close as Avalon and North Point would be.  The most similar example is in Gwinnett.  Thirteen years ago, Simon Property Group, which owned Gwinnett Place Mall, also opened Mall of Georgia.  Simon’s studies showed that Gwinnett could support two malls located 13 miles apart.  Two years later, Mills Corporation applied for Discover Mills, located between the two Simon malls (5 miles from Gwinnett Place, 9 miles from Mall of Georgia).  Simon prepared studies showing that Gwinnett could not support three malls and that Discover Mills would largely cannibalize from existing retail.  Newspaper reports show that Simon made compelling arguments that the area could not support three malls.  Discover Mills claimed that it would be a different kind of mall and would be complementary to existing retail, just as Avalon is claiming now.  The pro-developer Gwinnett County Commission approved Discover Mills, lured by sales tax projections.  Now Gwinnett Place is vacant and was recently sold by Simon to an unnamed owner.  Gwinnett Place used to be very nice.  In fact press reports showed that Mall of Georgia and Discover Mills would struggle against the “invincible” Gwinnett Place Mall.  Look at the situation now.  The area could not support three malls within 13 miles of each other, yet we expect Avalon and North Point and Downtown Alpharetta to succeed when they are all much closer than in Gwinnett?  When the City approved Prospect Park, we never signed on for an upscale version of North Point, which is what Avalon would be.

Maybe the intent of Avalon really is to steal tenants from North Point Mall?  Yes, that is where all the signals point.  Avalon’s opening date is October 2013, exactly 20 years to the opening date of North Point Mall.  Exactly 20 years.  Mall leases typically run 10 years, and anchor stores are typically 20 years.  Coincidence?  Mark Toro developed the retail power centers around North Point Mall 15-20 years ago.  The team that Mark Toro has handpicked includes executives from the big retail developers, and the NAP team knows the tenants and the dates of the leases throughout the North Point Mall retail area. It would be much easier to get an area business to relocate to Avalon than to actually recruit a new retailer to Alpharetta in this economy.  At the Planning Commission Don Rolader said that Avalon is pursuing North Point Mall area retailers.  Can the City support a second mall so close to North Point?  We haven’t asked the question, or I should say we haven’t had any quantitative study.  Two years from now when North Point loses some big tenants, City Council may be saying, why didn’t we see this would happen?

6. There are allegations of conflict of interest of Mayor Belle Isle and Councilmen Owens and Cross serving on the Board of Directors of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, which has instructed its members to lobby City Council to approve Avalon with apartments and little public space, at odds with the 2030 Plan and zoning code.  I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution article and saw one of the two news stories on WSB-TV, and for the record I am a Cox (AJC) employee.  Common Cause believes that there is a conflict of interest, and that three Council members should recuse themselves from the Avalon vote.  Common Cause is a national, non-partisan watchdog group, whose mission includes, “reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest”.  Common Cause’s focus areas include ethics in government and government accountability.  Alpharetta is a City of Ethics, and that should not only mean that we have an ethics code in place.  It should mean that we set a high standard, beyond the minimum required by parsing words in the ethics code.  The three who are on the Chamber Board could trust that the remaining four City Councilmen will approve Avalon with right and reasonable conditions that are best for the citizens of Alpharetta, and not have a conflict with the wishes of the Chamber Board on which you also sit.  If the three Chamber Board members vote on Avalon, than I will ask myself, why was it so important that they cast that vote?  I will have doubts as to whether you were acting in the best interest of the citizens or in the best interest of the Chamber Board on which you are also obligated to uphold.  The simplest solution is to recuse yourselves and let the other four approve Avalon.

7. This large project does not have to be approved in one night.  Mark Toro created a sense of urgency in order to close the deal and to get away with the fewest conditions.  That is his job as a salesman.  City Council should not be rushed into approving Avalon on the spot.  In 2005 Prospect Park was approved at the first City Council public hearing.  Two Councilmen proposed a 30-day delay to get more public input, but that motion failed and Prospect Park was unanimously approved.  Since then some former Councilmen have remarked that they regretted voting for Prospect Park because it turned into a disaster.  Maybe if there had been more study, the City could have learned that Thomas Enterprises had never built a luxury mall, that his wealth was mostly based on the value of a large parcel of land in Florida with favorable zoning, and that he had a dozen similar projects underway across the country with high debt.  North Point Mall was not approved quickly, and that has stood the test of time.  Avalon may have totally different issues, but it is more important to get Avalon right than to get it done fast.

8. Some of Avalon’s supporters say that the City should approve Avalon if only to get something built there, to eliminate the eyesore.  Avalon will not solve the eyesore.  The current phase will leave more than half the site undeveloped.  The west (owner-occupied homes) and east (offices) portions will remain undeveloped without a sunset clause in the zoning.

I want Avalon to be approved and to succeed, but not at any cost.  I want Avalon to be approved with conditions that meet the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, the zoning code and with conditions that are won’t harm the rest of Alpharetta.  I don’t want Avalon approved with zoning that will set a precedent for more apartments or no public space.

I have supporting documents for the specifics that I cited above.  Let me know if you would like anything forwarded.  Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Tom Miller

9 Responses to “WHI Avalon Letter to City Council”

  1. Kevin Peterson April 23, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    And still, with all this insightful detail (or at least a really good collection of comments from this site as well as Patch.com), we still don’t know who is sitting on development rights that NAP could possibly buy. The rumor is that there is only one developer holding any such rights, with no word as to where they might be and how many units were approved (another rumor places those rights in the hands of the former developer, Stan Thomas, with much of the property now actually under Westside Parkway).

    What we do know is that Alpharetta has no TDR program in place and apparently no intention to really start one. We can also safely say that NAP is not going to buy another apartment complex and then have to deal with getting all those tenants out and bulldozing the property for some other use. We also know that federal lending standards won’t approve mortgages for housing over retail.

    So interesting that this otherwise great collective work left so much of the really high value information out of the picture.

    I’m starting to feel that Alpharetta will end up losing out on one of the most iconic properties in the country–a property that would increase home values and quality of life throughout the city–all over a fraction of a percentage point being enforced by a hardline approach that lacks as much vision as those who let the ratio get to where it already is.

  2. Lee April 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Kevin. Some thoughts…

    I have not found a conflict of interest with any owners of undeveloped apartments. If there was one, I would certainly go public with it.

    I believe the Ellman tract contains the most apartment rights, followed by a tract of land at the northeast corner of 400 and Old Milton. There are a few small lots in downtown Alpharetta that could be considered.

    I believe Alpharetta has added TDR conditions to other apartment zonings in the past.

    I do not think a TDR condition represents a “hardline approach”. Please recall that the community development staff report had apartments completely removed from their original list of conditions. That’s hardline.

  3. Kim April 23, 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Kevin,
    Are you aware that Roswell just approved 1500-4000 apartments, in addition to the 8000 they currently have?
    http://www.truthinroswell.org/wordpress1/2012/04/03/from-the-in-case-you-missed-it-file/

    Lee,
    What happens to the land of the person who sells their development rights? Doesn’t it make the land basically worthless? Do a little research on TDRs and conservation easements. I don’t think it is a good thing. I also think the city should honor their 85:15 target, so no apartments. It is not hardline — it just represents our situation. There is no shortage of apartments in the area. This is not a crisis. It is a want, not a need.

  4. Kim April 23, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Regarding #5, I also have concerns for our City Center. I am concerned that there is only so much purchasing power in our area, especially in our economic downturn. I fear it will either be survival of the fittest (NP mall, Avalon, or City Center) or all will flounder like the many half-vacant strip malls around here. City Council has an obligation to see to it that we have a successful City Center first since taxpayers are on the hook for that one.

    Here is an example of one oops. We don’t need a repeat here.

  5. Travis Allen April 24, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    I don’t think I could have said it better than Tom has.

    I’d like to add that I agree 100% with Kim’s statement of “This is not a crisis. It is a want, not a need.”

    WANT! NOT NEED!

    Not sure why that is so hard for folks to realize.

  6. Mike April 24, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    I find the Gwinnett area reference interesting. Since The Avenue @ Forsyth is, by my Yahoo Maps calculation, 10.6 miles from North Point, and with Avalon being between the two, it will be the Discover Mills of this area.

    I will admit, having grown up in the area (my parents still live in the house they bought in 1979, which is about a mile from North Point Mall), I have memories of the malls in the North Atlanta area, from when many were the “new hotness”, to those same malls now being considered “old an busted”.

    North Point is, as I see it, at considerable risk of becoming outdated and going the way of Gwinnett Place. And I don’t see a massive renovation like Perimeter Mall did being able to keep North Point relevant.

  7. Michael Hadden April 24, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    I want to clarify Kim’s comment above concerning apartments in Roswell lest any readers be misinformed. Roswell did not approve 1500-4000 apartments. The city approved a hybrid form-based code that would allow developers to build apartments (with council approval) in the Groveway neighborhood. The code only applies to that area of the city and allows for a mix of uses mostly to the south and east of City Hall. Additionally, these apartments aren’t the standard garden variety that litter North Fulton. Rather, they would be similar to those proposed in Avalon.

    The maximum number of apartments that could be built in Groveway is 2,800 but realistically that number is not likely to exceed 1,500 and again, they have not been approved. The Groveway code is mixed-used which means there will be single family homes, multi-family homes (apartments/townhomes), commercial and retail. To achieve 4,000 apartments, every piece of land in Groveway would need to be developed into five-story apartment buildings. That would include the City Hall property, the Cultural Arts Center, the Police Department, the Library, the Child Development Association, Pleasant Hill Church, the AT&T building, the cemetery and Waller Park. That isn’t going to happen.

    Additionally, the Groveway code does not allow for five-story buildings everywhere. Five-story buildings are allowed only on the primary streets of Atlanta, Oak, Hill, Norcross, and Frazier. Secondary streets are allowed only three-story buildings. Currently there are approximately 400 apartments in Groveway. Realistically the area will be redeveloped into a community with homes, townhomes, apartments, retail and commercial.

  8. Kim April 25, 2012 at 1:33 am #

    If North Point goes under, it will be a sad day. Ever been there in the morning when all the seniors are walking. It is a safe place out of the elements.

  9. Kim April 25, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    Michael,
    I was going by Lori Henry’s numbers. 1500 is still a LOT of apartments, especially when you are already sitting on 8000 of them. Doesn’t matter if it is garden or not. An apartment is an apartment and they all attract transients.

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