Alpharetta’s downtown master development plan

Last week I wrote about Alpharetta’s downtown plans and their apparent rush to get a master plan approved. I’m pleased that the city added a few more opportunities to comment, although only one week was added to the schedule.

My original thoughts on the plan remain unchanged since last week. The plan has morphed from largely municipal and park usage in 2011 to an ambitious and intense mixed-used development.

In the last few days I’ve come upon the city’s master development plan, a document that spans some forty pages, in addition to some of the steering committee’s meeting minutes. These unreleased documents give a better glimpse into the scale and magnitude of the project, something you may not gather from the two dimensional aerial views. My biggest concerns are…

Size of development

341,200 square feet. That’s the total size of retail and “other uses” in the four main buildings as drawn up in the master development plan. To put this into perspective, the proposed Walmart I wrote about on GA141 in south Forsyth will measure in at 177,000 square feet. I know this isn’t a big-box retail situation but mention it only to give a basis for comparison. This is a large development on a compacted piece of downtown property.

Cross section of the northeast building showing lower parking deck

Parking

The city’s bond referendum included a 450-space municipal parking deck. During public comment last year some were skeptical of the parking deck in terms of size and cost. Nevertheless the bond passed and the deck is in the plan.

What’s nearly invisible from the drawings and presentations last week are two additional parking decks. The two largest buildings each sit atop their own parking deck, each packed with two stories of cars. The development plan shows a total of 1,244 new parking spaces between the municipal deck and the two buildings on the east.

The best way to see these decks is via the cross sectional view shown above. Again, the explosion of parking decks shows the sheer size of this development.

Park and Green Space

Many at the June 6th public meeting felt like park space took it on the chin in this plan. It seemed greatly reduced in size over the 2011 drawings. One councilman that night insisted to me that the park space remained the same size. After reading the master development plan I think he might be right… with a little twist

Together the town green, city park and landscaped walkways (on internal streets) provide a total of over six acres of landscaped open space.

Are the landscaped walkways along the new internal streets being counted toward park space? It’s a familiar tactic other mixed-use developers have employed to get to a desired green space footprint. Let’s hope Alpharetta isn’t taking a page from their playbook. I expect better out of Alpharetta given their already stellar public parks.

Additionally, Councilman Jim Gilvin expressed concern Monday night that the city hall building doesn’t have service access drawn into the plan. With this building sitting in the park, such access could cut more from park space.

The City’s Spin

Those with the city are sticking with two main talking points during this discussion. First, they maintain that the 2011 drawings were not master plans but rather concept documents. I think most understand that idea. However, the public drew inferences from the 2011 concept with regard to the scope of the plan. That scope has dramatically changed.

Second, the city is being very careful to avoid discussion on potential uses in the development, particularly what goes above retail. If there’s an elephant in the room, this is it. In the public meetings they guide conversation away from this topic. Even in the steering committee meetings they were careful not to discuss this idea – with one exception. In one meeting the city’s architect “noted that residential seems to be the best use for the land and future development facing the park.”

It is my belief that a private developer would pursue apartments over retail in this plan.  Given the glut of vacant office space and demand for apartments, this is a no-brainer.

A Downtown “Village”

Both Mayor David Belle Isle and Councilman Donald Mitchell sit on this downtown steering committee. Both used the term “village” in their campaigns last year when describing downtown Alpharetta. It’s a subjective term I suppose. Conjure up what that means to yourself. If a downtown village includes three parking decks and 341,200 square feet of mixed-use development then you should be in favor of this plan. If you imagine a different village feel downtown then maybe you should let your voice be heard.

11 Responses to “Alpharetta’s downtown master development plan”

  1. Kim June 14, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Very good post, Lee.

    It is no longer any mystery why they attempted to push this monster through in just three days without any publicity. And why they only offered up one additional week without any print media notification of the first two public meetings. You forgot to mention a few other details that the master plan shows….

    - 4 story buildings line the park space
    - 4 story City Hall
    - 91,200sf (of the 341,200sf)is for retail
    - 250,000 is for “other” uses

    I also doubt few people realize that Haynes Bridge is being narrowed from 4 lanes with a median to only 2 lanes without a median. As a friend said, only government would see congestion (or add congestion in this case) and decide to narrow an already busy road.

    But my personal favorite change is the description of the space before the vote vs. after the vote.

    Per the bond referendum mailer before the vote:

    • “create a place and an atmosphere where people naturally want to be, drawing residents and visitors to the heart of our community to read a good book, enjoy a family picnic, attend a community event, and enjoy the company of friends and neighbors. While there, many will also patronize the unique shops and restaurants that call Downtown Alpharetta home”

    Per the RFP after the vote where the architect was instructed to ignore the conceptual drawing and to ignore public input contradictory to “the City.” (I thought the public was the city?) It says:

    • “The proposed City Center plan would create, “a people oriented mixed-use development that will be a vibrant place with nightlife, restaurants shops and special events and will realize the distinction of a landmark project. The project is to be a catalyst for development that will attract additional investment and private sector activity into the area and onto the site”.

    There was an option that met more of the spirit of what Alpharettans voted on (less dense, retention of City Hall at its original space) but the three elected officials on the working committee who controlled these decisions (Belle Isle, Owens, and Mitchell) chose the most intensive and dense plan of all the options offered.

    Even if the “other” uses were office space (which I highly doubt for the reasons mentioned), this is too intense for downtown Alpharetta. The only “village” image this stirs up is East Village in Manhattan, and Alpharetta is not Manhattan.

    Also David Belle Isle’s campaign website says he will “Resist calls for urbanization, apartments, and rail. Hold back density.” And here he says “We must be intentional and resist the temptation to increase density, apartments, and mass transit.” So far he has added 250 apartments at Avalon and now this.

    Is there any way to recall the money for bond? We were lied to.

  2. Alpharetta Resident June 14, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    What a fantastic plan for a dynamic, vibrant city center. I can’t wait for the ground breaking for this project. This, combined with Avalon will make Alpharetta an even more exciting place to live!

    Having residential above retail is a great plan. Unlike downtown Atlanta, where they roll the sidewalks up once the commuters leave for the day, we can have real residents strolling, shopping, etc after 5:00 pm.

    Very exciting. Hopefully it will come to fruition sooner rather than later.

  3. Kim June 14, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    @Alpharetta Resident
    Good for you. You’ve missed the point though.

    Of course we all have different visions of our perfect City. We aren’t a monolithic bunch and diversity of opinion is good and needful.

    The problem is not differing views. The problem is the lack of transparency. The problem is suggesting one thing to get a vote, then doing another. The problem is telling architects to ignore public input that doesn’t line up with what the players want. It is a betrayal of public trust and breach of ethics.

    Here’s your riddle for the day: Guess which two of the working committee have downtown businesses?

  4. Eric June 14, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Lee, your posts have been excellent regarding the Alpahretta development plan. I just want to add a few comments. I grew up in New England and what I find interesting with Alpharetta is that is has a truly lifeless town center. I’ve also watched as this issue has been debated for several years. The greatest question here is, if they build it, will they come? To me, that’s unanswered. There are examples of city revitalization with new master plan city cores that work, but there are also many failures. Locally, Suwanee seems to be an example of a master plan area that has success, but efforts in other local places such as Woodstock have been a mess. Most of the downtowns in our region (Roswell is an obvious exception) are lifeless and no matter the effort, they have failed.

    The one difference that I see here is that an area like historic Roswell are essentially organic. They have age and history and over time they have been cobbled together to create as much of a town core as anywhere around. It’s very New England, so to speak. For all the planning, what seems to be excellent design, retail, residential, etc. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. This is an area that seems to have a hard time with a downtown concept. I’ve always looked at it as a part of the problem of the endless commuting culture of Metro Atlanta.

    Just my two cents. I don’t know how it shakes out, but once we move beyond the transparency issues here, the next step is whether these projects will truly be worthwhile in the end to the taxpayer. And, I saw mentioned above, Avalon. A development the grand size of Avalon could really detract from the downtown Alpharetta concept. We’ll see.

  5. matt g June 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    When do the pre-construction condos go on sale?

  6. Alpharetta Resident June 14, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    @Kim,

    I’m not interested in riddles. Nor do I care one iota if any council members live/work/play/own etc anything in the city. All I care about is having something upscale and fun TO DO in this city.

  7. J.Spencer June 14, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    It is a trust issue. If residents feel they have been misled they will not trust that the council will make the right decisions. Half the problem with the new rendering is the jarring sight of big box-like buildings with MU slapped on them. I know there are modifications to MU in progress, but we already have a zoning overlay for the downtown district. If the MU changes are “looser” that the zoning overlay, doesn’t the property owner choose which zoning regs they will follow (zoning district or MU)? Will that mean less control over the design of the buildings/setbacks/parking/landscaping/use?

  8. Greg June 16, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Terrible bait and switch.

    I have a question: What will the “future development” spaces look like before they are developed? My big worry is that Avalon will overshadow the new downtown area. Developers will all wait for the first one to spend the money and see if they’re sucessful. It could easily take years, especially in this economy.

    In the interim, will those spaces be lanscaped to be park-like? Or will they sit exactly as they are today. Or even worst, be buldozed and left as big piles of dirt?

  9. Kim June 17, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    @Greg
    Don’t worry. They can always erect “beauty fences” like they did on Canton Street. You hardly even notice what is behind it.

  10. Kim June 18, 2012 at 10:32 am #

    @Greg
    On a more serious note, the architect showed sketches of what they could do. It looked like squares of grass with maybe a pathway cutting across it. The details were vague.

    All the streets will be put in (and sidewalks?) and also the trees lining the streets so that they can all mature at the same rate.

    The architect also showed a drawing where the MU blocks might each be partially built out.

    It seemed like he was just throwing out some options but that there was no definitive plan as to how it would be done. I would like to see clarification on this so that we know what we are getting in the interim.

  11. Mala June 25, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    I’m disappointed to see that they aren’t closing the original ‘Haynes Bridge Rd’. I was excited to see them originally divert all Haynes Bridge traffic from downtown to give the center a pedistrian feel. This plan isn’t different or unique from any other poorly designed strip mall area around the greater ATL. The annoying feature of the Forum in Norcross and the Avenues in Forsyth is that the traffic dominates the center of these venues (instead of pedistrians), thus I don’t go to either. Who wants to walk through a ‘supposedly’ pedistrian shopping area only to be gunned down by a housewife in a gigantic SUV looking for a close parking space? This will just be another bust project that I won’t patronize. Roswell’s historic distric and Marietta Square will still be better than this crappy plan. I’d rather drive to Roswell and Marietta for a ‘downtown’ experience where at least the historic charm of these destinations trumps the traffic. We (the taxpayers of Alpharetta) have obviously lost here and were lied to. Our only course of action is to wait 3+years to vote every member of city council OUT!

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