Threats to a “vibrant” downtown

Two issues made news this week that may prove to be speed bumps in Alpharetta’s downtown plans. The key phrase to look for here is “vibrant downtown.” More on that in a bit.

Alcohol and churches

Ministers from two downtown churches (including my church) spoke Monday night against Alpharetta’s plan to reduce the minimum distance between restaurants that serve alcohol and schools and churches. The issue is a little complicated based on what’s inside the downtown district and how the distances are measured.

I tend to side with the city in this discussion. Nevertheless, Mayor David Belle Isle used the term “vibrant” when discussing downtown and its restaurants.


On Sunday Julie Hogg posted an article on the Alpharetta Patch about the removal of specimen trees in the downtown plans. It turns out the city may not have consulted with arborists and members of the Natural Resources Commission during the brief master plan debate a few weeks ago.

First I’ll say that I’m not a tree guy. I appreciate old trees and respect that Alpharetta has a tough tree ordinance. I think at times it may go a little too far, but it is what it is. The city usually stands very firm on this ordinance, even against developers.

Nevertheless the city isn’t holding itself to the same tree standards that they would a private developer. The result will be the destruction of scores of specimen trees as part of the downtown plan.

Mayor Belle Isle responded to the criticism explaining that they won’t be able to please everyone. But then that word appeared again…


Any further criticism of downtown is likely to face this word. You can almost fill in the blank with this template…

We are working to <blank> while still creating a vibrant downtown.

Fill in the blank here with “preserve trees” or maybe “hide parking decks” or “respect schools and churches.” Or maybe this phrase is next:

Our consultants say we cannot have a vibrant downtown without having <blank>.

The city has multiple teams of consultants studying every part of downtown. It’ll be easy to lean on their advice to steer downtown plans a certain direction. So filling in the blank here might mean restaurants or nightclubs. Or how about residential over retail? That’s how I see this playing out.

The city will let consultants be the bad guys, using their “expert” advice to justify reducing certain aspects of downtown while expanding others. It’ll all be in the spirit of creating something deemed vibrant. Remember this when giving your feedback on downtown. Regardless of what’s important to you, it’ll have to fit into the package the city has decided upon. Otherwise expect the city to throw their “vibrant” trump card.

And for those with the city, please feel free to take my little template and use it as your own. I trust it will be a valuable tool in dealing with bloggers or constituents and their unreasonable ideas for downtown.

6 Responses to “Threats to a “vibrant” downtown”

  1. Kim July 18, 2012 at 9:52 am #

    The biggest issue with that word is that it is a subjective and unquantifiable measurement. From the great Randal O’Toole at the CATO Institute:

    “Planners also set qualitative goals such as ‘vibrant communities’… Such vagaries result in a politicized process…

    The preceding is from an article about transportation, but the point is the same.

    The mayor needs to define his terms in a quantifiable way for those of us who live in Realville.

  2. Bob Strader July 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Lee, I don’t disagree with you or Kim about the subjectiveness of “vibrant”. But I don’t think it can be quantified either. If the city defined vibrant as x number of bars, restaurants or parks it would still be subjective.

    Also, while they will likely lean on that word, I don’t think it would be to justify something they weren’t after from the very beginning. A re-vitalized and vibrant downtown that becomes an enjoyable destination is what most of us are looking for.

    My opinion, as if anyone was asking!, is lean away Alpharetta. Use vibrant or any other adjective to achieve the objective.

  3. Mala July 20, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    I really hope they reduce/eliminate traffic in the central portions of the ‘vibrant’ downtown. I HATE traffic inside the Avenues in Cumming, the Forum in Norcross, and histroic Roswell (thus I rarely go to these places). These are pedestrian destinations that are ruined by the few annoying housewives in giant SUVs looking for a close parking spot.

    I hope Alpharetta differentiates itself with a pedistrian only square with shopping, entertainment and a park. Let cars park behind the ‘vibrant’ downtown area. I’d love if downtown was more like a European square with markets and people (and no traffic).

    Also, Alpharetta’s downtown should be safely accessible by pedistrians and/or bicycles from neighborhoods within 2-3 miles. I live less than a mile from downtown, but I have no sidewalk to safely get there. I can walk in a ditch along Rucker Rd, but it’s not ideal. I don’t understand the lack and mish-mash of sidewikes in Atlanta’s suburbs. I grew up in a cold climate and we had sidewalks everywhere and even walked through snow.

  4. Kim July 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    Boulder’s Pearl Street district is one such pedestrian-only center and it is very nice. Unfortunately it is an outlier in terms of success. They have the right mix going for it: it’s history of how it came about — a story not unlike Roswell’s Canton Street, and also it is a college town with a natural base for high pedestrian and bike traffic. I would also rather not have the streets but from a practical point of view, I do think they are needed, especially since we have civic uses involved. The public needs to have easy access to the civic buildings including the elderly and handicapped. It is also a higher risk for private businesses who don’t have easy access and good exposure.

  5. Lee July 23, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    I’ve heard some suggest that streets like Milton Avenue would be nice as a pedestrian zone. The problem is that businesses will likely struggle without having cars passing in front. Alpharetta’s downtown consultant mentioned this as well. I tend to agree with him in this matter.

    However, most urbanists encourage so-called “traffic calming” measures to discourage cars in places like this. I was critical of such a plan in Crabapple. Don’t know how I feel about it in downtown Alpharetta.

  6. Mala August 2, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    Lee/Kim, I see your point. But with traffic in the center of town, it’s just another strip mall area like Crabapple, Avenues, Forum, Smyrna Villiage, Atlantic Station, and will most likely be similar to Avalon etc. Nothing special. I was really hoping that our city could become more modern with more pedistrian friendly access to the downtown (with sidewalks and bike trails for neighboring homes)…but it’s just the ‘same old’ suburban strip mall concept we’ve seen before :( .

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