Archive - October, 2012

Alpharetta – Suburban Wasteland?

Alpharetta is a suburban wasteland, full of strip malls, disconnected communities and traffic. The “suburban experiment” this country engaged in has failed.

From time to time I hear urbanists spout things like this. Certainly what we recognize as modern suburbia will dwindle and die out, right? Eventually no one will want to live here.

Or better yet, urbanists will follow this fill-in-the-blank model with their logic. “If Alpharetta doesn’t ______, then ______ will happen.” You can fill in the blanks with just about anything. How about – If Alpharetta doesn’t adopt the tenants of new urbanism then young people won’t move here and employers will leave. Or how about – If we don’t pass T-SPLOST, employers won’t relocate here.

If Alpharetta is truly a suburban wasteland, why is this city such an amazing place to live? Why do people and companies keep coming here? Just look at the news in the last few weeks.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports that Alpharetta’s Windward Parkway is on a short list of possible locations for General Motors’ new 1,500 employee IT innovation center. GM, being from Detroit, certainly knows what a wasteland looks like. Alpharetta is no wasteland.

Or how about Gwinnett Tech choosing Alpharetta over every other city in north Fulton? Certainly the strong workforce here was a factor. The Georgia Department of Labor reported last week that Alpharetta’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%, the lowest in Georgia. Wastelands have large swaths of struggling, unemployed citizens. Alpharetta doesn’t.

The real estate market here is doing surprisingly well given the national economy. We’re starting to see new development of single family home neighborhoods again. Realtor Bob Strader declared on his blog last week that we’re in a seller’s market! People can’t sell homes in wastelands.

Reports of Alpharetta’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It boggles the mind to think that politicians, policy makers, city staff or others would dare tinker with the recipe that brought Alpharetta such sweet success.

This community is thriving. Job prospects in Alpharetta are good, quality of life fantastic and school system exceptional. This is a great place to live, work or raise a family – by any measure. I challenge you to find news today that suggests otherwise.

Photo Credit: Alpharetta CVB (creative commons)

Would you eat at this joint?

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Would you eat a meal at this joint if had the following inspection report?

Date mark all food items taken out of original packaging. No consistent date marking procedure.
Observed several food containers not properly labeled/ cooked vegetables/ tater tot casserole.
Observed failure to label repackaged food items.
Workers handling food must have hair restraints.
Using open drink cups in food prep area. Do not eat or drink in food prep area.
Worker seen handling ready to eat food with bare hands when glove or utensil use is required.
Observed personal items stored with, or next to, food items; designate specific area.

That’s certainly a below-par score. Are you going to be praying to the porcelain god after eating at this place? Is it worth rolling the dice?

What if I told you this isn’t a restaurant but rather my kitchen. That’s right, I attempted to score myself using the same standards as published by the Georgia Department of Public Health. The tater tot casserole was a dead giveaway, wasn’t it?

So would you still eat here? Master chef I’m not, but I make a pretty mean shrimp gumbo. You’d be missing out!

Maybe it isn’t a fair comparison. We should hold restaurants to very high standards of food safety. For example, I’m thankful restaurant workers are required to use gloves when handling food. But some of the recent changes to Georgia’s inspection process have dinged reputable restaurants that never posed a danger to food safety.

I’m thinking primarily of food labeling rules. I know that my wife made the tater tot casserole two nights ago. It’s still safe to eat (and still delicious). A small mom and pop restaurant with limited kitchen staff is likely to know when food hit their fridge as well.

But not labeling and dating repackaged grub could ding a restaurant a half letter grade or more. And if the inspector spies a bartender sticking a lemon in a beer with his bare hands then all of a sudden your stellar restaurant is looking at a low-B grade.

So what’s a food safety conscience gastronome to do? Relying on score alone doesn’t cut it for me – although repeat offenders get little sympathy. Temperature holding violations are my most serious concern. And insect/rodent infestation is downright nasty.

What are your warning flags are for restaurant inspections? Do you go by score alone? And where might I purchase a hairnet?

On tragedy and not blogging

One thing I’ve learned from blogging is that sometimes you shouldn’t. The decision not to write about something can be more important than writing itself. That’s the case this week.

In a matter of just a few days two tragedies hit this community resulting in the loss of life. Both were senseless. It would be easy to write something angry and bitter. No doubt some of those involved were careless or acted irresponsibly.

And there’s probably a blog post or two in here about living in an affluent suburb and what comes with that.

But now’s not the time. At the end of the day two lives were taken much too soon. People are grieving. Let them grieve.

Instead spend an extra bit of time with those you love. Step away from the hustle and bustle of suburban life for a moment. Be reminded and refocused on what’s important in life.

Vintage Corks and Gourmet Trucks

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Alpharetta used to have a culinary edge over Roswell. It was small – and brief – and now gone. But for a time Alpharetta was welcoming trendy food trucks to town before Roswell.

About a year and a half ago a handful of food trucks started testing the waters in Alpharetta. They’d hitch up at the farmer’s market, an occasional office park for lunch or at Harry’s. And best of all, they were driving past Roswell to get here! Alpharetta foodies rejoiced.

But recently things have slowed. Roswell passed a food truck ordinance and their monthly Alive After Five event is drawing trucks in larger numbers. Alpharetta looks to even the score with November’s food truck and wine event – Vintage Corks and Gourmet Trucks.

The event will feature $3 food tasting from the trucks and $3 half wine glass offerings from Sip Wine and Vino 100. The food truck roundup will be:

Hail Caesar – Offering salads and sandwiches made with local ingredients.
Happy Belly Curbside Kitchen – Also featuring fresh ingredients and prodigious use of big green eggs.
The Blaxican – Mexican/soul food fusion. Think you’d ever find something like this in a suburban restaurant?
Wow Food Truck – Featuring arepas – griddled corn cakes from Venezuela stuffed with savory meats.
Yum Yum Cupcake – Fancy cupcakes.

The city of Alpharetta’s staff do a tremendous job pulling off events like this. I hope it becomes a regular feature downtown. Here’s the 411…

What: Vintage Corks and Gourmet Trucks
When: Saturday, November 10, 2012 1:00 PM
Where: Downtown Alpharetta, across from city hall

Domestic violence claims victim in Alpharetta

The juxtaposition of these two headlines really jumped out today. Knowing the staff at the Appen Newspapers, I’m sure it was not an accident. The same day the paper writes a story about domestic violence awareness a woman dies of wounds suffered in a domestic violence incident. The online cover of the newspaper was ironic, chilling and poignant at the same time.

We’re fortunate that murders are extremely rare in this community but they do happen. What’s less rare, unfortunately, is domestic violence. Charities like Family Haven in Forsyth County play such a vital role and should be supported.

Please join me in offering thoughts and prayers for this family. I hope justice is served.

The Crescent Resources apartment double standard in Milton

The apartments at Avalon will be first class. Apartment developer AMLI wanted to put upscale apartments on Westside Parkway. Additionally, AMLI’s new Mansell Road community features granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances and LEED certified buildings.

Nearly every new, planned or renovated apartment community in this area is being developed and promoted as upscale. AMLI wanted so much to prove this fact that they twice invited this blogger on a tour of their newest community.

So why then is apartment developer Crescent Resources saying the City of Milton “denied the opportunity to have an appropriate, affordable residence” in the city? They accuse the city of violating the Georgia Fair Housing Act.

View Crescent Resources apartments in a larger map

Over the summer Crescent asked to build apartments on a tract of land along Deerfield Parkway. The city of Milton narrowly turned down the request. Last week Crescent sued Milton in Fulton County court.

Mike Petchenik with WSBtv ran a story on this in a 4:00 newscast. The AJC did a big spread on the story this past Saturday but it isn’t available online. Local north Fulton media has not covered this story at all. Disappointing. But back to the apartments…

Is Crescent Resources trying to have it both ways with their apartments? Certainly no developer in their right mind would approach a city in this area with the intention of building lower-end apartments. And Milton certainly wouldn’t want to put them here, in an area awash with apartments and condos. The beleaguered Manning Oaks school district definitely doesn’t need the addition of these apartments (a controversial topic covered in this blog last year).

Or perhaps Crescent is playing to their audience. Their lawsuit was filed in a Fulton County court in Atlanta. Perhaps the affordable housing argument will play better there. Either way, this is laughable.

This parcel of land is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago Crescent wanted the land zoned for a special needs school. That zoning passed over some opposition. And a portion of the land is zoned for a data center that Global Payments was eying. Both would be better uses for the property. Additionally, the recently-completed Highway 9 LCI study identified this property as having an activity center with road connectivity to the Fry’s shopping center along Highway 9.

The AJC article thought this would be Milton’s first big test of their land use plans. The real question is – does Milton have the courage to fight this and the willingness to spend money to do so? They rolled over when the Bethany Bend gas station sued over a denied zoning. And is their zoning code strong enough to defend a much more serious challenge?

Were this to happen in Alpharetta there would be no question – the city would fight. After all, Alpharetta is willing to go toe-to-toe with the US Justice Department to deny some people of faith their request to expand. It’s an interesting contrast.

Prediction – the cash-strapped new city will not want to spend the money fighting this case. They will quickly cave under the pressure. This will embolden developers to bring more apartments to the city, especially considering the lockdown on apartments next door in Alpharetta.

Milton has little remaining land in their business and commercial corridor. They cannot accord for it to be developed residential (as Alpharetta is doing along GA-400). The young city should reexamine their code so as to give their council protection in cases like this apartment denial.

Alpharetta Restaurant & Retail News – October 2012

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

We’re nearing the end of a busy season of new restaurant openings. Expect a few more before year’s end followed by several closures in December and January. Just a hunch.

Ford Fry – Avalon

The NAP PR machine had this story everywhere so it’s old news by now. Celebrated Atlanta chef Ford Fry will have a yet-to-be-determined concept restaurant in Avalon. With this announcement NAP makes good on a promise to bring Alpharetta a high-end, chef-driven restaurant.

Also announced was Cru Food and Wine Bar. Alpharetta will be their first location in the southeast. And you had to figure an Atlanta-based burger joint would come to Avalon. I secretly hoped it would be Farm Burger. Turns out it will be Yeah! Burger. By the time they open Alpharetta will be smothered with burger concepts.

Marlow’s Tavern and Ted’s Montana Grill were also announced. These chains are already at several of Cousins’ Avenue properties.

Coffee Pot – Closed

Another independent coffee shop has closed – well sorta. The owners of downtown Alpharetta’s little coffee shop on Main Street have decided to change concepts. They will now open as…

Tap on Main

They’re no doubt taking advantage of Alpharetta’s liberalized new rules on beer and open containers in downtown. They’re not quite open at this point but when they do you can expect cured meats and a good selection of craft beer on tap. Their best source of information right now is on Facebook. And speaking of beer…

Cherry Street Brewing Co-operative – Vickery Village

Aldo Nahed with the Forsyth Herald again gets the beer scoop on this story. And give Forsyth County credit for being the most progressive with their beer laws. They were first to allow growlers and now may be the first to allow breweries.

The guys at Cheery Street want to brew their own beer and distribute to growler stores across metro Atlanta. There’s certainly a market for this as most local growler stores stock Atlanta favorites like Red Hare. I expect the county to eventually allow this. When they do, watch for an opening next to Tanner’s in Vickery Village.

Sally’s Gluten Free Bakery

This Sandy Springs-based bakery will open a second location in Alpharetta this fall. Expect a menu of cakes, breads, cookies and cupcakes all made without that pesky protein composite. Look for them in the Kimball Commons Shopping Center on Kimball Bridge just south of Old Milton.

Erwood’s – Closed

This concept from local real estate developer Rob Forest has closed. According to Forest, the rent at this Crabapple location was just too high. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try another restaurant now that he has a few attempts under his belt.

Yelp OTP Community Manager

The popular online review community Yelp has hired (but not yet named) an OTP Atlanta community manager. This splits the responsibilities of Atlanta’s current CM, Kathleen M. The community manager is responsible for managing the reviewers on Yelp which includes planning cool events for the group. As a former active Yelper, I think this is great news and shows that the website considers the northern burbs worthy of attention. If you’re not active on Yelp, now might be a good time to join.

Other Restaurant News

Bite is expanding their popular Alpharetta restaurant and may close for a few weeks to allow for construction. Also remodeling is Ray’s Killer Creek on Mansell Road.

The bagel eating contest at BB’s on MacFarland is this Thursday at 2:00pm. The odd hours will most certainly make the event lightly attended. The winner, in addition to extreme indigestion, will get a free bagel everyday for a year.

Toscana Trattoria opened October 1st on GA-141 just north of McGinnis Ferry. This is a second concept from the owners of Never Enough Thyme. Tapas joint Noche opened their first north Fulton location on October 3rd in Johns Creek near the Country Club of the South. Mac Meals, a Mediterranean restaurant, quietly opened a few months ago on South Main in Alpharetta.

Another Broken Egg opened on October 8th on Old Milton Parkway where Cuzi Fresh used to be. Haiku Sushi and Steak opened about two weeks ago in Yamato’s old space on North Point. This may be the first time I’ve mentioned them without writing haiku poetry. Blog readers are rejoicing.

Restaurants Coming Soon

Grand Champion BBQ – You know the drill.
OVR Coffee Cafe – A vegan bakery and coffee shop in south Forsyth’s Vickery Village. Look for them in November in the old Mommy Francis space.
Mambo’s Cafe – They have begun construction in their new Windward digs near Lowes.
Tower Burgers - Building in the old Sonic location on South Main Street in Alpharetta.
Chipotle, Corner Bakery Cafe, Pollo Tropical – A trifecta of new restaurants to be built on Haynes Bridge near the mall entrance.
BurgerFI – Fast-casual burger concept coming to Windward next to FedEx.
Campania - To-be-determined restaurant concept coming to North Main Street in Alpharetta.

Retail Coming Soon

Walmart -A third Forsyth County location is being planned on GA-141 and Mathis Airport Parkway near Target.
Regal Theaters - Moving from North Point Parkway to the new Avalon project.
AMC Theaters – Coming to Parisian’s old space at North Point Mall in late 2013.

Is losing an election cycle a bad thing?

Presidential campaign sign litter - it doesn't happen here

Do you keep getting interrupted during dinner with endless robocalls from candidates? Isn’t is a shame that roadsides are littered with campaign signs? And why must every commercial on radio and television be for a political candidate? Are you annoyed by the endless campaigning during this most recent election cycle?

No, you’re not. The fact is the November election cycle during Presidential election years are almost non-events in the northern burbs of Atlanta. There are a number of reasons for this. First, nearly all of the state constitutional races happen on off-Presidential years. City elections in most north Fulton towns happen on odd-numbered years. Sure we’ve got a few ballot questions to answer, including a contentious issue on charter schools. But that’s about it.

And we have the Presidential election of course. But Georgia is a solidly red state. On top of that, this area votes for the Republican nominee by a wide margin. In 2004 my home county of Forsyth sided with John McCain over Barack Obama by a decisive 4 to 1 margin. Certainly no presidential campaign would waste money or effort here.

We have bitterly-fought primaries of course. Winners of these primaries may face a token Democrat put up as a sacrificial lamb for the slaughter. Maybe a write-in candidate will emerge but that’s about it. November ballots are just thin.

We’ve lost an election cycle, but is that such a bad thing? There are thousands of citizens in battleground states like Ohio who are weary of the long campaign season. They’d change places with us in a heartbeat.

Or do we segregate ourselves by political identity here? And if so, are we depriving ourselves of choices at the ballot box? What do you think?

Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service (creative commons)

Liu Fu – Johns Creek

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

There’s a new player in the Chinese food scene in Johns Creek, in the form of Liu Fu. What makes Liu Fu stand out from the crowd? The folks running the restaurant have over 30 years experience behind them.

Liu Fu used to be called China Inn and was located on Peachtree Industrial in Chamblee. It was my mother’s favorite Chinese restaurant for at least 10 of those 30 years. We went there frequently and were never disappointed. The food was great, the service was fast, and the prices were wonderful.

After a dispute with the owner of their strip-mall in Chamblee, China Inn was closed. They re-opened as Liu Fu earlier this year in Johns Creek. I was very excited to have them so much closer to me, and went in with huge expectations. Most of them were met, but several were not.

Liu Fu is a free standing building on Hwy 141 south of McGinnis Ferry Rd. It’s easily accessible from both sides of the highway, which is nice considering 141′s divided nature. However it’s also easily missed as it sits down a bit from the roadway along with places like Panera Bread.

The place inside is huge! Tons of seating consisting of tables and booths. Dark woods, creative chandeliers, and a fish tank greet customers. With some intimate seating areas, this place would be a great date night destination. There is a window looking into the kitchen as there was in the old location, but this window is not a easily seen.

One problem I had is there are two large flat screen TV’s hung up on both sides of the restaurant. Seemed like an after thought and unnecessarly distracted from the atmosphere. There is a bar inside, but serves only beer and wine. My family has eaten there at least half a dozen times. We’ve never seen it really busy or crowded. I wonder if the lunch time crowd is heftier given all of the offices in that immediate area. There are a ton of other choices for lunch in Johns Creek, and the competition is fierce, but I feel that there are two vital areas where Liu Fu stands out.

The first is the service. The servers are prompt, polite, and man are they fast. Some opinions I have read have complained that the service is too fast, and that makes it feel rushed. I’ve been to a lot of Chinese restaurants, and the service is always fast, so I wouldn’t worry about it. One nice touch I have to mention. My two year old was not having the best night the last time we were there. He was melting down something fierce. My wife took him outside to calm down, and while she was outside, our waiter brought over some fortune cookies and a lollipop for him. That was above and beyond and was appreciated.

The second is the food. The menu is lengthy with five or six pages of options. The first half of the menu is in English and the second half is in Chinese. The reason being, at China Inn and here, I’ve seen a lot of Asian people eating there, which is a good sign for the authenticity of the food.

One word of caution, the food is a little pricey – $6-8 for an appetizer and  $10-17 for some entrees. We had two appetizers and two entrees and it was about $35. My wife and I have tried items from all over the menu from pepper steak and sesame beef, to sweet and sour pork and General Tso’s chicken. Everything has been outstanding and rarely is there anything left to take home. The pot stickers can be pan fried or steamed. I recommend steamed. The spring rolls are crispy and tasty. The pepper steak is my wife’s favorite although it didn’t have water chestnuts.

The crispy spicy chicken is outstanding. It’s little bits of chicken fried and mixed with peppers and onions. Boy is it spicy, and salty. I could take a bowl and eat it with my hands. Highly recommended.

If I had to pick one major complaint about Liu Fu, it would be this. There is no won ton soup on the menu. Let me correct that. There is no plain won ton soup. Liu Fu’s version is seafood won ton soup. It comes in a gigantic bowl full of all kinds of sea creatures. It’s certainly for more than one person. My wife and mother both had it, and did not like it. Won ton soup is my go-to soup, and I was very disappointed that it’s not there.

Liu Fu on Urbanspoon

Overall, my dining experience at Liu Fu has been very positive. There are tons of Chinese restaurants to choose from in this area. Liu Fu is worth a trip to Johns Creek. You can taste the 30 years of experience in every bite of food.

How Alpharetta landed Gwinnett Tech

On Monday Gwinnett Technical College announced plans to purchase a 25 acre parcel in Alpharetta for a north Fulton satellite campus. This is a terrific win for Alpharetta and the technology scene in this area.

Unfortunately the local media’s coverage of the event has been somewhat lacking. Many stories have been near-verbatim reprints of a press release with perhaps a few comments from Mayor David Belle Isle from Monday’s Council meeting. Here’s how Alpharetta managed to hook this big fish.

Interest in a Gwinnett Tech campus in north Fulton dates back to 2009 and 2010. The school observed a growing number of students with north Fulton addresses enrolling at their Lawrenceville campus. School planners believed enrollment at a north Fulton campus could eventually approach 10,000 students.

By 2011 several entities began lining up to submit bids for the campus. At this point Alpharetta’s primary location was the Milton Center, site of the former Milton High School. It was also around this time that Sandy Springs pushed for a bid. But very much unlike Alpharetta, local opposition to the campus was immense. A divided Sandy Springs council approved their bid by a 4-3 vote. By the time spring rolled around, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta were among eight proposals for the campus.

But the project was nearly killed by the pen of Governor Nathan Deal. At the end of the 2011 General Assembly session he line-item vetoed funding for the north Fulton campus. The future of a campus here seemed bleak.

2012′s session in Atlanta showed more promise. The Georgia House passed funding for the campus but the Senate didn’t include it in their budget. It was saved in conference committee and managed to survive the Governor’s veto pen.

Gwinnett Tech wasted no time this year. The bidding process began almost immediately with proposals heading to Lawrenceville by early summer 2012.

Alpharetta’s proposal may have looked a bit different than the competition. The city favored no particular parcel in their offer but rather lifted up several that were available in the market. Included on the list again was the Milton Center and also a bit of land on Webb Bridge Road. But unlike in 2011, North American Properties now had a presence in Alpharetta. Their 25-acre parcel south of the Avalon project was included among Alpharetta’s pick list.

The package gave Gwinnett Tech leaders a choice of locations within the city limits of Alpharetta. So rather than favoring one particular location, the city could focus on other appealing aspects… like moolah! Alpharetta’s offer included an incentive of $4 million in cash.

On Monday Gwinnett Tech selected Alpharetta and NAP’s parcel. We won’t know of all the factors that lead to the decision, but here are a few that likely contributed:

Alpharetta’s financial position – Let’s face it, Alpharetta is a wealthy city with a strong tax base. And with a triple-A credit rating, it should be no trouble  for the city’s Development Authority to sell bonds for this incentive. And while all bidders were asked to sweeten the deal with cash or land incentives, Alpharetta was best suited to this.

North Fulton’s newer cities simply lack the means to keep up in this regard. On top of that, Johns Creek and Milton are hamstrung by their charters which may limit their ability to float bonds.

Milton Center was undesirable – Even though the size of the parcel was far bigger than the NAP land, the Milton Center was never really in contention. According to sources close to the deal, Fulton County Schools may have imposed unreasonable conditions on the transaction. The school was also a greater distance from GA-400.

Salesmanship of Mark Toro – Don’t underestimate El Toro in this deal. His direct salesmanship played a part in Alpharetta’s win and the selection of the his parcel. Certainly this is more than a real estate transaction to Mr Toro. How will Gwinnett Tech’s campus complement the Avalon development across the street? It will be something to watch.

At the end of the day, Gwinnett Tech’s selection of Alpharetta is a great thing. It will create enormous opportunities for tech workers to sharpen skills and ambitious high schoolers to earn college credit. It will also be yet another tool to recruit and retain Alpharetta’s top-caliber technology companies.

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