Archive - March, 2015

City Center Development. Bad Design. Broken Promises.

Today we feature a guest post from Alpharetta resident Frank Wingate.

The proposed high density City Center development in downtown Alpharetta, adjacent to the new City Hall, is winding its way through the approval cycle.  The proposal is flawed on a variety of levels.  There are better ways to manage this valuable resource owned by the citizens of Alpharetta.

So how did we get here?

G-Alpha_town-greenIn 2011 the voters approved a $29 million bond issue for a new City Hall with small, village style, detached buildings for retail and restaurants on the north and south boundaries of the city center.  At the time of the vote, architectural renderings and descriptions of the project were unveiled by the City Council, as well as sent to each household as part of a-get-out-the-vote campaign.  Including cost overruns during construction and prior land acquisition, the taxpayers are on the hook for about $40 million.

The currently proposed, radically different City Center design almost completely obscures the new City Hall.  And we’re talking some serious urban density – 172 rental apartments (just where did these appear from?), and about 110,000 sq. ft. in restaurants, retail, and office in three separate four/five story buildings — all in two city blocks.

As Jay Leno once famously asked Hugh Grant, “What … were you thinking?”

If the often stated desires of Alpharetta’s citizens are green space, uncrowded schools, and minimal disruptive traffic jams; this high density proposal accomplishes zero.

So what should the Mayor and City Council do instead?

Well, it’s not as if the City Center land is going to move to Detroit tomorrow if there is no development.

PLAN A -  Patience.  Take the long time horizon.  Shelve the development.  Current high density, pseudo-urban developments are a fading fad, not the norm.  Great cities know that significant greenspace around public buildings is the model for success, whether it’s the National Mall in DC or the Tuileries in Paris.  And Alpharetta has success in-hand.

Truck in some dirt to level the grounds in front of City Hall, plant grass, and add a few trees, benches and lighting.

Let the city develop, including Thompson Street, setting the stage around this highly valuable, green oasis in the center of the city.

PLAN B -  Keep the commitments that the City Council made to the voters.  If the Mayor and City Council absolutely, positively cannot wait; then proceed with the original village style development, but slowly.  Wait for financial success by erecting the less obtrusive south side buildings first, then the north side buildings only when south side success has been achieved.

The proponents on the City Council state that the original design doesn’t work, and that high density apartments and offices are required.  Work for whom?  The developer, secretly negotiating with the City Council?  The City Council members with ties to real estate development?  Or the City Council members with offices downtown?

If PLAN B doesn’t work for economic reasons, then revert to PLAN A.

In an economic downturn, today’s fashionable urban-style development is tomorrow’s vacant commercial property with declining apartment rental rates — especially with the overbuilt retail shopping in Alpharetta.  Does Alpharetta really want to take the risk right in front of City Hall?  And why are the economic and real estate lessons of 2007/2008 so quickly dismissed?

The City Council made commitments to the voters of Alpharetta, both at the time of the bond issue vote and in written campaign promises.  At a minimum, the City Council should keep the commitments that they made.

And at best, the City Council can inspire a much greener, thoughtful, long-view PLAN A approach.

Minis by Maria – North Point Mall

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

Alpharetta has been buried under a mountain of cake the last few years. Cupcakes, regular cakes, bundt cakes, gluten free and organic cakes. I have had to go to the dentist to get several additional sweet tooths implanted to handle it all.

minis by mariaThere’s a small kiosk at North Point Mall at which North Georgia native and self taught cake decorator Maria Lawson has carved out a niche in the sea of frosting. She makes tiny little bite-sized cupcakes. If you left your normal cupcakes in the dryer and they shrunk, you’d have these cupcakes.

Although these are not your normal cupcakes. Scratch made daily from old family recipes in 15 normal and one rotating flavors, these cupcakes are the perfect little treat. The cake is moist and the icing is just the right sweet hat for the cake. It’s not super heavy like a Jilly’s cupcake.

Minis by Maria opened right before the Christmas rush in 2013 and they have been going gangbusters ever since. People love these little cakes. Maria’s husband Scott runs most of the day-to-day operations. You’ll find Maria on hand Saturdays. Minis by Maria does a ton of work with corporations for events and parties. They did all the cupcakes for the Avalon’s opening. No job is too big or too small ranging from a few cupcakes to hundreds. They also can make custom cakes for birthdays, graduations, etc. Just email a picture to Maria and she will make it happen.

In addition to the cupcakes Maria is churning out, you can also get cake pops. Normally, cake pops are soft and mushy, falling off the stick after the first bite. Not in this case. Maria’s cake pops are dense and chewy and delicious. I would go back to the mall just for those and that’s saying a lot. I hate the mall. And if you don’t want to go inside, call ahead and they will meet you at your car at the mall entrance by the parking deck for carside pickup.

I have tried nearly all of the flavors that are available. (except coconut, yuck) Here are my top 5:

1. Lemon Drop – Topped with a Teddy Graham
2. Cotton Candy – Crunchy sprinkles
3. Red Velvet – Red sugar crystals make this one
4. Brownie Bite – Chewy brownie cake
5. Salted Caramel – A small pool of salted caramel instead of a drizzle is the way to go.

So how does the cost of these mini cupcakes compare to their larger siblings? A dozen will set you back less than $11.00. Considering you could get 12 different flavors, I’d say that’s a pretty good deal. And there’s no paper wrappers, so nothing will get in your way to cupcake glory.

You can find Minis by Maria on the web, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Minis by Maria is a welcome addition to Alpharetta’s cake scene. I guess you could call it the little cupcake shop that could.

Disclaimer: I received some free food during my interview with Maria. I had previously visited and had paid for several cupcakes.

Alpharetta Restaurant News – March 2015

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

The rumors seem to be true. Ricco’s Italian & Tapas will not open as planned in the former Zola Bistro space in Milton. Instead a restaurant called Mondo’s Pizza Kitchen is building out in the space along Highway 9.

Senor Fajitas coming soon signA little ways up the street you’ll soon find Senor Fajitas Mexican Grill & Cantina. They’ll open in a rundown little space just above McFarland Parkway. It’s been home to a few Mexican restaurants, most recently Picante Grill.

The scene changes almost daily down near North Point Mall. We reported earlier this week about the drive-thru Starbucks set to start construction next to Taco Bell on Haynes Bridge Road.

Mayuri Indian Restaurant has closed in the former Pizza Hut space close to the mall. The concept will change and become Bawarchi Biryani Point Indian Cuisine. The chain has a smattering of locations across the country including one in Sandy Springs.

Cupcake purveyor CamiCakes announced recently on social media that they will open in the Mansell Crossing shopping center near the new REI. There’s no word on exactly which storefront they will occupy and buildout has not started.

Also making an announcement on social media was Mugs on Milton. Downtown Alpharetta’s little coffee shop will open a second location in Crabapple at the former Scoops Ice Cream store. It would be great to see an independent coffee shop thrive here but it’s proven hard to get people out of Starbucks. Element Coffee Company brewed a very good cup of joe there in Crabapple a few years back yet folded.

And not to be confused with the Sedgwick’s concept, a Mexican joint called Pura Enchilada Taqueria will open at 11550 Jones Bridge Road near Kimball Bridge in Johns Creek. These guys also operate a restaurant at the Pendergrass flea market. Definitely not the Sedgwicks.

anabelles table logoWe’re watching for a French-inspired concept called Anabelle’s Table to re-emerge soon. They pulled back on plans to open last year on Peachtree Parkway in south Forsyth. Recently on Facebook they teased that they may lease space on Windward very close to GA-400.

And finally, let’s take a quick trip through south Forsyth. Jay’s Mexican Grill opened about a month ago on McFarland Parkway. We had high hopes for these guys, but they’re bush league compared to our beloved El Trompo. Jet’s Pizza will open a store on McGinnis Ferry in the shopping center with Sweet Apple Donuts. And Cuoco Italian Table has closed on Peachtree Parkway near Sharon Road.

Restaurants Coming Soon

The Farmhouse – Still waiting on this coffee and crepe shop in Johns Creek.
Cook-Out – Moving along on their buildout on Haynes Bridge. No word on an opening date.
Cafe at Pharr – The sign went up this week at their new location off Windward in the old Pig-n-Chik.
Chad Thai Urban Asian Kitchen - Coming soon to Milton in the old pretzel store near Target.
Ceviche Taqueria & Margarita Bar – Opening on Milton Avenue in downtown Alpharetta next to 2B Whole Bakery.

Special thanks to Mike Christensen for his help scouting restaurants around town.

Alpharetta’s March gambling madness

I play in a monthly poker game. It’s hosted by a co-worker and frequented by friends and acquaintances. After the news of this week I’d rather not comment on much else about the game. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the players have concealed carry permits. And who knows, maybe a few of them have prior convictions.

Shocking huh? Hardened criminal this blogger must be.

So when news of the Pepperoni’s Tavern bust hit this week, guys like me uttered a collective “what the…?” Comments on the Alpharetta Public Safety Facebook page suggested that the SWAT bust was excessive, a misuse of resources and heavy-handed.

In my mind there is a vague and unclear line between a friendly game among co-workers and a large, organized gambling enterprise. Certainly Alpharetta’s police are not going to kick in the doors at McKesson because Bob from Accounting is collecting five spots for the March Madness pool. At least let’s hope not.

So I attempted to ask Alpharetta’s police this very question and got promptly ignored on every call I made to them. It still isn’t clear where this line is or at what point they wire up an informant and infiltrate your neighborhood poker game.

But by yesterday afternoon the story became a little more clear with a new press release from the city. Pepperoni’s game was large, with six figures in the kitty. It crossed that line and probably needed to be busted. Overkill on the SWAT team? Yeah.

In the end, Alpharetta isn’t really any safer. A handful of regular dudes are feverishly stacking books at the library, quickly earning those community service hours to get their arrest records removed. The owners of Pepperoni’s, who no doubt were stupid, may lose their restaurant in the process. It remains closed at this time.

Stories like this are interesting to follow for another reason. Alpharetta’s Public Safety Department is very careful to control the crime narrative in this town. News of this bust was quickly pushed to every media outlet in metro Atlanta. Perhaps it fits the mold and image of this city. The biggest crime problem we have is affluent people with so much money they can gamble big bucks on college basketball, right? Yet when a meth lab blows up an apartment, you won’t hear a peep.

In the meantime, I’ve got Kansas going all the way. Wish me luck. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.

Starbucks brewing up drive-thru locations in Alpharetta

Seattle-based coffee behemoth Starbucks isn’t done with Alpharetta. The company seems to be moving forward with plans for more drive-thru locations in the city.

200px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svgToday only two Starbucks locations serve coffee to you in your car. Both locations are at the corners of the city, Crabapple and Old Milton to the east.

The company has filed plans with the city to build a free-standing drive-thru location on Haynes Bridge Road near the mall. Look for them next to Taco Bell on a very narrow strip of land that’s currently undeveloped.

And as reported here on Roots a few weeks ago, the company will also open a drive-thru location on Windward in the former Tilted Kilt space. That building will be renovated to become a small shopping center. Starbucks will occupy a space on the end and will eventually close their adjacent store on west Windward. The project is lead by Alpharetta’s stripmall mogul Penn Hodge.

And near Avalon we’re watching two new retail projects, The Atwater and the Fuqua development near Thompson Street. Both might be prime candidates for a Starbucks. The company doesn’t have a presence near Avalon at all. The Atwater will come out of the ground first and site plans suggest an end-cap drive-thru restaurant might be in the works. The Fuqua project received a Planning Commission recommendation last week but still needs the nod from City Council.

Starbucks’ new Haynes Bridge location requires only design approval from the city so construction may begin soon. This area has become a hotbed of redevelopment in Alpharetta so keep your eyes peeled for future projects. This blogger wouldn’t be surprised if the wrecking ball hit a few more free-standing restaurants near the mall this year.

St. Patrick’s Day 2015

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

GuinnessThree years ago I wrote an article profiling several locations to celebrate the luck of the Irish in and around Alpharetta. Sadly, most of those places back then are now out of business. (See Firkin and Crown, Crafty Draught, Erwoods Kitchen and Keg, and the Tilted Kilt) While I don’t mind throwing back a green beer, like most everyone else the closest I get to being Irish is watching Irish Mike make huge swords on the Discovery Channel. Let’s dive in to see how you can green it up this year in the Alpharetta area.

The Olde Blind Dog – Crabapple

The area’s resident Irish pub is the place to do St. Patrick’s Day right. With live music, drink specials and Irish eats, you can’t go wrong. The Olde Blind Dog will be partying on both Saturday the 14th as well as the 17th. Check the web site to see the countdown clock as well as the band lineup. Did I mention that the Olde Blind Dog was recently named the 2015 Irish Pub of the Year by the Irish Pubs Global Federation at their convention in Dublin? Yeah, this dog is legit. Aim your shamrock here for a good time.

Tower Burger – Alpharetta

After a bit of research I found an event listed for March 14 at Tower Burger on Highway 9 called the “Spring Break/St. Patrick’s Day Mash-up”. It’s listed as going on “all day and night”. No other details are listed. So I guess don your green swim trunks and floaties and check it out if you dare.

Avalon – Alpharetta

Alpharetta’s newest and largest attraction is hosting what sounds like the largest and most confusing St. Patrick’s Day celebration. They’re calling it Luck of Avalon and it runs from 2-10 PM on St. Patrick’s Day. Many of Avalon’s retailers will be participating in crafts and activities from 3-7 PM. There will be a pub crawl of sorts all afternoon and evening. Check the website for all the specials and/or offerings from the eateries at Avalon.

There will be a pipe and drum band playing late in the afternoon. I was at first thrown because pipe and drum bands are in fact Scottish not Irish. I was told by a co-worker that St. Patrick’s Day has evolved into more of a Celtic holiday.

But then I read that the band that will turn the streets of Avalon into a dance party is Az-Izz. According to the website, Az-Izz “will transform Avalon’s plaza into a dance floor for a special Motown performance.” Motown? I guess they are just going with a good party band no matter the holiday. Since most of us aren’t really Irish, I’m sure it will be a rockin’ good time.

Whatever and whenever you celebrate, drink responsibly and either have a designated driver, call a cab or have your Uber app installed. Do not drink and drive. The police will be out in force and a DUI is not the way you want to go. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Photo credit: Sami Keinänen (creative commons)

Michael Cross should resign

A lot of people have asked what I think of Michael Cross after this week’s news. So here goes.

michael crossI’ve found Michael to be a pleasant and likeable guy who, as an elected official, has been very approachable and helpful. His voting record suggests that he’s been willing to push back on high residential density, something that’s a rarity these days.

He’s also been booked on criminal charges while in office, twice.

He beat the rap on his 2013 DUI charge. Now comes charges of battery after allegedly throwing a trash can at his wife.

While Cross says he will not run for re-election this year, he should go ahead and resign now. Why?

Distraction.

Alpharetta is on a roll. Hundreds of millions of investment dollars are pouring in. Thousands of high tech jobs are relocating here. The city is the envy of metro Atlanta right now.

What the city does not need are embarrassing news headlines that draw attention away from that fact. The city needs leaders that can stay out of the back of police cars, off trashy reality television shows and otherwise not suggest the appearance of criminality, malfeasance, impropriety or general stupidity. Is that too much to ask?

Secondly, domestic violence is a serious issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ask the NFL about what happened when they brushed off this issue. If Alpharetta handles this in their usual way then you won’t hear a peep about it at City Council meetings. Circle the wagons and wait for things to calm down is the standard operating procedure. That mentality could come back and bite the city, potentially doing more damage than has already been done.

Michael Cross deserves his day in court, is owed due process and presumed innocent until proven otherwise. But what’s best for the city is for him to sever his ties right away. He’s a nice enough guy but he needs to move on from public service.

Chain restaurant substitutions in Alpharetta

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

We’re big believers in supporting local restaurants here on roots. It’s not just about supporting our home grown businesses either. We just prefer the food over the homogenized sameness the big corporate players serve up. That’s not to say we never eat at these places as occasionally a hankering for scattered, smothered and covered hits me.

But if you’re still eating at these chain restaurants all the time, here are some direct alternatives you should consider that are 100% local.

mugs on milton logoPour out your Starbucks latte and try Mugs on Milton. It’s a shame this area can’t support local coffee shops. But it’s a hard business and standing up to Seattle’s goliath is tough. Spend a few more minutes one morning and seek out this indy shop in downtown Alpharetta.

Replace Olive Garden for Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant in south Forsyth. Is there anything parent company Darden Restaurants does well? Certainly not Italian food. While we have some outstanding Italian restaurants, particularly in Johns Creek, Casa Nuova probably matches Olive Garden the best. It’s pretty good Italian grub that’s not so refined to keep it out of the price range. And you won’t be a stranger at this place very long.

Ditch the North Point Mall food court for Mama’s Pizza. It is a shame that mall operator General Growth Properties doesn’t try to attract better food options in the mall, although we’re hearing rumors that this might be about to change. Nevertheless, your best bet for local grub near the mall is Mama’s. They often get overlooked as Alpharetta’s pizza scene flourishes and that’s too bad. Their New York-style pie is a solid contender and a great value at lunch.

Say adios to Speedy with beans and try El Trompo Mexican Taqueria. I still can’t convince my frugal co-workers to ditch El Porton. They are seriously missing out. El Trompo’s street tacos cost almost no pesos and are packed with flavor. I won’t spill too much digital ink on these guys because we’re written about them a bunch. But please, for the love of God, don’t set foot in the Jones Bridge El Porton when El Trompo across the street.

Put the plate down and leave Golden Corral for Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. If putting on the feed bag is your only motivation here, then I guess GC gives you the best ratio of carb or protein for the buck. But it’s disgusting. Instead try Pappadeaux on Mansell Road. You’d be hard challenged to find a better all-you-can-eat buffet in Alpharetta.

And finally, scatter from Waffle House and try breakfast at Scratch Fresh. It was tough to think of a decent replacement for this Atlanta institution. The burgeoning high-end breakfast scene, with players like Egg Harbor, Another Broken Egg and First Watch, doesn’t really fit into the Waffle House genre. So we went with Scratch here for their affordable cost and super friendly staff.

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