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.

27 Responses to “City Center Development. Bad Design. Broken Promises.”

  1. Julie March 31, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

    It bears repeating that you reported in this blog in 2011 that David Belle Isle, then a candidate for Mayor of Alpharetta, stated that his 2nd priority in his overall campaign was to ‘hold back density’ in Alpharetta. What changed and why?

  2. Julie March 31, 2015 at 12:48 pm #

    And from David Belle Isle’s website votebelleisle.com during his 2011 mayoral run:

    David Belle Isle’s Plan for Preserving and Enhancing Alpharetta’s Identity:
    —Reject calls for urbanization, apartments and rail: Hold back density.

    I am so confused by this about face from the Mayor. It’s so very sad to see a Christian man go back on his word. What has served to make him “Welcome all calls for urbanization, apartments (and future rail!) and welcome density in Alpharetta” ???

  3. J March 31, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

    Well said. Everyone should complete the survey that the city has posted for feedback on the new proposal.

  4. Greg March 31, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    I’d love for one or more of the city councilmen who we all know read this blog to help me understand 1) How does the original plan “not work?” Is the owner (the City of Alpharetta) going to go out of business if this monstrosity is not built? And, 2) How in the world do they justify the idea that we were shown a set of drawings before voting for these bonds, but in the end this beautiful new city hall will be known as “that building behind those apartments.”

    Does the Alpharetta City Council even feel they represent citizens anymore?!

  5. Jen March 31, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    What a sad development. I regret voting for this.

  6. Serg March 31, 2015 at 11:02 pm #

    Lee,

    Most people I talk to in Alpharetta completely agree with your assessment. Personally I’m excited about a new development in the downtown area but the design looks crowded and hides the view of the city hall so what’s the point of spending 40 million dollars on a nice city hall that no one other than the city center dwellers will be able to see. Apartments should be reduced to perhaps 50 units max. As far as the green space I think the park in the back of the city hall provides enough space but what we really need is a public gallery, some space retained for future public use.

  7. JP April 1, 2015 at 11:27 am #

    Hi All,

    Is there any way to see the “before” and “after” renderings? I’m curious to see what was voted on and passed by the citizens of Alpharetta and what is now being proposed.

    Thank you.

  8. Bunny April 1, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    I’m a big beliver in getting the downtown area to be a place where people want to go, esp since I can walk to it from my house. However, I don’t believe the mass of apartments is what’s needed or really required, to make the area a sucess. Make it 50 units and market it as an exclusive place to live, play and possibly work. We need to keep the charm of downtown and mid-rise brick apartment buildings will not help do that.

  9. Keith Mitchell April 1, 2015 at 6:59 pm #

    I am not sure of the vocational experience of the person writing the original post but I could not disagree with him more. He is entitled to his opinion, of course, and so am I.

    This city languished for decades under a Mayor and Coucncil that lacked vision and leadership. While they were reasonable financial stewards they seemed intent to allow Alpharetta to languish a la Cumming. We have an energetic Mayor with a positive vision for our city and I like what has been proposed for downtown, and people I speak with are excited about the next phase.

  10. Joseph April 1, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    Developers are running the show through their proxies, our elected “leaders”. As the old saying states, “follow the money.”

  11. Julie April 1, 2015 at 10:55 pm #

    Town Centers of this type are so 2009! Wait, they’re so 1999! In fact, Avalon is so 1999 – Alpharetta just doesn’t know it yet.
    Belle Isle and his court need to repent of their lust for high density/new construction.

  12. JS April 2, 2015 at 10:42 am #

    I would also be very interested in seeing what everybody agreed to originally and how it differs from this development. I may be a lone voice in support for this type of development, although I don’t love the scale either. However I believe Alpharetta should be looking at more mixed use, walkable developments, as opposed to the endless strip malls that we have seen over the years. I think more pedestrian scaled developments such as this promotes more of a community feel than auto centric strip malls.

  13. Travis Allen April 2, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Keith, how exactly did the area languish?

    I’m sure there were many people that were happy with the way it was…with less traffic, fewer people, and more land.

  14. Julie April 2, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

    I have to ask the commenter above what Travis asked – How did the city languish under Mayor Letchas and those before him? They paved the way, laid the foundation, etc for all Belle Isle is doing now, minus frothing at the mouth for new construction and higher density. It’s very important that the city of Alpharetta separates out what happened with Avalon from what is to happen with the City Center. They are two different animals backed by different money and different processes. Although this is simplistic, one way to see it is to say Avalon is NAP’s headache while City Center is Alpharetta’s headache! Please don’t confuse these two developments. They couldn’t be more different and Mark Toro/NAP and Co. could not be more different in experience and credentials that David Belle Isle, average politician, average lawyer and his City Council.

  15. Greg April 2, 2015 at 9:24 pm #

    Still no city councilman willing to address this issue here. Maybe they’re all against it.

  16. Julie April 2, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

    Greg, what are they to say? Here’s the thing: they can’t back down now. They HAVE TO proceed full steam ahead or it portends to make any plan for City Center look lackluster and potentially hurts Avalon, which is still in the testing block, by making the whole market up here look uneasy.

    There’s a term called ‘smart money’. In my observation, the smart money most politicians understand is extremely short-term. It’s what directly or vicariously benefits their own personal careers and assets, to the detriment of those they serve. (There are a few notable exceptions to this on our previous City Councils). Many developers are extremely short sighted as well. A few of them, the big boys, do understand smart money…which is what makes the rumor that NAP is going to sell Avalon as quickly as possible all the more interesting.

  17. Greg April 3, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    Julie, I want them to say, “The reason I feel ok showing drawings of smaller buildings and a view of city hall before the vote, and now present a plan where you can hardly even see city hall, is….”

  18. Julie April 3, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

    An entirely fair request, Greg.
    If only residents were compensated for going to City Council meetings and making comments and requests and also benefited from all the contacts you make when you serve in a political capacity. Hmm. Oh well, guess forums like this should count as well. Wouldn’t you agree?

  19. Greg April 5, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    I’m sorry, Julie. Was that an insult?

  20. Jen April 5, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    If residents dont get the city center they voted on, can we get our tax mkney back?? Lol?

  21. Julie April 8, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    No! not an insult at all. I think you made an entirely fair request. I was making the point that your comment and comments like yours matter and should matter to local politicians.

  22. Scott Long April 13, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

    @Julie, i’m thinking that rumor about NAP possibly selling Avalon could not be true. Isn’t it true that the Fulton County Development Authority owns Avalon and leases it to NAP? If so i’d guess NAP can’t sell it since they don’t own it.

  23. Julie April 18, 2015 at 8:11 am #

    @Scott. Don’t know. I’ll have to look into that. Doesn’t matter though. NAP brought it forward and even if it were a lease situation (?) the exit of NAP would be newsworthy.

  24. Julie April 19, 2015 at 11:18 am #

    again @ Scott. Fulton Cty. Assessor’s office shows that Fulton County Development Authority owns a 23 acre commercial parcel on the east side of the Avalon development.

  25. S Lee Guy April 20, 2015 at 9:22 am #

    The Fulton Development Authority technically holds title to the property at Avalon due to the way the tax abatements are structured. Don’t think that would hold up a potential sale if NAP wanted to get out. My gut tells me they will not in the near term. Remember that they are neck deep in a multifaceted deal with the city to build a convention center. You don’t go down that long road if you’re about to skip town. But I could be wrong. I often am.

  26. Julie April 21, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    Thanks so much for clarifying, Lee. Potential for a convention center would certainly be informed by MARTA and the timing of future MARTA development. Development is happening awfully FAST in Alpharetta. Just hope Alpharettans see it coming in all its supposed glory.

  27. Lisa Mabry April 25, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    For those asking, here is the original Letchus administration proposal. Note that it addresses, and stresses, retaining historic buildings. None of the homes on Canton St. (those town houses are are real sore point with me) were considered, and even further than that, condos, townhouses and apartments were specifically stated to be unacceptable. What was considered was cottage style homes that replicated the existing homes. I hope the url link will show here. http://www.alpharetta.ga.us/files/docs/pdfs/Publications/Downtown_Plan/5.0%20Planning.pdf While I thought the original plan was great (nothing is perfect), it did not incorporate the building of a palace for the city hall. Yes, it is a beautiful structure, but it is completely out of character with the other historic structures. I would go so far as to say it is gaudy and ostentatious. The Letchus plan laid out the concept that new buildings would fit in with the look of the older ones. This new city hall stands out like a sore thumb, so if they want to build around it and hide it, well that’s perfectly fine with me.

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