Musings on City Center, openness and growing dichotomies

On Monday night Alpharetta’s city council approved the rezoning of city center in a vote that roughly fell along “party lines.” It was the usual establishment politicians against a small faction of homeowner-friendly councilmen. I regret not writing much about this process as it unfolded. My time has been pressed recently. But here are some random thoughts on the subject.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Woodstock be praised. Alpharetta covets what they have done and has sough in many ways to emulate it. Alpharetta’s council has done everything from touring downtown Woodstock multiple times to poaching staff from that city’s planning department. Now Alpharetta is creating a sweetheart deal for Woodstock’s developer.

There are still questionable issues with the selection process in this deal, almost all of which took place in secret. Alpharetta’s become adept at leveraging bidding and procurement processes to hide important decisions. Send out a request for qualifications, ask your favorite developer to bid on it and the rest of the process stays safely behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the public and citizen journalists. Make sure you never have a quorum of council members involved and don’t form official committees so open meeting laws don’t apply. Deny open records requests and stand firm knowing that those requesting don’t have the financial means to challenge it in court. You can even take votes in private, something which admittedly happened with city center.

MidCity’s development of downtown will be subsidized by the Alpharetta taxpayer. They openly admitted in the zoning meeting that these developments are among the most expensive to build and potentially least profitable to operate. It doesn’t help that the buildings will be built on shifting sand, both literally and figuratively. The soil under these apartments isn’t ideal for four story buildings. It makes the real estate less valuable to a builder, something the city will have to adjust for. The developer will also get the added bonus of using the municipal parking deck for their apartment residents.

In the end, I suspect we’ll find out that MidCity will purchase the property for a song. What that price will be is anyone’s guess because, as above, the city hasn’t been forthcoming with details on the negotiations.

Then there’s the whole city center plan versus what was presented to the voters. I spoke in detail with Mayor Belle Isle about this issue last week. In his mind the bond referendum was about municipal buildings, namely the city hall and parking deck. It wasn’t about the city center development plan at all. His comments show a growing dichotomy between those on council and the public who were pitched and sold a far less intense downtown than what is being built. Alpharetta voters can be justifiably upset about this.

Then there are apartments. They are becoming a necessary evil if you are to build mixed use projects like this due to financing constraints. It’s caused Alpharetta to abandon their CLUP’s suggested apartment to house ratio. This council has now approved about 700 apartments. And the precedent is already set. Peridot, the extremely dense project on Haynes Bridge Road, is now asking for apartments at their development. Then again, in a few years the lending market will again shift and someone will break these apartments up and sell as condos.

In the end, I think Alpharetta could have done a lot better downtown and they certainly could have been more open with the process. But it’s clear this is the project the city’s leaders want. Damn the torpedoes it’s full speed ahead on downtown.

21 Responses to “Musings on City Center, openness and growing dichotomies”

  1. Mike Christensen May 21, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    This article made me sad. My family and I were hanging out at the new fountain next to the greenspace downtown. My kids were playing and splashing with several other children. It was a wonderful, family atmosphere. I want to see shops and restaurants lining the green space with offices above, but the thought of tall apartments is disgusting. And the fact that this is all done behind closed doors and sneaky is even worse. You believe that Alpharetta is different and will “get it”, but in the end, money talks and Alpharetta is no different than anyone else. Shame

  2. Jen May 21, 2015 at 3:36 pm #

    I’m so disappoint as voters and taxpayers were completely deceived. This is not what we voted for and shame on the mayor for the bait and switch. Come next election is will be there and our votes will count. And I would never support. Is see the mayor from time to time riding his bike with his wife and kids. As a parent, I can’t believe he’s not ashamed. I what my children to see me as an honest person. He outright lied.

  3. Jen May 21, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

    I have friends at McKesson and heard they laid off about 200 people this month (including higher level managers). Not sure if that number is true, but now several people personally that were RIF’d and most likely be leaving the area. Hope to see other businesses come to the area (vs more apartments).

  4. Shawn D. May 21, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

    “Then there‚Äôs the whole city center plan versus what was presented to the voters.”

    You have that right! I voted against the first iteration years ago, then voted for the second one. I’m rather frustrated by the bait-and-switch and irate about the activity behind closed doors.

    It seems the city council and mayor won’t be happy until all of Alpharetta looks like Avalon. Might as well go ahead and change the name to “Avalon” from “Alpharetta” (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were doing that behind closed doors already).

  5. Greg May 21, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    I’m sorry, but “crooked” is the only word I can think of right now. I voted for a plan, and now the crooked mayor and his cronies have used my money to develop an entirely different plan.

    Crooked.

  6. Greg May 21, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    Here’s an idea: Get people to promise to boycott any business in the new city center for at least one year, longer if they’re up for it. I’m not trying to put small business owners out of business – I’m want them to know about this before they even sign on the dotted line.

    The mayor and his cronies have decided that you and I don’t have any voice in this matter. I disagree. It’s going to be extremely easy for me to avoid that development – there are LOTS of other great places elsewhere in Alpharetta (and down the road in Roswell, for that matter) to have dinner and shop.

    Let’s do it!

  7. Jimmy May 22, 2015 at 8:37 am #

    I regret not taking more interest directly with the council members during this process. I filled in the surveys, I provided input where I could. I am walking distance on Mayfield road and I was very excited about what was coming or what I had pictured for the green (Food trucks out front, festivals in front of city hall, farmer’s market with more space) but they will continue to be lined up on the back streets it seems until another town home community is approved.

    Why do you vote yes and make a statement on how you don’t like it? It should not hurt to have to move back a few steps to get this right.

    My wife and I were walking around Roswell last week and I made sure to take in how well it looks with 1-2 story buildings allowing plenty of light, spaces for trees (that are not in a median) and a classic feel while still offering many options.

    None of this addresses Main street and the amount of traffic funneling through.

  8. Travis Allen May 22, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    I chuckle at the thought that people are surprised by any of this. This city council has done things like this time and time again. They will continue to do so.

  9. Lionel Thompson May 22, 2015 at 9:14 am #

    As for dinner and shopping, the idea of a boycott is a great one. This website is proof enough that there is no shortage of excellent food options elsewhere in Alpharetta, along with Cumming, Roswell, and Milton, and honestly, what will you be able to buy in this new place that you cannot get elsewhere.
    With the mayor wanting more traffic in this corridor, all the more reason to avoid it and take your business and money elsewhere.

  10. Kate May 22, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Very clear now who NOT to vote for in the next election.

    This might make for an interesting investigative story for a local TV new station.

  11. Jen May 22, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

    Is there anyway taxpayers can ask for an investigation into this. I don’t think anyone agrees with the new center? Can we impeach? I hope someone at least sets up a protest in front of city hall. Can a neutral agency look into the dealings of council members?. I have no experience in politics, but would join the fight to stop this city plan. I’ve also been following Julie Hoggs blog and her articles about saving the Oak tree are so depressing. I can’t believe the city just rolled over for developers. I hope at least we can nails this developers by making them keep that tree.

    I think politicians quickly forget who they work for. Shame.

  12. J Kaine May 22, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

    I found it odd how this project moved so quickly, with such few forums for citizen input. I get it that it’s a private development and that you can’t expect the citizens to hi-jack the process, since it is private of course. But, I feel that they went out of there way to block/prevent public input as much as possible. I felt the initial process for the beginning stage of the development was open and transparent, but the opposite is true of this one.

    It will be interesting to see if this issue will trigger a contested mayors race. From the the beginning stages of this year it looks like the political establishment picked the first candidate. I feel certain that the other seat will see a ‘recruited’ candidate from establishment/chamber interests as well. With election season coming up this year what are your thoughts Lee?

  13. Julie May 22, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    I like the boycott ideas. But there is no need to boycott if traffic, suburban blight and poor quality retail intrinsically make you want to stay away! I really and truly do applaud the Mayor’s sense that a good restaurant scene is key to an active downtown Alpharetta. On the other hand, well, there are so many other hands…..to sum it up, it’s like development is some kind of a drug and certain Council members need it to get their fix….

  14. J May 22, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    It is amazing how corrupt Alpharetta city council is. I have never lived in or heard of a city with a council that plays in the borderline illegal areas so much. This local government seems to enjoy being unethical and fooling voters over and over again. Very sad as downtown Alpharetta could be really fantastic.

  15. S Lee Guy May 27, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    @J Kaine – There’s already one announced establishment candidate, Dan Merkel for DC Aiken’s post. I suspect Jimmy Gilvin will face opposition from a similar candidate. And Michael Cross has said he will (thankfully) not seek reelection. The establishment will need to field three candidates this year. They’re up for the challenge. Hopefully a few homeowner-friendly candidates emerge this year but I wouldn’t be surprised if Merkel or Cross’ replacement run unopposed. That would be a shame.

    As for a challenger to Belle Isle? I don’t think one will emerge. It’s very expensive to run for this office based on what was spent four years ago. And while I think the mayor is making mistakes downtown and at the convention center, it isn’t enough to fire up voters. On the flip side, he’s done great work on the technology side, making new roads with those in high tech fields and bringing a lot of jobs here.

  16. Julie May 27, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    David Belle Isle had the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Virtually any candidate could do what Belle Isle has done.
    It will not be hard to challenge David Belle Isle as an ideal candidate. All we need is for that person to emerge from the woodwork.
    Once defeated, Belle Isle can go back to being “just” a lawyer and making money based upon his own merit as an attorney.

  17. Jen May 27, 2015 at 11:17 pm #

    Just curious as to what jobs the mayor brought to the city? Other than Haylard Health (which is a spin off from KC down the street and has very few job postings), I’m not sure what’s new in terms of jobs?

  18. S Lee Guy May 27, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

    Fiserv at the Cobalt Center would be the biggest jobs deal in Alpharetta over the last few years. That was over 500 jobs in a single office. There have been a handful of others like Haylard as well.

  19. Jen May 29, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    I like the job/business updates (in addition to the food and city development articles). Thanks for the info. If the Mayor made those deals happen, thumbs up to that. I was wandering around avalon yesterday and around the green space noticed the the buildings were just 2 stories. I hope that the buildings around city hall are no taller than 2 stories as that would be quite clasterphohic and make the space feel dark.

    Anyone know when the new library opens?

  20. RC June 10, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    There is no excuse for the deceptive processes carried on by the mayor and council. The city should not be doing business this way. The explanation that has been offered, that we need confidential discussions, is not sufficient. It is possible to do business in the open. Our citizens are right to be suspicious. Is this corruption? We shouldn’t have to ask.

    These latest actions are consistent because this project has been all politics since it started.

    The bonds that were approved by the voters for this project were timed to follow right behind the previous bond issue. This was a political strategy. When the old bond period ended, Alpharetta citizens would have seen a reduction in taxes. Issuing new bonds would have meant new taxes and our local politicians were desperate to avoid anything that might look like a tax increase.

    If they had gone through a thorough planning process back then, the old bonds would have expired, resulting in a tax cut. Then they would have to bring forward a design plan and campaign for a tax increase to support it.

    So they rushed out a simple design proposal to help get the bonds approved in time to avoid the tax changes. The resulting tax load remained the same and nobody really cared that it was actually a tax reduction followed by an immediate increase.

    Now we have a real plan, developed in secret and designed to benefit a specific developer. It is crystal clear that winning support for those bonds now would be a really tough fight. I don’t know if it is corruption, but it is certainly politics.

  21. Mark July 27, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Is there a start and estimated completion date available for the Alpharetta city center? Been wondering how long it will sit unfinished…

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