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RocaPoint seeks to bring mixed-use project to McFarland Parkway

What promises to be the largest mixed-use development in Forsyth County may come to McFarland Parkway. The yet unnamed project from RocaPoint Partners would mix residential, commercial and hotel uses at the southwest corner of GA-400 and McFarland Parkway and hopefully elevate this neglected portion of the county. But the project certainly isn’t without concern.

RocapointThe development would sit on 134 acres, 43 of which are unbuildable thanks to being in wetlands near Big Creek. 430 apartments are planned, some of which are senior living. 92 single family homes and 168 attached homes are also included bringing the total residential component to 690 units. The amount of commercial footprint varies from a minimum of 250,000 square feet up to a max of 550,000. Two hotel properties are included but will likely be suite products and not full-service.

Six years ago this parcel was zoned mixed-used (or MPD in the Forsyth UDC parlance). The plan was largely a strip mall concept with big-box retailers and apartments. A few years ago the plans were amended to permit apartments to be built without a commercial component. Today you can see these large and undesirable garden-style apartments along Ronald Reagan Parkway. Commercial development remained elusive.

RocaPoint’s concept is promising and unique for a few reasons. First, it potentially pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into McFarland Parkway. This is desperately needed.

Second, the developer would pay for a short extension to the Big Creek Greenway. The new path would extend behind the residential portion of the development and end at a newly constructed trailhead on Ronald Reagan Parkway with more parking and a new bathroom. But more important than this, it links the trail system up to a commercial development, something akin to the Atlanta Beltline. This is certainly more forward than Alpharetta’s near-term plans for its greenway.

The project is promised to be upscale. They’ve inked partnerships with noted mixed-use architect Lew Oliver and homebuilder Monte Hewett. In a public meeting Oliver made the bold claim that this development will be “more sophisticated than Avalon”.

And that gets into the concerns on the project. While this blogger would love to see an Avalon-like development in his backyard, comparisons to Alpharetta’s crown jewel are certainly premature and probably overly optimistic. Here’s why.

First, the commercial development is anemic compared to Avalon. RocaPoint is way too heavy on residential, in particular on the southern end of the property. Forsyth’s planning staff agreed and suggested a smaller residential footprint, a suggestion the Planning Commission unfortunately ignored this week when they signed off on all 690 residential units.

Second, the property is awkward in layout. The developer couldn’t get the Wendy’s restaurant and gas station properties under contract so the project wraps around them. The entire development is bisected by Ronald Regan Parkway, a four-lane divided road that isn’t exactly a walkable road to traverse.

Third, the hotel properties are lower end and not full service. They are some distance away from the commercial core. Office space is also less than Avalon.

RocaPoint lacks experience with projects of this significance. It poses a risk that the deal could fall through, something that weighs heavy on the minds of those concerned about granting more apartment entitlements on McFarland. A great deal of effort was expended to condition the project’s residential component to be high-end, appealing to rich empty nesters. Hopefully, like at Avalon, the price point will be high enough to discourage residents with children from moving in and adding to already overcrowded schools. But if RocaPoint skips town or goes belly up, all bets are off.

And finally, this project is flying way under the radar. By the time Avalon was at the Planning Commission stage, the North American Properties PR and branding machine was in full force and everyone was talking. There has been scant coverage in the media for RocaPoint. The derelict reporting in this Forsyth County News article last week was embarrassing and lacking of detail. Is there a reason this is being considered and approved in a vacuum?

Nevertheless, the principals at RocaPoint have been pleasant and professional to this concerned citizen, even when pushed hard in negotiations. They’ve not resorted to name-calling like their counterparts at North American Properties. That goes a long way. And while they don’t have mixed-use experience, these guys have worked in the restaurant development business. The potential restaurant lineup here is very promising, something we’ll write about tomorrow.

While there is a lot to be concerned about in the RocaPoint development, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of McFarland Parkway. That can’t be all bad.

Where are the millennials at Avalon?

I liked this article from the Revue & News the other day about the residential development at Avalon. It was written like your standard economic development fluff piece they are so experienced in writing. But there are some interesting tidbits tucked away in the story.

First, only about a third of the apartments at Avalon have been rented. That came as a bit of a surprise to me considering how awesome North American Properties billed them. During the phase two proposal they talked of “unprecedented demand” for the apartments and long waiting lists.

The more interesting part of the article is the average resident age. An anonymous source reported to me that the average age of the Avalon renter was pushing 50 years old. The Revue & News article seems to confirms this citing an average in the mid to high 40′s.

Where are the throngs of millennials?

Remember that we have to build these dense mixed use developments to attract them, right? Alpharetta will die if they don’t move here and millennials don’t like the tired old suburban life we have. They will never buy a house or have children so we have to build apartments, apartments and MORE APARTMENTS! Apartments stacked on top of apartments!

Baloney.

Avalon is attracting rich empty-nesters. There’s nothing wrong with that as Avalon is very attractive to those who want to downsize yet still live the Robin Leach lifestyle.

So let’s call it what it is. Despite what you might hear during land use discussions, millennials are simply not moving to these developments in large numbers.

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.

A busy night in Alpharetta’s city hall

Tonight’s a busy one at Alpharetta’s City Council meeting and a handful of agenda items are right up our alley here on Roots. Unless you’re snowed under, it might be fun to head downtown and take it all in.

The fun starts early at 6:00 when the city hosts an open house to talk about city center development. It looks like MidCity Real Estate Partners is the favored developer. The big reveal will be how much residential will go vertical in downtown and if it will be apartments.

Alpharetta new logoLater on the City Council is expected to approve a new logo. I’m proud to say that my blog is the first to shamelessly reprint the logo without permission. Here’s what they are considering. I kinda like it.

Council will likely vote to oppose the transportation bill currently before the General Assembly in Atlanta. The bill would be very bad for cities, especially those in north Fulton who would hand over some transportation spending to the state and Fulton County. It’s always interesting to see the city cross their interests with their representatives. State Senator Brandon Beach was a big part of this initiative. Beach used to sit on Alpharetta’s Council.

Next Council will pass a resolution supporting the Beer Jobs Bill. If the bill becomes law then expect guys like Jekyll Brewing to get creative with their offerings. This council has shown they are very willing to tweak their alcohol ordinances for just about anyone peddling booze in town, from growlers to open containers on the streets of Avalon. Case in point, wine bottle sales at restaurants…

Tonight Council will consider a change to allow some restaurants to offer bottles of wine for sale by the package. The idea is that you can buy a bottle at a restaurant like you would at a store for consumption at home. We’ve heard that Cabernet on Windward is behind this request.

And finally, a workshop is on the agenda for the proposed convention center at Avalon. It’ll be interesting to see what the council is willing to discuss in public. Up until now, nearly every discussion has been held behind closed doors in executive session. This blogger thinks the council isn’t being transparent with this process. Considering the city may incur additional debt to finance the project and could be on the hook for its operation, the public should be more in the know. Hopefully this workshop is the beginning of a shift towards more transparency.

Jeff Fuqua seeks to build mixed use next to Avalon

Avalon’s success is starting to attract additional development to Old Milton Parkway. Two new zoning applicants hope to bring new retail and mixed use projects to property adjacent to the mammoth development. And documents obtained from the city suggest that notable Atlanta real estate developer Jeff Fuqua is behind one of them.

Thompson St DevFuqua has assembled parcels totaling 21 acres just west of Avalon. Bounded by Old Milton Parkway, Westside Parkway and Thompson Street, the project would be a mix of retail, restaurants, townhomes, detached homes and a small office component.

It’s far too early to speculate on what businesses might open here but the developer hinted at an organic grocer, sit-down and fast casual restaurants, coffee shop with drive thru, bank, wine store and medical offices. The site plan calls for all retail to face Old Milton and Westside Parkways with parking behind. Office space will be above retail on the side closest to Avalon.

74 townhomes are sandwiched in the middle and measure in at 2200 to 3800 square feet each. Behind the townhomes will be 24 detached homes facing out to Thompson Street. The homes will be on tiny lots yet will be as large as 3800 square feet. John Wieland Homes appears to be the residential builder.

A small pocket park is included with the development but will be across Thompson Street to the north and almost noncontiguous from the project. They also plan to build a wide sidewalk along Thompson Street with the hopes of conforming to the city’s idea of a greenway connecting downtown to Avalon.

It’ll be interesting to see how those on Thompson Street react to the proposed development. Many of the owners are small-time real estate speculators content to rent out their old, dilapidated homes waiting for their day to cash in. That day seems to have arrived. But this portion of town is a thorn between two roses (downtown and Avalon) and many in the city want it made over.

Others on Thompson Street have a history of being a raucous bunch when it comes to changes. Nevertheless, the residential component of this plan is rather dense compared to the surroundings. There’s certainly a beef to be made here.

But they might have a hard time negotiating with Jeff Fuqua. He’s got a reputation of being controversial and difficult to work with, be it with neighbors or city leaders. Creative Loafing devoted a cover story to him a few years ago that’s worth a read. Many folks inside-the-perimeter criticize his projects for being too suburban, too big-boxy and lacking density. It’s doubtful he’ll meet this criticism in Alpharetta, especially with this project.

But Fuqua’s arrival in Alpharetta is significant. The man has over eight million square feet of retail development to tout on his resume yet he’s only worked one project in our neck of the woods. Deerfield Place on Highway 9 in Milton was his work, home to Target and Kohl’s. And he’s certainly no stranger to this area. He and his wife own or used to own Collecting Gaits, a prestigious horse farm in Milton.

A separate zoning applicant before the city this month seeks to build new retail across Old Milton Parkway from Avalon. A total of 26,000 square feet of retail would be split between three buildings next to Racetrac. Demolished would be a small home and the old shopping center that once housed Shirley Furniture.

It’s also hard to speculate on tenants in this development. A drive-thru restaurant may occupy part of the eastern-most building. Perhaps Starbucks might find a cozy new home here or in the Fuqua project. They seem to like this type of drive-thru configuration on a stripmall endcap and will do something similar on Windward in an updated Penn Hodge project. Given that Starbucks doesn’t have a presence at Avalon itself, this might be a logical choice.

Forging business relationships at Avalon – DC Aiken

Back in July I wrote about Councilman DC Aiken and a preferred mortgage lender relationship he forged with a past residential zoning applicant. And just like before, an alert blog reader has brought to my attention another similar relationship. This time it’s at Avalon.

Sharp-DC Aiken

Photo from atlantarealestateforum.com

Like previously with Sharp Residential, Councilman Aiken is the preferred mortgage lender at the landmark Avalon project. Those interested in purchasing a home or townhome at Avalon will find Councilman Aiken listed individually on the sales agreement. He’s the only mortgage broker listed, the only preferred lender.

However Aiken’s relationship at Avalon differs markedly from Sharp. First and most obvious is size and scale. Avalon is a $600 million project with enormous visibility and impact. But more importantly, Aiken’s relationship existed prior to the Avalon Phase 2 vote in October and future votes related to the project. At Sharp he came in well after the matter was before Council. He also pledged to recuse from any future Sharp decisions.

But Aiken didn’t recuse himself from Avalon’s Phase 2 vote nor does he plan to recuse from discussions and votes related to the convention center. Why?

His relationship is with Avalon homebuilder Monte Hewett. According to Aiken, that extra “degree of Kevin Bacon” between himself and North American Properties separate him from any conflict. However his name appears on Avalon-branded documents and websites. Additionally he felt he didn’t need to recuse from the Phase 2 vote in October because it didn’t include for-sale residential components.

Aiken consulted the city’s attorney prior to his Phase 2 vote and felt he was in the clear. But the decision to recuse is very subjective. The City’s ethics code calls for officials to avoid the appearance of impropriety. In the past other councilmen have recused for less significant matters in the opinion of this blogger.

Remember that Avalon will continue to have business before Alpharetta’s council in the months and years ahead. The proposed public-private partnership for a convention center is being discussed behind closed doors at this very time. Other future changes are certainly possible at Avalon and conditional use permits may be required for outparcel development.

It’s my opinion that Councilman Aiken should recuse from current and future Avalon discussions and decisions so along as he continues to do business at the development. Additionally I believe Councilman Chris Owens should also recuse for reasons I wrote about involving his wife’s employer’s multimillion dollar contract at Avalon. It all begs the question… which councilmen are not doing business at Avalon?

Goldbergs vs BB’s – Tale of the tape

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

Most of the restaurant talk this week has revolved around Avalon of course. Everyone is abuzz about things like poutine with duck fat fries, burgers at Bocado and $20 taco plates from Ford Fry. Somewhere lost in the conversation is Goldbergs. We’ve got another water boiled bagel joint in town. That means a BB’s comparison is in order.

BBs vs Goldbergs

BB’s on left, Goldbergs on right. Notice residue from unwrapped everything bagel.

I hatched up this plan with a coworker. Known to most as simply “Murph”, the Jersey native will be perfect to join me in this project. Here’s what we did. One morning this week I hit Goldbergs while he went to BB’s on McFarland. We both ordered exactly the same thing – a plain bagel, an everything and some regular and vegetable cream cheeses. We spread out our bagel loot in a breakroom at the office along with a camera and ruler. After measuring, photographing and comparing receipts we set out to eating. Here’s what we found.

At five inches wide by about three and a half, these carbohydrate grenades measure in at exactly the same size. But on physical appearance, BB’s has it. Their regular bagel is golden brown compared to pale white from Goldbergs. The everything looked better as well. There’s simply more everything on the BB’s everything as it’s completely covered. But while Goldbergs lacks some toppings, their mixture contains caraway seeds. Even a few of these little guys changes the flavor of the bagel in a big way. Perhaps it’s personal preference but I didn’t care for them at all. The caraway was enough of a turnoff to keep me away from Goldberg’s everything in the future.

But let’s talk about texture. It only took one bite of the Goldberg bagel to tell it wasn’t there. The bagel lacked that chewy exterior which is a signature feature of water boiled bagels. It bordered on being a little doughy and undercooked. Thinking that perhaps I got the runt of the litter that day, I returned later in the week to try a Goldberg plain again. It was a little better but that chew simply isn’t there.

Bagel aftermath

The bagel battle aftermath

It’s possible that Goldbergs needs time. Many restaurants at Avalon are not firing on all cylinders at this point. BB’s has had years now to perfect their process. This week’s bagel from them was worlds better than that from Goldbergs but not the best I can remember from their shop.

We’ll call the cream cheese battle a draw, at least for the plain variety. They were indistinguishable to me. Murph gave BB’s the nod for the veggie cream cheese.

Oddly enough our order was more expensive at BB’s, $6.61 versus $5.68 for the same thing at Goldbergs. The cream cheese is very expensive at BB’s and you get less of it compared to Goldbergs. But it’s interesting that BB’s costs more considering the rent at Avalon is probably ten times what it is on nasty McFarland Parkway.

And speaking of nasty… Goldbergs is certainly cleaner. Many continue to be turned off by BB’s and their long history of below par health inspection grades.

It’s a little easier to get in and out of BB’s. Avalon isn’t exactly where you want to go for a quick to-go meal. The place is designed to draw you in and keep you there to linger. If you happen to be there for something else in the morning then Goldbergs is a good choice. But it’s hard to grab bagels from here and take back to your office elsewhere.

And finally, service was pretty good at both joints. They remembered my name on my second visit to Goldbergs. However, BB’s remembered to individually wrap our everything bagel. Attention to detail is important.

So at the end of it all, bagels from fancy digs at Avalon cannot unseat BB’s from their bagel throne.

Reflections on Avalon’s opening

Avalon opens today. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you already knew that.

Avalon logoFrom the point of view of my writing interests, Avalon is in my sweet spot. It combines nearly every theme I ever wanted to blog about, from restaurants to politics to affluence, all into one neat little project. I couldn’t have asked for better writing material.

We here at Roots provided what I believe (and hope) has been the best, most comprehensive coverage of this enormous project. From the time the property went under contract to this opening week and beyond, we’ve written about it all. We’ve gone well beyond printing press releases and the stories spoonfed to editors from PR departments. We’ve tried to dive deep into the issues and discussions of this complicated and multifaceted development.

Comprehensive I believe our coverage has been. Impartial? Certainly not as this is an opinion blog after all. Many parts of the process have turned me off, in particular the back-room deal making and politicking. The sausage making analogy was one I used last year and it still holds true.

And then there’s Mark Toro. The guy is a character and at times has a snarky attitude on social media. “El Toro” was a name I once called him, a moniker he probably relished in a narcissistic kind of way.

But I’ll say this about Mark Toro… he’s delivered on what he promised.

Prospect Park

Photo credit: ajc.com

It’s this kept promise that’s resonated with political and community leaders alike in Alpharetta. Even the apartment opponents I know respect Mr. Toro for what he’s put together. After all, the memories of Prospect Park, Stan Thomas, an incomplete Westside Parkway, the mud pit and broken parking deck are not forgotten in this town. Toro’s kept promise resonates loud in Alpharetta right now, so much so that some on Alpharetta’s council were willing to go against their own past campaign promises and approve more apartments on Monday night.

The first few weeks at Avalon may tick some people off. The crowds will be relentless, traffic will suck, parking will be a mess and service kinks will have to be worked out. But in the end, Alpharetta will treasure Avalon. It is a beautiful development with outstanding restaurants and activities run by people who know what they are doing.

The  process that got us here was downright ugly at times. Hopefully we here at Roots chronicled it well. But at the end of it all, we’ve got a gem. Congrats Avalon on the opening. Welcome to Alpharetta.

Convention center negotiations should be public

I handle rejection well. It’s a valuable trait for a blogger that occasionally writes about government. But in this case my attempts shouldn’t have been rebuffed.

This week the City of Alpharetta turned down my open records request to see documents pertaining to negotiations for a convention center at Avalon. City officials are negotiating in private a deal that could result in a public/private relationship financed by debt paid for with increased taxes. That fact alone should result in a public process but it isn’t the case.

So today I offer two more compelling reasons Alpharetta should come out of the dark and be more transparent in this process.

Avalon Phase 2 – The proposed changes in Avalon’s phase 2 are complicated. It need not be that way. North American Properties’ application, which goes before Council on Monday, hinges on what happens in these closed door meetings for the convention center. The public and members of the Planning Commission have been put in an uncomfortable position. How do you consider a zoning request that is conditional on a private negotiation that no one know anything about? It doesn’t make sense.

Cobb County Braves Stadium – My rejected open request request was written similar to the one AJC attorneys made of Cobb County in the wake of the Braves Stadium controversy. That story is still developing and has Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee in very hot water.

Like Cobb County, Alpharetta is negotiating in private for a public/private deal that involves floating public bonds financed with tax dollars. Unlike Cobb, we at least know this is happening as Cobb residents were completely unaware the negotiations were happening at all. But the similarities end there in my opinion.

Alpharetta has the opportunity to do the right thing. They have the opportunity to set a high bar for transparency and ethics, especially in the wake of the Cobb County fiasco. It’s time for the convention center meetings to take place in public and not in executive session. The city should release documents pertaining to the negotiations. And all this should happen prior to considering changes to Avalon Phase 2.

Whole Foods Market – Avalon

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature an article from Mike Christensen.

WF Avalon now openThe Avalon doesn’t officially open for two weeks, but one small section is open now, Whole Foods.  It opened this week to replace Harry’s Farmers Market.  Me and 184,000 of my closest friends checked out Alpharetta’s newest organic grocer this week.  It was good to be able to be on Avalon’s property for the first time, well not counting the other times one snuck in and wandered around.  (editor’s note: This is a joke.  Mike did not trespass on Avalon’s property).

The majority are concerned about parking.  They are right to be worried.  The lot isn’t as big and it is tight maneuvering.  I have had to seek spaces across the street and had to hike in.  Good thing I was able to grab some trail mix inside to sustain me for the journey back to the truck.  If you have an electric vehicle you’re in luck.  Whole Foods has a few EV spaces with charging stations right near the front.  I didn’t see any of those expectant mother spaces, but I wasn’t really searching.

Entering the store, my first impression was “man this place is huge, bright and green.”  Farm inspired artwork adorns the walls and bright lights make everything easy to see.  Sometimes that’s a bad thing. It can also expose flaws.  It seemed that the produce section was a little small and the spaces around the displays were cozy.  I imagine if you get a few carts roaming around in there then traffic jams would be inevitable.

The seafood and meat counters are right next to each other.  Both are well lit, pleasingly arranged and well staffed.  The meat counter isn’t as long as the one at Harry’s so the meat is more condensed on display.  It’s not a bad thing.  The dry aging meat hanging behind a window was a neat touch.

The wine selection looks smaller than before, and the local options have diminished greatly. That’s disappointing considering the substantial North Georgia wine production.  I did enjoy the sign on the wall that marked the wine section that read, “Put a cork in it”.

One thing that’s made Whole Foods at Avalon stand out is the sale and consumption of alcohol on site.  There is a wine bar/cafe/cooking school located upstairs that overlooks the store.  Guzzle some vino while learning to cook?  Count me in.  It sure would make first dates there go much better.

WF Avalon GrowlersWhole Foods does sell growlers to-go as well.  From what I could tell, they have only the 64 oz size growler wrapped in a “Whole Foods Avalon” growler-cozy.  There are only four options to choose from, all local.  Current selections include beers from Orpheus Brewing, Monday Night, Second Self Beer Company and Eventide Brewing.  It seems that what Whole Foods lacks in local wine, they are making up in local beers.  I saw an end cap display for Jekyll and there is a very large cooler fully stocked with all the Georgia breweries represented.  Single bottles are also available.

Then you get to the eating food section.  Several serve-yourself bars are available. One bar was marked “Paleo choices”.  Dinosaur food?  I moved on.  This Whole Foods has more choices than most mall food courts.  It was dazzling.  A sushi bar, olive bar, make your own Wok place, pizza, sandwiches, it goes on and on.  If that wasn’t enough, there is a counter in the front of the store where you can order a beer or a coffee and pick out one of the several pre-made sandwiches from the display.  It had a very European feel to it. It makes for a very fast turnaround.

Once you’ve stuffed your face and drank your beer/wine, don’t forget dessert.  I always laughed at all the healthy choices, gluten free, organic, etc, and then the most popular spot was the bakery.  Tons of cakes, tarts and cookies are on display.  And do not miss the (echo voice) Wheel of Gelato!  My son was fascinated with the rotating tubs that resemble a spaceship from the planet ice cream.  Samples are readily given.

Let’s not forget, Whole Foods is after all a grocery store.  While the aisles themselves were narrow, there were a lot of them.  It seemed that the packaged food aisles at Harry’s seemed like an afterthought or an addition.  These at Whole Foods were designed to go here.  The sheer volume of products is gluten free, organic and other styles is staggering.

Yes, prices are high.  Whole Foods doesn’t have the nickname “Whole Paycheck” for nothing.  While the selection is great, the lights bright, and the food options are overwhelming, it just doesn’t have that neighborhood feel that Harry’s had.  Being the only organic grocer on the block will make Whole Foods a hipster, vegan, paleo paradise. But for me, it’s no replacement for Harry’s.

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