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Could movie theater relocation sink Alpharetta’s Mansell Road?

In the next two years both of Alpharetta’s movie theaters along North Point Parkway are likely to relocate. The result could leave gaping retail holes along the city’s southern-most corridor.

The first to go will be AMC at Mansell Crossing. The chain is building a new theater up the street in the former Parisian anchor space at North Point Mall. It’s expected to open this fall.

While the chain hasn’t formally announced the closure of the Mansell Crossing location, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to operate two theaters in such proximity. The Mansell Crossing theater space measures 51,000 square feet.

Adjacent to AMC Mansell Crossing is a Barnes and Noble book store.The book store benefits from theater foot traffic. It’s a great place to kill time before a movie starts. This customer base simply isn’t there when the theater moves up the street.

The retail book business isn’t doing well. Barnes and Noble announced recently that they would close 200 retail locations over the next decade. Might this Alpharetta location make that list? The store here measures 25,000 square feet.

Regal theaters is building at the Avalon project on Old Milton Parkway. Their small eight screen theater on North Point will close once that move happens. That leaves 34,000 square feet vacant.

Two large spaces are already vacant along Mansell Road. The former Home Depot Expo Design Center, across GA-400 next to Sam’s Club, has sat empty for years. It measures in at a massive 87,000 square feet.

Also vacant is the old Champps Americana restaurant space. This 10,000 square foot restaurant is fully equipped yet the broker marketing the place can’t seem to find a tenant.

That’s over 200,000 square feet of retail space that could go vacant along or near Mansell Road over the next two years. It’s an alarming statistic that should keep political and business leaders up at night. Could the rash of vacancies cause a closure domino effect? Might Mansell’s restaurant row be next?

What incentives should the city consider to attract new business to this area? And there are uses that might work in these enormous vacant spaces? Leave me a comment!

Photo credit: Alonzo Jeter

Potential sites for a convention center in Alpharetta

Alpharetta has received two proposals from private developers that may pave the way to bringing a convention and conference center to town. The city seeks a public/private partnership that would pair a city-owned and operated convention center with a privately built hotel.

The details of the proposals are not yet available but the names of those who participated in the process is. Those submitting an indication of interest are…

Avalon – North American Properties

Avalon’s site plan includes a full-service hotel with development in a future phase. It probably wouldn’t be hard to modify the site plan of the eastern half of the development to include the convention space the city requests. Access to a parking deck is already in place and close proximity to GA-400 is a plus. NAP’s hotel partner Stormont Hospitality Group participated in the bidding process.

Northwinds Land LLC

The second proposal came from this firm along with Duke Reality and Pope & Land. It isn’t clear exactly which parcel they are interested in developing. Chances are good that it’s the 20 acre undeveloped parcel at the northeast corner of Haynes Bridge and GA-400.

It’s interesting to note who chose not to participate in the bidding. Worthington Hyde Partners and Penn Hodge attended meetings but did not submit a bid. They each have ties to the massive Windward Mill project. Its zoning includes a hotel.

The architecture firm Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart attended a Q&A meeting for the project. It’s not clear who they were retained by. Coincidentally this same firm is working on Alpharetta’s downtown plan.

Also missing is Cousins Westside. A 20 acre parcel adjacent to Encore Park was originally set aside in their master plan for a similar convention or performing arts center. However this idea appears to no longer be viable. An attempt was made earlier this year to amend the master plan to allow residential use in this pod. The attempt failed. The city’s request for proposals suggests that the project should be close to and visible from GA-400. Encore Park is neither.

It’s interesting to contrast this convention center project to that of the amphitheater. Encore Park came to fruition without a heavy commitment from the city. Alpharetta and Fulton County each chipped in $1 million towards the project. The rest of the construction costs and ongoing operations belong to the Atlanta Symphony and the Woodruff Arts Center.

Under the current proposal, Alpharetta would sell bonds to build convention center and would also operate the facility. The private developer would donate land and build/own the adjoining hotel.

The scale of this potential public/private partnership is pretty large by Alpharetta standards. Past partnerships considered by the city have not fared well. Alpharetta’s first downtown development plan had similar trappings and thankfully failed to launch. Then there’s the partnership with Coro Reality to development in downtown. It been successful only in creating vacant buildings.

So the proof will be in the pudding with this deal. The public won’t know specifics of the two proposals until Alpharetta’s council considers them in an open meeting. The two biggest questions remain… Will a convention center be viable in Alpharetta? Is there political will to make such a public/private partnership a reality?

Single family homes can still be walkable

Do you read the blog New Urban Roswell by Michael Hadden? You should.

I disagree with Michael… a lot. But I respect his opinion and find his writing to be well thought out and researched.

I regret not commenting on this Avalon article from Michael when it was written way back in November. Let’s take the occasion of Avalon’s ground breaking (scheduled for next week) to bring it up.

Perhaps the least talked about part of Avalon is what will be known as Avalon Gardens. This will take up the western portion of the development, closest to Westside and Old Milton Parkways. In a nutshell, this is where the single family homes and townhomes will live. Yes, I said single family homes.

Michael has published many of the drawings and maps for this phase of the development in his article. It will be a beautiful place to live with stunning architecture.

What I like best is that it isn’t filled with stacked housing. It isn’t crammed to the gills with condos on top of condos or apartments everywhere like you see at Windward Mill or Peridot.

Certainly there is a demand for walkable communities. However it isn’t necessary for that to translate to extreme density. Avalon Gardens beautifully demonstrates this! You can create desirable, walkable communities and still offer single family homes and townhomes.

This model would work perfectly in downtown Alpharetta. Rather than stacking vertical boxes of residential over downtown, why not encourage housing like Avalon Gardens to be built along the periphery? It would still be very walkable and a desirable place to live. It would also hold back density, which is the real enemy here.

Unfortunately I think stacked residential over retail is already a done deal in downtown Alpharetta. It’s also not likely to get talked about before this year’s municipal elections in November. That’s disappointing because I think Alpharetta really thirsts for developments that are more like Avalon Gardens.

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.

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.

Northwinds Parkway extension

Today I’ll provide a glimpse into the process and players involved in the creation of a new transportation project in Alpharetta. I’ll try to not interject my personal opinion into the story and just present facts as I see them. It seems that whenever I draw conclusions in matters before the city, particularly those from the business community, I’m labeled as incorrect or worse – a conspiracy theorist. My readers are smart folks. I’ll leave the dot connecting to you.


View Northwinds Parkway Extension in a larger map

Tonight Alpharetta’s City Council will consider a new road project – the extension of Northwinds Parkway. Northwinds currently runs parallel to GA400 to the west. It starts at Haynes Bridge, running north through office buildings and past the Devry campus. It ends at Kimball Bridge. The extension would add about a half mile and carry the road to Old Milton Parkway.

This road extension is not of high priority to the city of Alpharetta. It is not found in planning documents such as the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Its extension was not included in any LCI studies nor was it ever a project to be considered for T-SPLOST funding.

The road was mentioned in 2007 during a rezoning of the Parkway 400 project on Old Milton. The developer asked to significantly increase the office density of the area, building three eight-story buildings. The city asked him to build the Northwinds extension and he refused, saying “we do not NEED this new road.” The traffic studies didn’t reflect a need for it either, even with the high density. The zoning was withdrawn.

North American Properties frontman Mark Toro mentioned the Northwinds extension during an Avalon presentation this year. The road would end at the main entrance to Avalon, carrying drivers right to the main drag into the development.

It’s worth mentioning that Avalon’s traffic study showed fewer car trips than the much more intense Prospect Park development. But Avalon’s traffic study did not require nor even considered the creation of the Northwinds Parkway extension.

It’s also worth mentioning that NAP owns 25 acres of raw land to the south of Old Milton Parkway. They have not publicly announced their intentions with this land. The proposed extension of Northwinds would add a four-lane road to the west boundary of this property.

The North Fulton Community Improvement District hired a consultant to study the Northwinds extension. Tonight it is the Georgia DOT that’s making the grant to help build the road. The city did not apply for nor did they request the grant money which amounts to a half million dollars of Georgia taxpayer funds.

Brandon Beach is the Executive Director of the NFCID. He is also a Georgia DOT board member. North American Properties contributed $2,000 to Beach’s most recent political campaign for State Senate.

So how will Council react tonight? Conventional wisdom says they will certainly take a new road, not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Then again, it isn’t apparent where this money comes from or what other projects may go unfunded as a result.

On the other hand, Mayor David Belle Isle made news years ago when he, then a mere Council member, opposed on principle receiving federal stimulus money for projects in Alpharetta. Some accused him of political grandstanding ahead of his own State Senate campaign. Stimulus money funded several projects in Alpharetta including energy improvement grants and two projects on Kimball Bridge Road. A good case could be made that these projects were far more important than the extension of Northwinds Parkway.

So there you have it. DOT money is directed to unwanted and unneeded road projects at the benefit of cronies. And we wonder why there is no trust in transportation leaders. Oops, did I interject my own opinions? My bad. I welcome yours.

Alpharetta’s peculiar and convoluted virtual apartments

Several weeks ago, around the time of Alpharetta’s Planning Commission actions on Avalon, I began researching the transfer of development rights of apartments (TDRs). At the time there was lively discussion online surrounding this proposed zoning condition. North American Properties would be required to purchase the right to build apartments from parcels already zoned for them but were un-built. Some in the community wanted to know which parcels this applied to. Many of those inquiring minds were ardent Avalon supporters who were interested to know if there were conflicts of interest. It was a fair question.

Unfortunately no list was provided of parcels that had these virtual apartments available for transfer. So I did the next best thing. In one hand I took Alpharetta’s zoning map. In another hand I had google’s satellite view of Alpharetta. In a third hand (actually these were browser windows) I had the Fulton County Assessor’s webpage.

I scanned the zoning map looking for parcels with R-10M zoning then checked to see if they were undeveloped. There were only two of any significant size. They were:

The Ellman Tract - This property sits at the southwest corner of GA-400 and Webb Bridge Road, catty-corner from St James United Methodist Church. This 10-11 acre piece of land has played an important part of Avalon/Prospect Park’s history. I mentioned it in my article about Westside Parkway and how difficult it was to put together this deal.

Dunn Foundation Tract - Located on the northeast corner of GA-400 and Old Milton Parkway, across from Burger King and Waffle House.

I also found a few tiny parcels near downtown Alpharetta with R-10M zoning but were not of significance.

In the end, I didn’t write about this issue before Avalon’s zoning for a few reasons. First, I wasn’t confident that my information was correct. The Fulton Assessor’s office isn’t exactly known for their data accuracy. I believe some of their ownership information may have been out of date. And second, I didn’t see any clear conflicts at the time. I believed Ellman was still owned by Prospect Park’s former developer, Stan Thomas. I figured the city now owned the land under Westside Parkway but that Thomas owned the rest.

Fast forward to Monday night’s Council meeting. NAP frontman Mark Toro mentioned during his presentation that he had acquired some apartment development rights and was ok with a TDR zoning condition. What a relief! I later found out that my research on the Dunn Foundation tract was correct as it seems NAP purchased their apartment rights in a private transaction. All is perfectly legitimate at this point. Keep following along.

Next comes the reading of the zoning motion. The wording of the TDR zoning condition suggested that rights could possibly be purchased from the city. Up went the corner of my eyebrow.

Lo and behold it turns out that the city of Alpharetta owns the entire Ellman Tract, not just the portion under Westside Parkway. This fact was not disclosed to the public during the Westside Parkway announcement (unless I missed it). It certainly wasn’t brought to anyone’s attention when public discussion was taking place over the last few weeks.

This tract represents slightly less than half of the unused apartment development rights in the entire city. The city wrote a zoning condition that says the applicant must negotiate the purchase of an intangible asset… from the city… before the city will allow apartments to be built. At best it is peculiar.

From this point on the city will take the role of a land owner/developer and negotiate the sale of this intangible asset. Were the city a private entity wishing to maximize profit, they would market this asset to any potential apartment developer. That might include AMLI (who has another pending apartment zoning application before the city) or perhaps a developer like Rob Forest. But the city is not likely to sell to someone like this. But if the asset isn’t at least put up for bid in this manner then how does the city put a price tag on the rights?

Or how about looking at this on the flip side. NAP has to continue negotiations with the city over apartments, even after the zoning is approved. Their TDR condition says they can come back before Council to renegotiate the zoning if they wish. What are they gonna say? “We couldn’t reach an agreement with the owner of TDRs (the city) so we are requesting the city to allow us to move forward without buying TDRs (from the city).”

You wouldn’t think Mark Toro would like this kind of relationship. One could make an argument that the city has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize its investment in the Ellmen property and its virtual apartments (a truly rare asset). If that’s the case then they had better be taking the bull by the horns with Toro (no pun intended).

On the other hand, Toro once said that a TDR zoning condition would make Avalon too expensive to build. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case Monday night as he easily agreed to the condition. Is the city making this transaction too easy for Mark Toro?

Did I mention peculiar? Convoluted might be another way to describe it as I feel there may be more to this issue. One thing is sure… the issue of Avalon’s apartments is not over. I expect the city to hold a vote on the sale of the apartment rights. You might also see NAP come back before Alpharetta to renegotiate apartments all over again.

So there you have it. I don’t think Alpharetta fully disclosed the purchase of the Ellman Tract. This arrangement didn’t come to light until the 11th hour after the period of public comment was closed. And the city has to wear two hats in a convoluted relationship.

 


View Undeveloped R-10M Zonings in a larger map

WHI Avalon Letter to City Council

The following is a letter from Tom Miller of the Windward Homeowners Inc to the City Council regarding the Avalon project. It is offered here as a guest post with the permission of Mr. Miller. Alpharetta’s City Council will consider Avalon tonight.

Dear Mayor Belle Isle and City Council,

I would like to let you know that the following resolution was passed unanimously by the Windward Homeowners Inc. Board of Directors, on which I am zoning coordinator:

WHI supports the Avalon project, provided that the project is within the approved apartment ratio currently approved by City Council, which is 85/15.

For background, the WHI Board wants to express our support for City Council’s decision to approve the 85/15 for sale/for rent ratio in 2005 and its unanimous re-approval on November 28, 2011 in the 2030 Comprehensive Plan.  If Avalon can stay within the 85/15 by purchasing apartment development rights of any of the 5,500+ apartments already built or approved, or if the developer changes to 100% for sale units, then WHI will support the Avalon project.

I would like to add my personal comments for your consideration of Avalon:

1. Please approve Avalon with the conditions that were approved by the Planning Commission.  These conditions are reasonable and will not deter North American Properties from having a successful project.  The Planning Commission conditions, similar to Community Development staff recommendations, will create a win for Alpharetta and for NAP.  If City Council accepts the bare-bones conditions from NAP as-is, then Avalon may be a success for NAP, but it will not be good for Alpharetta’s residents or businesses.  It will set precedents and erode the protections that led us to invest in Alpharetta.

2. Regarding the apartments, Alpharetta has denied or discouraged more than 1,000 apartments since 2005, and approval of Avalon apartments will set a precedent for many more apartments regardless of any specific zoning conditions.  Avalon’s apartments are high end, but new apartments trigger older apartments to reduce rents and accept lower quality tenants.  Police reports and school test scores easily confirm the effect that Avalon will have on many older apartments.  The 2030 Plan says that future development will be redevelopment, and in the case of rentals, Alpharetta is built out.  Period.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Alpharetta already has a highest percentage of rental vs. owner-occupied homes among our neighboring cities.  The Census says that 35% of Alpharetta households rent (vs. 65% own).  We are worse than Roswell (33%), Milton (26%) and Johns Creek (20%).  Alpharetta already has the highest transient population north of the river; how could be justify adding more rentals?

3. Regarding the public space, please enforce the Mixed Use zoning code that has been in place since 2005.  Planning Commission conditions just reiterated what is a code requirement.  Avalon should have 8.7 acres of public space amenity where people can gather.  NAP boasts about providing two football fields of sidewalks and medians, but a football field is only 1.3 acres between the goal posts, and NAP’s drawings show their football fields include space within the stores.  No reasonable person would say that Avalon’s public space should include sidewalks in front of the stores, a dry retention pond, an HOA managed lawn, or a buffer along GA 400 that is required by law to be undisturbed.  There is no reason why NAP cannot provide the 10% of gross acres for a public space amenity, and we shouldn’t apologize for requiring it.  Santana Row had to provide 8.25 acres (20%) public space and finally settled by paying the City of San Jose $4.5M to satisfy the remaining public space not provided.  The City of San Jose specifically did not let Santana Row count the Marketplace area, the similar area to Avalon’s “football fields”.  Please stand by the MU zoning code which is quite clear.

4. Please allow no drive thru.  This is a project to “get people out of their cars”, and an upscale mall doesn’t need fast food, drive thrus, or gas stations, so prohibit them.

5. Regarding the protection of our existing retail from predatory Avalon leases, NAP spins this as a Constitutional issue.  In fact this is the wrong way to look at this issue.  The Prospect Park zoning from 2005-2008 required a luxury mall with stores from Lenox and Phipps.  Economic studies were done to show that Alpharetta could support this different type of retail without impacting North Point or Downtown Alpharetta.  I have not seen any studies that show that Alpharetta could support two similar malls (Avalon and North Point) so close to each other with our incomes and densities.

No other Atlanta malls are as close as Avalon and North Point would be.  The most similar example is in Gwinnett.  Thirteen years ago, Simon Property Group, which owned Gwinnett Place Mall, also opened Mall of Georgia.  Simon’s studies showed that Gwinnett could support two malls located 13 miles apart.  Two years later, Mills Corporation applied for Discover Mills, located between the two Simon malls (5 miles from Gwinnett Place, 9 miles from Mall of Georgia).  Simon prepared studies showing that Gwinnett could not support three malls and that Discover Mills would largely cannibalize from existing retail.  Newspaper reports show that Simon made compelling arguments that the area could not support three malls.  Discover Mills claimed that it would be a different kind of mall and would be complementary to existing retail, just as Avalon is claiming now.  The pro-developer Gwinnett County Commission approved Discover Mills, lured by sales tax projections.  Now Gwinnett Place is vacant and was recently sold by Simon to an unnamed owner.  Gwinnett Place used to be very nice.  In fact press reports showed that Mall of Georgia and Discover Mills would struggle against the “invincible” Gwinnett Place Mall.  Look at the situation now.  The area could not support three malls within 13 miles of each other, yet we expect Avalon and North Point and Downtown Alpharetta to succeed when they are all much closer than in Gwinnett?  When the City approved Prospect Park, we never signed on for an upscale version of North Point, which is what Avalon would be.

Maybe the intent of Avalon really is to steal tenants from North Point Mall?  Yes, that is where all the signals point.  Avalon’s opening date is October 2013, exactly 20 years to the opening date of North Point Mall.  Exactly 20 years.  Mall leases typically run 10 years, and anchor stores are typically 20 years.  Coincidence?  Mark Toro developed the retail power centers around North Point Mall 15-20 years ago.  The team that Mark Toro has handpicked includes executives from the big retail developers, and the NAP team knows the tenants and the dates of the leases throughout the North Point Mall retail area. It would be much easier to get an area business to relocate to Avalon than to actually recruit a new retailer to Alpharetta in this economy.  At the Planning Commission Don Rolader said that Avalon is pursuing North Point Mall area retailers.  Can the City support a second mall so close to North Point?  We haven’t asked the question, or I should say we haven’t had any quantitative study.  Two years from now when North Point loses some big tenants, City Council may be saying, why didn’t we see this would happen?

6. There are allegations of conflict of interest of Mayor Belle Isle and Councilmen Owens and Cross serving on the Board of Directors of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, which has instructed its members to lobby City Council to approve Avalon with apartments and little public space, at odds with the 2030 Plan and zoning code.  I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution article and saw one of the two news stories on WSB-TV, and for the record I am a Cox (AJC) employee.  Common Cause believes that there is a conflict of interest, and that three Council members should recuse themselves from the Avalon vote.  Common Cause is a national, non-partisan watchdog group, whose mission includes, “reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest”.  Common Cause’s focus areas include ethics in government and government accountability.  Alpharetta is a City of Ethics, and that should not only mean that we have an ethics code in place.  It should mean that we set a high standard, beyond the minimum required by parsing words in the ethics code.  The three who are on the Chamber Board could trust that the remaining four City Councilmen will approve Avalon with right and reasonable conditions that are best for the citizens of Alpharetta, and not have a conflict with the wishes of the Chamber Board on which you also sit.  If the three Chamber Board members vote on Avalon, than I will ask myself, why was it so important that they cast that vote?  I will have doubts as to whether you were acting in the best interest of the citizens or in the best interest of the Chamber Board on which you are also obligated to uphold.  The simplest solution is to recuse yourselves and let the other four approve Avalon.

7. This large project does not have to be approved in one night.  Mark Toro created a sense of urgency in order to close the deal and to get away with the fewest conditions.  That is his job as a salesman.  City Council should not be rushed into approving Avalon on the spot.  In 2005 Prospect Park was approved at the first City Council public hearing.  Two Councilmen proposed a 30-day delay to get more public input, but that motion failed and Prospect Park was unanimously approved.  Since then some former Councilmen have remarked that they regretted voting for Prospect Park because it turned into a disaster.  Maybe if there had been more study, the City could have learned that Thomas Enterprises had never built a luxury mall, that his wealth was mostly based on the value of a large parcel of land in Florida with favorable zoning, and that he had a dozen similar projects underway across the country with high debt.  North Point Mall was not approved quickly, and that has stood the test of time.  Avalon may have totally different issues, but it is more important to get Avalon right than to get it done fast.

8. Some of Avalon’s supporters say that the City should approve Avalon if only to get something built there, to eliminate the eyesore.  Avalon will not solve the eyesore.  The current phase will leave more than half the site undeveloped.  The west (owner-occupied homes) and east (offices) portions will remain undeveloped without a sunset clause in the zoning.

I want Avalon to be approved and to succeed, but not at any cost.  I want Avalon to be approved with conditions that meet the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, the zoning code and with conditions that are won’t harm the rest of Alpharetta.  I don’t want Avalon approved with zoning that will set a precedent for more apartments or no public space.

I have supporting documents for the specifics that I cited above.  Let me know if you would like anything forwarded.  Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Tom Miller

Transfer of development rights – a condition Avalon needs

Avalon needs to be built. It is a beautiful and well thought out project put together by a great company. Compared to the three other mixed use developers to come to Alpharetta, North American Properties is much better equipped to make their project a reality.

I also like their track record at Atlantic Station, particularly the revitalized restaurant scene. I believe Avalon has the potential to put Alpharetta’s restaurant scene on the map, something that would make this blogger very happy.

I wanted to come right out and say this because I sincerely believe it. I’ve very much a fan of Avalon and want it to become a reality. At the same time I want Alpharetta to be able to approve the project while staying within their land use goals. I think both are possible through the transfer of development rights.

Apartments

Avalon’s high-end apartments are different – nothing like the garden-style apartments that dot the landscape of Alpharetta. This is a very true statement.

Unfortunately zoning codes, include Alpharetta’s, don’t distinguish between normal and high-end apartments. As a matter of fact Alpharetta’s code only recently separated apartments from other multi-family dwellings like condos. The city has no way under the current code to to say “yes we want these really nice apartments” while also saying “no we don’t want traditional apartments.”

I think this point gets lost in the Avalon apartment debate. Most opposition to Avalon’s apartments is not because of a dislike of how NAP is designing them. It is because apartments, any apartments, violate Alpharetta’s long-standing land use goal. So important has the 85-15 goal been that it’s almost a sacred cow of Alpharetta politics.

That’s why the transfer of development rights is such an important condition to add to Avalon’s zoning. It keeps constant the number of apartments approved within the city while allowing NAP to proceed with their plans.

It also allows the city to reject other future apartment applicants without creating a double standard. How important is this? They’ve already come knocking.

Apartment developer AMLI has a new application before Alpharetta to build 300 traditional apartments on Westside Parkway. This request will immediately follow Avalon, most likely hitting the Planning Commission agenda in May. Others are sure to follow.

Approving Avalon’s apartments outright sets a precedent for apartments that Alpharetta will have a tough time running away from. The Planning Commission understood this and voted to add the TDR condition. The fact that the vote was unanimous puts an exclamation mark on the recommendation as it goes to the City Council. This is very much the will of the people of Alpharetta.

This has been a long and tedious process. Unfortunately at times it has been ugly and unprofessional. But at the end of the day the people in this community want Avalon and they want their land use goals maintained as well. The TDR condition allows us to have our cake and eat it too. It’s a great compromise that I wholeheartedly support. I hope Alpharetta’s City Council approves Avalon with the Planning Commission’s conditions. I’m ready to be writing about Avalon in my Foodie Friday column, not in a political sense.

More reading on Avalon…

 

Number of the Month – Avalon’s Shill Campaign

Around the first of the month I publish the number of the month, a random bit of local trivia.

64% vs 27%

- The percentage of favorable responses to the Avalon plan since the Progress Partners “call to action” on March 21st versus the percentage before.

Online reviews can be great. They can be a powerful tool in a decision making process. It might be a book on Amazon, restaurant on Yelp, an app in the iPhone store or a multimillion dollar mixed-use activity center in Alpharetta. Online reviews can provide great feedback and serve as a proxy for overall public opinion.

But the integrity of online reviews is diminished when a group solicits for reviews with a directed response, aka “shilling.” This is what happened last week when Progress Partners and the Chamber openly told members to give positive reviews of Avalon on the city’s online forum. The results of this action are measurable. Prior to March 21st, when reviews were more organic in nature, only 27% of respondents gave Avalon an “I like it” review, the most favorable choice. After the campaign nearly two thirds of the reviews were most favorable.

Shill campaigns like this undermine the credibility of the entire review process and online forum. It does a disservice to those seeking to use the results as a decision-making tool (planning commissioners and city councilmen). The campaign itself was also unethical, something I wrote about last week.

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