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Taxpayer-funded Progress Partners crosses ethical line

On Wednesday North American Properties presented their Avalon plans to Progress Partners, the economic development arm of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. The proposed mixed-use development was well received by the chamber and Progress Partners. Even the apartments in the plan passed muster with the group, calling them vital to the project. This is to be expected.

But the leaders behind Progress Partners went a step father. According to an article in the Alpharetta Patch, chamber leaders urged members to begin a lobbying effort. They suggested calling Alpharetta City Council members, responding to online surveys, and speaking favorably of the project during public hearings.

Progress Partners’ attempt to influence a pending zoning matter is inappropriate because the group receives taxpayer funding from the City of Alpharetta.

In December 2011 the City Council voted to enter into an agreement with the chamber and Progress Partners in an effort to further the city’s economic development plan. Part of the agreement provided for $50,000 to be paid to Progress Partners from the city’s general fund. The City Council voted unanimously to approve the deal.

Further compounding the relationship are two councilmen who also serve on the chamber’s board of directors. Michael Cross and Chris Owens both serve the chamber in their professional capacities as well as on behalf of the city.

As an agent of the city and taxpayer-funded organization, Progress Partners committed a breach of ethics when it crossed the line into political lobbying. The taxpayers of Alpharetta deserve better.

Avalon is great with these changes

Avalon is a good project. It’s a great project with these changes. I like these changes so much that if Avalon is built with them I’d get a tattoo of the siteplan on my body.

But I cannot take credit for these ideas. They come from Alpharetta’s Community Development staff. They are recommendations that are being passed along to the Planning Commission who meets tonight to discuss the plan. I encourage you to read their document in this PDF. It also shows the conditions North American Properties disagrees with. It suggests that the negotiations are still pretty far apart in some aspects. Here are the major areas of contention.

Apartments

NAP frontman Mark Toro was careful not to use the word “apartment” in his public presentation last month. It was almost humorous to watch him dance around the issue. Alpharetta’s staff has removed the 250 for-rent units from the plan but NAP wants them back. I don’t see that either side has budged from this important aspect of the project. Approving apartments at Avalon would violate both the city’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan as well as the Unified Development Code.

A fair compromise in my mind would be to replace the apartments with for-sale condos. Even with this addition the residential density of the overall project stays at about six units per acre.

It’s worth nothing that the legal ad announcing the Planning Commission meeting suggests that the Land Use Plan could be modified in this meeting to allow apartments in mixed use. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Poaching Retailers from North Point

North Point Mall is vital to Alpharetta’s long-term success. We’ve been fortunate that the mall has remained healthy and continues to attract retailers such as Von Maur. As the mall ages it is important to take steps to preserve it’s vitality, lest it go the way of Gwinnett Place.

Prospect Park’s developer had no problem with a zoning condition that limited their ability to lease to North Point retailers. Unfortunately NAP is pushing back on this reasonable request. They’ve indicated that Regal Theaters may be coming to Avalon, something that would violate this condition. An exemption for the theater is a worthy compromise.

Public Space

The city’s code requires 10% of the project be public space. Avalon meets this if the detention pond is treated as public space. City staff requests that a water feature be added to the pond in a decorative manor, something¬† NAP is resisting.

And while not exactly public space, NAP is also resisting a request to add a MARTA bus stop shelter along Old Milton Parkway. Metlife didn’t balk at a similar request in their Peridot project. It’s a curious thing to fight, especially coming from a group that champions urbanization.

Parking

The expansive parking lots on the site plan have been a concern to a lot of citizens. I thought Mark Toro dodged these questions during the public hearing in January. The city has responded by requesting more screening of parking lots. NAP seems cool with this except along Avalon Avenue, the main drag into the development.

So there you have it. Major kudos to city staff for putting together a document that attempts to keeps Avalon in-line with the city’s published goals. Hopefully planning commissioners and city councilmen will not acquiesce to the uncompromising demands of a developer. Avalon is a good project. Let’s make it a great project and insist on these changes.

Apartments in mixed-use – a root cause

Take a look at this beautiful artist’s rendering of a mixed-use building. This is from the Glenwood Park mixed-use project in Atlanta. You have to admit, this looks nice with retail on the ground floor and a respectable number of condos above. Were a consultant to put this picture in an LCI survey questionnaire it would no doubt score high marks.

But there’s a cloud hanging over beautiful buildings like these – an external force that makes these types of mixed-use buildings practically unmarketable to buyers. I believe this external influence may be the root cause for Alpharetta’s and Avalon’s recent shift towards apartments in mixed-use.

Fannie Mae, Freedie Mac and HUD have all put restrictions on condo financing. Among these restrictions are limits on retail usage within a building with condos. They may vary from 10% to 30% of total square footage. This means that the more retail there is in a building, the less likely a condo buyer can qualify for a mortgage that conforms to these standards. The pictured building from Glenwood Park likely has a retail component of near 35%, something that stalled a portion of this development.

There are two ways a mixed-use developer can work around these restrictions. They can…

Go Vertical

Build ‘em higher! Just start stacking floor over floor,¬†condo over condo until the ratio is tilted more in the favor of residential. Of course this increases height of buildings, something that isn’t favorable to the community and even to potential buyers.

Apartments

Don’t sell condos at all. If residents rent the units then there is no fussing with conforming mortgage nonsense. It might explain Avalon’s apartments, all of which are proposed in four story buildings.

It might also explain Alpharetta’s interest in removing nearly all restrictions on apartments in mixed-use zoning. The city’s mixed-use ordinances were likely developed before Fannie and Freddie clamped down on mixed-use condos.

It’s all a curious thing to consider. Proponents of mixed-use are frustrated by policies like this that favor (what they consider failed) single-family residences in suburbia over more “progressive” mixed-use.

In my mind this is a problem at the Federal level in agencies laden with unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy. I don’t believe municipalities like Alpharetta should have to bear the brunt of this by changing ordinances and land use policies in a manner against the will of the people. Fix the problem where it exists or ask developers to look for other solutions that work within the existing set of rules.

Thanks to Michael Hadden for his help researching this issue. Michael’s blog is New Urban Roswell. And I’m done writing about Avalon for a little bit!

Apartments and Avalon

I want condos at Avalon.

That’s certainly something you won’t see me say a lot, but it’s true. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Let’s get back to apartments in a minute.

2030 Comprehensive Plan

North American Properties’ recently proposed Avalon project violates Alpharetta’s new 2030 Comprehensive Plan. It’s ironic in a way. The plan very much supports and encourages mixed-use projects like Avalon. I was critical of this and still believe this isn’t the will of the people. But it is what it is.

Avalon violates the land use plan by proposing 250 apartments in the development. The land use plan continues Alpharetta’s history of limiting apartments. It calls for a 85/15 ratio of houses to apartments in the city. Currently the fraction is skewed too far towards the apartment side.

It is certainly the will of suburbanites to have a healthy, yet limited mix of apartments. Avalon’s proposed 250 apartments would push the 85/15 ratio ever farther out of kilter.

So the ink isn’t even dry on the 2030 Plan and it’s already being challenged. This will be a critical first test of Alpharetta’s very young City Council. Everyone wants Avalon to be successful but it shouldn’t come at the cost of violating this longstanding vision. It also shouldn’t set a precedent of approving apartments in spite of limits on them. Does the council have the courage to stand up to Mark Toro on this matter? They should.

This will also be a critical test of North American Properties. Will they compromise and agree to abide by the city’s new land use plan? Or will they seek to undermine a plan that was designed to encourage their type of project?

In my mind I’d already resigned the fact that condos would be a part of Avalon. The only question left unanswered was how many we’d see. So when NAP proposed apartments it caught me off guard. I would be much more likely to support the project if the apartments were changed to condos. Let’s see how this chapter of the project unfolds.

Avalon, Goodwill, movies and a school

What do these unrelated things all have in common? They are issues that will come before the city of Alpharetta in the coming weeks. Some have the potential of being controversial. Let’s take a quick peek at each one.

Avalon

North American Properties has submitted plans for its first phase of Avalon, formerly known as Prospect Park. Hatcher Herd’s story in the Revue and News is the best source of information at this point (the city’s website almost never publishes things like site plans. Boo). According to Hatcher’s article, the project will have office, retail and hotel space, a 14 story building, 118 condos and 14 houses. But the strangest part… they want 250 apartments.

Alpharetta is already over its ratio of apartments. The folks at NAP are smart and they know this. I’m curious as to why they would even consider asking for them. My guess is that these change into more condos pretty quick. We’ll have to see.

Avalon’s phase 1 plan goes before the Planning Commission on March 1st.

Goodwill

Everyone loves Goodwill but no one seems to want them next door. Back in 2009 the city rejected plans for a Goodwill on Main Street near Cogburn Road. Now Goodwill wants to build down the road a bit at 495 North Main. An online petition from neighbors is already up and going. I expect objections this year to be the same as in 2009. Alpharetta’s Planning Commission will take up the matter on February 2nd.

At this very moment Goodwill is building a large store on McFarland Parkway in south Forsyth. This store is in a much better location and on a bigger road. My concern about a Main Street location is traffic. It’s clear that Alpharetta and Milton want less traffic and slower speeds on highway 9. A Main Street store would add 1500 trips each day. Sorry Goodwill, you need to keep looking.

Fulton Science Academy’s Impact Fees

Alpharetta’s embattled charter school will ask the city to waive impact fees on their $18 million construction project at Westside and Encore Parkways. The matter has been postponed once already and this issue has been overshadowed by the school’s charter renewal controversy.

City staff recommends that the FSA’s request be denied, requiring the school to fork over the impact fees. If the City Council agrees, will the school’s supporters use the same rhetoric from their BOE struggles? I can see the headlines now… “City denies award-winning charter school.” Tread carefully, councilmen.

Northpoint’s Movie Theater

I don’t expect this to be controversial, but it’s worth watching. On February 2nd the Planning Commission will consider the mall’s request to convert the vacant Parisian space into a movie theater. I expect we will learn the name of the theater at this time.

Photo credit: Dwight Burdette (creative commons)

North American Properties contributes to Paine Campaign

Executives and employees at North American Properties, owners of the former Prospect Park development, have made campaign contributions to Alpharetta mayoral candidate Jim Paine. According to his October 25th campaign contribution report, Paine’s campaign accepted nine contributions from NAP employees totaling $1,800. No other candidates for mayor or council have reported contributions from NAP.

North American Properties has plans to begin construction on the Avalon project (formally Prospect Park) in August 2012 with a planned opening in late 2013. With such aggressive construction schedules, NAP would have to submit revised plans and a new site plan to Alpharetta pretty soon.

I do not believe it is appropriate for NAP to make contributions to candidates with such a large project looming before the city. Furthermore I’m disappointed that a candidate would accept such contributions. Jim Paine should refund the contributions and NAP should refrain from making political contributions this season. Do the right thing, guys.

Westside Parkway – It’s Complicated

“We should also complete Westside Parkway.”
“I will join the efforts to complete the opening of Westside Parkway.”
“(We should) complete Westside Parkway to improve overall traffic flow within our City.”

These are all quotes I pulled off webpages of candidates for Alpharetta city office. You’ve got to hand it to these guys. They hear and understand the frustration of commuters with this incomplete road.

And with the news of Prospect Park’s sale this year to North American Properties, our anticipation was again renewed. Perhaps our frustration would come to an end after all. I joined the bandwagon of those encouraging Mark Toro and NAP to open the road immediately.

Yet even with the apparent sale of Prospect Park, opening Westside Parkway isn’t quite as easy as you might think. This is complicated, and I’ll attempt to explain why. I also think now is the time for Alpharetta’s politicians to act on this road once and for all.

Prospect Park’s Sale is Incomplete

The property that most identify as Prospect Park (now called Avalon) was a collection of parcels assembled by developer Stan Thomas. He financed the project largely with a loan from Wachovia (now Wells Fargo). Other parcels were financed elsewhere or may not have been used as collateral at all.

It appears that the parcels purchased this year by North American Properties were those financed through Wachovia only. The pins on the following map show parcels still identified by Fulton County as being owned by Fourth Quarter Properties, an entity linked to Stan Thomas.

View Prospect Park in a larger map

As seen on the map, North American Properties does not own land at the southwest and northeast corners of the original Prospect Park development. This includes the so-called Ellman Tract of land along Webb Bridge Road, across the street from St James church.

Were NAP to deed its portion of Westside Parkway to the city, the road would still be incomplete as the land under the road at Old Milton and Webb Bridge may still be controlled by Thomas.

Catch-22

Alpharetta is in a bit of a predicament. The zoning of the land requires the road be completed and deeded over before the project can continue. Were Thomas to build on his land, he would have to abide by those original conditions. The city, eventually, should receive a free road at the end of this.

However, if Thomas (or a future owner) wanted to be difficult, he could sit on the land and demand the city purchase the property. He’d be, essentially, holding Westside Parkway hostage in exchange for selling property he’d originally planned to gift the city. It isn’t clear if this a motive, and land negotiations with the city are handled in private.

So what should Alpharetta do? Wait for development to eventually proceed on all parcels, which could leave the road unfinished indefinitely? Purchase the land in a privately negotiated deal? Or perhaps employ…

Eminent Domain

As one candidate for city council told me last week, the public looks poorly on the use of eminent domain. Yet Alpharetta was more than ready to use it to acquire homes for the downtown Alpharetta plan (here and here) as part of the Haynes Bridge Road relocation. The press did not report on this story at all.

Should Alpharetta use eminent domain to acquire the rest of the Westside Parkway land? Absolutely! It is odd that the city would proceed with condemnation to move (and make more narrow) Haynes Bridge Road but isn’t proceeding with it to open a new and vitally important road like Westside Parkway. Additionally, condemning land in Prospect Park isn’t going to displace families like the threatened Brooke Street condemnation did.

Alpharetta took a gamble when they decided to deal with a developer who was biting off more than he could chew. There are a lot of lessons to learn here, some of which are costly. Alpharetta needs to face the reality that this road isn’t going to be free. Candidates who make a campaign issue of Westside Parkway should be asked if eminent domain is appropriate. Those who disagree should explain how Westside can be opened quicker.

 

Prospect Park is now “Avalon”

Yesterday on twitter, without a lot of fanfare, North American Properties front man Mark Toro spilled the beans on Prospect Park’s new name. “Avalon” is what they came up with. This comes after an appeal on social media channels for name suggestions. What do you think of the name? As far as I’m concerned, anything other than Prospect Park is fine with me.

I had to google it, but the name Avalon is derived from King Arthur lore. It was the place where Arthur’s sword, the Excalibur, was forged. In more modern times Avalon has inspired the names of movies, books, rock and roll bands, and…

The Toyota Avalon

Blame it on marketing, but this is the first thing to pop into my mind when I hear the name “Avalon.” We’re a family of Toyota drivers in my house. I drive a 2003 Camry XLE which, back in the day, was about as close to an Avalon as your could get. The Avalon was Toyota’s nicer-than-a-Camry but not-as-nice-as-a-Lexus sedan. Today, by Alpharetta standards, my car is a piece of junk. The fact that it is missing a hubcap doesn’t help. I don’t know if the Toyota Avalon holds the same appeal today as it did years ago. But I still associate the name to the vehicle. How long will it take me to associate “Avalon” to a five-star hospitality property? Pretty soon I’d imagine.

av-uh-lon versus av-uh-nyoo

After I finished thinking about automobiles, this is what next jumped into my head. Not far up GA-400 is the Avenue Forsyth. While it is no where near what Prospect Park Avalon will be in scale and amenities, there are still some similarities. Both are large shopping centers along GA-400. And both will share two syllables of their three syllable names. Will the name “Avalon” roll off the tongue as “Avenue”, and vice verse?

Avalon is a curious choice for a name, one I personally would not have considered. But in the end, I really didn’t have much of an opinion on the new name of Prospect Park. Like most in this area, the opening of Westside Parkway and a reduction in the scale of the project are foremost on my mind.

What do you think of changing Prospect Park to Avalon?

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