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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.

TopGolf’s poles and nets now tallest structure in Alpharetta

Alpharetta might like to take a mulligan on its decision with TopGolf.

top golf logoTopGolf is a unique entertainment complex that leverages embedded RFID technology within a golf ball to create a high-tech driving range experience. In January of last year the city approved their plans to build along GA-400 just north of Mansell Road.

But along the way everyone forgot about the height of the poles and netting. City staff, planning commissioners and council all missed the opportunity to ask about it. And certainly TopGolf wasn’t going to make an issue of it last year.

And just how high are the poles? They’re 138 feet as measured from the average grade of the property. Measuring in averages can be a little distorting. Other TopGolf facilities across the country have poles as tall as 150 to 160 feet or about the height of a 12-story building. To put that into perspective, the tallest building in Alpharetta is the Windward Marriott at eight stories.

And if you’ve driven up GA-400 in the past few weeks you’ve likely noticed. The poles and nets tower above the pines in the undisturbed buffer along the highway. TopGolf also sits on rising land. Motorists entering the city from the south will be greeted by the sight.

It’s the kind of issue Alpharetta would have liked discussed a year ago. No one would want to turn away TopGolf, a unique attraction that will employ as many as 400. But the city might have steered them towards another location versus creating a potential eyesore on a hill.

Instead TopGolf had to come back with a height variance request last month, smack dab in the busy phase of their construction. It put Alpharetta’s Council between a rock and a hard place. Rejecting the request might create a second stalled construction project along Westside Parkway (the other being Fulton Science Academy’s land). And there’s no doubt TopGolf would have appealed such a rejection, especially after having invested so much to this point.

With no other choice, Alpharetta quietly and most certainly reluctantly approved the height variance. Sometimes it best to play your ball where it lies versus taking the penalty stroke.

Strings attached to North Fulton CID’s Blueprint 2.0

North Fulton’s Community Improvement District has created an update to their Blueprint plan. The self-taxing group of commercial property owners advocates, and in some cases implements, transportation projects in the area. Their blueprint 2.0 plan(opens to pdf) outlines projects they hope to work on over the next several years.

north_fulton_cidThe CID does some great work. Recently they finished the triple left turn lanes from Mansell Road onto North Point Parkway. A similar and much need project is planned for the GA-400 ramp to Windward Parkway. They’re also responsible for much of the new landscaping you see throughout the city.

But the CID should be carefully watched. Their leadership has deep ties to Georgia’s establishment transportation bureaucracy. Brandon Beach is the CID’s executive director. He’s a former Georgia DOT commissioner and sits on powerful transportation committees in the Georgia Senate. Atlanta Regional Commission chairman Tad Leithead also sits on the CID board.

CIDs are often used as local advocacy groups, providing the tailwind to get bigger projects moving. They can fund studies and create engineering plans, even on projects outside of their areas. These plans can then be picked up and funded by any of Georgia’s alphabet soup of transportation agencies (GDOT, ARC, GRTA, SRTA, etc).

An example might be transit stations in Alpharetta. The blueprint calls for transit stations at Encore Parkway and Windward Parkway. It was only a few months ago when Alpharetta’s Council was browbeating MARTA over plans to come here. Yet the same Council didn’t even mention the transit stations in the CID’s blueprint when presented to them two weeks ago.

If Alpharetta’s Council is serious about stopping MARTA expansion then they should push back on the CID when they plan for it! Or do they have the guts to challenge Brandon Beach? It’s doubtful.

The CID will hold an open house tonight at 5:30 at their office, 11605 Haynes Bridge Road. The public is invited to attend and provide feedback.

North Fulton’s CID does some great work but with strings attached. It’s important to carefully watch seemingly small transportation plans like this. Read between the lines and watch the process.

MARTA’s Connect 400 survey is paltry, irresponsible

Today MARTA’s board will hear findings from the Connect 400 initiative. The study will present what they call the “Locally Preferred Alternative” for transit along the GA-400 corridor.

MARTA trainThe recommendation is for heavy rail. They want it built up the GA-400 right of way to Windward Parkway at an estimated capital cost of $2.6 billion.

I really wish I could be at the meeting today. No, I don’t want to speak out against heavy rail. I just want to see if these guys can make this suggestion and keep a straight face.

The study is making this recommendation after hearing from only 136 respondents. Somehow this miniscule sample size is enough to determine a local preference.

Let’s look at a few other recent public surveys to put this into perspective. Over 500 residents responded to the Highway 9 LCI study in Alpharetta and Milton. Approximately 400 responded to the survey for the Envision Main Street project.

Making changes to a few miles of Main Street is slightly less involved than bringing heavy rail to Windward. It’s probably on the magnitude of one one-thousandth the size actually. Yet Alpharetta managed to get more than double the number of respondents to their little study.

It’s laughable. MARTA representatives are willing to claim their have found the preference of north Fulton by talking to 136 people? Or was the decision preordained?

The study will hold only one additional public meeting before asking MARTA’s board for final approval. I’ll bet you a fist full of MARTA tokens that this meeting is scheduled during a weekday when typical working stiffs can’t come. Maybe it’ll be in the friendly confines of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. That’s where the only Connect 400 meeting in Alpharetta was held.

I’ve not seen an independent, scientific poll on heavy rail preferences in north Fulton. My guess is that support for the project would be pretty evenly split. It’s a polarizing issue. It’s also an important one. That’s why it’s irresponsible to present such a poorly executed study like Connect 400. MARTA’s board should reject the study and insist on a deeper and more exhaustive survey.

And regardless of your opinion of heavy rail in north Fulton, be sure to ask your local city and county officials what they think. Municipal elections are coming. Candidates squirm when asked about MARTA heavy rail. It’s fun to watch.

McGinnis Ferry exit on GA-400

Lawmakers at the Georgia House of Representatives made headlines last week by digging up this old idea. The thought of an exit on GA-400 at McGinnis Ferry Road isn’t a new idea. It’s been kicked around by folks like the North Fulton CID and Forsyth County for several years now. Forsyth paid for a justification project to be performed on the exit a few years back. Now it seems that the Georgia DOT has approved the report, taking the project a small step forward.

The justification for this project is clear. This is an economic development project. The fact that the North Fulton CID has hands in it should make that abundantly clear. The exit will do little to alleviate traffic problems. It might actually do more harm than good. No, this project is designed to benefit the owners of large undeveloped land at McGinnis Ferry, Union Hill and the stalled Taubman Mall project.

We’ve talked a lot about how east-west commuting sucks in the northern burbs. McGinnis Ferry is an artery moving people from Gwinnett to north Fulton. Yet somehow it remains a two-lane thoroughfare for most of its distance. Try taking McGinnis Ferry eastbound at rush hour. It’ll jam up in several places. Thankfully the road is four lanes once you hit GA-141.

Adding a ramp from GA-400 may have the detrimental effect of putting more cars on a small country road. Try widening McGinnis Ferry to four lanes all the way to Milton, then let’s talk about adding an exit.

And then there’s the stalled Taubman Mall at Union Hill Road. Haven’t we spent enough tax dollars creating infrastructure improvements for this? Forsyth County built a road and added a lot of sewer capacity to attract this promised upscale mall.¬† Yet a mall in south Forsyth is still a pipe dream. The only thing we have to show for it is more apartments. Gee, thanks.

Transportation planners should focus on projects that alleviate real traffic problems. This project isn’t one of them. I thought these guys wanted to regain public trust following T-SPLOST’s defeat? Moving this project forward won’t do it.

MARTA studies rail expansion despite T-SPLOST’s rejection

Did you make it to the Connect 400 MARTA study meeting Thursday? Me neither. Like many in north Fulton, I was firmly ensconced in my cubicle. It should come as no surprise that the meeting, held during the middle of a work day, was attended mostly by Chamber of Commerce and Community Improvement District business leaders. Perhaps that was by design.

MARTA and GDOT board member Brandon Beach continue to plow forward with planning for transit in north Fulton. Apparently they didn’t get the memo dated July 31st. T-SPLOST’s resounding defeat was not just a rejection of funding, it was an indictment of transportation planners in this region. The voters simply don’t trust them.

Why then do the same distrusted planners continue to push for the same rejected projects using money that doesn’t exist? We shouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Heads need to roll in places like GRTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission, GDOT and elsewhere. Let’s begin to rebuild public trust in transportation leaders.

But until then MARTA will spend money on this study with a report due in the Spring. If you’re concerned about spending billions to bring rail up GA400 then you should let your voice be heard. Visit the Facebook page for the study and leave a comment. Or you can email your comments to MARTA’s Jason Morgan or Janide Sidifall.

For those on Alpharetta’s City Council, you have more options. The best way to fight rail expansion is to starve it of density. Refuse to add residential density and high-rise development along the GA-400 corridor. I’d also take a hard look at the Northpoint LCI study, which is on the city’s agenda to reexamine in the coming weeks. The plan favors MARTA rail expansion and even suggests setting aside land for a transit station. Several council members campaigned in opposition of MARTA rail expansion to Alpharetta, including mayor David Belle Isle and Jim Gilvin. Now’s the time to take action to stifle this project before it gains any more traction.

Photo credit: RTABus (creative commons)

HOT Lanes on GA 400

Let’s get ready to rumble!

Have you seen the white signs all over town? Dozens of them have cropped up in north Fulton and Forsyth along GA 400 off-ramps and elsewhere. They advertise a public meeting in Roswell concerning GA 400. No other real details are available on the sign. And very little has been published in the local media at this point in time.

So what does the Georgia DOT have in mind for GA 400? They’ve lit the fuse on what will surely become a firestorm of controversy in this area. They are proposing HOT lanes on GA 400… like the ones on I-85 in Gwinnett County. GDOT is considering these lanes starting in Cumming at the GA-20 interchange all the way down to I-285.

I won’t go into a lot of detail in this post except to say that I haven’t personally decided if I like these or not. All I know is that these will be very controversial, perhaps more so than the HOT lanes along the I-85 corridor. The jury is still out on their success in Gwinnett. On top of that GA 400 commuters have lingering bitterness over the extension of the fifty cent toll. Tacking on more tolls (albeit optional ones) are not likely to sit well with north Fulton and Forsyth commuters.

But we’ll have a lot of time to work through all of these issues. In the meantime, visit the DOT’s GA 400 HOT lane website or attend one of the three public meetings listed below.

March 13, 2012
The Cottage School
700 Grimes Bridge Rd.
Roswell, GA 30075

March 15, 2012
Piney Grove Middle School
8135 Majors Rd.
Cumming, GA 30041

March 20, 2012
First Baptist Church Sandy Springs
650 Mount Vernon Hwy. NE
Sandy Springs, GA 30328

MARTA’s GA-400 Meeting – January 26

It’s MARTA! Looks like they’ve quietly started planning for another meeting to discuss bringing high-capacity transit up the GA-400 corridor. They’ve got a study area defined as the highway from Sandy Springs to the Forsyth County line and a mile on either side. Oh and there’s also a consultant. Yay consultants.

The first kickoff meeting is Thursday January 26th, 6:30 pm at the Fulton County North Service Center, 7741 Roswell Road, Atlanta, Ga. 30350. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make this due to a prior commitment. The language on the MARTA webpage suggests that more meetings may be coming.

If you’re an opponent of transit expansion in Alpharetta like I am, then you should consider going to a meeting. And if you’re a politician who campaigned against MARTA (like say David Belle Isle or Jimmy Gilvin) then I’d certainly expect to see you working against this.

Here’s some links for your clicking pleasure:

An article in the Revue & News, the only mention I’ve seen thus far in the press.

MARTA’s webpage on the project:
http://www.itsmarta.com/north-line-400-corr.aspx

MARTA’s Facebook page on the project:
https://www.facebook.com/Connect400

 

Hammond’s New Ramp – A Cost Perspective

Yesterday the Georgia DOT opened two new ramps onto GA-400 at Hammond Drive. The opening marks the completion of a $17 million project begun in 2008.

Early in my career I spent a few years working at the Concourse office park, right next to the king and queen buildings. It was a miserable experience. Half my commute was spent on the surface streets of Sandy Springs before even getting onto GA-400. Oh how I would have loved this on-ramp back then.

Allow me to use this occasion to put the money into perspective. When you start throwing millions of dollars around, the scale tends to get distorted.

$17 million is going to go a long way towards helping traffic in Sandy Springs. It’ll also save a ton of time for many folks commuting there from north Fulton and Forsyth.

On the flip side, the proposed T-SPLOST would fund a MARTA extension to Holcomb Bridge at a staggering cost of $839 million. This is without factoring in cost over-runs, which are almost certain for a transit project like this.

How many projects on the scale of a Hammond Road project could be funded for that kind of cash? Nearly fifty if my math is correct. Would you like Rucker Road widened? How about Windward, Kimball Bridge, McGinnis Ferry or Highway 9? Pick about fifty of them to trade for a few miles of MARTA track.

Remember that the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs area already has four MARTA stations, yet their surface streets are hopelessly clogged morning, noon and night. For the small price of $17 million, thousands of cars will be removed from roads like Peachtree Dunwoody, Barfield and Abernathy.

There’s plenty of low hanging fruit left to be harvested. Let’s get to picking!

Photo Credit: Markhoward (creative commons)

 

Number of the Month – GA-400 Crossings

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

Eight

The number of roads that cross GA-400 in the city of Alpharetta.

I think this is a fact that significantly shapes Alpharetta. Roswell only has two crossings (effectively just Holcomb Bridge Road). This creates an east versus west divide in their city that separates their citizens, politically and in other ways. I don’t see such a geographic divide here in Alpharetta, something which creates a more cohesive and congruent community.

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