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Musings on City Center, openness and growing dichotomies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Merkel announces candidacy for City Council

It looks to start early this year. Campaign season is kicking off in April as Dan Merkel announced yesterday he is running for City Council. He plans to run for the post 6 seat currently held by DC Aiken. According to a press release he has DC’s endorsement.

Merkel, who lives in the Kimball Bridge area, is a 20 year resident of Alpharetta. His community resume is consistent with that of an established guy running for office in Alpharetta. He’s served the newly-formed Alpharetta Chamber of Commerce as well at the Rotary, Public Safety Foundation and the YMCA.

While 2013 was a snoozer for municipal elections in this area, 2015 promises to be much more, especially in Alpharetta. DC Aiken is term-limited out of his post 6 seat. Michael Cross has announced that he will not seek reelection leaving that position up for grabs too.

Jim Gilvin’s seat is also up. As the most homeowner friendly and anti-establishment guy up there, you should expect a challenger to emerge for this spot as well. Mayor David Belle Isle will also face the voters this year.

With qualifying in August it is rare for candidates to announce this early. However David Belle Isle started very early in 2011, a move that obviously turned out well for him. Perhaps Merkel is taking a page out of this playbook.

Merkel will soon host a campaign kickoff party at Pure Taqueria. It was an unusual part of this announcement as most of these political guys party at Ron Wallace’s joint, Olde Blind Dog in Crabapple. Merkel’s campaign also appears to be managed by Fred Hicks who in past campaigns has had close ties to Wallace. But maybe we’re looking too much into things. With four months to qualifying and seven to the election, there is plenty of time yet to talk election politics in Alpharetta.

City Center Development. Bad Design. Broken Promises.

Today we feature a guest post from Alpharetta resident Frank Wingate.

The proposed high density City Center development in downtown Alpharetta, adjacent to the new City Hall, is winding its way through the approval cycle.  The proposal is flawed on a variety of levels.  There are better ways to manage this valuable resource owned by the citizens of Alpharetta.

So how did we get here?

G-Alpha_town-greenIn 2011 the voters approved a $29 million bond issue for a new City Hall with small, village style, detached buildings for retail and restaurants on the north and south boundaries of the city center.  At the time of the vote, architectural renderings and descriptions of the project were unveiled by the City Council, as well as sent to each household as part of a-get-out-the-vote campaign.  Including cost overruns during construction and prior land acquisition, the taxpayers are on the hook for about $40 million.

The currently proposed, radically different City Center design almost completely obscures the new City Hall.  And we’re talking some serious urban density – 172 rental apartments (just where did these appear from?), and about 110,000 sq. ft. in restaurants, retail, and office in three separate four/five story buildings — all in two city blocks.

As Jay Leno once famously asked Hugh Grant, “What … were you thinking?”

If the often stated desires of Alpharetta’s citizens are green space, uncrowded schools, and minimal disruptive traffic jams; this high density proposal accomplishes zero.

So what should the Mayor and City Council do instead?

Well, it’s not as if the City Center land is going to move to Detroit tomorrow if there is no development.

PLAN A -  Patience.  Take the long time horizon.  Shelve the development.  Current high density, pseudo-urban developments are a fading fad, not the norm.  Great cities know that significant greenspace around public buildings is the model for success, whether it’s the National Mall in DC or the Tuileries in Paris.  And Alpharetta has success in-hand.

Truck in some dirt to level the grounds in front of City Hall, plant grass, and add a few trees, benches and lighting.

Let the city develop, including Thompson Street, setting the stage around this highly valuable, green oasis in the center of the city.

PLAN B -  Keep the commitments that the City Council made to the voters.  If the Mayor and City Council absolutely, positively cannot wait; then proceed with the original village style development, but slowly.  Wait for financial success by erecting the less obtrusive south side buildings first, then the north side buildings only when south side success has been achieved.

The proponents on the City Council state that the original design doesn’t work, and that high density apartments and offices are required.  Work for whom?  The developer, secretly negotiating with the City Council?  The City Council members with ties to real estate development?  Or the City Council members with offices downtown?

If PLAN B doesn’t work for economic reasons, then revert to PLAN A.

In an economic downturn, today’s fashionable urban-style development is tomorrow’s vacant commercial property with declining apartment rental rates — especially with the overbuilt retail shopping in Alpharetta.  Does Alpharetta really want to take the risk right in front of City Hall?  And why are the economic and real estate lessons of 2007/2008 so quickly dismissed?

The City Council made commitments to the voters of Alpharetta, both at the time of the bond issue vote and in written campaign promises.  At a minimum, the City Council should keep the commitments that they made.

And at best, the City Council can inspire a much greener, thoughtful, long-view PLAN A approach.

Michael Cross should resign

A lot of people have asked what I think of Michael Cross after this week’s news. So here goes.

michael crossI’ve found Michael to be a pleasant and likeable guy who, as an elected official, has been very approachable and helpful. His voting record suggests that he’s been willing to push back on high residential density, something that’s a rarity these days.

He’s also been booked on criminal charges while in office, twice.

He beat the rap on his 2013 DUI charge. Now comes charges of battery after allegedly throwing a trash can at his wife.

While Cross says he will not run for re-election this year, he should go ahead and resign now. Why?

Distraction.

Alpharetta is on a roll. Hundreds of millions of investment dollars are pouring in. Thousands of high tech jobs are relocating here. The city is the envy of metro Atlanta right now.

What the city does not need are embarrassing news headlines that draw attention away from that fact. The city needs leaders that can stay out of the back of police cars, off trashy reality television shows and otherwise not suggest the appearance of criminality, malfeasance, impropriety or general stupidity. Is that too much to ask?

Secondly, domestic violence is a serious issue that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ask the NFL about what happened when they brushed off this issue. If Alpharetta handles this in their usual way then you won’t hear a peep about it at City Council meetings. Circle the wagons and wait for things to calm down is the standard operating procedure. That mentality could come back and bite the city, potentially doing more damage than has already been done.

Michael Cross deserves his day in court, is owed due process and presumed innocent until proven otherwise. But what’s best for the city is for him to sever his ties right away. He’s a nice enough guy but he needs to move on from public service.

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.

The term limit discussion that wasn’t

It’s the term limit discussion that wasn’t meant to be.

An interesting bit of political maneuvering happened over the New Years break. On Wednesday the city released the agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting. Included was a change to the city’s charter to alter the term limit rules. By the time Friday rolled around the item was removed and no one wanted to take credit for it being there in the first place.

The change had two parts. First, it would have closed a loophole that allows councilmen to switch posts and skirt term limits. Jim Paine took advantage of this in 2010. But most importantly, the change added to the number of terms someone could serve.

Term limits for councilmen would have increased from three to four terms under the proposed change. The mayor’s term limit would extend from two to four terms. At four years per term that’s sixteen years in office or perhaps longer if a councilman first ran for an unexpired term. Run for mayor afterward and a person could conceivably hold office for decades. Combine these incumbent advantages with Alpharetta’s archaic plurality voting rule and newcomers to public service would face a horrendous headwind.

The obvious near-term beneficiary of this change would be DC Aiken. He’s finishing up the last year of his third term and would be ineligible to run for his post 6 seat. Aiken has also been a vocal critic of term limits calling them undemocratic. However Aiken denies asking the city attorney to draft the proposal that briefly made this appearance.

Perhaps this proposal will appear in a work session discussion but for now it’s gone. It’s still very perplexing why any elected official would want to discuss term limit extensions during an election year. Who knows what the gentlemen behind the dais were thinking on this one. Maybe the fear of one’s political mortality is finally setting in.

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?

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.

Hemma Concrete and the Owens

Back in July we wrote about Alpharetta Councilman DC Aiken and his business relationship with homebuilder Sharp Residential. We hinted at the time of another similar business relationship. This time it’s with a spouse.

OwensThe wife of Councilman Chris Owens is in the concrete business. Approximately a year ago Mrs. Owens was hired by Marietta-based Hemma Concrete to be a senior estimator. Her responsibilities include being awarded commercial concrete projects.

For many years Hemma’s business consisted of mainly small residential projects such as driveway improvements, fancy sidewalks and other decorative hardscapes. In recent years the company has branched out to include large commercial and municipal projects.

On their website the firm touts three large projects in Alpharetta with very high profile and high visibility construction projects. We’ve been able to confirm a fourth of similar profile. The projects are…

Avalon – Hemma was awarded a $2 million contract by North American Properties and their general contractor Hoar Construction. Their work includes building site walls, hardscapes, the water fountain and all the decorative sidewalks you’ll walk on in the 86 acre project.

TopGolf – Hemma teed off the construction by pouring the foundation, walls and composite concrete slabs for the metal building frame.

Haynes Bridge Road realignment – Hemma was selected by contractor CW Matthews to work on the new road, traffic circle and sidewalks.

City Center – Not mentioned in Hemma’s portfolio online, we’ve been able to confirm that the company is performing work downtown. They were selected to perform hardscape and other concrete work on the project by City Center’s construction manager, Choat Construction.

Mrs. Owens’ employment with Hemma started after these projects were awarded. She’s not a principal or equity holder with the company but rather a employee.

Councilman Owens said the relationships would not cause him to recuse from future votes relating to North American Properties or City Center. He would only recuse in the scenario where the city contracted directly with Hemma for work.

So why write about this relationship at all? The expanding economy in Alpharetta will create opportunities for the lawyers, engineers and real estate professionals sitting on Council. It’s important to understand and be aware of the business and professional relationships your elected officials have. It’s of particular interest when the relationships involve firms with past or potential future matters before Council. Both are the case here.

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