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Sharp Residential – a zoning to watch

The market for new single family residential homes is starting to show signs of life. Stalled developments are being restarted and a trickle of new zoning requests can be found in many suburban cities.

View Sharp Zoning in a larger map

Tonight Alpharetta will consider one such request from Sharp Residential in the northwest portion of the city in the vicinity of Providence and Mayfield Roads. The proposed development would be on 79 acres in three parcels that span two zoning applications. Some of the sellers are families with roots in Alpharetta that run for many generations.This in and of itself isn’t huge news. But the Sharp zoning is worth following for several reasons. Pass the popcorn, this could be interesting.

Alpharetta’s 2030 Comprehensive Land Use Plan saw final approval a year ago this week. The plan seeks to preserve residential “estate” properties in the northwest “character area”. The way this character area was defined in the plan, with extremely low density, is remarkable considering how much additional density the 2030 plan added to the rest of Alpharetta.

This area is new to Alpharetta, annexed not many years ago. It has a very Milton-esque feel to it in both the land and the concerns of the residents. Newer residential neighborhoods in the last ten years have featured larger homes on acre lots, much like in Milton just down the street. The land use plan sought to preserve this feel.

The Sharp zoning proves to be a significant test of the 2030 plan and its protection of character areas. The developer seeks to build smaller homes on 15,000 square foot lots, a density that exceeds the 2030 plan guidelines for this part of the city.

Engaged citizens – These are not the usual suspects fighting density in Alpharetta. The neighborhoods in this area are very well organized and united in their opposition to the Sharp zoning. They reached out to the developer and packed the chamber during the Planning Commission’s hearing on the matter. The meeting went past midnight.

And planning commissioners heard their voices loud and clear. They passed a very reasonable compromise with larger R-22 lots and bigger homes.

How will Council react? Pay attention to individual members during this discussion. Remember that Mayor David Belle Isle and Councilman Jim Gilvin campaigned last year on lower density. Will they hold firm on the CLUP’s guideline of lower density in this portion of the city?

Also remember that Councilmen Owens, Kennedy and Mitchell are up for re-election next year. Their votes and language during this process will be interesting to watch. Alienating citizens in the northwest portion of the city may not be judicious for these gentlemen come November 2013.

Will Alpharetta’s council side with the developer or a very united and organized community? Will NW Alpharetta, one of the last bastions of low residential density, retain that designation in the land use plan? And will these new, concerned citizens join the conversation about high residential density throughout Alpharetta? Stay tuned!

Do Presidential elections matter in Alpharetta?

Do Presidential elections matter here in the affluent burbs? They probably don’t deserve the effort or attention we give them. Before you label me a cynic or sore Republican loser, hear me out.

Georgia continues to be a solidly red state. The poll numbers during this election never doubted this fact, placing our state in the “solid Romney” column all along. Our sixteen electoral votes were practically counted before anyone mashed a finger to a voting screen. Yet voters turned out in huge numbers.

The presidential election is a circus that goes on forever. Most of what you hear from candidates is carefully screened and put before focus groups. It lacks substance. And as the campaign looms, the talk of the election changes from issues to the race itself. We watch poll numbers and campaign strategy. In the waning weeks no one is bantering issues or ideas. It ends up feeling like more of a popularity contest, like I’m voting for American Idol or something.

Contrast this with local elections. Thankfully they are far shorter in their duration and usually over in one cycle. In most cases candidates lack the funds to conduct a lot of polls or focus groups. Topics actually include issues – real issues that effect your everyday life. In fact I’d argue that local elections are probably more important to what truly matters to you than any national election.

Don’t get me wrong, the presidential election is important. Washington will always take a larger hunk of your wallet than city hall. But it’s the decisions at school board meetings, county commission meetings and among city councilmen that can have an enormous impact on YOU! How?

Your school board decides how your children will be educated. They redistrict neighborhoods, pick your child’s curriculum or oversee your charter schools.

The alphabet soup of transportation agencies (ARC, GRTA, STRA, GDOT, etc) make decisions (usually frightfully bad ones) that effect your commute. How much time do you spend in traffic, away from your family? Barack Obama isn’t likely to improve or worsen your commute.

City Hall directs land use planning. Their decisions have a tremendous impact on your quality of life, the amenities offered in your area and property values. Yet changes to this process attract relatively little attention when compared to the hoopla surrounding Obama’s reelection. It’s a shame really.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should skip the presidential elections. I was among the 80.7% of Forsyth County voters who picked Mitt Romney on Tuesday. But if you’re seeking a place to direct all this leftover political energy, try looking a little closer to home. You might think Barack Obama will run this country into the ground, but local politicians have the potential to wreck your property values, schools or drive to work. Pay attention!

Photo Credit: The Suss-Man Mike (creative commons)

Is losing an election cycle a bad thing?

Presidential campaign sign litter - it doesn't happen here

Do you keep getting interrupted during dinner with endless robocalls from candidates? Isn’t is a shame that roadsides are littered with campaign signs? And why must every commercial on radio and television be for a political candidate? Are you annoyed by the endless campaigning during this most recent election cycle?

No, you’re not. The fact is the November election cycle during Presidential election years are almost non-events in the northern burbs of Atlanta. There are a number of reasons for this. First, nearly all of the state constitutional races happen on off-Presidential years. City elections in most north Fulton towns happen on odd-numbered years. Sure we’ve got a few ballot questions to answer, including a contentious issue on charter schools. But that’s about it.

And we have the Presidential election of course. But Georgia is a solidly red state. On top of that, this area votes for the Republican nominee by a wide margin. In 2004 my home county of Forsyth sided with John McCain over Barack Obama by a decisive 4 to 1 margin. Certainly no presidential campaign would waste money or effort here.

We have bitterly-fought primaries of course. Winners of these primaries may face a token Democrat put up as a sacrificial lamb for the slaughter. Maybe a write-in candidate will emerge but that’s about it. November ballots are just thin.

We’ve lost an election cycle, but is that such a bad thing? There are thousands of citizens in battleground states like Ohio who are weary of the long campaign season. They’d change places with us in a heartbeat.

Or do we segregate ourselves by political identity here? And if so, are we depriving ourselves of choices at the ballot box? What do you think?

Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service (creative commons)

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.

Mayor Belle Isle’s dig on bloggers

Last night Alpharetta presented an update on the City Center plans. While it certainly isn’t likely to please everyone, the changes are a step in the right direction. The private development is a little smaller and additional trees are saved, including a massive oak behind Publix. Unfortunately city hall still remains in the park space.

The changes to the plan are a testament to the influence of online political activism. More so than myself, Julie Hogg deserves a lot of credit. She wrote numerous articles on the downtown changes as they pertained to green space and trees. Her writing encouraged more meetings, more dialogue and additional citizen input.

So why then did Mayor David Belle Isle level criticism on bloggers last night at the end of public comment? He said that some bloggers wrote that Alpharetta was ramming the downtown plans through. I took that as a dig on myself more than Ms. Hogg. On June 3rd I wrote that Alpharetta was acting with haste to approve a dramatically different downtown plan with little chance for public input. I stand by that initial assessment.

As of June 3rd there was only one public meeting planned for the City Center project prior to the vote. The city quickly added an additional meeting and their online forum. But even at this point there was no talk of weekly forums. It took Ms. Hogg’s articles to make this happen.

It became clear to me that the Mayor was confounded with the public outcry over the City Center plans. The look on his face on June 6th and in other meetings was telling. Let’s just say that Mr. Belle Isle is welcome to play at my poker game anytime!

So while the Mayor praises the level of openness and dialogue during this process, he’ll throw bloggers under the bus for encouraging more discourse. Perhaps it is just his way of showing frustration. Nevertheless it was an unfortunate comment to make as discussion wrapped up.

Progress Partners, websites and political activism

Progress Partners, the newly-formed economic development arm of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, presented an update to Alpharetta’s City Council on Monday. Contrary to what you might think, the Chamber doesn’t perform this economic development task out of benevolence. They’ve asked each north Fulton city to kick in a few bucks to fund the operation. Monday was the city’s first status update after funding the project.

Among the accomplishments mentioned was the Progress Partners website. They touted that the economic development website welcomed 2000 visitors since the beginning of 2012. I don’t know if this little factoid resonated with the Council like it did with me.

I can’t speak with real authority on many things, yet I have a pretty good grasp of the amount of traffic local websites can generate. I know that a hyper-local blogger with minimal web design skills and a propensity to make grammatical errors can still manage to get people to visit a website. Let’s just say that more people point their browsers to my little blog in a given week than to Progress Partners’ website in seven months. (and I’m grateful for each and every one of you who do!)

But Progress Partners does a lot more than build high-traffic websites. They’ve been busy promoting north Fulton as a business destination. This is truly important work. However, in the time since Alpharetta inked this partnership the city has hired a new economic development director of their own. Alpharetta and Progress Partners need to better define the roles of the relationship going forward. It’s likely to be a discussion point for Council in the weeks ahead.

While discussing the terms of the city’s relationship, I would encourage Council to address one important issue…

Political Activism

Progress Partners came under fire during the Avalon zoning this past Spring. They openly lobbied in favor of the zoning application, drawing the ire of not only this blogger but Common Cause Georgia. Additionally, Progress Partners lobbied in favor of T-SPLOST. This didn’t draw criticism in north Fulton but Gwinnett County’s Chamber drew controversy over the same behavior. Organizations receiving taxpayer funding should not advocate for political issues, candidates or ballot initiatives.

Alpharetta’s Council should address this issue now, while there is not a brewing controversy. Future arrangements with the Chamber that involve the exchange of taxpayer money should come with the requirement that the Chamber doesn’t lobby for political causes. It’s a common sense solution that gives everyone involved political cover. It’s also simply the right thing to do.

Downtown tree anxiety

This (downtown) plan creates anxiety from about five Alpharetta residents that I can count.

This is a quote from Councilman Mike Kennedy from back in June. It was his email reply to my concern of a growing disconnect between the public’s expectation for downtown Alpharetta and those of Council.

Oh what a difference a few months makes. Julie Hogg has written half a dozen articles on her Patch blog about the removal of trees in the downtown plan. The story has grown some serious legs. To date 463 citizens have expressed concern on an online petition. And last night the Council spent nearly two hours hearing from citizens upset over trees.

I’ve not written about the downtown trees much, mainly because I’m not as concerned about them as others. Nevertheless I don’t think the city has followed their own process with regard to removing specimen trees. That’s disappointing. If the city is going to wear a developer’s hat then they need to hold themselves to the same standard a developer would be held to.

If you watch closely you can see genuine frustration on the faces of the Mayor and Councilmen. This process originally was supposed to be one public meeting and a vote on the master plan. At the end of it all everyone would cheer with gleeful enthusiasm over the plan. It’s not exactly shaping up this way.

My overall opinion of Alpharetta’s downtown plan remains the same. The concern over the trees only cements (no pun intended) my views. The city should reduce the scope and scale of the private development in the plan. This should free up space such that municipal buildings and parking can be moved to the west and away from the park. The end result should be more trees, a larger park and a plan that more closely resembles what was voted upon in November.

So how will this all shake out from here? Those up for re-election next year should be very concerned. Being labeled anti-tree isn’t something these guys need while angry tree lovers are coming out of the woodwork. They should step up and drive a workable compromise that moves downtown forward.

Unfortunately this won’t happen. I think the business community will show up next time to provide the Council some political cover. Expect real estate brokers and downtown business owners to overwhelm the speakers’ time in future meetings. They have been strangely absent from the last few public comment periods. Perhaps they’ve been too focused on T-SPLOST nonsense. Or maybe Brandon Beach can organize some favorable public comment. I hear he has a lot more free time these days.

Alpharetta’s City Council opposes T-SPLOST

“Do you support the T-SPLOST referendum?” It was a simple question I posed individually to each of Alpharetta’s council members. The answers surprised me.

City Council T-SPLOST Votes

Elected Official T-SPLOST Vote
David Belle Isle No *
Donald Mitchell No
Mike Kennedy No
Chris Owens Didn't Answer
Jim Gilvin No
Michael Cross No
DC Aiken No

* Chris Owens didn’t respond to two emails asking the question. Mayor Belle Isle also didn’t respond but came out against T-SPLOST during his campaign last year.

The overwhelming opposition from Alpharetta’s elected officials underscores how unpopular and undesirable this initiative truly is. Remember that Alpharetta has always been considered a pro-business city. Two councilmen, Michael Cross and Chris Owens, have Chamber of Commerce ties. Yet even with the Chamber’s strong endorsement of T-SPLOST, council members are lining up against it.

Also remember that several local road projects within Alpharetta would receive funding form T-SPLOST. Councilmen Cross and Owens served together on a committee that drafted the early project list for T-SPLOST in north Fulton. That close involvement wasn’t enough to win Cross’ vote.

“The amount of funds being devoted to mass transit troubles me, especially since the state still has not fixed the transit governance problem,” Cross told me. I wholeheartedly agree.

If you run into Chris Owens between now and July 31st, ask him how he’ll vote.

Brandon Beach, T-SPLOST and a healthy dose of irony

For the next few weeks Roots in Alpharetta will run a series called Senate Saturday focused on upcoming state Senate races.

- Lowering taxes is essential to job growth. When individuals retain more of their income, they invest that money back into their community.
- President Reagan once said, “Man is not free, unless government is limited.”
- We need to cut the size and scope of government.

These are quotes taken from a local state Senate campaign website. This is boilerplate language for anyone running as a Republican in this area. Lower taxes, smaller government and a Reagan quote thrown in for good measure. Certainly no candidate with a campaign message like this would support a $6.1 billion tax increase? Right?

Meet Brandon Beach, Republican candidate for state Senate district 21. These quotes are from his website. They were used to to explain the cornerstones of his campaign – lower taxes and less government.

However, Beach supports the transportation sales tax known as T-SPLOST. The tax would hit metro Atlanta consumers to the tune of $6.1 billion during a tepid economy.

Actually, using the word “supports” doesn’t truly reflect his enthusiasm for the new tax. Beach is all-in for T-SPLOST. In the early days of his campaign he was making as much news talking up T-SPLOST as he was his senate race. He hosted T-SPLOST fundraisers and stumped for the ballot measure at every event he attended. He used his pulpit as Chamber of Commerce president and North Fulton CID director to push for votes and dollars.

Additionally, the T-SPLOST would increase the bloated transportation bureaucracy that Beach helps lead as a GDOT board member. Many who oppose T-SPLOST cite distrust of transportation leaders as a primary reason. And recent polls show opposition for T-SPLOST increasing.

The AJC’s Politifact website gave Governor Nathan Deal a “full flip flop” rating over his support of T-SPLOST while pledging not to raise taxes. At least Deal waited until after he was elected to flip flop on a tax increase. The irony is thick in Beach’s circumstance. The tax increase he supports is on the same ballot as his primary.

So can you make lower taxes a cornerstone of your campaign while supporting a $6.1 billion tax increase? Can you preach the virtues of smaller government while trying to expand the bureaucracy you help oversee? Will voters let Brandon Beach have it both ways? We’ll know July 31st.

Alpharetta’s downtown master development plan

Last week I wrote about Alpharetta’s downtown plans and their apparent rush to get a master plan approved. I’m pleased that the city added a few more opportunities to comment, although only one week was added to the schedule.

My original thoughts on the plan remain unchanged since last week. The plan has morphed from largely municipal and park usage in 2011 to an ambitious and intense mixed-used development.

In the last few days I’ve come upon the city’s master development plan, a document that spans some forty pages, in addition to some of the steering committee’s meeting minutes. These unreleased documents give a better glimpse into the scale and magnitude of the project, something you may not gather from the two dimensional aerial views. My biggest concerns are…

Size of development

341,200 square feet. That’s the total size of retail and “other uses” in the four main buildings as drawn up in the master development plan. To put this into perspective, the proposed Walmart I wrote about on GA141 in south Forsyth will measure in at 177,000 square feet. I know this isn’t a big-box retail situation but mention it only to give a basis for comparison. This is a large development on a compacted piece of downtown property.

Cross section of the northeast building showing lower parking deck


The city’s bond referendum included a 450-space municipal parking deck. During public comment last year some were skeptical of the parking deck in terms of size and cost. Nevertheless the bond passed and the deck is in the plan.

What’s nearly invisible from the drawings and presentations last week are two additional parking decks. The two largest buildings each sit atop their own parking deck, each packed with two stories of cars. The development plan shows a total of 1,244 new parking spaces between the municipal deck and the two buildings on the east.

The best way to see these decks is via the cross sectional view shown above. Again, the explosion of parking decks shows the sheer size of this development.

Park and Green Space

Many at the June 6th public meeting felt like park space took it on the chin in this plan. It seemed greatly reduced in size over the 2011 drawings. One councilman that night insisted to me that the park space remained the same size. After reading the master development plan I think he might be right… with a little twist

Together the town green, city park and landscaped walkways (on internal streets) provide a total of over six acres of landscaped open space.

Are the landscaped walkways along the new internal streets being counted toward park space? It’s a familiar tactic other mixed-use developers have employed to get to a desired green space footprint. Let’s hope Alpharetta isn’t taking a page from their playbook. I expect better out of Alpharetta given their already stellar public parks.

Additionally, Councilman Jim Gilvin expressed concern Monday night that the city hall building doesn’t have service access drawn into the plan. With this building sitting in the park, such access could cut more from park space.

The City’s Spin

Those with the city are sticking with two main talking points during this discussion. First, they maintain that the 2011 drawings were not master plans but rather concept documents. I think most understand that idea. However, the public drew inferences from the 2011 concept with regard to the scope of the plan. That scope has dramatically changed.

Second, the city is being very careful to avoid discussion on potential uses in the development, particularly what goes above retail. If there’s an elephant in the room, this is it. In the public meetings they guide conversation away from this topic. Even in the steering committee meetings they were careful not to discuss this idea – with one exception. In one meeting the city’s architect “noted that residential seems to be the best use for the land and future development facing the park.”

It is my belief that a private developer would pursue apartments over retail in this plan.  Given the glut of vacant office space and demand for apartments, this is a no-brainer.

A Downtown “Village”

Both Mayor David Belle Isle and Councilman Donald Mitchell sit on this downtown steering committee. Both used the term “village” in their campaigns last year when describing downtown Alpharetta. It’s a subjective term I suppose. Conjure up what that means to yourself. If a downtown village includes three parking decks and 341,200 square feet of mixed-use development then you should be in favor of this plan. If you imagine a different village feel downtown then maybe you should let your voice be heard.

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