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Stepping back

For nearly six years Roots in Alpharetta has brought Alpharetta and the surrounding community compelling content on news, politics, technology, restaurants and general stuff. At least I hope it’s been compelling content. That’s always been the goal. It’s taken a great deal of time to research and write the articles you find here each week. It’s been well worth the effort, a very rewarding experience.

Unfortunately I need to cut back on my blogging schedule and frequency. Why? I simply don’t have as much time to devote to writing. My work schedule is changing and I’m spending more time working from home. This means my time in Alpharetta is less than it used to be. I’m not walking the beat like I used to.

Additionally there are concerns in my Forsyth County community that are extremely pressing. There’s a role for me to fill here, I’m just trying to figure out exactly what that is.

This doesn’t mean goodbye Roots, just a little less. It means that you might not always find a fresh article when you point your browser here on Friday mornings. I hope my readers understand because I value your feedback and contributions to the discussion. You’re the best and you’ve made this a lot of fun.

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.

Julie Hogg’s Alpharetta Post

She’s back!

Longtime Alpharetta blog readers will remember Julie Hogg from her days writing for the Alpharetta Patch. She’s returned and has started a new blog called Alpharetta Post. You owe her blog a read, especially if you’re reading this from 2 Park Plaza.

I appreciate Julie’s perspective, even when we disagree. But recently we have not disagreed at all. Her City Council beat is top notch and is sure to ruffle feathers. It also helps that she’s a good writer, far better than this guy.

I don’t promote other blogs all that often, mainly because the newer writers that have emerged recently don’t offer original and compelling content. Julie’s certainly does that and much more. Bookmark her website or subscribe to her RSS feed.

Starbucks brewing up drive-thru locations in Alpharetta

Seattle-based coffee behemoth Starbucks isn’t done with Alpharetta. The company seems to be moving forward with plans for more drive-thru locations in the city.

200px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svgToday only two Starbucks locations serve coffee to you in your car. Both locations are at the corners of the city, Crabapple and Old Milton to the east.

The company has filed plans with the city to build a free-standing drive-thru location on Haynes Bridge Road near the mall. Look for them next to Taco Bell on a very narrow strip of land that’s currently undeveloped.

And as reported here on Roots a few weeks ago, the company will also open a drive-thru location on Windward in the former Tilted Kilt space. That building will be renovated to become a small shopping center. Starbucks will occupy a space on the end and will eventually close their adjacent store on west Windward. The project is lead by Alpharetta’s stripmall mogul Penn Hodge.

And near Avalon we’re watching two new retail projects, The Atwater and the Fuqua development near Thompson Street. Both might be prime candidates for a Starbucks. The company doesn’t have a presence near Avalon at all. The Atwater will come out of the ground first and site plans suggest an end-cap drive-thru restaurant might be in the works. The Fuqua project received a Planning Commission recommendation last week but still needs the nod from City Council.

Starbucks’ new Haynes Bridge location requires only design approval from the city so construction may begin soon. This area has become a hotbed of redevelopment in Alpharetta so keep your eyes peeled for future projects. This blogger wouldn’t be surprised if the wrecking ball hit a few more free-standing restaurants near the mall this year.

Jeff Fuqua seeks to build mixed use next to Avalon

Avalon’s success is starting to attract additional development to Old Milton Parkway. Two new zoning applicants hope to bring new retail and mixed use projects to property adjacent to the mammoth development. And documents obtained from the city suggest that notable Atlanta real estate developer Jeff Fuqua is behind one of them.

Thompson St DevFuqua has assembled parcels totaling 21 acres just west of Avalon. Bounded by Old Milton Parkway, Westside Parkway and Thompson Street, the project would be a mix of retail, restaurants, townhomes, detached homes and a small office component.

It’s far too early to speculate on what businesses might open here but the developer hinted at an organic grocer, sit-down and fast casual restaurants, coffee shop with drive thru, bank, wine store and medical offices. The site plan calls for all retail to face Old Milton and Westside Parkways with parking behind. Office space will be above retail on the side closest to Avalon.

74 townhomes are sandwiched in the middle and measure in at 2200 to 3800 square feet each. Behind the townhomes will be 24 detached homes facing out to Thompson Street. The homes will be on tiny lots yet will be as large as 3800 square feet. John Wieland Homes appears to be the residential builder.

A small pocket park is included with the development but will be across Thompson Street to the north and almost noncontiguous from the project. They also plan to build a wide sidewalk along Thompson Street with the hopes of conforming to the city’s idea of a greenway connecting downtown to Avalon.

It’ll be interesting to see how those on Thompson Street react to the proposed development. Many of the owners are small-time real estate speculators content to rent out their old, dilapidated homes waiting for their day to cash in. That day seems to have arrived. But this portion of town is a thorn between two roses (downtown and Avalon) and many in the city want it made over.

Others on Thompson Street have a history of being a raucous bunch when it comes to changes. Nevertheless, the residential component of this plan is rather dense compared to the surroundings. There’s certainly a beef to be made here.

But they might have a hard time negotiating with Jeff Fuqua. He’s got a reputation of being controversial and difficult to work with, be it with neighbors or city leaders. Creative Loafing devoted a cover story to him a few years ago that’s worth a read. Many folks inside-the-perimeter criticize his projects for being too suburban, too big-boxy and lacking density. It’s doubtful he’ll meet this criticism in Alpharetta, especially with this project.

But Fuqua’s arrival in Alpharetta is significant. The man has over eight million square feet of retail development to tout on his resume yet he’s only worked one project in our neck of the woods. Deerfield Place on Highway 9 in Milton was his work, home to Target and Kohl’s. And he’s certainly no stranger to this area. He and his wife own or used to own Collecting Gaits, a prestigious horse farm in Milton.

A separate zoning applicant before the city this month seeks to build new retail across Old Milton Parkway from Avalon. A total of 26,000 square feet of retail would be split between three buildings next to Racetrac. Demolished would be a small home and the old shopping center that once housed Shirley Furniture.

It’s also hard to speculate on tenants in this development. A drive-thru restaurant may occupy part of the eastern-most building. Perhaps Starbucks might find a cozy new home here or in the Fuqua project. They seem to like this type of drive-thru configuration on a stripmall endcap and will do something similar on Windward in an updated Penn Hodge project. Given that Starbucks doesn’t have a presence at Avalon itself, this might be a logical choice.

iFLY Indoor Skydiving makes the jump into Alpharetta

Indoor skydiving may descend into Alpharetta.

Austin, Texas-based iFLY Indoor Skydiving has filed plans with the city to build a new entertainment facility near Mansell Road and GA-400. If approved the facility would replace the empty restaurant building that was previously home to Champps Americana.

iFLYiFLY designs, manufactures, sells and operates wind tunnel systems for indoor skydiving. The company operates 34 facilities around the world and has rapid expansion plans this year.

iFLY offers guests the chance to experience the thrill of freefall without the risk of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Following a brief training session, fliers are outfitted in a jumpsuit, helmet and goggles before entering the wind tunnel with their certified instructor. First-time flyers float on the column of air and learn basic flying skills like moving forward and back and turning. With additional training, flyers can progress to group flying and advanced aerial gymnastic maneuvers to further enjoy the sport of indoor skydiving.

The facility will target multiple demographics including corporate team building events and families seeking unique entertainment options. Children as young as three years old can participate. Other iFLY locations offer STEM educational programs, something that could certainly grow wings in technology-centric Alpharetta.

iFLY’s proposed location would complement a soaring array of unique entertainment options along Alpharetta’s Mansell Road corridor. TopGolf targets a similar corporate clientele. The Alpharetta Family Skate Center/The Cooler is next door as is Main Event with bowling and laser tag.

The project continues another trend of demolishing and re-purposing restaurants along nearby North Point Parkway. Champps Americana closed about three years and the space mothballed. But at over 10,000 square feet, the building is almost unmarketable as a restaurant thanks to today’s smaller style of eatery. It will meet the same wrecking ball fate that befell TGI Friday’s a few months ago. Bahama Breeze’s former digs are not far behind and will be replaced with a furniture store.

But iFLY can’t take off right away. They will have to go through the paces of a rezoning in order to change a master plan. But from a 30,000 foot view it doesn’t seem likely they will face much headwind. Alpharetta shouldn’t pop the chute on the opportunity to host one of Georgia’s first indoor skydiving facilities. However the city may want to push back on building ascetics as some iFLY locations tend to resemble NASA buildings.

Do you think iFLY will make a big landing in Alpharetta? Are there any other skydiving metaphors we missed in this article? Leave a comment!

Cumming creates vibrant downtown with jail, municipal buildings

The enthusiasm is palpable in Cumming ahead of the county’s massive new 177,000 square foot jail right in the middle of historic downtown. Together with a new courthouse, the $100 million project promises to revitalize the city center into a vibrant, unique and welcoming space that will be the envy of north Georgia.

Forsyth Jail renderingsThe Cumming-Forsyth Chamber along with city and county officials recently led a media walk-through of the project. From the jail to the 150,000 square foot courthouse and huge parking decks, the project transforms downtown Cumming into a criminal justice and municipal mecca. Nearly every block of the small city is consumed.

“We studied what places like Suwanee, Woodstock and Alpharetta have done with their downtowns,” said Chamber President James McCoy. “Ours promises to be different. We’re justifiably proud of what Cumming has become. And the millennials will love it!”

“Of course the jail is the big draw,” said Forsyth Commission Chairman Pete Amos. “It’s huge! We could have built it outside of town but why? I love it right here for everyone to admire. It’s our masterpiece.”

Amos says the jail will draw people from all over. They’ll come primarily to visit incarcerated relatives. Complementary businesses will pop up. Bail bondsmen and car impound lots are just a few the city hopes to welcome.

“And when they’re out of the clink perhaps they’ll stick around for lunch,” chuckled Amos.

The new buildings complement what’s already downtown, namely the county administration building and Cumming City Hall. Commissioner Brian Tam notes an uptick in the number of disgruntled constituents making the trip to Cumming from south Forsyth.

“Our runaway growth and refusal to deny even a single zoning request creates tremendous demand for visitors to downtown Cumming,” said Tam. “They come to speak out at meetings but it’s all for naught. They usually stick around to drown their sorrows in a beer.”

Rounding out the attractions downtown is a political dinosaur exhibit at Cumming City Hall. Visitors can get a glimpse of ancient specimens still living in their native habitat. Impropriety, impeachment proceedings and even forcible removal of video bloggers are part of the act showcasing good-old-boy politics at its finest.

But Cumming’s crown jewel is still the mammoth jail. Built on a grand scale it’s certain to handle Forsyth’s burgeoning crime problem well into the future. Chamber officials, anticipating heightened interest, plan to start guided jail tours right away.

New Year changes at Roots

Happy New Year.

We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of Roots in Alpharetta. It’s been a fun ride so far. The blog started off on themes of suburbia and those who relocate here. It’s morphed a little over time and that’s alright. Today we talk about a little of everything, from restaurants to politics. Hopefully we’re starting conversations and bringing stories to you that the traditional media isn’t.

rootsThis little blogging endeavor has introduced me to a lot of new friends and for that I’m grateful.  It’s the most rewarding part of the experience for sure. But while we’re talking of introductions, allow me to announce a few small changes to the blog this coming year.

We’ve gone multi-author. You’ll notice a new by-line that appears on each post. Hopefully this should avoid confusion over who is writing the story you’re reading.

Mike Christensen has written here for several years and has over forty articles under his belt. It’s about time he gets the billing he rightly deserves. He’s officially on the blogroll and in the about page. Unfortunately I couldn’t add him to the payroll as budgets are pretty thin. You know how it goes.

Also allow me to introduce Stacy Zwiebel our new intern. Like the rest of us Ms. Zwiebel is a native of extreme south Forsyth and has true roots here. She’s a recent graduate of South Forsyth High School and is working on a journalism degree. Hopefully she’ll bring a bit of, let’s say, journalistic integrity, credibility and seriousness to Roots. Look for her column during the first week of each month.

2015 promises to be an exciting year. This area continues to grow and new companies are moving in. With that comes opportunity, challenges to overcome and tough decisions to be made. We’ll try to cover them all. We’ll also see municipal elections this year which is always entertaining. And the growing restaurant scene will provide our usual Friday diversion from it all.

Thanks for your continued readership!

Harry’s Farmers Market to close after 27 years

Harrys logoLongtime Alpharetta grocery store Harry’s Farmers Market will close their Alpharetta store on Upper Hembree Road on Sunday. The closure comes after being open for nearly 27 years. The grocery store was a pioneer in many ways.

The store’s namesake is founder Harry Blazer. The jazz musician and business man first had his hand in the DeKalb Farmers Market before going solo. Alpharetta was his first Harry’s location, announced in October 1987. The concept featured exotic fruits, vegetables, meats, breads and prepared foods made from scratch in-house. The offering was vast, much more so than you’d see in the store today.

The concept was ahead of its time, especially considering the proliferation of organic grocers today. The idea took off in growing Alpharetta, bolstered by the affluent and diverse residents who moved here during that time.

Two more stores would open in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Another store in Clayton County opened and closed, its failure attributed to the lack of affluent customers to sustain such a concept. They would also roll out a smaller concept called Harry’s in a Hurry.

Good Eats at Harrys

Alton Brown filming episodes of Good Eats at Harry’s

Blazer took the company public in 1993 selling shares on the NASDAQ exchange. But by the time the late 90′s rolled around the chain began to struggle.

Whole Foods came along in October 2001 and acquired the company. They took the three north metro Atlanta stores but not the Harry’s in a Hurry concept. The acquisition was an important one for Whole Foods who at the time only had two Atlanta-area stores. It propelled the store’s expansion into the southeast. They’d keep the Harry’s name on the stores but their offerings were decidedly Whole Foods.

In spring of 2012 Whole Foods announced they would open a store at Avalon. Shortly after Avalon’s approval the company was granted a conditional use permit from Alpharetta to operate an office and distribution facility at the Upper Hembree Road site. This blogger suggested that Harry’s would close upon Avalon’s opening but was asked to print a retraction by Whole Foods’ corporate office. At that time they said they were exploring their options with the Upper Hembree location. But the writing was on the wall.

The company will indeed close the Alpharetta Harry’s, its last day being this Sunday. They will continue to make prepared foods here for sale in other stores. It will also house their seafood and regional offices.

Many Harry’s employees will move to Whole Foods at Avalon. That store will be unique in many ways. For example, it will be the only business in Alpharetta to hold a liquor license for package sales as well as consumption on premises. This allows for wine and beer to be served in cooking classes. They also have a growler permit.

Whole Foods at Avalon will open two days after the Harry’s closure. They’ll welcome guests well ahead of the official grand opening of Avalon on October 30th.

What will you miss the most about Harry’s Farmers Market? What memories to do you have from the store?

Jekyll Brewing – one year later

Today we feature an article from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

I recently stopped by Jekyll’s brewery on Marconi Drive to see how they were doing nearly one year into business.  I had first encountered Jekyll, owner Michael Lundmark and brewer Josh Rachel last March to discuss their Kickstarter campaign to raise money to build the brewery.  As you may recall, they exceeded their $30,000 goal by many thousands.  The people wanted a local brewery.  How is Alpharetta’s own Jekyll Brewing doing in the first year of business?

Jekyll TastingAs it turns out, very well.  Jekyll has exceeded their lofty goals for the first year and are already moving into their five year plan.  They are brewing at capacity.  They’ve added many tanks and a lot of new equipment and still are having a hard time keeping up with demand.  They’ve nearly burned out their hot water kettle by running it too much.  There are several hot water on demand devices in place and ready to go to replace the giant supernova burner they are currently using.

They’ve installed a bottling system in the back of the brewery that puts out 100,000 bottles a month into the market.  Staggering.  And here’s the crazy thing.  Bottles are only about 30% of Jekyll’s business.  The rest is draught to bars, restaurants, growler stores etc.

There are two semi-tractor trailers that leave Jekyll every week sending the product into market.  Jekyll is in retail locations all over north Georgia down to Macon and on the coast down to Jekyll Island.  They are looking to expand into all of Georgia soon.

Jekyll’s Hop Dang Diggity Southern IPA is by far the biggest seller, accounting for over half of sales.  It placed in the top ten in a recent IPA competition where it went up against 250 brews from around the world.

Jekyll now employees 23 folks mostly full time.  The tap room is very busy on the weekends with live music, video games, tours and of course beer samples.

That’s the past and present, what about the future for Jekyll?  September 1st will see the first expansion of the brewery into an adjoining space adding 150% more capacity as well as a full bottling line.  Brewmaster Josh will be turned loose this year to make one special beer each week that will be available only in the tap room starting on Tuesdays.  It will push Josh’s creativity to the limit and we will all benefit.  Look for a new double IPA called A Hoot n’ a Holler.  I had some at the brewery, and I can report that it’s very good.

One pretty cool product that’s coming out is an English Barleywine called OTG.  It was brewed by Josh and his father, the man who got Josh into brewing, on Father’s Day.  This special beer will be a yearly event, limited batch, and sold only in bombers.  It’s a great story of a father and son sharing a passion and making a great story.

It’s great to see a local business doing well especially in the tough first year.  It’s even better when it’s a local brewery that makes outstanding beer, has a cool facility and very nice people.  So raise your glasses for many more years of success for Alpharetta’s Jekyll Brewing.  Cheers!

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