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Alpharetta should approve Amana Academy’s plans

I have a lot of readers in the Windward community, and many of you will probably disagree with me today. Please don’t take me off your Christmas card list!

Amana Academy's current location on South Main Street

Meet the Amana Academy, a charter school in Alpharetta. They teach kindergarten through 8th grade and have an enrollment of about 500 students. They were recently recognized as the 2011 Charter School of the Year for Georgia. We’re fortunate that an outstanding school like Amana calls Alpharetta home.

But Amana has a growth problem. Since their founding in 2005 they’ve operated out of leased space on South Main Street. Today it doesn’t meet their needs. They’ve identified a vacant office building on Windward Parkway near Edison Drive that would be perfect for their growing enrollment. However, moving into this space would require changing the Windward Master Plan which prohibits schools. Residents in the Windward neighborhood protested when this came up earlier in the Fall. Thankfully the parties involved agreed to postpone this issue until after the city elections in November. So here we are. The Alpharetta City Council will consider Amana’s case Monday night.

Windward residents object to Amana primarily because they don’t want to set a precedent of making changes to the Master Plan. They don’t see a compelling reason to change the plan. I disagree.

The compelling reason to change the plan is that an award-winning school wants to move near your neighborhood. This should be encouraged and celebrated! This is a highly desirable school for many parents. In the long run I think it’s proximity to Windward might be a boon to property values.

But what about traffic? The studies show that a school in this building would generate less traffic than an office filled with cubicle dwellers. On top of that, the peak traffic times for this school would be slightly offset to that of Windward’s rush hour.

While I don’t live in Windward, I drive the east portion of Windward Parkway as often as any resident. Creating a traffic problem on this road is nothing I’d support. Amana doesn’t create a traffic problem.

I respect the idea of wanting to preserve the Windward Master Plan. I don’t think fighting a school of this caliber is worth expending political capital. I agree with my friends in Windward on a lot of issues, but I think they need to pick their battles. This isn’t one worth fighting.

Some ideas on the Highway 9 Corridor

This is the second of two articles on Milton’s Highway 9 LCI project.

Alpharetta and Milton recently received a $100,000 grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission under the Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) program.  The funds will study the Highway 9 corridor through the northern part of Alpharetta and Milton. On Friday I wrote about the survey being conducted as a part of this LCI grant.

Milton has a little problem – their tax base is largely residential. Only this highway 9 corridor and portions of the Crabapple area are considered business districts in the city. Compare this to Alpharetta or Johns Creek – cities who both have large retail and corporate office components to kick in tax dollars. In Milton a larger share of taxes are shouldered on residents. Most in Milton acknowledge the need to expand at least the Highway 9 area to help balance things out.

On the other hand, LCI projects and the consultants behind them have a history of pushing urban projects with high density residential housing components. Will Milton’s consultant, Urban Collage, suggest changing land use in this area to mixed-use and/or high density? If they do, it would run counter of the needs of this city. More than anything, I’m most curious to see if this happens.

So beyond the survey, here are some high-level thoughts on this corridor…

Westside Parkway

Before changing anything, it’s important to look upstream. Alpharetta should finally have a contiguous Westside Parkway by early 2012. The goal (or hope) is that commuters use this as a bypass around downtown Alpharetta. It’s a pivotal assumption in Alpharetta’s newly-approved downtown plans. It would behoove Milton to conduct studies on how this will effect traffic on Deerfield Parkway.

How will commuters use a completed Westside Parkway? Will they drive from Haynes Bridge, all the way up Westwide to Deerfield, then up to Highway 9? Or will they peel off at Windward and head west? Or will they ignore it completely and continue to use Highway 9 as they do now? After all, Highway 9 is a straight shot while Westside/Deerfield twists like a snake for a few miles.

All plans for this corridor hinge the Westside linchpin.

Deerfield/Morris Technology Park

This area is where you’ll find the largest parcels of undeveloped land. It’s also the only place in Milton with a high-tech, corporate campus setting. Please oh please don’t suggest mixed use here.

Financial payment processor Global Payments owns land here and keeps talking like they want to build on it one day. Land use in this particular area should remain the same.

Windward

Probably my favorite feature on this side of Windward is the road to the south. A small road runs parallel to Windward from Costco, behind the stripmalls and banks to the old Cingular campus. How about replicate this idea north of Windward? It’s possible to hop parking lots from Panera Bread to Walmart and Fry’s. Let’s connect them with an honest-to-goodness road. Creating interconnected backroads would alleviate a lot of traffic in Windward itself.

 


View Windward Idea in a larger map

Highway 9

I wouldn’t be opposed to slowing traffic on Highway 9, particularly south of Webb Road and Windward, if the traffic studies show that Westside diverts traffic. All bets are off otherwise. I’d trust someone like Urban Collage to work some magic here, provided that high residential density isn’t a factor in the equation.

Trail Connectivity

I’m surprised there wasn’t more on this in the survey. This are has a few streams and floodplains that might not be a bad place for a few walking trails. But let’s be realistic as these are not commute alternatives. However, trails are amazingly popular attractions. Connecting the residential components on the north end of Deerfield and Morris to places like North Park, Cogburn Road Park and the city’s new pocket parks would be a big win. The office parks (like Verizon’s campus) would probably love to provide connectivity (as some do to Alpharetta’s Big Creek Greenway).

Take the Highway 9 LCI Survey

Alpharetta and Milton are conducting a study on the future of the Highway 9 corridor. The study is paid for by a $100,000 grant awarded to the cities by the Atlanta Regional Commission under their Livable Centers Initiative (LCI).

The area under study is Highway 9 from Mayfield Road north to Bethany Bend. It also includes Windward Parkway from Highway 9 to GA-400 as well as Deerfield/Morris/Webb Road areas.

A sample pic from the survey. Doesn't this place look familiar?

Part of the grant pays for a survey which was put together by the consulting firm Urban Collage. How does it work? The consultant is attempting to understand visual preferences for development in the area. First they divide the corridor into two “character areas” – Highway 9 and Windward/Deerfield. Next you’ll see pictures of stores, strip malls, office parks, and green space. You’ll be asked to rate each picture based on how appropriate you think it might be for the character area.

My biggest problem with the survey was lumping Windward together with Deerfield Parkway and Webb/Morris roads into one character area. These are three distinct areas with different characteristics. It was sometimes difficult for me to judge a building on appropriateness in this area. What is good for Windward may not be right for the north end of Deerfield Parkway.

Nevertheless, if you’re like me you spend a lot of time in this part of Alpharetta and Milton. The survey is worth a few minutes of your time. I encourage you to take it by going to this link:

http://collage.questionform.com/public/Milton-Hwy-9-LCI-Compass-Survey

On Monday I’ll write a followup to this article with thoughts on developing Milton’s business corridor.

 

Westside Parkway – It’s Complicated

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

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

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

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

Prospect Park’s Sale is Incomplete

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

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

View Prospect Park in a larger map

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

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

Catch-22

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

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

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

Eminent Domain

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

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

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

 

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)

 

An Open Letter to Prospect Park’s New Owner

North American Properties, the new owner of Prospect Park, issued a press release yesterday. It spoke of wanting community input on the project and touted a west coast tour of similar retail centers. You can read about it here.

Dear North American Properties:

Congratulations on your purchase of Prospect Park! The entire Alpharetta community is encouraged to see something happening with this tract of land. And thank you for including this humble blogger on your press list. I understand you want community input on the project, including what to name it. I will take it on good faith that you’re sincere in this request.

Allow me to offer this bit of early advice… Open Westside Parkway. I understand you have been in discussion with the city to do this. I would encourage you to get this done before you travel the country seeking inspiration for the project. For years we’ve sat in traffic, gazing in frustration at a four lane road that is 90% complete. You could create enormous goodwill with the people of Alpharetta right off the bat. This cannot be overemphasized. Get Westside open, or at least go public with a plan to do so.

It also wouldn’t hurt to demolish the half-built structures. Perhaps make a grand ceremony of the event, allowing City Council members to push the button on the wrecking ball. It might serve as a symbolic gesture, allowing politicians to experience a level of atonement for their past. These structures have stood as a reminder of Alpharetta’s failed adoption of large-scale mixed-use development, right at the gateway to the city. Get’em outta here!

And speaking of gateways… Your project will be a gateway to this community. Consider that as you ponder where to take this project. Ours is a community of affluent and well-maintained suburban neighborhoods with top amenities. Please don’t come to Alpharetta speaking the language of new urbanism or so-called “smart growth”. Urbanism doesn’t play in our version of Peoria. Don’t take my word for it, even Planning Commissioners understand our dislike of these buzzwords.

Again, you could create a great sense of goodwill by dramatically reducing the scope of the development. Cut the building heights to tree-top level, scrap the parking decks and severely reduce or eliminate the residential components. I get the sense that this might be the direction you’re aiming and I’m encouraged by it! We bristle at extreme housing density and high rise buildings.

We love shopping, restaurants, greenspace, outdoor malls, traditional architecture and all that neat stuff. The good folks of Alpharetta will talk your ear off with ideas if given the chance.

Thanks for reaching out to the community. We look forward to continuing the dialogue, especially in the social media space. You’ve got a tremendous opportunity to win the hearts of Alpharetta by quickly opening the road and nixing residential density. What do ya say?

Sincerely,

-S. Lee Guy
Blogger

You can follow North American Properties on Twitter @NAPatl or on Facebook.

Are you ready for the roundabouts?

North Fulton has its first roundabout. Are commuters ready to embrace the concept? And more importantly, will they be able to figure them out?

It’s been interesting to read the comments ahead of Roswell’s ribbon cutting on Grimes Bridge Road. I’m surprised to hear of so many opposed to the idea of a roundabout. Many in this area seem opposed to the notion of anything European coming to our area. In some respects I understand this, especially when it comes to things like high speed rail projects or urban development. Both will have negative effects on the way of life here. But I simple don’t see that with roundabouts. Opposition to them are largely unfounded.

I’ve driven in Europe and had no problems getting used to the flows in roundabouts. They are a far better alternative to four way stops in that traffic continues to move. Even a small amount of traffic will cause huge delays at a four way stop. I also think most drivers here don’t move through four way stops in an efficient manner.

Roundabouts are cheap to build, fairly safe to drivers and create a nice little median that can be landscaped. But you’ve probably heard all this.

So yeah, I like the idea of roundabouts, but I’m still cautiously optimistic about their use here. There are smart locations for roundabouts and poor ones. They should not be used as devices to create “traffic friction”, something I’ve ridiculed before. They should be used in places of congestion, not just anywhere. This is not the end-all-be-all solution to traffic but merely an available tool.

There are currently three additional roundabouts in the works for north Fulton:

  • Hembree Road and Houze Road in Roswell
  • Douglas Road in Alpharetta
  • Birmingham Highway and Providence Road in Milton

So what do you think of roundabouts? Will we know how to drive in them? Where would you like to see future roundabouts?

Photo Credit: Una Smith (creative commons)

Roundabout Locations in North Fulton


View North Fulton Roundabouts in a larger map

I’m Just Weird

I’ve been paying attention recently. I’m listening to experts talk about what people in this community want. I’m reading and listening to planners, consultants, bloggers, politicians and business leaders. I’ve commented on it ad nauseum both here and on other forums. After letting it all sink in for a while I’ve come to this realization… I’m just weird. I thought I was just like tens of thousands of other relos who came here. Not true. Here’s the crazy and weird stuff I like.

My House

I like my house. It’s a single family home that is probably of typical size and value for this area. I like the lot my house sits on; it’s a little shy of a half acre. I like feeling the soft Bermuda grass between my toes. I like playing catch with my kids in the backyard. Weird.

My Cul-De-Sac

I like it too. I like the other families that live in our little curve. My kids like riding their scooters and skates here with little fear of getting hit by a car. Strange.

Diversity

Yes, we have it here and I like it. Within a block of my home are Dutch, Nigerian, Indian, Chinese, Africian-American, and Cuban families. Yes diversity exists here contrary to what you might believe. I like that.

My Car

I love my car, not that it is nice or anything. I drive an eight year old Toyota with one missing hubcap. It’s a piece of crap really. No, what I really like is the freedom my car brings. It can take me anywhere in almost all forms of weather. I don’t have to rely on others for my transportation or wait for it to arrive. My car’s purchase and operating costs were not subsidized by taxpayers with borrowed money. It travels on roads, a form of infrastructure that is far cheaper to build and maintain over rail.

I love my car, a lot. This makes me very strange indeed. In fact I love my car so much that I don’t own a bicycle, horse, golf cart or any other alternate mode of transportation. Crazy? Certifiably.

My Suburb

I love this place. I like the fact that Alpharetta is safe and free from nearly all forms of violent crime. I like the high caliber of schools here. My family will thrive here and I don’t take that for granted. I would much rather live in a suburb versus an urban environment. I could have four eyes but that wouldn’t be as strange as this.

Sprawl

Yes, for lack of a better word, I like sprawl. *gasp!* I like lower to medium density development and big, wide roads. You could call me pro-traffic if you want, but you wouldn’t be the first to do so.

I love the choices I have for restaurants and retail. And yes, I even like big-box retailers like Walmart, Target, Fry’s and Home Depot. Would it be nice to walk to stores? Sure but I’d never have the choices available that I have now. There are enough restaurants close to my Windward office that I could eat at a different one each day for months. I love choice and I love freedom. This perhaps is my strangest trait of all.

So there you have it. I thought I was just like everyone in Alpharetta. I know better now.

Consultants to Crabapple: Saddle up, partners!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 14 year career in information technology it is this… consultants are worth their weight in gold. Yep, it’s true. They have amazing abilities of perception and knowledge that surpass anything mere cubicle dwellers might have. They can always be counted on to provide innovative solutions that show a deep understanding of both the customer and the problem.

That’s why I was excited to learn that the City of Milton hired a consultant to study redevelopment in Crabapple. I studied with interest the cartoons streetscapes that were presented to the public. Surely they were the result of hours of painstaking work. Yet it wasn’t until I read this article in The Patch that I truly understood the sheer genius behind this effort.

You see, Crabapple has a little traffic problem. It’s quite bad actually. On my last visit it took me nearly 45 minutes to drive there from my home east of GA-400. I foolishly thought additional road capacity was the solution. But again let me remind you, I’m not the consultant here. I guess you could say that my armchair traffic analysis missed the mark completely. No, we need the complete opposite. The consultant said we need…. wait for it….

“Traffic Friction”

To make traffic better we need to make it worse… by slowing cars down. Let’s install things on the roads that actually make it difficult¬† to drive. I suppose the idea is that if traffic becomes so unbearable, people will stop driving all together. This strategy is, in a word, brilliant. Extra capacity and lanes, according to Mr. Consultant, might encourage people to drive. Driving makes traffic. I’m kicking myself while writing this, furious for not thinking of this idea first.

Pedestrians, Bicycles, Horse Trails, Cars

This will be the transportation priority order for Crabapple’s future development. Notice that cars are dead last. Again, it’s sheer genius. It made me think of the owner of the Crabapple antique shop mentioned in this article. Traffic problems are killing his business and he’s struggling to hang on. Can you imagine all the antique furniture he will sell to customers on bicycles or horseback? Saddle up, partners!

Like any good consulting effort, his ideas have spurred my creativity. Why stop at these suggestions? If roads are the enemy then let’s just jackhammer them all! Mayfield and Crabapple Roads would cost far less to maintain if they were gravel roads. I’d also suggest passing new ordinances requiring hitching posts in front of all Crabapple restaurants and shops.

So how would you create “friction” on Crabapple’s roads? I’m sure my blog readers can think of some outstanding ideas to hasten a traffic apocalypse. Together we can declare war on roads and automobiles!

Number of the Month – Commute Times

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

27.1 versus 29.1

The average travel time to work for Fulton County residents, 2009 versus 2000. Yes, it has gone down!

Figures from the 2010 census are slowing being released. Unfortunately commute times (or as the census calls it, “Mean Travel Time to Work”) isn’t out. Yet I did find this bit of information. The census bureau conducts yearly surveys that get rolled up into five year intervals. So from the years 2005 – 2009 the average commute time for Fulton County residents was 27.1 minutes. This figure is less than the 29.1 minutes Fulton commuters spent in 2000. I’ll post some other north metro counties below to see how they compare. As a general rule, commute times have remained flat or declined slightly over the last decade while populations have boomed.

Why do I bring this up? City and regional planners are considering drastic actions to tackle traffic. Those include spending billions on MARTA rail expansion and zoning for very high density. Perhaps we should keep this traffic statistic in mind before we dramatically alter the shape and character of the communities we love.

Commute Times - North Metro Atlanta

County 2005-2009 Commute Times 2000 Commute Times
Fulton 27.1 29.1
Forsyth 30.5 33.2
Cherokee 33.4 34.4
Cobb 29.8 31.3
Gwinnett 32.4 32.2

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