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An Alpharetta Lament

Before I get into my lament, I first have a confession to make. I don’t live within the political boundaries of the city of Alpharetta. I write a blog about Alpharetta, so what gives? I live just a short distance inside Forsyth County yet am still in the Alpahretta zip code of 30005. I spend the vast majority of my time south of McGinnis Ferry Road. That includes work, my son’s pre-school and my church (in which my family is very active). I suppose I have the best of both worlds; an Alpharetta lifestyle with none of the Fulton County taxes.

If my readers wish to discount anything I have to say about Alpharetta, especially politics, I would completely understand. I think I walk a fine line in writing about city politics considering I don’t have a vote. As such I try to stay on the periphery and will never suggest or endorse a candidate.

Only recently have I begun to pay attention to the happenings in Alpharetta city hall. The main reason for my focus is because I think Alpharetta about to make a change for the worse. Tuesday night’s unveiling of the 2030 vision is the closing act. I lament that the Alpharetta I’ve come to love won’t be the same for very long.

Alpharetta, a Mini-RTP

For one semester during my college years I worked a co-op job in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. I was with Nortel on their beautiful RTP campus. When I first discovered Alpharetta it reminded me a lot of RTP. There was a similar base of high tech companies. The research aspect isn’t exactly the same here as RTP draws from a huge pool of nearby colleges. Yet the corporate campus environment is very similar. Zoning kept both places beautiful with large buffers of natural trees surrounding medium-sized buildings. Never did any building really exceed the height of the native pine trees. Not far away were safe, upper middle class neighborhoods for families.

Alpharetta, a Mini-Perimeter

The 2030 vision of Alpharetta moves away from this Alpahretta that I’ve come to enjoy. It will make us feel more like the perimeter area of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody. High rise office buildings and condos will dot the landscape. Planners will tell you that this is alright since they are close to GA-400. At the perimeter every high rise is along GA-400 or I-285 (or both). The surface streets have been a disaster there for more than a decade. Commuters leaving the perimeter heading north may spend half their commute navigating surface roads before even getting onto GA-400. I fear this will happen in Alpharetta.

It Is Too Late to Reverse

The other thing I lament is that it is too late to do anything about this. The political reality is that the current Alpharetta City Council is unanimous in their desire to move in this direction. Unlike other suburban councils or county commissions, there seem to be no homeowner-friendly politicians currently in power. I hear none speaking out against density or height of buildings. And even with some members up for re-election this year, I doubt voters can flip the balance of power in a single election cycle.

It’s too late to reverse the zonings already on the books, namely Windward Mill, Prospect Park and Peridot. The North Point LCI is already set, with a downtown to follow and this 2030 vision which will be rubber stamped soon.

Sadly I think most in Alpharetta won’t become aware of this change until the enormous tower cranes appear, hoisting beams high into the sky. People will begin to ask, “What is this new construction going in at North Point?” Oh, that’s a 16 story office and condominium. It’ll be far too late to stop it then as it is too late to stop it even now.

So maybe Alpharetta residents will organize and rise up against these changes. But color be pessimistic, I think opportunity to stop this was years ago. The Alpharetta that attracted most of us won’t be the same in a few years. New Urbanism, as they call it, is here for good.

Photo Credit: Markhoward

A “Conspiracy” to Bring MARTA to Alpharetta?

Bust out your tinfoil hats and call Fox Mulder. There’s talk of a conspiracy and I’m not about to let this one get away without an article or two.

And I use the word “conspiracy” in quotes because it isn’t my choice of words. These are the words former Alpharetta councilman John Monson used in a comment over on The Patch. Monson says…

I do wish to say the reference to some “conspiracy” for the City to “bring MARTA to Alpharetta” by approving the MetLife project is completely unfounded.

Do I believe the MetLife/Peridot mixed use project was part of a conspiracy to bring MARTA to Alpharetta? No. On the contrary. I believe Peridot is part of a larger game plan to bring us MARTA high speed rail. It is not a conspiracy because it is being conducted out in the open for all to see. The problem is that not many are paying attention. Follow me on the story, as I see it.

MARTA’s North Line Study

Blogger Jimmy Gilvin leads a wild and crazy life. Nothing excites him more than wallowing in the appendices of MARTA documents; what might be the cure to insomnia for most. Jimmy, you need to get out more often my friend.

Nevertheless, Jimmy found a gem and reported on it back in February. MARTA has been interested in extending the north rail line past its current end at the North Springs station. That interest goes way back to 2000. Several years later they formed the North Line Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Study. Jimmy referenced the appendix A document which contains minutes from meetings held in and around Alpharetta in the latter half of 2006. In the meetings they talk of several “TOD” sites, all along the major exits of GA-400. The crown jewel TOD site would be at North Point Mall.

The minutes suggest that “developers should be incentivised to concentrate development and create higher densities.” They call for the TOD study areas to become LCI’s (a GRTA term for “livable centers initiative”), stating that “GRTA has experience with getting land use in place before land use will support transit options.”

The minutes also say that projects “need a local champion.” That one puzzled me a bit. I don’t see elected officials in Alpharetta wearing the hat of MARTA champion. Diane Wheeler of the City of Alpharetta was in on some of the meetings, but I don’t think she’s the official champion. No, the MARTA champion came in the form of…

The North Fulton CID

If you’re not familiar with the North Fulton CID (Community Improvement District), let me explain. This is a self-funded group of property owners in north Fulton. Most of them are large office and retail real estate owners. For example, MetLife’s Paul Folger is on the board. More on Mr. Folger later. Some of the CID’s more visible projects include the pretty landscaping currently being installed at Windward and GA-400.

But… not many months following MARTA’s completion of the North Line TOD Study, the North Fulton CID released their Blueprint North Fulton Document. In it they call for three nodes or “activity centers” along GA-400 at Haynes Bridge, Old Milton and Windward. Humm, sounds a lot like the TOD areas. These areas are there to “encourage developers” and city planners. There is talk of creating “mixed-use village centers” to “support an extension of transit from the North Springs MARTA station.” This blueprint document leads to the creation of…

The North Point Activity Center LCI

In April 2008 the Alpharetta City Council unanimously approved plans for this LCI. Its model is nearly identical to that proposed by the CID. The diagram used by the city is almost a straight copy/paste from the CID’s document. The only major difference I can find is that the city actually draws in the MARTA line and its station near Center Bridge Road and GA-400.

So if you’re scoring at home… we go from MARTA’s transit orientated development (TOD) area to the CID’s “Activity Center” concept to an LCI plan incorporated into the city’s comprehensive plan. That brings us all the way back to…

MetLife/Peridot

Was the Peridot project a conspiracy? No. It was just another piece of a puzzle that’s been building for five years. Now that the MetLife puzzle piece is in place, the picture is starting to emerge.

What about this conspiracy-sounding quote from Mark McKean in the AJC?

Alpharetta is probably the only city in the country where a developer walks into the Community Development Department requesting a simple stream variance, and he leaves with the promise to push through zoning for a high density, mixed-use project.

Remember that Paul Folger of MetLife sits on the board of the North Fulton CID. I seriously doubt he’s so naive as to not understand the long-laid plans that effected his property. Perhaps I am wrong.

Nevertheless, I believe it is in the best political interest of the Alpharetta City Council to let these plans continue to fly under the radar. As Jimmy put it … “Alpharettans are too busy raising their families and struggling to keep their heads above water to notice.” With campaigns about to gear up in Alpharetta this year, will voters make this an issue? I’d imagine a few local bloggers will.

Photo Credit: Drvec

Four Ways to Wreak Havoc on North Fulton Traffic

Suppose you’re an evil and diabolical villain, hell bent on destroying traffic for hundreds of thousands of commuters in north Fulton. How would you do it? I suppose you could create a catastrophe, maybe have a truck spill beanie babies all over the highway. But that’s been done already. No, you’re more evil than this. You want to create long-term mayhem on Alpharetta’s byways. Here are a few ideas. Surely politicians, policy makers and consultants would never dream of considering such things.

Make Roads More Narrow

Find a nice state highway, one that’s vital for moving cars from jobs to homes. Add unnecessary medians to the highway. Don’t acquire additional land to do this, just make the lanes more narrow. Traffic will bottleneck, backing up onto surface streets. Justify the project and its funding by calling it “transit-related” and launder the funds through MARTA. Sell it to an unknowing public by planting pretty trees and bushes. Surely no one would attempt this along, say, Highway 9 in Alpharetta.

Commuting on Bike Paths

Stock up on your granola for this one, dude. Let’s divert funds away from roads and build bike paths! Sure, everyone loves a park with walking and bike paths. The greenway is as popular as ever. Maybe we can throw some funding at these, in our transportation plans, and call it a commute alternative! We’ll highlight bike paths in press releases and community meetings, drawing attention away from the fact that we are not widening surface streets or making intersection improvements. We’ll help the press find crunchy granola types who say they’ll ride bicycles to work and save the environment. In reality, the bike paths won’t make a meaningful dent in traffic. The folks at the Georgia DOT are way smarter than this. They would never call a park a commute alternative.

Mix Pedestrians with Traffic

Hold out your evil pinkie for this one. Let’s encourage walkers to cross busy state highways! Of course we might have to lower the speed limits and add crosswalks. It sounds dangerous, but if we hire some consultants “professionals”, they could spin it to sound like a positive. We can even pay the “professionals” with tax dollars from outside Georgia. Responsible leaders in places like Milton would never give something like this the time of day. And if they did, they wouldn’t want the road to be known as New Milton Parkway. Nonsense.

High Density Development

Smart drivers avoid intersections like Windward and 400 during rush hour and the lunch break. But in the evenings and weekends it’s smooth sailing. Let’s spread out the traffic misery a little bit by build some high density housing at these intersections! Sure, it won’t add a lot of traffic at rush hour, it’ll just stretch it well past 6:00 and into the weekends. Alpharetta’s surface streets can be just like Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. Level-headed planners would never consider such an idea at an important interchange like Haynes Bridge and 400. If they were so misguided, never in a million years would it get a unanimous vote.

So there you have it. Were Dr. Evil to hold Alpharetta hostage, I’m sure this is how he’d do it. Sharks with frickin laser beams? Overkill.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles Daily News

Attracting and Retaining Relos in Alpharetta

This is the fifth article in a series about Alpharetta’s ten year plan survey.

We’re nearing the end of my little series on the ten year plan survey. If there is a topic I keep coming back to it is that of jobs. There is no way to talk about attracting or retaining the residents of this area without talking about jobs. And more so than that, you have to frame this discussion against the context of Alpharetta being America’s #1 Relo-ville destination. I can’t take credit for that designation, Forbes Magazine bestowed that honor on us last year.

What attracts people to Alpharetta? Many times it goes like this…

Boss: “There is a new opportunity for you in our Alpharetta office.”

Soon-to-be-Relo: “Alpha what? I like living here in Peoria.”

Boss: “You’ll move to Alpharetta or you’re fired.”

Relo: “Um, okay. What’s there to do in Alpha..eat..ah?”

Boss: “Tennis. Oh, and you’re gonna need an SUV… a big one.”

The single best way Alpharetta can attract and retain residents is to maintain our position as the king of the relovilles. It is just about that simple, yes. Thanks for reading… goodnight.

Okay, perhaps not. We also get folks from other parts of metro Atlanta that want to move here. So let’s look at some of the survey’s questions on this issue…

Please rank the top ten (10) challenges Alpharetta faces in attracting and/or retaining residents with one (1) being the most important challenge.

And here is my list in ranked order…

  1. Creating more quality jobs
  2. Traffic congestion
  3. Infrastructure quality
  4. K-12 capacity, financing, and quality
  5. Quality development, planning, and land use
  6. A more vital Downtown
  7. More entertainment and recreation amenities
  8. Appearance of the city
  9. Cost of living
  10. More diverse housing stock (i.e., apartments, more choices of single-family homes)

Jobs of course, followed by traffic/infrastructure, schools, stuff to do, etc. I’ve beat the jobs issue to death. Let’s talk traffic. Over the long haul, the city needs to be careful not to turn Alpharetta into the perimeter area. The surface streets there are a clogged mess. Alpharetta’s GA-400 feeder streets need to be able to handle the longterm demands of cubicle dwellers coming and going. Beyond that, east-west commutes continue to be trouble for many working here. Much of this is beyond Alpharetta’s control.

Alpharetta also need to be careful not to sacrifice traffic flow for the sake of appearance and beautification. I’m thinking about their plans for Main Street and Milton’s thought on GA-9. But this is a topic for another article.

So I’ll turn the question to my readers… As a resident of Alpharetta, what can the city do to retain you as a resident? What can the city not do that might cause you to move?

The Cleaning Ladies and Policemen Don’t Live Here

This is a little sidebar article to my series about Alpharetta’s ten year plan survey.

Woodstock, Lawrenceville, Cumming, Loganville, Johns Creek and Alpharetta. This is where my co-workers live. I took an informal survey of the folks in my department and this is what I found. It is by no means a scientific sample, but based on my ten years of cubicle experience, this is typical.

I’ve seen this topic come up from time to time in several places. It is the issue that people who work here don’t live here. I first saw it in the 2005 New York Times article about Alpharetta that inspired my blog’s title. In that piece, the author points out that only a third of Alpharetta’s city employees lived in the city limits. Only three of the city’s police officers lived here. Keep in mind this was 2005, but you get the idea. The writer goes on to mention how landscapers and cleaning ladies commute 30 miles to work here.

This issue came up again last week in the discussion that ensued after my jobs and infrastructure article. Can people who work here afford to live here? Do we need a living wage ordinance to pay blue collar folks enough to buy homes in town? Or should we build higher-density neighborhoods at a lower price to provide affordable housing options?

I say none of the above. Why? Because of the illustration I gave at the start of this post. My fellow cubicle dwellers could easily afford to live in Alpharetta as I do. Why don’t they? There is probably not a single answer. Maybe they’ve established their family’s roots elsewhere. Maybe some want to buy more home for their money farther up GA-400. Who knows. My point is that these are people who could easily afford to live here and chose not to.

What’s to say that Alpharetta’s policemen, fire fighters, school teachers and others might want to do the same? With a higher wage or cheaper housing, would they want to move here? Perhaps. I’ll bet they make the same decisions my co-workers do. I’ll bet they scatter regardless of the other conditions.

And why is it important? Would my cleaning lady do a better job cleaning my house if she lived in Alpharetta? Would the policeman care more if he lived here? Perhaps. I’ll bet his radar gun will show I’m speeding regardless of where he lays his head at night. If I’m the police chief or school principal, I don’t want to worry about where my employees live, I just want them to do their jobs well.

You could make an argument on traffic. Having more folks living here would ease congestion on roads. Sure, I’m not going to argue that point. Then again, high density developments bring with them their own traffic problems.

It’s nice to think that a suburb could be a happy little cohesive utopia where everyone lives, works and plays in town. The reality is that this rarely happens. As much as I enjoy living and working here, I think enacting public policy to encourage this is fruitless.

Some Small Little Road Projects

I often sing the praises of another local blog by Bob Strader. He’s a realtor who writes some genuinely useful stuff on his blog (unlike the random nonsense I post here).

Check out his recent article on some road projects in the area. A few of these jumped out at me.

Windward and GA-400 Ramp to North Point – I’ve heard about this one before. There will be a new ramp/lane that will funnel traffic from GA-400 northbound onto North Point Parkway southbound. This should reduce a lot of congestion in this area. I tend to avoid this intersection anyway, using Webb Bridge or McGinnis Ferry/Morris to cross GA-400.

Windward Landscaping – The same Windward and GA-400 intersection will get a makeover with stone works, similar to Mansell Road.

Westside Parkway at Prospect Park – Also known as the rock pit. Bob thinks we’re one step closer to seeing this connecting road open up between Old Milton and Webb Bridge/Academy. I’ll believe it when I see it, but hope it happens soon.

It’s About More Than Potholes – Alpharetta Adopts SeeClickFix

At my job we have lots of ticketing systems. This is pretty common in the IT world. We have applications for submitting tickets for network changes, maintenance requests, software defects, technical support, new employee hiring and firing, etc. We probably have a ticketing system for making changes to other ticketing systems. It sounds like a lot, and sometimes it is. But if you’ve got a good process around the system, it can help your organization in a big way.

How so? It allows for accountability and transparency. When stuff isn’t getting done, there is a record of who is assigned a task with dates, times and notes. And when the process behind the system works, it gives management the tools and metrics to track change. They can also make pretty graphs for their powerpoint presos.

Yesterday the AJC ran a story about the City of Alpharetta and their adoption of SeeClickFix. You can read the article here. The application is basically a ticketing system for citizens to submit minor problems within the city. Think potholes, broken sidewalks, storm drains, traffic lights, stuff like that. Users submit issues through a web 2.0 interface with google maps integration or over a smart phone (iPhone, Blackberry or Android). It is slick technology. <nerd mode off>

Like many, this was the first time I heard of this application, which Alpharetta has quietly been using for a few months. When I first read the AJC article I kinda thought the city developed this on their own. That’s not the case. They have adopted a process around SeeClickFix and have subscribed to its service. At only $100 a month, this was a real bargain for the city.

Yesterday I created an issue in the new system. I reported on a traffic light on Windward Parkway that I think needs to be re-timed. In just a few minutes someone with the city acknowledged the issue and assigned it to the traffic division for research. That in and of itself isn’t a huge deal. I suppose I could have picked up the phone and called the traffic division and accomplished the same thing.

So how is this better? Because I have a ticket. I am issue number 47733. I have a URL, a status, a date, “like” buttons and a section for comments and discussions. I have something I can come back to weeks or months later if nothing is done. In short, I have a visible way to hold the city accountable. If I had just called in my issue, who knows what would have happened. The employee on the other end of the phone could have done nothing. Or more likely than anything, the request might have just gotten lost in the bureaucracy of government.

The system is still pretty young. It will take time to see how well it is adopted and embraced by the city and citizens. As a local blogger you can bet I’ll be watching. In the meantime, I think the City of Alpharetta deserves a lot of praise. In this current political climate, citizens are demanding a lot out of government. Unfortunately that usually manifests itself in the form of ugly campaigns and fighting. What I think citizens truly want is open, transparent and responsive government, not politics. Big kudos to Alpharetta for being the first to leverage this technology.

Transit in the Far-flung Burbs

This article in the AJC jumped out at me today…

http://www.ajc.com/news/georgia-politics-elections/transit-beckons-in-far-571625.html

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently completed a “major study” on who takes transit and why. What’s the biggest finding, according to the AJC article? Transit trips in Metro Atlanta mostly happen in Dekalb and Fulton counties. 85% of them do. Imagine that! In a related study, Roots in Alpharetta has learned that 100% of MARTA’s trains exist in Fulton and Dekalb counties. Hey ARC… next time you commission a study on this, don’t hire Captain Obvious to grind the numbers.

The conclusion drawn from this study is that there is demand for transit in the burbs. I read the article three or four times through and I still don’t understand how they came to that conclusion based on the data. But nevertheless this is timely stuff. Recently the Georgia legislature voted to allow regions in Georgia to tax themselves for transit initiatives. Will this finally allow for trains in the burbs? Let’s hope not.

There are a lot of reasons we in the northern burbs are generally not in favor of mass transit. Usually the ITP folks will say it is based on race. Here on my blog I’m not afraid to point out bigotry in the burbs (here and here). I assure you, this isn’t one of those cases. Here are my reasons for not supporting mass transit in the burbs…

MARTA is a boondoggle. Its management and board are complete imbeciles. I have absolutely no confidence in their ability to run any organization, much less something as large as a transit authority. Even with a 1% sales tax and increased fares they still have trouble meeting operating costs. Sure, new transit in the burbs might not be run by MARTA. But given my observations, I have no faith that transit can be effectively managed here.

Building transit is capital intensive. A lot of MARTA’s current infrastructure was built on Atlanta’s existing rail lines. That was a smart move. But in our suburb this isn’t possible. There are zero miles of existing train track in North Fulton and Forsyth. Absolutely none. Gwinnett and Cobb are a little different though. But nevertheless I don’t think residents here would approve of additional taxes for this. Remember, we’re in the reddest part of this red state.

And lastly, we have cars here… lots of very nice fancy cars. The study finds that 40% of MARTA riders have no car. Alpharetta is an affluent place. I don’t know many people without a ride. As one of my twitter friends mentioned once… his SUV had more passengers than a MARTA bus he observed going down Windward Parkway.

Tweeting From GA-400 and the No Texting Law

You should follow me on Twitter. My profile can be found at http://twitter.com/rootsalpharetta . If you like my random and incoherent five hundred word blog posts, then imagine what I can do with one hundred and forty bytes!

Yesterday afternoon I tweeted the following:

I’m tweeting from GA400. My last chance to do so legally.

Yes indeed I was on Ga-400. If I pull such a stunt today I would subject myself to a $150 fine and a point on my license. Was I being reckless by using my smart phone on an eight lane divided highway? Hardly. My minivan was completely motionless and my foot was firmly on the brake. In other words, I was stuck in traffic. I know a lot of people use their phones in traffic because I see Foursquare users checking into “Traffic on GA400“. I’m not exactly sure why.

Today the new No Texting Law goes into effect. I’m not sure what to think of this. Texting while driving your car at speed is indeed very dangerous. And I do see it happen quite often. My wife will lean on the horn when she sees people do it.

But at the same time, there are so many other things in my car that may distract me from driving. Singing, talking, nose picking, yelling at the radio during liberal-slanted NPR reports… the list goes on and on. Just today, after my GA-400 tweet, my daughter threw a shoe at her brother. That distracted me much more than my tweet. There is still no law regarding yelling at a five year old while driving, much to the chagrin of my little Elizabeth.

So I practiced my little act of civil disobedience yesterday while it was still legal. The libertarian in me thinks responsible individuals should make their own decisions regarding being distracted in the car. Be a safe driver, whatever that means for you. On the other hand, anything that keeps more eyes on the road is probably the safe way to go.

North Point Church is Building Bridges

North Point Community Church is building bridges. Sure, a lot of churches build bridges, figuratively and metaphorically speaking. Many a sermon has been written about how churches should build bridges. North Point is doing that I suppose, but they are also building a literal bridge. A really, really big bridge. A five million dollar bridge. Tidy sum, Mr. Bigglesworth.

Andy Stanley’s church has a little traffic problem. If you’ve ever traveled along North Point Parkway on Sunday morning you’ll know what I mean. They have two four lane roads leading from North Point into their massive parking lots. But even with that, when you have thousands of parishioners coming and going, it gets to be too much. So according to a letter from Stanley on the church website, they have spent nine years studying ways to address the traffic. As I see it, the biggest problem they face is one of geography. Their property backs up to Big Creek. In all of Alpharetta there are only a handful of places to cross Big Creek. There’s about to be another one.

So the plan is to build a three lane bridge connecting one of their parking lots to another. The second parking lot is in a business park just off Old Milton Parkway. The bridge will cross Big Creek, the Big Creek Greenway and a thousand feet of flood plain.

I really don’t know what to think of this. The church my wife and I attend is in the midst of a capital campaign. There was some push back when they started due to worries about the economy. But we’re not trying to raise nearly this much money. We also have a comparatively boring goal of reducing debt. No bridges for us, well just the figurative ones for now.

There also the sticker shock aspect of this. Five million dollars is huge. What could that do in this community? To put it in perspective… North Fulton Community Charities has a yearly operating budget of $4 million. I’m sure they could do amazing things with a $5 Million capital campaign.

On the flip side, North Point’s mission is “to be a church unchurched people love to attend.” They feel that the unchurched are not likely to attend if they can’t make it into the parking lot. There’s probably a lot of truth to that.

At the end of the day, Alpharetta’s largest megachurch is having problems scaling. This bridge is certainly a solution. I trust that they have prayerfully considered this decision so I’m not going to pass judgment. I’ll leave that to my readers. Is this a boondoggle or worthy effort to get non-believers into pews?

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