- Chris Joyner The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
If you travel down Jimmy Carter Boulevard near the I-85 interchange, a gas station isn’t hard to find.
In fact, it’s a heavily traveled thoroughfare, complete with convenience stores, strip malls, banks and fast-food restaurants. And it’s jam-packed with Gwinnett County commuters making their way to Atlanta.
That’s probably why QuikTrip chose a parcel of the highway between Joseph Way and Hayes Drive as the location for the Tulsa, Okla.,-based chain’s next-generation gas station/cafes.
The design is massive. Plans show the nearly 6,000-square-foot building squatting on three acres with 54 parking spaces, four entrances, 10 gas pumps and even some cafe-style outdoor seating. If you need gas, gummy bears and coffee, this place is heaven.
Well, it’s heaven unless you happen to live right behind it, like Billie Elliott. Elliott, 84, has lived in her Hayes Drive home for 49 years and doesn’t fancy a 24-hour convenience store opening a stones throw away from her bedroom window.
“It’s supposed to be the golden years,” she said. “I’ve raised my four children here and we’ve been happy as a lark. It’s a nice neighborhood. I don’t want it to get changed.”
What commuters don’t see as they struggle in stop-and-go traffic on their way to the interstate is that Hayes Drive and Joseph Way are the entrances to a neighborhood of 300 working-class homes.
Andrea Nelson, one of the leaders in the QT resistance, describes the neighborhood as “transitional.” And she said developments like the QuikTrip can dramatically change the direction of that transition.
The houses are 40- to 50-year-old three-bedroom, two-bath houses, and many of the owners are like Elliott and have lived there for decades. Other residents are young, ethnically diverse, middle-class families who wanted to live close to the city and were attracted to a neighborhood where you can still buy a house for under $200,000.
The neighborhood provides what a lot of metro governments claim they want: workforce housing for a diverse population. Marella and Dowlen Lloyd have lived there three decades and Marella, a Cuban-American, ticked off a list of her neighbors by ethnicity.
“We are here in this street … Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, El Salvadoran, African American, white American, Romanian and Cuban,” she said. “The one thing we are 100 percent agreed on … we don’t need QuikTrip here.”
And they have a good argument as to why it shouldn’t happen. Gwinnett taxpayers funded the county’s 2030 land use plan, which designated the area southwest of Jimmy Carter at Joseph Drive as a residential “character area” — basically a mix of housing and “neighborhood serving commercial uses.” The plan specifically discourages convenience stores, even really nice, super-big ones.
Yet those same county planners are recommending the Municipal-Gwinnett County Planning Commission approve the project.
Now residents are getting organized. “Say No” signs dot front lawns, stoking fears of crime and traffic they associate with an all-night convenience store. But they face an uphill battle against a popular company with a regional headquarters in nearby Lawrenceville.
The QuikTrip plans include buying up the four houses on Hayes Drive closest to Jimmy Carter, demolishing them and replacing them with blacktop and newly planted sweet gum trees and ornamental bushes. A project that big needs space, which means it needs the county’s help to get the portion of the plot zoned residential changed to commercial.
“We think it’s an absolute perfect fit,” said QT spokesman Mike Thornbrugh, noting that the gleaming new gas station will be replacing a rather dingy former bank.
“We think we are going to be able to clean it up quite a bit … and do our very best to blend in,” he said.
Two sides don’t agree
The argument that QuikTrip is building a store to serve the surrounding neighborhood doesn’t pass the laugh test, even if you set aside the fact that the neighborhood doesn’t want it.
For one thing, it’s not like you can’t find a QuikTrip in Norcross. There are 10 within 4 miles of the proposed mega-QT. You could blindly drive in any direction and run into one. If these folks want the QuikTrip experience, they don’t have to go far to get it.
In fact, it’s that experience that has them scared. Several homeowners drove me to the QT on the backside of their neighborhood around 11 a.m. Monday to show me nearly 20 day laborers loitering around the gas station’s litter-strewn periphery. It’s not the kind of look that gives you confidence in the neighborhood.
The county planning staff did suggest some restrictions be placed on the property, but I don’tthink the condition that taxidermy services will not be allowed gives them much comfort.
QuikTrip corporate officials have met repeatedly with residents and tried to come to some sort of compromise, but the residents’ conditions — like “don’t be so big” or “don’t stay open all night” — gained little traction.
Nelson said residents have been warned that if they are successful in beating back QuikTrip, the next proposal for the site could be worse.
“What happened to option three?” she said. “What happened to actually following the plan and putting in retail or offices or lofts? Nobody wants to look into option three, which is following your own rules.”
Several homeowners I spoke to offered a dark suspicion that the plans would not have gotten this far if a massive gas station wanted to plant itself in front of $1 million homes in north Gwinnett.
“I don’t think they would put up with this 1,000 feet from their own house,” Nelson said.
Planning vote Tuesday
The proposal comes before the Municipal-Gwinnett County Planning Commission Tuesday and commission members are likely to get an earful from residents. Commissioner Rich Edinger, who represents the area on the board, already has a lot of background.
“I’ve met with the community and I’ve met with QuikTrip and I’ve met with the community and QuikTrip at the same time,” he said. But he says he’s still in the “listening stage” and his vote will be a game-day decision.
“I won’t make a decision until the meeting,” he said. “I’m just listening to people’s concerns and I’m listening to what QuikTrip is saying they will do to address those concerns.”
Edinger is an engineer with a private firm, but he’s worked in the public sector too, including with the Georgia Department of Transportation and for several years as chief engineer for Gwinnett County.
If he’s leaning one way or another, Edinger isn’t tipping his hand. However, he did express the philosophy that developments on the edge of zoning boundaries shouldn’t negatively affect one area in favor of another.
If that’s the philosophy of the entire commission, QuikTrip may have some convincing to do.