‘Burbs turn to town centers to spur growth

Workers lugged file cabinets and desks into the new Alpharetta City Hall last week, but it’s the new businesses moving into downtown around the 22-acre government complex that most excites city leaders.

A few miles south in Sandy Springs, ground is expected to be broken by mid-2015 on a $100 million city center with government offices, a performing arts center, shops and residences. Mayor Rusty Paul hopes the project will create a true downtown for his young city.

The two northside cities have joined the ranks of metro communities spending millions rejuvenating their downtowns, making them more walkable and urban and using the lure of public investment to coax private redevelopment.

They follow the master planning of cities such as Decatur, Norcross and Woodstock that have spent years upgrading streetscapes and using zoning and tax money to remake their city centers into bustling hubs for residents and merchants.

In Alpharetta, the $30 million-plus project includes a city hall, park land, a Fulton County Library branch, a parking deck and land for future commercial development. It has been cited as a factor in several new restaurant and retail openings, said Kathi Cook, deputy director of community development for the city of Alpharetta.

A development with for sale lofts over shops on Canton Street and a new townhome community a few blocks away were all attracted at least in part by what Alpharetta officials hope will become a more walkable city center.

“There’s been a huge interest in redevelopment of the downtown area,” Cook said.

A recent study commissioned by the Atlanta Regional Commission found a sharp turn in real estate investment toward walkable nodes of development within the metro area.

The study, conducted last year by Chris Leinberger of George Washington University, found that emerging and established Walkable Urban Places — or WalkUPs — attracted just 13 percent of real estate investment from 1992 to 2000, but 60 percent since 2009.

Walkability has become not only a buzzword of urban planning, but a vital piece for recruiting young people and businesses, economic development officials say.

At a recent ARC function, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said higher-density development not just in his city but across the metro area will help attract young people and boomers who are flocking to walkable communities.

Building on a plan

Alpharetta officials developed a master plan in 2003 and followed that up with land purchases through the recession to develop a new government center, a grassy mall, a park and space for mixed-use development along Main and Academy streets. The city expects to name a developer in January or February for outparcels that could include space for shops, residences and other businesses.

Alpharetta has about 62,000 residents, but it lacks a highly-developed downtown. The city is perhaps best known for multilane roads, manicured yards, tech companies in cloistered suburban office parks and miles of strip retail.

But city officials hope the new city center and the $600 million mixed-use development known as Avalon, to the east on Old Milton Parkway, will help jumpstart a new form of downtown development.

Cook said developers have approached the city with plans to redevelop stretches of Thompson and Academy streets with more residential units and city leaders will press developers to include pedestrian and bike connections to downtown and Avalon.

Alpharetta officials also are hard at work on a much broader master plan for a larger swath of downtown that builds upon a blueprint crafted more than 10 years ago. That process is analyzing transportation, green space and future land uses.

Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, said his city plans to build a 1,000-plus seat performing arts venue, and a mix of shops, residences and a city hall on the site of a former Target store at Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads. The $100 million project could break ground by the middle of 2015.

The city is currently searching for a contractor after selecting Atlanta-based developers Carter and Selig Enterprises as the managers of the project.

Still fine-tuning

The actual amount of retail and office space hasn’t been ironed out, but the development team anticipates up to 35,000 square feet of retail space and about 85,000 square feet for government offices, said Malloy Peterson, an executive with Carter. There will also be approximately 300 residences.

“We’re still fine-tuning (the plan),” she said.

Sandy Springs formed nine years ago, starting the cityhood wave in metro Atlanta. One of the driving forces of incorporation was to have the power to control planning and zoning, Paul said.

“It’s the biggest project we’ve undertaken since we’ve been a city,” Paul said.

Sandy Springs has large and active neighborhood groups, but it has lacked a defining characteristic as a city. It’s also lacked a community center for large events. The downtown project could help create the “connective tissue” the new city needs, Paul said.

“Equally important is using City Center as a catalyst to trigger the redesign of Roswell Road from an eclectic collection of strip malls to a more defined 21st Century mixed-use environment,” Paul said.

The aim also is to attract jobs and residents who want to live close to work, Paul said.

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