Kempner: One Atlanta suburb’s goal? Ditch ugly; embrace charming

Oct 13, 2017
Lawrenceville’s City Hall sits near a proposed $200 million redevelopment project aimed at attracting residents to the downtown area. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Lawrenceville, the county seat of Gwinnett and the oldest incorporated city in metro Atlanta, doesn’t have a monopoly on ugly.

For decades, though, it didn’t seem like it opposed the concept.

The historic square downtown was nicely rehabbed years ago. Good restaurants and a popular theater have taken root there. But pawnshops, used-car lots, disjointed development and loud signs contorted the view along many of the routes in.

Now the city leaders and developers are making a big push to do more of what lots of other metro Atlanta suburban cities have gotten fairly good at: add layers of charming.

For several cities, those efforts are sprawling out farther from downtowns where the rehab work began. And they want you to come live there. They’re adding new homes to put more residents within walking distance of fresh parks, restaurants and amenities.

It’s a reminder of just how dramatically thinking has changed about where we want to live.

“Nobody would have moved to downtown Lawrenceville five years ago,” said Pamela Rowe. a teacher who works nearby and lives close to Tucker.

But now she and others told me they’ve heard friends talking about the idea. And they’ve learned about plans Lawrenceville is pursuing.

“They are wanting this to become like a baby downtown Decatur,” Rowe said.

A $200 million project

Lawrenceville just announced plans for a $200 million “walkable” and “urban-style” redevelopment project — with shops and nearly 600 apartments and houses — on land where the city currently has workshops, work trucks and a weed-covered former landfill, all a block or two from the historic square.

Yeah, a landfill. The city operated a construction debris and nonhousehold trash dump within an easy stroll of its most precious real estate.

Officials in Lawrenceville, the county seat of Gwinnett, are pushing to expand redevelopment efforts beyond the town square, which already includes the old county courthouse, restaurants, shops and the Aurora Theatre. MATT KEMPNER / AJC Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

All that is supposed to be scraped away by developers George Berkow and Novare Group, which is better known for building high-rise apartment and condo towers in Atlanta. I’m told they agreed to pay the city $6 million for the land. As part of the project, which is being called South Lawn, crews will demolish about 36 public housing units that sit behind City Hall. Replacements are supposed to be constructed nearby.

Lawrenceville has other plans. It’s about to start demolishing decaying buildings to make way for a 2.2-mile linear park. It’s really to make a prettier road and trail corridor between downtown and Georgia Gwinnett College. Separately, another developer bought land from the city where he’s planning fancy townhouses with a view over the town.

And Lawrenceville officials are contemplating steps to pretty up a busy interchange at Ga. 316 and Ga. 120.

Missed opportunities

Some Gwinnett cities have tried to create new downtowns because they never really had much of one to start with.

Lawrenceville is different.

It is, after all, the county seat for Gwinnett, which celebrates its 200th birthday next year. Lawrenceville has the historic county courthouse, built in 1885 and renovated years ago. It hosts the popular Aurora Theatre. It opened a small new park called the Lawrenceville Lawn. And it has a rich source of funding with the city-owned natural gas system that has tentacles in three counties.

But Lawrenceville also is an apt lesson in missed opportunities.

Plans for what’s been named the South Lawn development in Lawrenceville call for homes and commercial space a short distance from the city’s square. Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When a massive county government complex was built in the late 1980s, it was put farther out, disconnected from the town center. Georgia Gwinnett College opened 11 years ago with easy access to Ga. 316, but more than a mile from the downtown.

And then there were lots of smaller decisions by past Lawrenceville leaders, who made what looked like some of the most permissive zoning interpretations in a county that already had been among the most welcoming of development in metro Atlanta.

Government generally shouldn’t be a barrier to growth. Business owners shouldn’t be unduly restrained from making a buck and creating jobs.

But I could never figure out why Lawrenceville leaders didn’t try harder to regulate that growth and make the community look better, which could have paid economic dividends. (I used to spend a lot of time in Lawrenceville back in the day when I worked for a newspaper that no longer exists. Does anyone remember the Gwinnett Daily News?)

Doing bigger and better things’

Lawrenceville’s latest crop of leaders look like they are on a mission to try a new path. That includes encouraging residential development that past administrations apparently resisted. And they want to persuade more doctors and nurses at the hospital and professors at the college to cut their commutes from places such as Sandy Springs and move to Lawrenceville.

They also hired a city manager who previously worked on cleaning up the ugly along Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

Chuck Warbington tells his staff that Lawrenceville needs to see itself as a capital city. His reasoning: It’s the center of government for a county that has a higher population than six states. (Actually, it’s five states — Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont — and Washington, D.C., proper.)

“We need to be doing bigger and better things,” Warbington told me.

“We’ve been a stagnant community,” he said.

Several restaurants, including the Blue Rooster Bake Shop and Eatery, already exist around Lawrenceville’s town square, site of the old Gwinnett County courthouse. City officials are encouraging development of homes nearby to boost the city center. MATT KEMPNER / AJC Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I cautiously disclosed my not-very-charitable views about Lawrenceville being a bit ugly over the years.

Warbington’s reply? “It still is.”

“It was a free-for-all,” he said. “We were not intentional about how we wanted to build our community.”

The Sosebee brothers, Dan and Jim, who own a downtown auto parts and lawn tools business their dad founded in the 1950s, told me they generally like the changes. Dan, though, is worried about whether the economy will support such a rapid infusion of new development.

“Lawrenceville has never been a pretty town,” he told me. “But it’s probably prettier now than it’s ever been.”

The brothers saw what was happening around them in town and sped up their own plans for improvements, installing a new awning and repainting their shop building.

Jim likens the city’s changes to shifts they’ve had to make in the products and services they offer in their own business.

“There are different expectations nowadays,” he said. “You have to rise to the occasion.”

Related coverage:

Lawrenceville plans a $200M ‘urban-style’ development near downtown

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The developer says the back and forth with residents has made the project better.