New boom revives traffic issues for Perimeter area

Eight hundred to 1,000 Mercedes-Benz workers will soon stream into the office district near Perimeter Mall.

State Farm’s development team is busy building the first of a skyline-altering row of office towers near I-285 and Ga. 400 that will house thousands. Murmurs abound about a Boston development group dusting off plans for a nearby mini-city with office towers and 3,000 residences along Hammond Drive.

The Great Recession pumped the brakes on the rapid urbanization of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, but now it seems to be back in overdrive.

Though a sign of a stronger economy, the surge renews concerns about rush-hour congestion that already chokes metro Atlanta largest jobs market.

“Our No. 1 issue moving forward is to find some transportation alternatives,” said Michael Starling, who heads economic development for Dunwoody. “The good news is much of this (new) development is being centered around MARTA, and the key to congestion is to increase the number of MARTA riders.”

Compounding the challenge, the renewed Perimeter development boom is bookended by two of the biggest mixed-use projects in the metro area — the new Braves stadium and entertainment district near Cumberland Mall and the redevelopment of the Doraville General Motors plant. Only the latter has a MARTA connection.

One of the most critical highway projects in Georgia history — a nearly $1 billion overhaul of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange — will kick off in the next year or so, but it will likely be the end of this decade before it’s finished.

MARTA is planning an expansion of high-capacity transit to Alpharetta, and a years-old state plan envisioned the potential for transit and optional toll lanes along the top end of the Perimeter. But both are years away as well.

As state lawmakers seek $1 billion or more in annual funding for future transportation projects, local leaders are grappling with how to ease traffic inside the Sandy Springs and Dunwoody areas.

There are plans for a privately-funded shuttle system to supplement MARTA and company shuttles that already run between rail stations and office parks. There’s also a push to entice workers to take transit and designs for trail networks to better connect cloistered office parks to rail stations.

Surface street and other pedestrian upgrades are also in the works, but there are few quick or inexpensive fixes. Coordination between local governments, private groups and the state will be key, leaders say.

“Everything we look at is a huge number for a city our size,” said Dunwoody Mayor Mike Davis.

The recent death of a Dunwoody woman walking on I-285 near Roswell Road and the gridlock that ensued exposed anew how critical the junction of I-285 and Ga. 400 is to the region.

The Central Perimeter area has invited new construction and corporate expansion because of the existing nucleus of corporations, the north-south MARTA line and infrastructure developed over several decades, local officials say.

State Farm, AirWatch and Mercedes are among the companies that weighed the region’s car and transit access heavily in their recent expansion decisions.

The self-taxing Perimeter Community Improvement Districts have invested tens of millions of dollars that helped plant the seeds for the rebuilt I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, the interchange of Ga. 400 and Hammond Drive and the upgraded junction at Ashford Dunwoody Road and the Perimeter.

The next wave

Population growth and decades of permissive zoning — one of the hot-button issues that led to the new city movement that created Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs — has helped contribute to congestion throughout the metro Atlanta region.

The next wave of development both intown and in the close-in suburbs will have higher-density residential that leaders hope appeals to millennials who want to live near their jobs — meaning more walking and transit trips.

A major priority of MARTA is to foster dense development around stations to leverage the transit link.

“My generation was perfectly fine with a long commute and a house deep in a cul-de-sac,” Davis, the Dunwoody mayor said. Younger adults, he said, want to live in a high-rise with activity on the street.

State Farm chose a site adjacent to the MARTA station at Perimeter Mall for a four-tower campus that will connect directly to the transit hub. The first tower is underway.

Across Hammond Drive, Boston development firm GID Urban Development Group in 2007 proposed High Street, a blend of 3,000 mid- and high-rise residences, hotels, office towers and street front retail on more than 40 acres. The company planned to start construction in 2009, but the project was delayed.

GID officials did not return messages seeking comment, but the site has been scouted by major corporate tenants, people in the commercial real estate community have said. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, currently in an office building on the site, just announced it will move in 2017 to a building about a mile away on the expanding Sandy Springs campus of parent Cox Enterprises.

Davis, the Dunwoody mayor, said the city hopes to learn soon what GID plans for the site, and word has been that construction could start in 2017.

“We expect at some point in the not too distant future will come to us to put a proposal together,” Davis said.

Other drawing board projects could bring thousands of new rental units to Sandy Springs-Dunwoody market. Sandy Springs plans a new city center on Roswell Road that will include a city hall, apartments, a performing arts center, parks and retail.

Along Hammond Drive, hundreds of new apartments are opening and developer Regent Partners plans an apartment community within the Concourse office park, home to the well-known King and Queen office towers. Another apartment development is planned within the Palisades office complex on Peachtree Dunwoody Road.

Mercedes’ plans

To the north, Mercedes-Benz, relocating from New Jersey, is said to favor part of Sandy Springs’ largest undeveloped tract along Abernathy Road for its new U.S. headquarters, after a temporary stint in Dunwoody. The rest of the 70-plus-acre property is under contract to become a residential community. Nearby on Abernathy Road, a joint venture of Ackerman & Co., Cousins Properties and H.J Russell & Co. plan a complex of offices, retail and a hotel.

Two other developers — Crown Holdings and Hines Interests — control sites near the Dunwoody and Sandy Springs MARTA stations that are zoned for high-rise projects.

Tackling traffic snarls along Hammond Drive, convincing more workers to take transit and improving pedestrian access around MARTA and the Perimeter Mall area are among top priorities, said Yvonne Williams, president and CEO of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, the self-taxing business districts that use proceeds for infrastructure work.

Another is a privately-funded shuttle between office buildings, retail centers and MARTA, similar to The Buc system in Buckhead. A plan for that service could come this year, Williams said.

The most impactful project in the near term will be the remake of I-285 and Ga. 400 with new flyover bridges and collector and distributor lanes. More than 400,000 vehicles use the interchange daily.

Williams said expanding MARTA to the north to Alpharetta and connecting jobs centers in Cumberland and Doraville with transit also need to be addressed.

“We need to reduce the reliance on single vehicles,” she said.