Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What kind of Dunwoody does the current residents envision?

The following editorial written by Mr. Bob Dallas of the DeKalb Planning Commission was published by the Dunwoody Crier in a condensed version several weeks ago. In light of the major projects that are being proposed in Dunwoody, while the County refuses to pass impact fees that would directly affect traffic & infrastructure improvements; I thought that this article needed to be shared.

Dunwoody is at a crossroads that can best be described as a tale of two cities. The question is: as more people move to Dunwoody, will it remain family oriented or will it shift to a singles orientation? As a 24 year resident of Dunwoody and 10 year member of the DeKalb County Planning Commission, I believe we should maintain our family friendly orientation. But it is the collective opinions of those who live in Dunwoody which matter and should be voiced to our public officials that will set the course for Dunwoody’s future.

Today, one part of Dunwoody can be described as being mostly made up of family homeowners with kids who want to attend the good schools serving the community. The other part has been the Perimeter market that is made up of the Atlanta region’s largest office market and a high end shopping district. This mix has traditionally worked well because the family environment readily mixed with the retail and the office market was convenient to the family breadwinners. Neither of these nonresidential uses produced significant negative impacts on the family uses.

That mix, however, is changing. As estimated by the Atlanta Regional Commission over 2.5 million new people will move to the Atlanta region over the next 20 years. Much of that influx of residences will be absorbed by areas where work and transit centers are located. As the largest office market, that places Perimeter in the bull’s eye of residential growth. Estimates of this growth range from 10,000 to 50,000 to 100,000 additional people moving into the Perimeter area. The increase is also guided by the two MARTA rail stations which are designed to encourage higher density uses within their vicinity.

Over the past five years we have already seen this impact in Dunwoody and Perimeter. Including the units under construction, approximately 5,000 apartment and condominium units have been built. That translates to approximately 7,500 or more additional people. These projects have tended to be relatively small, with less than 450 units per project.

As you have read, the two projects before the Planning Commission and DeKalb Board of Commissioners are substantially larger. The GID-High Street project across from the Dunwoody MARTA station includes 1,500 condominiums and 1,500 apartments; The Novare project cattycorner to the Dunwoody MARTA station includes 900 condominiums. On top of these projects, in the offing are two more projects—that we know about—which will add an additional 730 residential units. This does not include the projects on the Sandy Springs side of the Perimeter area and projects that are now just whispers, but sure to come. Many of the residential units will be 30 stories and the projects, if designed and built correctly, will include many pedestrian friendly features, grocery stores, and open spaces that support this level of density. Envision cities like Boston, Denver, Portland and Vancouver that have many people living within walking distance of where they work and play to understand the level of density being proposed.

A basic tenet of high density residential growth is ensuring a cross section of age demographics live in the area. Simply stated, it is important to ensure one age demographic does not dominate the growth. This is because the alternative result produces too many negative consequences.

For example, if all the residential units were designed for young singles, you also get a preponderance of businesses that cater to them, namely the night clubs, bars and events that naturally go along with this market demographic. Think of Midtown Atlanta or Buckhead for nearby examples of catering to the young singles market. Unfortunately when such uses dominate an area, they become incompatible for families, kids and empty nesters. They also create public safety issues, e.g. impaired driving, which the community is then forced to address.

In contrast, with a mix of age demographics development becomes more balanced. Uses friendly to kids temper uses designed for singles and encourages uses designed for empty nesters. In other words, you end up with a mix of residential and commercial uses working together, not to the exclusion or detriment of the others. Fortunately, Dunwoody and Perimeter have the potential to attract all age groups. This is not a case where the market can only attract one age demographic.

Some have suggested families will not want to live in high density residential. I only point to the above referenced cities for examples of just that, e.g. business professionals and medical residents with kids wanting to live near offices and Pill Hill and not wanting the obligations of a yard and house maintenance. Remember, it wasn’t long ago when people suggested families wouldn’t live in town homes. We now see they do, just as they will in the higher density units.

The other major impact of residential growth is experienced by the local schools. This has been ameliorated in part by the Dunwoody Homeowners Association’s, Planning Commissioners’ and Board of Commissioners’ insistence that the majority of residential units remain owner occupied. This helps to ensure our new neighbors have a more than a transient interest in our community. The parents and kids of the new homeowners are just like the parents and kids of the homeowners who currently live in Dunwoody; educated and interested in ensuring their kids receive a good education.

While the DeKalb County School Board has not been responsive to the growth, we should not let this tail wag the bad development dog. This would occur if we simply gave the School Board a pass by saying all future development should be designed for young singles. As noted, we would then have to contend with the non-family oriented lifestyle that will follow.

Arguably, the reason the DeKalb School Board has been unresponsive is because we have not held it to the same standard of scrutiny as developers. Think how Dunwoody would be today if the DHA had said 20 years ago “you can’t fight developers, so just let them build what they want”. We should hold the DeKalb School Board to the legal standard it bears, namely it must build adequate school facilities to accommodate the growth. If it does not, then just like we have successfully sued developers in the past, we should bring suit to force construction of adequate school facilities.

Eventually the new Dunwoody elementary school will be built and with 900 seats, it should eliminate the trailers at Vanderlyn and Austin elementary schools. By definition, the new school will involve redistricting of these schools lines. But the new school alone will not accommodate the anticipated growth. What is needed is to draw the Perimeter school lines, before the residential units are built, into the closer Nancy Creek and Montgomery elementary school districts. This would allow these current under-capacity buildings to be utilized and not entail any of the existing Vanderlyn and Austin area from having to be redistricted except as to the new Dunwoody school.

It is also important that the new Perimeter construction be as energy efficient as possible. While many worry about global warming, very real electrical power substation expansion has already hit home. Crier readers are very familiar with Georgia Power’s construction of a new power substation at the intersection of Ashford Dunwoody and Perimeter Summit roads and the neighborhood’s unsuccessful effort to prevent its construction. This substation is being built to accommodate the above referenced growth. Only by assuring the new development is as energy efficient as possible will it be possible to delay or eliminate another substation from being built in the future—perhaps in Dunwoody.

Fortunately, the GID High Street project has agreed to over 25 DHA imposed conditions. The Planning Commission requested and the applicant agreed to the following: 1) 25,000 sq. ft. community center(s), with a minimum 8,000 sq. ft. coming on line with the first phase. The community center(s) would be owned and managed by the residential (both rental and owner occupied) associations; 2) 20% of the owner occupied residential units are to be 3 bedrooms or above; 3) 40% of the residential units shall have balconies, with 70% of the residential units on the forth floor or lower having balconies; 4) the buildings shall be LEEDS or GA Power Energy Wise (or comparable) certified. The Planning Commission unanimously approved this project with the foregoing conditions.

In contrast the Novare project has not agreed to any conditions. At the DHA’s board meeting, its representative stated “the project is designed for singles and is not suitable for kids.” Novare was opposed to the following conditions: 1) 20% of the owner occupied units are to be 3 bedrooms or above; 2) tadd at least 25,000 retail to the stand alone parking deck to accommodate a grocery store and to shield the look of the parking deck; 3) to be pedestrian friendly, eliminate the 32 pull in/out parking spaces in front of the retail and replace with one row of parallel parking spaces and expand the amount of open space (with either hardscape or landscape) in front of the retail; 4) the buildings shall be LEEDS or GA Power Energy Wise (or comparable) certified (although Novare did agree as to the office spaces). The Planning Commission voted to defer this application for a full cycle.

There are some who say we should simply let the market decide what gets built. That is a red herring and if they were honest, they would say there should be no zoning controls in the first instance. The only question is whether Novare (and subsequent projects) will change its product to be family oriented. The statement only the market should determine what gets built goes against DHA’s requirement that limits apartments, DHA’s adding conditions of zoning to the GID (and others) project, DHA demanding WallMart not operate as 24 hours per day, DHA demanding an overlay district to protect the Georgetown look of the Dunwoody commercial district, to name a few.

Finally, while inclusion of singles into the mix is a good idea, having the products dominated by singles (or any other age demographic) is not. I can assure you what will follow the exclusive singles product is the singles night life which has permeated Buckhead and Midtown, and all of the public safety issues that go with it. In contrast, family orientation will incorporate a sustainable mix that includes a variety of retail uses.

With this development at Dunwoody’s front door, we have a choice. We can make it the best of times for Dunwoody’s future. Or by doing nothing, it will become the worst of times. That is why it is important you voice you opinion by calling our DeKalb Board of Commissioners and let them know you want each and every project to be family friendly and that the Novare project has to change to meet Dunwoody’s family, not the other way around.

Bob Dallas is a District 1 Planning Commissioner for DeKalb County.

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