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At forum, experts nudge Avondale to look outward

Annexation, new cities Avondale Estates

At forum, experts nudge Avondale to look outward

Lake Avondale. Source: Avondaleestates.org
Lake Avondale. Source: Avondaleestates.org

Lake Avondale. Source: Avondaleestates.org

Avondale Estates’ charm is also its weakness.

It’s a city that’s inspired by and rooted in history. But that history, including its downtown district’s peculiar Tudor architecture surrounded by a mishmash of different development, has created a cloistered culture within the city limits.

During a forum on Oct. 7, a team of experts in downtown development, seated next to people running for elected office, encouraged the city to look outward.

The Second Century Avondale forum was held in the Community Club overlooking Lake Avondale, an amenity enjoyed mainly by the families lucky enough to live around it. Jack Honderd, a local developer and architect, tried to put the problem delicately as he spoke to a room full of long-time residents.

There’s a perception that Avondale’s protectiveness of its way of life has isolated the city from the world around it. It’s created a fundamental conundrum of identity. Avondale’s leadership in recent years has pursued growth and development, while some residents have fought it. Honderd asked, “Is Avondale distinctive or insular?”

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Throughout its recent history, it has tended to be perceived as insular, Honderd said, describing the town’s attitude as, “We like this place so much, we don’t need anyone else to come here.”

“If you want economic development, you want to be connected,” he told the audience.

With the Nov. 3 elections on the horizon, one that could bring in a decidedly more youthful cast of leaders on the City Commission, there’s a sense that things could change. Euramex, a local developer, is in the process of creating its vision for a mixed-use development in the city’s downtown. It will occupy 13 acres that used to house a mill and then a conveyor belt plant. But the project is very much a blank slate. Residents haven’t seen a rendering yet.

Avondale has proved stubbornly resistant to change.

Euramex also purchased the city’s notorious “Erector Set” building at College Avenue and Maple Street. It was once part of a larger plan by developer Century/AG LLC that fell apart and ended for good when the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Avondale’s residents are aging. The city has one of the highest median ages in the metro area. Young families move in hoping for a shot at the Museum School, only to leave when they don’t win the charter school’s lottery.

Plans to annex more property into the city whipped up a controversy last year when residents found out an annexation bill had been filed without their knowledge. That plan died down, but in the process it drew out residents who believe that change threatens the city’s quality of life. There were also a number of other business owners in the proposed annexation plan who wanted no part of Avondale, citing a culture they believed was hostile to business.

Former mayor Ed Rieker was lauded for his business savvy, but quickly resigned after the town caught wind of the annexation plan and confronted him about it. Rieker, who still owns property in downtown, said he was resigning to take a teaching position at Emory.

As a community, Avondale tends to look inward. Civic life takes place at City Hall, in the heart of downtown, and in the rows of homes surrounding Lake Avondale.

Honderd was joined by Ken Bleakly, president of Bleakly Advisory Group, and Pratt Cassity, director of the Center for Community Design and Preservation in the College of Environmental Design at the University of Georgia. All three urged the city to create a public space that would welcome people to the city and maybe convince them to stay and support local retail.

“You need memorable places and every community needs a heart and a town green tends to be a heart,” Honderd said. “When you think of iconic places, they all have these great public spaces. Right now you have the lake. It’s a wonderful feature. It’s in the heart of the residential area. This would be in the heart of the civic and business area.”

They also encouraged the city to have a seat at the table with any developer looking to make a big investment in the community. The experts said a developer dictating its desires to city leaders who unquestioningly obey them might lead to a project that won’t be good for Avondale, in the long run.

“I think it’s an interactive process,” Bleakly said. “It works best when all of the parties are engaged. Sometimes it works well when the private developer is engaged. It doesn’t work well if the developer is not engaged and the community is heavily engaged.”

The candidates acknowledged that the city is at a cultural crossroads.

“The pieces are there,” said Mayor Jonathan Elmore, who is running unopposed this year. “We’ve just got to make it happen.”