Dear Decaturish – A response to Wild Heaven owner’s letter about the Alexan Gateway project
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This letter is specifically addressed to Mayor Elmore and the Board of Commissioners of the City of Avondale Estates:
We are writing today to express our serious concerns about what seems at this point likely to be approved by you—the project for a high-density, tall multi-storied apartment complex proposed by Trammel Crow, which, as proposed, is situated in the Western Gateway of the city. Our concern is related to the vision for a future Avondale Estates that was approved by the 2014 Master Plan for the city. That vision is summarized on page 70 of the Master Plan, aptly titled “The Vision”:
The City of Avondale Estates is a vibrant, growing community with a small town feel…. The Downtown will follow the holistic city plan first designed by George Willis with integrated transportation, passive and active recreation opportunities, extensive landscape, and exceptional architecture maintaining the City’s unique sense of place [emphasis ours].
The Trammel Crow project is troublingly contradictory to the Master Plan. And, as zoning is the crux of the Master Plan, providing the Trammel Crow development with a variance would set a troubling precedent likely to transform the city from its small-town feel to a more urban enclave, re-defining what we as a community want Avondale Estates to be.
It is true that with the adoption of the current Master Plan, there is an expectation that the zoning ordinance will be revised accordingly, which is demonstrated by the zoning audit, and which explicitly references making the new zoning align with the Master Plan. What would be expected, then, until new zoning is in place, is that the City would make sure that any new development was consistent with the Master Plan. As such, it seems to us that the critical aspects of the Master Plan that would need to be considered in interim decisions about development include the total number of residential units anticipated, and how each development fits into the overall number (1556 residential units in the Central Business District); public green space; road connectivity; building scale on College Avenue/US 278; parking and sidewalks. As the Board has acknowledged, with the addition of Trammel Crow, the density of residential units in the Western Gateway far exceeds the density envisioned in this corridor. Consequently, if we wish to retain an approximation of the Master Plan’s assumed and envisioned density encompassing the entire city, this project precludes flexibility in density elsewhere.
While the proposed greater density in the Western Gateway does not correspond with the Master Plan to begin with, even more important here is the question of scale. The laser focus of the Master Plan is its mandate for one to two-story buildings lining College Avenue, which implicitly is an indicator of small-town atmosphere, with greater height allowed toward the rail corridor. Here we have a serious question—how do four and five-story buildings support these aspects of the Master Plan? We don’t get a small-town character with four or five story buildings slammed up against our main street. The scale vision of the Master Plan is reiterated by the city’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan:
As the city is mostly built out, new development will primarily be the redevelopment of existing properties. The challenge is to ensure that redevelopment happens in line with the character and feel of Avondale Estates. This challenge aligns with the DeKalb County Consolidated Plan.
The City of Avondale Estates will:
- Protect and enhance the City of Avondale Estates’ historic character and small town atmosphere while facilitating smart growth and development.
- Leverage the City of Avondale Estates’ unique identity and location in the region to strengthen existing businesses and drive new economic development.
- Promote an active, healthy community with opportunities for recreation and the enjoyment of greenspace.
- Maintain and expand the range of housing options in appropriate areas to accommodate a diverse population and workforce.
Several arguments articulated by one of our city commissioners sum up a defense of the Trammel Crow project on two bases: its outlying location within the City’s Central Business District and its derived monetary benefits as a vehicle for funding the Master Plan for the rest of the Central Business District. The commissioner argues that since the Master Plan could not be developed under the current outdated zoning ordinance, zoning exceptions to build tall high-density multi-story apartment complexes, such as the South City development, are a matter of course. Writing the new ordinance to accommodate the Master plan takes money and time. Therefore, Trammel Crow should be given an exemption before the re-writing of the current zoning ordinance, so that the City does not lose the golden opportunity to take advantage of the current building cycle.
We think it is crucial to consider the implications of putting aside zoning considerations to accept the Trammel Crow project. Accepting the Trammel Crow project is not just against current zoning, but also against the zoning required by the vision of the Master Plan. The implied argument that the city did it once (with South City), so they can/must do it again to accept the Trammel Crow project, misses an important aspect of zoning procedure. With only South City as an exception, re-writing the zoning ordinance consistent with the Master Plan is less an impediment, as it could be grandfathered in. But acceptance of another non-conforming exception in the Trammel Crow project casts a whole different light on the ability of the city to adopt new zoning that is consistent with the Master Plan. With the acceptance of the Trammel Crow project, the city will have established a significant precedent—two of two proposed high-density tall multi-story complexes– making it difficult both legally, presumably, as well as practically to deny zoning variances in other parts of the Central Business District. The impulse that says, “let’s do it now, and then when we have time we can re-write the zoning laws,” is fundamentally flawed. Implicitly, accepting the Trammel Crow project is in and of itself an irreversible re-writing of the zoning, established without proper procedural vetting and contradictory to the adopted 2014 Master Plan. The acceptance of Trammel Crow re-writes zoning in a way which cannot be undone. Through acceptance of this project, the whole face and tenor of the city will be changed, a change that will last generations.
By providing this variance to the Trammel Crow builders, it will be more difficult to preserve the small-town character of downtown Avondale Estates. The logical consequence is that other property owners will have the same expectations to maximize the value of their property in return on investment through high-density, over-scaled development that is not consistent with the Master Plan. At the same time, the downtown could become a target for developers of over-scaled projects wanting similar terms—projects much more difficult to stop once the variance for the Trammel Crow project has been provided.
It has also been argued that financial benefits from the Trammel Crow project will be used to fund a small-town atmosphere in the transformations of the rest of the city. However, these financial benefits will be significantly delayed by the financial arrangements for deferred tax revenue that are being established between the City and Trammel Crow. There is no certainty that the potential funding reaped from the Trammel Crow development will go to funding other aspects of the Master Plan, needs that will likely arise as a result of a much more highly dense Central Business District. When questioned, for instance, about the additional police that will be needed, one commissioner has responded that the city has already approved the hire of two more police officers, at a cost of $80,000 each, but he also mentioned that this decision was based on current needs. The irony here is this: If two more officers are needed now based on current needs, then it is certain that even more officers will be needed to accommodate obligations related to the Trammel Crow complex, to the expense of the City.
We think that there are several other factors that the board needs to consider in making their decision about the Trammel Crow project:
- Geographic Context/Traffic Congestion
In writing about the likely addition of Trammel Crow, a business writer for the AJC (February 12, 2018) addresses the implications of this for the density that will envelope the area: “Adding up the four developments [South City, Trammel Crow, North Arcadia, and Decatur Marta complex] shows that in the next three to four years a total of 1,322 apartments, 47,000 square feet of restaurant/retail, and a 52,000 square foot grocery could come online, within several yards of each other.” Obviously, Trammel Crow would only be a part of this density that is poised to change the entire nature of the area, including that of Avondale Estates. However, Trammel Crow will increase the inevitable traffic congestion on the busy commuter road, College Avenue, the major artery through Avondale Estates, whose entrances and streets are already severely congested because of the commuters who pass through the town. Will College Avenue become as heavily congested as North Druid Hills or Clairemont Road?
A respondent on Next Door Avondale Estates who has pre-school children recently expressed concern about the decreased availability for Avondale Estates property owners of its charter school if/once the Trammel Crow project is approved. This should be of serious concern to the city, on behalf of young families who are our future.
In addition, the city should consider the potential status of the Avondale Elementary school as well when population of the Trammel Crow is added. Related to this, LDG—the builders of the proposed high-density seven-story affordable housing complex proposed at the Kensington Marta station—lists Avondale Estates Elementary as their designated school. LDG had to prove the availability of Avondale Elementary for its Phoenix Station residents, as a required part of their application for zoning variance to the DeKalb County zoning commission. LDG has listed the school currently at 70 percent capacity, so that families at Phoenix Station could be accommodated by the school. However, they are not the only housing development that has listed Avondale Estates Elementary as the available school. This has been named by the developers of the Mountain Drive housing complex. It has likely been listed for the development at South City. Centrally here, Trammel Crow has also listed Avondale Elementary as its designated school. Such an anticipated leap in density will be a challenge for Avondale Elementary as well as for the city. If all these complexes come to fruition, the school will undoubtedly have to expand, and how will that be accomplished?
- City Population
The 2014 Master Plan implies, with their projected residential housing market in the next ten years (1556 residential units in the Central Business District), that the city will be looking at a population increase of 1500-2500, which will bring the population to almost 6,000. The question becomes, how big do we want Avondale Estates to be, and how do we control for that growth? Is it by providing every new development variances for greater density?
On a final note, we also share the urgency, as related to the Master Plan, to “get this show going!” For too long our central business district has been burdened with areas of neglect and unsightliness. We think, however, that the Master Plan can be executed without Trammel Crow. If South City should, and likely will, prove lucrative, and with the burgeoning popularity of our area to building speculators, why would developers not be knocking on our doorstep with terms that are more in harmony with the vision and dictates of our Master Plan? And when they do, why not then use the financial incentives we’re making available to Trammel Crow to enable such desired development?
We hope that the City will sustain the unique feeling of Avondale Estates by supporting development conforming with and not contrary to the Master Plan. It’s this type of development that will make Avondale Estates ever more attractive to the increasing number of people who will live in it, move through it, or stay awhile to shop, eat, and play – in a relaxed atmosphere with a small-town feel throughout, whose ambiance has been set by its gateways.
In conclusion, if the citizens in Avondale Estates decide that they want to alter the vision of the current Master Plan by violating its city scale and density in the Central Business District, then as a community we should work on a new Master Plan, one that will accommodate the alternative vision of entrepreneurs such as the owner of the Wild Heaven Brewery, who recently wrote Decaturish in support of Trammel Crow. The real question is: Who do we want to be as a city? If vision has changed since the 2014 Master Plan, then a new Master Plan needs to be written. The current 2014 Master Plan will not accommodate the Trammel Crow project.
Thank you for listening to our serious concerns in this letter.
Jan and Bill Hover
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