C. Julia Nelson
cjnelson@reporternewspapers.net

Despite previous intentions to maintain zoning for a proposed 280-unit apartment complex in Buckhead, a Texas real estate firm applied to rezone a 5.5-acre plot along Downwood Circle, which has neighbors up in arms.

Not one, but two Neighborhood Planning Units (NPU) voted to recommend denial of the request from Grayco Partners, LLC to rezone property at 3200 Downwood Circle NW from OI-C (office institutional/community business) to RG-4 (residential general for multi-family dwelling units).

Located between Northside Parkway and Howell Mill Road, the proposed complex site plan presents a variety of resident affirmed quality of life issues, including increased traffic, an over-populated school and preservation of natural space among others.

During a Jan. 2 meeting at the Atlanta Speech Center, NPU-A, voted to deny the request 9-1, seven members abstained. Overwhelmingly, NPU-C members voted 104-0 to deny the request and to adopt task force recommendations of opposition at its Jan. 8 meeting at Trinity Presbyterian Church.

Upon NPU review, the applicant will go before the Zoning Review Board (ZRB) to obtain a recommendation to Atlanta City Council. The ZRB meeting was to be held Jan. 10 at City Hall. According the NPU-C chair Eric Ranney, the applicant intended to request a 60-day deferral on the request at that meeting. (Results from that meeting were not available at Reporter press time.)

Since 1988, the property has been zoned to allow for a mix of residential (300,000 sq. ft) and office property (300,000 sq. ft). Original zoning was predicated on the idea that traffic would increase only within reason.

“With this request, all office space is entirely off the table,” Pete Hendricks, attorney for Grayco, said.

Grayco Partners applied for the zoning change in December. Under the current plan, several residential facilities would encompass 374,400 sq. ft. All physical structures on the site range in size from four to seven and a half stories, most of which would be set back at least 60 ft. off the property line, but in some cases would closely abut adjacent properties.

“For folks to truly be in benefit of blocking out (the apartment structures) and having screening, we have suggested a landscape allowance along these property lines of $25,000 for each of the abutting property owners,” Hendricks said.

The tallest structure would be a parking garage and all other buildings would be four or five stories.

The idea of changing the existing zoning does not bode well with the neighboring communities.

Jane von Seggern, president of the owners association of Howell Mill Plantation, representing the interests of the four residential communities directly impacted by the proposed complex, spoke in support of keeping the current OI-C zoning. She focused on maintaining the natural buffer that exists on the property to preserve green space.

“The border is heavily wooded; it’s a great buffer,” she said. “We don’t want to lose it. We’re a conservative lot and we don’t want to set a trend (by changing the zoning). ”

According to Atlanta City Council member Clair Muller the current OI-C zoning would necessitate the applicant build two 9-story buildings to accommodate 280 units, but would provide a 60-foot buffer. That concept would require no zoning change. RG-4 zoning requires only a 20-foot buffer, but entails a complex sprawling across the majority of the property.

Buddy Allen, a resident of West Paces Condominium, one of two residential communities abutting the property, expressed concerns about rush hour traffic.

“Every time I-75 is clogged between Amtrak and Moore’s Mill, (traffic) moves to Howell Mill and Downwood Circle,” he said. “Fire engines can’t get to the Jewish nursing home.”

Traffic counts presented from a study on behalf of Grayco revealed peak hour statistics at key intersections near the site. During these times, the intersection of Howell Mill and Downwood Circle gets approximately 350 cars per hour. Moore’s Mill at Howell Mill gets between 500 and 600 cars and Northside Parkway at Howell Mill has about 1,200 vehicles. Estimated traffic generation to and from the complex is roughly 1,833 trips per day.

NPU-A vice chair Brinkley Dickerson voiced a popular perception of the issue.

“The current zoning is more economical and beneficial to the neighborhood,” he said.

During both NPU meetings, the task force’s list of concerns was read into the record.

“Existing OI-C zoning has less traffic impact than a purely residential plan,” NPU-A chair James Nobles said. “The applicant’s traffic study confirms several existing intersections impacted do not meet standard service levels.”

Along Howell Mill, Grayco is proposing to resurface part of the road near Downwood Circle to provide a better line of sight for traffic. Both a right- and left-hand turn lane would be added to that intersection. During the NPU-C meeting several people addressed existing access problems with the cul-de-sac at Downwood Circle getting worse with more traffic.

NPU-C had previously requested the applicant consider creating vehicular access from the property to Northside Parkway. Hendricks said it would be unlikely based on typography constraints.

Jeff Gray, founder and president of the company reaffirmed his commitment to creating a better situation than exists today relative to the neighbors concerns.

“Those commitments to improve the right hand turn out of Downwood Circle and the line of site to the south are commitments I made before the NPU to fund as part of the project at my own cost,” Gray said. “I am also concerned about safety, traffic, quality of life and people’s ability to get in and out in a manner that is better than it is today.”

Other areas of concern included an already over-crowded Morris Branden Elementary School, whether stream buffers were in place according to city and state regulations and how storm water run-off and sewage would be handled.

Per a request from the City of Atlanta, Grayco is considering becoming a financial participant in a proposed sewer improvement along Northside Parkway.

Engineer Mike Twiner of Planners and Engineers Collaborative explained that participation in the proposed plan would be contingent upon approvals of the rezoning request and updated site plan.

“The construction of the sewer line would be in conjunction with the development,” Twiner said. “They would go on simultaneously.”

He projected the sewer line construction would take about 60 days. Council member Muller said the basin in that area is in dire need of renovations and having outside financial support is rare for the city.

“That basin is stressed; it needs help to prevent overflow,” she said.

The site will be renovated eventually regardless of a potential partnership, but the burden to fund will rest on the shoulders of the city.

Individual units at the complex would encompass three unit sizes ranging from 800 to 1,700 sq. ft. each. Forty-five percent of the units would be one bedroom, another 45 percent would be two bedroom and 10 percent would be three bedroom.

The average price for a unit is estimated at about $1,800 per month. Anticipated demographics of potential renters include young couples and empty nesters with very few residents under the age of 18.