By John Schaffner
Dist. 2 DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader declares the Buford Highway corridor as “the most ill-considered corridor in the county.” But he and Super Dist. 6 Commissioner Kathie Gannon are trying to mount a groundswell of interest to change that for at least a segment of the corridor along the bottom of Brookhaven from Northeast Plaza west to the Fulton County line.
The two officials said the corridor has not been a part of the county people have thought much about. The highway “was treated as a pass-through,” Gannon said during an interview the Reporter held with the two commissioners July 31.
“Yet, if you look at Buford Highway on a map of the region,” Rader said, “and when you look at the infrastructure that exists in that plain — whether water and sewer, which had to be developed to service all of those apartments, or the highway infrastructure — you see amazing, unused infrastructure in a very central part of the county.”
Rader said an interesting thing that came up when he spoke at the July meeting of the Brookhaven Community Connection “was this whole notion that somehow Buford Highway was relevant to people in Brookhaven.”
He and Gannon believe that to be true, so they are pursuing a zoning overlay for the area they dub the lower Buford corridor, to spur rezoning and redevelopment to make it part of Brookhaven.
They hope to move the process forward with a planning charette around the second week of September to get input from people who live along the corridor and in the Brookhaven residential neighborhoods to the north.
“There is this unused potential of not just connecting everybody on the corridor, but connecting those communities that live off of it,” Gannon said.
“We don’t need to redevelop most of our single-family neighborhoods,” Rader said. “The places we really need to think deliberately about and strategically about are these places that homeowners don’t live — Buford Highway.”
He said that even in its heyday in the 1970s, Buford Highway “could reasonably be called a transient area. It was developed that way with a perspective of singles apartment complexes and stuff like that. While these people all had disposable income and they were good tenants, they weren’t necessarily what you would think of as a neighborhood community.”
“In 2004, Georgia Tech people studied the potential for redevelopment of the whole community around Buford Highway because of the infrastructure that is there already, the lack of development, the transit-oriented in and out, a million driveways just connecting to the road,” Gannon said. “It brought attention to Buford Highway from all over the country except in DeKalb County.”
Gannon said a safety task force was set up because of the people killed each year on the highway. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked on fixes to Buford Highway related to the injuries and deaths, and “were giving presentations all over the country,” the commissioner added. So everybody knows about Buford Highway except DeKalb County.”
“You could make an argument that the corridor worked relatively well when everybody was an upwardly mobile single person with a car per adult in every household. But that time has now passed in the area,” Rader said. “The top choices for young people now are much more urban places, and they have moved away from Buford Highway.
“The properties along the corridor are obsolete. We have not seen the type of reinvestment needed to keep them attractive. By virtue that it is a relatively uniformed corridor, it has all declined at a very uniformed rate.”
The housing has declined to become affordable for low-income people, Rader said, so “now what you see on Buford Highway is an over-representation of a particular demographic — not because they necessarily work in this area, but because this is where they can find housing.”
But, he added, “it is an area that is remarkably ill-suited to their needs as a community. It is very difficult to get across the street, but the typical typography is that you have the apartments on one side of the road and the retail on the other side.”
Rader said the corridor has other problems. “The only road that gets you between these parcels is Buford Highway itself. There are no grids, so you can’t take the back roads. Many of these properties are in the flood plain, and we have stepped all over our riparian quarters. Peachtree Creek is a wonderful asset in that area, but it has been inundated with all this paved area. There are no real recreational opportunities in the area. It has a myriad of different issues.”
But the location is excellent, Rader said. “There are very few places that are better located from an access point of view to Buckhead, to downtown, even up to Gwinnett County than is the Buford Highway corridor.”
Rader and Gannon know there is going to be a lot of pressure to redevelop the corridor. That is what Symphony Park is about — a major mixed-use development planned for the north side of the highway and backing up to Brookhaven’s Cross Keys High School and Woodward Elementary School.
“We need the rezonings and the land-use plan and the changes that will put in those street systems that make it more pedestrian-oriented and put concentrations of people in the right places,” Gannon said.
“What we are trying to do is place some development overlays on that area,” Rader said.
In 2006, the county adopted a comprehensive development plan that classified the area as a suburban redevelopment corridor. The density they anticipated would not exceed the density that already exists. “So you couldn’t rearrange the development that is there,” Rader said. “You couldn’t respond to the market forces that are going to require some return for the risk of actually going through a redevelopment process.”
Gannon said the county Planning Department doesn’t have the capacity to be in charge of the corridor study. “We had to find our own planner so that we could begin to look at the big picture.”
“Most of the people who work on these issues in their real jobs seem to live in west-central DeKalb — the people who work at the Atlanta Regional Commission, Jerry Cooper, who runs the Cooper Cary architectural firm,” Rader said. “They all talk about this. The trick has been to put them to work in the interest of the community where they live.”
Rader said some real community planning will happen, and “some of the neighborhoods are showing a real interest in also getting behind it.”