By John Schaffner
The Sembler Co.’s controversial proposed high-density mixed-use development at Briarcliff and North Druid Hills Roads has gone away—at least for the time being. But it may be leaving a legacy, a plan to redevelop Executive Park as a “Town Center.”
Likewise, the proposed redevelopment of an area of aging apartments on the north side of Buford Highway into a project called Symphony Park has been withdrawn for now, but it’s withdrawal provides the county with time to plan future development in the Buford Avenue corridor from the Atlanta city line to the Northeast Plaza shopping center and Briarwood Road, rather than simply zoning for individual projects.
Those two land areas on the south side of Brookhaven likely will mean changes in the fabric of the community for Brookhaven residents in the years to come, according to DeKalb Dist. 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader. And, he wants the planning for those areas to be visionary and done right.
“There are significant features that we need to organize around” between Briarcliff on the south and Buford Highway on the north, Rader said. “We’re looking to make whatever development takes place to be compatible with the surrounding uses and to generate the infrastructure to support [what is being built].
“One of the biggest things we are trying to bring to the table is the notion that you can build higher urban densities that are appropriate to places near freeways in a better way than we have done it before.”
It’s an urban area, but past developments — garden apartments or single-use shopping centers or office parks — “are not urban in any way,” he said.
“You need a car to get between every single destination,” he said. “You get all the disadvantages of higher density development—trip generation and load on the schools—without any of the benefits of urbanism.”
A third major development area that likely will affect Brookhaven residents is the Brookhaven Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) project area, which is located along Peachtree Road from Cherokee Plaza shopping center to Oglethorpe University—focused around the MARTA rail station—and down Dresden Drive to Camille Street. The LCI area includes Town Brookhaven, a Sembler Co. mixed-use development on Peachtree Road.
The LCI plan calls for more dense, mixed-use development at the MARTA station property and alongside Peachtree Road and a mixture of commercial and urban residential development along Dresden Drive.
Except for Town Brookhaven, which is moving forward slowly due to the economic slowdown, progress on the LCI plan is at a standstill for now. However, Rader said there are elements of the plan, such as the development of a new library, that the county should make some decisions about in the near future.
Rader said what the county is trying to do “is discern what in urban development makes a place attractive and transfer those elements as we redevelop suburban areas that already have a non-residential environment or maybe a higher density residential. We want to make that work for people rather than work against them as they have seen it in the past.”
Rader admits that forces zoning that favors mixed-use development, “or at the very least forces people to think about the properties next door and connect them.”
He believes the planning process needs to look at the specific features of the land as well. “If there is a creek on the land you need to get the density on top of the hill, and not down in the flood plain,” he explained.
Rader said the homogeneity of development—both commercial and residential—in the area “is a real problem.”
“You need something that is diverse in order to make it stable,” he said. “That is the idea for developing a more detailed plan for an area. We go through these areas that have been designated as character areas in the comprehensive plan and try to give them some character.”
Executive Park Town Center node
The county has designated the area just inside I-85 on both sides of North Druid Hills as a Town Center for higher density development. The idea is to replace the old one-story buildings in Executive Park with taller, more efficient buildings, he explained, and the project would have a green belt running through it. County officials believe intense development in the area should be between I-85 and Briarcliff, not south of Briarcliff, where the Sembler Co. had proposed a major mixed-use development including high rises.
Across North Druid Hills, he said the former site of BellSouth’s multi-story training center could be joined by additional multi-story, higher-density buildings, possibly stretching the length of Tullie Road from North Druid Hills to Tullie Circle. Also, the Children’s Healthcare office park, which stretches along Tullie Circle, could be redeveloped at a higher density.
Buford Highway corridor
On the Buford Highway corridor, Rader said the Symphony Park plan “was another proposal that was inconsistent with that Suburban Redevelopment Corridor intensity.” The developer applied for Town Center density. The county decided that the Town Center designation does not work there.
That is why Rader and fellow DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon said, “We know this area has a different future from its past, but we don’t know what that is. So let’s look at that area between Briarwood Road and the county line and see what we can learn about it so that as people look to develop we can get the right things in place.”
Symphony Park has withdrawn its request, “so we are really working on the plan in abstract.”
He said the Planning Department wanted to withdraw the proposal for planning the corridor, but Rader and Gannon want to continue. “We don’t want to wait for another project to come in and then adapt the plan to fit the project. We want the project to respond to the plan,” Rader stated.
Essentially, Rader feels the county now has almost four months to work on this overall corridor plan.