Residents hoping to stop the development of a sprawling 150,000 square foot Walmart near Linbergh Center suffered a setback.

The project on July 12 received the blessing of Atlanta’s Zoning Review Board despite strenuous objections from neighborhood groups. The board voted 4-2 to approve the development. Neighborhood Planning Unit B-Chair Sally Silver said she was disappointed by the decision.

The 150,000 square foot facility will move forward, and Silver said the plan got an assist from Mayor Kasim Reed’s office. She said the mayor’s Senior Policy Advisor David Bennett was talking with the developers, Fuqua Development and Sembler Co., prior to the vote.

“The presence of the mayor’s senior policy advisor chatting with the development team before the meeting and the ZRB vote shows that Atlanta’s policy of seeking best in class has changed to good enough,” Silver said.

Bennett told the Buckhead Reporter on July 13 that his presence at the meeting wasn’t unusual and that representatives from the mayor’s office often attend other meetings at city hall.

“I was walking back from a meeting at the Sustainability Office. I knew that zoning was up and stopped by to say hello to the guys doing the project and nothing more than that,” Bennett said.

Silver said the NPU’s objections have nothing to do with the development being a Walmart.

“We’re not against development,” Silver said. “We’re for good development.”

The Atlanta City Council zoning committee will take up the zoning request Aug. 1, before putting it before the full council Aug. 20 for a final decision.

Attorney Steve Rothman, representing Fuqua and Sembler, told the board it was unlikely that more time would help the developers and NPU members agree on a plan.

“We’ve had three different votes [from NPU-B] and I don’t want to go back,” Rothman told the Board.  “I think what we have is a philosophical difference.”  He added that objections to the development revolve around ‘ethereal’ notions of what is or is not “urban” development.

At the heart of the argument is the area’s designation as a Transportation-Oriented Development and Special Public Interest District by the city of Atlanta.  Since 2001, the area surrounding Lindbergh Center has been given area-specific zoning regulations meant to maximize transportation resources and create more pedestrian-friendly, urban development.

Attorney Larry Dingle, representing the developers alongside Rothman, stressed that plans for the development conform with the TOD requirements, including a lower limit on the number of parking spots per square foot of development, the presence of bike racks and the mingling of residential and commercial space.

“Every one of those TOD standards, this project complies with,” Dingle told residents and Board Members.

Silver spoke at the meeting and characterized the development as little more than a suburban style big box, tweaked just enough to conform to the zoning regulations without creating the environment they are meant to encourage.

“What we’re asking for is a development that meets the intent of the SPI and not just the limits of its requirements,” she told the Board.

NPU-B’s Development and Transportation Chair, Andrea Bennett, said she was disappointed that the nominally transit-oriented development does not do more to encourage use of trains, buses or cycling and walking along the proposed Buckhead Trail along Georgia 400.

“This is probably the most transit-rich area in north Atlanta,” she told the Zoning Review Board.  “The first thing that jumps out at you [on the plans] is the big old whopping parking lot.

Residents described their vision for the area as one of multi-story development with street level commercial space beneath dense residential space.

Rothman and Dingle stressed that the developers had made all attempts to create the sort of dense, transit-oriented development desired by residents and required by the city.  However, they took issue with the assertion that vertical mixed-use projects are the only way to create an urban environment.  Dingle, at one point, compared defining urban design with defining what beauty is.

“There are some people that prefer vertical mixed-use with residential on top and commercial on the bottom but that’s not a requirement of the TOD,” Dingle told the Board.  “We’re driving the speed limit here.”

Silver also said the Atlanta Board of Zoning adjustments deferred an appeal for a demolition permit to tear down the historic Randolph-Lucas House. Silver said the building’s owners and people interested in preserving the structure are working on a Memorandum of Understanding that will save the home.

Chuck Stanley and Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this article

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.