As the Perimeter fills in, many believe mixed-use development will become the standard pattern of development.
“When Perimeter was first built, it was retail and then office, and that was really it,” Dunwoody Economic Development Director Michael Starling said. “Those uses were very much separated and typically separated by large parking lots.”
As the area has matured and taken on a more urban profile, those vast parking lots have become prime real estate for infill development.
“As values of property increase, those empty parking lots just become very valuable. To unleash that value, they need to be developed,” Starling said. “If we were still way out in the suburbs and property was still really cheap, you probably wouldn’t see that.”
Over the years, tastes have changed and communities and local governments have started to demand a more aesthetically pleasing mix of development in urban areas. Though they can be more challenging and costly to build, advocates say the “live, work, play” aspect of mixed-use projects reduces dependence on cars and creates a more interesting profile for the communities where they are built.
Mixed-use is defined as development encompassing more than one function, including residential, retail and commercial. Typically modeled after a traditional town square, many of these developments include pedestrian-friendly elements like wide sidewalks and landscaping, and feature retail space on the ground floor with apartments or office space in the floors above. However, there are different mixed-use models.
Starling said an area like Perimeter Center, which is mostly built out, lends itself to mixed-use development.
He said tastes have also changed greatly over the past 30 to 40 years. Large suburban developments or corporate office parks are just not the type of environment large companies are looking for anymore, Starling said.
“Employees don’t want to work in an office park that’s segregated from everything else. They want to be in a more walkable place,” Starling said. “They’re really moving here because of the access to these amenities and, again, that’s being driven by their employees.”
The employees many businesses are trying to attract – the young, educated and tech-savvy – have different priorities than their parents.
Jack Honderd, a Brookhaven-based architect who specializes in transit-oriented development, said developers are finding that young adults want to live in urban areas with access to public transit and within walking distance to stores and restaurants.
“Demographically, what they call the millennials, people between about 18 and 35 have a much stronger preference for living in these types of environments than living out in the suburbs,” Honderd said. “When you have major changes like this, it’s rarely caused by people in their 40s and 50s … it’s a generational change.”
Honderd said the concept of mixed-use development is far from new, however.
“When I was in school back in the late 70s, it was already an important part of urban studies and urban planning,” he said.
Historically, urban centers included a variety of uses, such as shops, restaurants, apartments and hotels. But over time, zoning codes in many areas separated land uses, designating some areas as residential and others as strictly commercial.
Over the past decade, there has been a greater emphasis on reintegrating development to encompass a variety of uses. People are also focusing on building dense developments around transit stations to give people the option to use public transportation or walk to where they need to go, rather than getting in a car and driving.
The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative program awards planning grants to local governments. Brookhaven was awarded one of these grants, which led to the overlay zoning district, which requires new development around the MARTA station to be more urban and pedestrian friendly.
“The Atlanta Regional Commission really started fostering these ideas through their LCI studies program,” Honderd said.
One of the bigger mixed-use developments in the area is Town Brookhaven on Peachtree Road.
The project was developed by The Sembler Company, a company behind several other mixed-use centers in the metro Atlanta area, including Perimeter Place in Dunwoody.
Steve Althoff, Sembler’s senior vice president of leasing and property management, said the company became interested in mixed-use development about 10 years ago.
“If you’re building in an urban environment, you need to build up. That lends itself to retail, residential and office. All of that can live together very well,” Althoff said.
Althoff said Sembler has been around for 50 years. For most of that time, the company built traditional suburban shopping centers, anchored by supermarkets.
“We did that for 30 years and then probably 12-13 years ago we started evolving to build more Target-anchored power centers in suburban markets,” Althoff said.
Althoff said over the past decade, retailers such as Target have wanted to get back into urban centers, leading Sembler to design mixed-use projects.
Althoff said its mixed-use developments are more complicated than typical shopping centers.
Building a typical shopping center on an empty piece of land takes one to two years to design and build, Althoff said. A mixed-use center in an urban area will typically take three to six years to complete.
“There are different code requirements for residential than there are for commercial,” Althoff said. “Each development has its own peculiar needs that need to be addressed. If done correctly, everybody can live harmoniously. If done incorrectly, it can lead to real conflicts that make it difficult to operate.”
For example, grocery stores often receive deliveries very early in the morning. If a grocery store is planned next to apartments, those residents aren’t going to be very happy about the noise in the pre-dawn hours.
So there are many factors that need to be considered when designing a mixed-use development, Althoff said.
“It’s much more expensive and it’s much more time-consuming,” Althoff said. “It takes much more time to design and build.”
But Althoff said in many ways, mixed-use developments are worth the effort. They are typically very popular with communities and local governments.
“It can be very rewarding. You can be very proud of them because they do become your baby over time. It’s nice to see them successful,” Althoff said.