About 50 people from the Brookhaven Heights, Brookhaven Fields and Briarwood Park neighborhoods recently gathered at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church and sat around tables with large maps to discuss the future.
The meeting was one of several character area study community input meetings, where residents have direct input into how they envision preserving and maintaining their neighborhoods’ unique style and appearance.
While many focused on the character area study and noted the desire for more green space and protecting the city’s trees, many also complained about the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, which runs from Peachtree Road down Dresden Drive and through the heart of their neighborhoods and city.
“It was to be used as a shield, but really it’s been a sword,” said Suzanne Heath.
Mixed-use developments that include hundreds of apartments have been proposed in recent months for the Overlay District. They are proposed for the area so they can take advantage of the proximity to Brookhaven’s MARTA station and the walkability and urban village feel of Dresden Drive.
The developments, specifically the proposed number of apartments, have brought Heath and other neighborhood activists to City Hall to fight back against developers.
The activists argue the proposed developments, which have included up to 60 residential units per acre, would destroy the surrounding neighborhoods and worsen traffic in an already congested area.
And the activists have been winning, forcing developers to cut back significantly on the number of units per acre.
The property owner of one proposed development is suing the city after City Council denied the developers’ rezoning request last month; another developer asked, and received, a deferral on its rezoning request until November.
Now, though, the Overlay District is going to get the review and revision some residents have been asking for.
City Council voted at its Aug. 23 meeting to put out bids for a facilitator to guide residents through an Overlay District planning session. Tentative plans are to have this session completed and a plan proposed in about six months, at the same time as the current “character area” studies are set to be finished. City officials are studying the areas – various neighborhoods or commercial districts defined by their “character” – as part of a revision of the city’s long-term plans.
Mayor John Ernst said because the Overlay District is not a character area itself, it was not included in the original series of meetings. He said city staff and the council agreed the recently implemented six-month zoning moratorium, set to expire in February, was the best time to allow residents take a closer look at the Overlay District.
“This will be a stepping stone to a rezoning rewrite,” Ernst said, adding the recent controversies have been “maddening” to residents and developers.
City Councilmember Bates Mattison, who pushed for the Overlay District discussion, said it was right to do so because of the anxiety caused to residents and developers over what is allowed.
“During this moratorium, we need to take a hard look at the Overlay to provide clarity,” Mattison said. “We need to get a design consultant … and determine how we handle the mixed-use corridor. We have an equal responsibility between the city, citizens and the development community – right now there’s a disconnect.”
One major disconnect is density, or how many units per acre, should be allowed in the district. Developers have started at 60 units and come down to as low as 45 units per acre after community blowback.
Neighborhood activists have proposed 30 units per acre, a number Councilmember Joe Gebbia agreed with.
“It’s always a density issue. Along Dresden Drive, I think it should be 30 units per acre, and you can quote me on that,” he said. “This would bring predictability, so we don’t have to have battles.”
Councilmember John Park said it makes sense to study the Overlay District because it’s the area that brings about the most “consternation,” and Councilmember Linley Jones said the area “needs a character area study, if not more, because the area is facing a more rapid pace of development” than anywhere else in the city.
Allowing residents to have a say in how they’d like to preserve, maintain and control development within the Overlay District is part of fulfilling a campaign promise on smart growth, Park said.
“While we have everyone’s attention [with the character area studies], let’s get their input on the Overlay,” he said. “All of us campaigned on smart growth. This is part of delivering on that promise.”