The rewrite of the controversial Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District was intended to clear up confusion for developers and calm fears for homeowners living in the area near the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe MARTA Station. But the City Council member representing those in the area is concerned the new law will allow for much higher density and removes residents’ power to change redevelopments.
City officials, however, say the rewrite clarifies density issues and, for the first time, gives them a way to enforce density restrictions.
The City Council voted 3-1 at its Jan. 23 meeting to approve the Overlay rewrite, a process that began in June and included public meetings up until a few days before the vote. The original overlay was approved by DeKalb County in 2007.
The Overlay District is a special zoning that sets guidelines for urban, pedestrian-friendly development around the MARTA station and Peachtree Road corridor to encourage people to use other modes of transportation rather than cars in the notoriously heavily-trafficked area. Guidelines range from sidewalk sizes and storefront appearances to height and density allowances to keep a “village feel” on Dresden Drive while encouraging larger, mixed-use developments on Peachtree Road and at the MARTA station.
Councilmember Bates Mattison, who voted no, expressed his concern that the new law allows developers broader abilities to simply build by right or with only staff approval and eliminates much of the public rezoning process where residents can leverage developers to consider some of their demands.
Specifically, Mattison raised concerns that the new ordinance allows up to 120 units per acre in the newly designated Peachtree Road 1, or PR1 district, to be constructed without public input through a rezoning process or special land use permit process. The new Overlay rewrite divides the area in three PR districts. PR-1 includes the Peachtree Road corridor from Club Drive to Ashford-Dunwoody Road. PR-2 includes Dresden Drive, Brookhaven Park and Town Brookhaven, and PR-3 includes Apple Valley Road.
Mattison sought to amend the ordinance by requiring a SLUP in the PR1 district for developments with more than 60 units per acre. His amendment was rejected by the rest of the council.
“The 120 units per acre is there for a reason,” Councilmember John Park said of the new zoning requirement at the council meeting. Changing a detail like this at the last minute after a more than six-month process could lead to an inconsistent application of the law, Park added.
“We have to have respect for the process … with consultants, staff, the Planning Commission. I almost feel like if [we did this] we would be saying thanks, but no thanks,” Park said. “I trust the people that put this together. I think it’s dangerous to legislate from the dais.”
City Manager Christian Sigman said a steering committee has been in place from the beginning of the process and for Mattison to try to make such a drastic last-minute change “cheapens the entire steering committee.”
“We had a long process,” Mayor John Ernst said. “We need to get to a point in the city where the process is upheld to the end.”
The MARTA station site is about 15 acres and various redevelopment concepts previously have been proposed. Mattison said the new overlay zoning ordinance will allow for almost 1,500 apartments on that property. The city also recently lost its long legal battle in what was known as the Hastings lawsuit, where a developer sought to build a mixed-use development including 273 apartments on about 5 acres at 3920, 3926 and 3930 Peachtree Road.
The council last year stopped a proposed MARTA development, which included plans for more than 300 apartments, and fought developers of the Hastings site in court before their petition to have the case heard from the state Supreme Court was denied in December.
Mattison later said allowing 120 apartments per acre without public feedback is a step in the “wrong direction” for the city.
“I cannot understand how my colleagues are supportive of a law which will allow almost 1,500 apartments on the MARTA site, and up to 580 units on the Hastings site, without any type of public hearing, zoning or SLUP, or even a design review process,” he said in an email sent to constituents.
Both developments were met with significant opposition, in part due to the density issue, but mainly because it wasn’t the “right” development, Mattison said.
“The city was able to stop these projects, with the exception to legal interpretation of Hastings, because of our ability to have a say in the process. Now we will have no public input as long as they stay under 120 units per acre, and potentially twice the density of apartments,” he said.
“To me, it appears we’ve moved in the ‘wrong direction,’ or at least have diminished our ability to have a say in future developments on Peachtree,” he said.
Community Development Director Patrice Ruffin said there are other standards in the ordinance that would limit units per acre and noted that now there are legally enforceable density restrictions in the Overlay when in the previous Overlay there was none.
“First of all, the ordinance does not specify apartments, rather units per acre,” Ruffin said. “While the ordinance allows for high density development, there are other standards in the ordinance that would limit the actual number of unit that could be achieved, such as setbacks, open space, parking, building height, etc.
“In other words, 580 units is an absolute maximum on a tract of land large enough to hold 580 units within the confines of every other zoning stipulation,” Ruffin said. “On a typical parcel, setbacks, open space and parking would limit the density to a fraction of that maximum. It should be reiterated that this maximum now exists where there was no maximum previously.”
On the MARTA property, developers can build up to 12-story buildings with a special land use permit and open space of more than 2 acres.
“The allowances on the MARTA site are the same [as in the previous overlay] with the bonuses permitted,” Ruffin explained. “The major difference is that there is a setback from Apple Valley Road of 150 feet of where the taller buildings can be located. This provides protection to the residential developments across Apple Valley that the previous ordinance did not.”
Mattison raised the idea again of a design review board to oversee development in the Overlay district. The city last year considered a design review board for months, but eventually abandoned the idea after lax community participation. Jack Honderd, who participated in the original Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, suggested the city contract with a professional urban planner to ensure the future design and development of the MARTA site meets the city’s criteria.
“This is to make sure … it meets our dreams and vision for what Brookhaven wants to be,” he said. “This is our heart and center.”