A decade-old attempt to fix one of Buckhead’s worst intersections – Roswell, Piedmont and Habersham roads – is back on the agenda, though a Nov. 14 planning kickoff meeting had no immediate clear answers. The meeting also marked a public return for Mary Norwood, the former city councilmember and mayoral candidate, who is stumping for a much bigger transportation solution: a new subway line between Cobb County and Lindbergh Center.

“It may be my raison d’être in 2019. You never can tell,” Norwood said of the subway idea.

The “triangle” intersection of Roswell, Piedmont and Habersham roads as seen in a Google Earth map. Blackland Road feeds into the intersection as well.

The meeting, organized by the Buckhead Community Improvement District and held at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, is the start of a 10-month study to address the traffic-choked triangle where the three roads intersect each other. If solutions are nailed down in the final report, expected in September 2019, there’s no guarantee they’ll be built. That would be up to the city and the state, which controls Roswell and Piedmont roads as state routes. The BCID, a group of self-taxing commercial property owners in the central business district, cannot directly fund any intersection work, since it is outside its area, but is able to pay for the study.

Various local organizations and neighborhood associations have floated solutions for the triangle over the years, including such radical redesigns as a roundabout. The new study is particularly picking up from the 2008 “Piedmont Area Transportation Study,” a bigger-picture analysis that also was funded by the BCID and conducted by the same firm, Kimley-Horn and Associates.

The 2008 study suggested short-term fixes for the triangle area, some of which were implemented, including an extended left-turn lane on Piedmont at Habersham and a traffic light just north on Roswell Road at Powers Ferry Road. But that study said that a long-term solution “was not agreed upon by all interested parties because of the impacts it had on the adjacent neighborhoods.”

Some major changes were floated in that 2008 study, including turning Piedmont between Roswell and Habersham into a pedestrian-only park and plaza. Another idea was plugging Old Ivy Road into the intersection — it currently dead-ends about 25 feet away, with a sidewalk in between – and adding a new road behind the adjacent Tuxedo Festival shopping center.

Sean Johnston of planning firm Kimley-Horn and Associates discusses the triangle intersection with residents at the Nov. 14 meeting at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. (John Ruch)

For the current study, the BCID and Kimley-Horn say they’re starting with a blank slate. About 30 people attended the Nov. 14 meeting, where they were asked to offer any sort of ideas in the broad categories of streets, transit, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. They were also asked to rank which of those areas should get design priority; automobiles appeared to rank first and bicycles last.

Suggestions, given in discussion with consultants and written on notecards, varied widely. Traffic calming devices, better traffic signal timing, vanpooling, smaller transit buses, and installation of more sidewalks were among the ideas. One general theme was concern about diverting traffic into nearby residential neighborhoods.

Some people were ready for bigger changes, like building “skybridges” and tunnels.

“I wish they would have a huge, enormous roundabout,” said Mercy Sandberg-Wright, the interim president of the Tuxedo Park Civic Association. She said she is concerned that there won’t be attention to the underlying issue of Cobb commuter traffic cutting through the neighborhoods, including Tuxedo Park’s Blackland Road, which intersects with Roswell right across from Piedmont but was not highlighted in the study presentation. “There’s just too much traffic and there is no public transit,” she said.

Jim Durrett, the BCID’s executive director, said the consultants will work on some draft recommendations and present them in another community meeting in the spring.

Norwood and the subway

Norwood, who lives on Habersham, lost a bruising mayoral campaign late last year to Keisha Lance Bottoms by fewer than 1,000 votes, and has largely remained out of the public eye since then. In recent weeks, she has reemerged in the role that put her on the political radar, as a neighborhood activist, helping Tuxedo Park fight a controversial townhome project at the Blackland/Roswell intersection. Now, she indicated that public transit in Buckhead could be her next political effort.

“We need a subway coming from the northwest into Lindbergh,” Norwood said. “Build it. Build it quick… Will it cost a lot of money? Yes. But we have money.”

Speaking to the Reporter about transit, Norwood quickly gathered a sizable group of residents around a church pew to hear a mini speech about the impacts of Cobb commuter traffic and the need for a new MARTA rail line.

Mary Norwood, right, the former city councilmember and mayoral candidate, speaks with residents about a possible new subway line and other transportation-related neighborhood improvements during the Nov. 14 meeting. (John Ruch)

Norwood said the current study’s look at a specific intersection is great, but the underlying problem is more than “whether or not we do one more turn lane or this and that… We need to solve it holistically.”

To her, that means digging a subway tunnel from Cobb – maybe the SunTrust Park area – to Buckhead. With the new regional transit authority known as The ATL gearing up, the possibility of such a line, once politically unthinkable, could be on the table, she said.

Norwood framed the traffic and transit issue with a major theme of her mayoral campaign and post-election commentary: that Buckhead is an economic anchor of Atlanta, but gets relatively little city investment. That message was hotly controversial and was blasted by Bottoms’ administration as divisive. In raising the theme again, Norwood spoke cautiously and with a softer approach, sometimes stopping mid-sentence to choose words carefully and emphasizing she didn’t want to “dredge up” the past.

She spoke broadly of Buckhead as a center of civic and corporate engagement. “You actually look at the town from that lens, it’s a very valuable resource,” she said of Buckhead. “There’s a way for that resource to coexist with the business district at its edge… What we need to lobby for is a way to get commuter traffic off our streets.”

But, Norwood said, Buckhead has been largely overlooked in recent transportation improvement programs. Those include MARTA’s new sales-tax-funded expansion – a criticism also made by the North Buckhead Civic Association – as well as the Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond and projects funded by a new transportation special local option sales tax. While Atlanta BeltLine transit rose on the MARTA priority list after a recent controversy, Norwood said that “85 percent of neighborhoods do not touch the BeltLine,” including some in Buckhead.

She said there needs to be “adjustment” in all of those programs because Buckhead “needs and deserves some real and thoughtful improvements.”

Norwood described some problems in her neighborhood involving commuter traffic and lack of infrastructure. Many streets lack sidewalks, she said, “So our moms with their baby carriages are in the street.” And she is “terrified” to leave her own driveway at times due to backed-up traffic heading one way and speeding traffic headed the other.

She likened the push for a subway line to another infrastructure problem and political effort: her previous work on improving the once-overflowing local sewer system. “If we do the same thing for transit we did for sewer,” she said, the neighborhood will see significant improvements.

Durrett, the BCID executive director, said that such concepts as new MARTA rail lines is beyond his organization’s scope, but that its various road project studies are connected by a holistic approach. The BCID was among the partner agencies that last year produced the “Buckhead REdeFINED” master plan for the central business district.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.