A “blue wave” crashed onto Dunwoody’s borders in November as voters elected two Democrats to represent them at the General Assembly next year, marshaling in a new era of politics for the city long regarded as a Republican stronghold. An ongoing dispute with DeKalb County over ambulance service continued, High Street’s massive mixed-use development in Perimeter Center returned to the front burner, discussions about the city’s future budgeting policies and an outcry from residents to loosen up the look of Dunwoody Village were other top stories this year.
‘Blue wave’ rocks city
A “blue wave” rocked Dunwoody Nov. 6 as state legislative seats long held by Republicans were flipped with decisive Democrat victories. Changing demographics and a backlash against President Trump led to the seismic shift in power, according to some observers. Democrat Sally Harrell of Chamblee handed state Sen. Fran Millar his first loss in more than 20 years by defeating him for the state Senate District 40 seat. In another stunning upset, Democrat Mike Wilensky, a first-time candidate, won the House District 79 by defeating Republican Ken Wright, the city’s founding mayor. This is the first time in the city’s 10-year history it will have Democratic leadership at the Gold Dome.
Officials sound alarm on EMS service
The City Council in May declared an “EMS emergency” to state health officials over ongoing concerns about slow ambulance response times from DeKalb County’s contracted provider, American Medical Response. The city also stated it wants to break off from the county to form its own EMS zone. DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond and Mayor Denis Shortal negotiated an agreement for more ambulance service in the city, and while the council voted in November to approve the contract, council members also demanded the city’s request for its own EMS zone remain a priority. A state subcommittee reviewing DeKalb’s overall EMS service and Dunwoody’s separate EMS zone request is expected to make a recommendation in February. AMR’s contract expires Dec. 31 and on Dec. 11 the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners voted to extend AMR’s contract for six months. County officials are working with a consultant to finish up a request for proposal expected to be finished early next year.
Massive Perimeter Center developments move forward
Developer GID teamed up in November with North American Properties, the developer behind Avalon in Alpharetta, and set a date of late 2019 to break ground on the massive High Street mixed-use development in Perimeter Center. The announcement was made days after the City Council approved a six-month moratorium on permitting and construction of any multi-unit buildings. High Street is planned to span 10 city blocks near the Dunwoody MARTA station and would be built out in different phases to include 1,500 apartments, 1,500 for-sale condominiums, townhomes, 400,000 square feet of new office, 400,000 square feet of retail and 400 hotel rooms.
The mayor and City Council also approved Grubb Properties’ rezoning request for some 20 acres in Perimeter Center to construct a mixed-use development including 900 condos, 500,000 square feet of new office space, approximately 12,000 square feet of retail and nearly three acres of green space. The 16-story Twelve24 office building is going up on what was a nearly 4-acre unused portion of the Perimeter Mall parking lot and will include 335,000 square feet of Class A office space and 11,000 square feet of ground floor retail and restaurants. National staffing company Insight Global announced plans to relocate from Brookhaven to the Dunwoody office tower.
Survey says loosen up Dunwoody Village look
The City Council voted in December to hire planning firm TSW to help review and rewrite the Dunwoody Village Overlay zoning code in 2019, a process expected to take up to one year. An online survey of more than 1,800 people showed 85 percent of respondents wanted many restrictions relaxed, particularly its dominant “Williamsburg” style architecture. An August community meeting attracted hundreds of residents, many of whom said they wanted to see the area become more pedestrian friendly, have a green space where people can gather, and zoning that encourages contemporary architectural designs. The moves to review the overlay came after the City Council directed staff to find ways to loosen the zoning restrictions in Dunwoody Village.
Finance director says city needs to think about maintenance
The mayor and City Council this year approved a $25 million general fund budget for the city, nearly the same total as the past several years. But Finance Director Chris Pike warned that as the city’s operations budget continues to grow, the money to maintain new capital investments is becoming scarce. In an August memo to the council, Pike said the city’s existing capital investments have reached a point where maintenance eats up nearly all its budgeted resources. Finding ways to pay for maintenance as new projects come on board, such as the planned athletic fields at Brook Run Park to be built next year, must be addressed, he said. No specific actions to address Pike’s concerns have yet been publicly discussed.
City officials squeeze budget for Brook Run Park funding
The City Council found a little money here and there in a 2018 budget amendment to pull together the roughly $7.5 million to be used for the Brook Run Park master plan. Construction is set to begin in March 2019. Most of the money came from the $2.88 million received as part of the 2015 DeKalb County parks bond settlement. Another $1.45 million came from the homestead option sales tax that includes $1 million in HOST reserves and $450,000 in unbudgeted HOST revenue collected in January, February and March. Slightly more than $2 million was cobbled together from general fund savings including: $1 million from real property tax; $300,000 from franchise fees (collected from utilities for use of right of way); $140,000 from building structures and equipment; $290,500 from reduced expenses from regular salaries; $21,000 from reduced expenses of overtime salaries; $101,000 from reduced group insurance; $4,500 from reduced Medicare expenses; and $63,000 from reduced retirement expenses. Plans for the park include adding two athletic fields, a band shell, more parking, a new picnic area and a new park entrance.
Planned I-285/400 elevated toll lanes come under fire
Dunwoody’s elected officials began this year publicly expressing anger and concern about the planned elevated toll lanes on I-285 and Ga. 400 as part of massive Georgia Department of Transportation projects. Elevated toll lanes on I-285 could tower over homes and businesses in Georgetown situated along the interstate.
Access points to the new toll lanes are also a contentious issue as Dunwoody officials warn if there is not an even distribution, the city’s surface streets could be clogged with motorists driving into the already congested Perimeter area to access the I-285 managed lanes to go toward I-75 or I-85. No detailed information about how transit, including bus rapid transit, may be included in the interstate projects have been provided, city officials also argue.
The “I-285 Top End Express Lanes” project between I-75 in Cobb County and I-85’s Spaghetti Junction focuses on adding two new elevated, barrier-separated express lanes in both directions on I-285, alongside regular travel lanes. They could stand 30 feet or higher. Construction could start in 2023 and opening could come in 2028. Toll lanes are also planned for Ga. 400 between I-285 and McFarland Parkway. Preliminary studies are underway for the nearly $2 billion project that would add two elevated, barrier separated express lanes in each direction between I-285 and Spalding Drive. Construction of those toll lanes is slated to begin in 2021 and open to traffic 2024. City officials are also denouncing GDOT for not yet holding any public community meetings to outline specifics of the project and to gather resident input. GDOT officials have said the public meetings will occur next year.
Peachtree Industrial redevelopment ‘not realistic’
A market study as part of master planning process to redevelop the Peachtree Industrial Boulevard Area from I-285 to Winters Chapel Road determined it was “not realistic” to redevelop the area at this time. The study by Bleakly Advisory Group shows the land in the study area is valued at approximately $1.1 million per acre and that it would take more than $200 million to assemble the apartment complexes included in the area. The market study showed there are 2,023 apartment units on 188 acres of the study area and there is an estimated 2.3 million square feet of buildings averaging out to less than 11 units per acre. Rents average at $1,260 per month. Combined, these properties generate a net estimated annual income of $26.2 million, according to the market study. The apartment complexes include Peachtree Place North, Dunwoody Glen, Lacota and Dunwoody Village.
Construction begins on new school; baseball fields open
Construction of the new 900-seat Austin Elementary school on about 10 acres of Dunwoody Park where the former Dunwoody Senior Baseball fields were located is underway and the new school is slated to open in January 2020. Two new baseball fields to be used primarily for Dunwoody Senior Baseball opened this year adjacent to Brook Run Park. The two developments are the result of the 2016 agreement reached between the city and the DeKalb County School District. DeKalb Schools purchased the Dunwoody Park land for $3.6 million and gave the city access to Peachtree Charter Middle School property to build two new baseball fields. The school district will hand over ownership of the current Austin Elementary School site to the city after the new school opens.