Charging tolls on commuters who drive down Buckhead’s residential streets. A new bus route or rail line between Cobb County and Lindbergh Center Station. Affordable housing incentive programs to let lower-income workers live closer to their jobs.

Those were among the bigger priorities that emerged at the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood’s May 2 meeting at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, as it kicked off a study of ways to “let Buckhead breathe” rather than “suffocating” on commuter traffic. Formal recommendations will come no sooner than September, but one message was clear: the residential neighborhoods see themselves as under literal invasion by outsiders from the land of Cobb.

As one resident concerned about ever-growing traffic and pedestrian safety on Moores Mill Road put it, “Anybody watch ‘Game of Thrones’? We have the White Walkers and they’re not walking, they’re driving.”

Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods Chair Mary Norwood, center, lays out the commuter traffic agenda, joined by members Robert Patterson, left, and Gordon Certain, right. (John Ruch)

Some of the initial policy ideas are already getting outside reactions, pro and con. Tolling certain neighborhoods, known as congestion pricing, is among many ideas that may be studied by the city in a traffic management review requested by local City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, and the notion has drawn controversy.

Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, a group of business and civic leaders, said in an interview prior to the BCN meeting that he strongly opposed the general concept of congestion pricing for Buckhead.

“As a center of tourism, as Buckhead defines itself with 1,500 retail units, I think not only would it be a tremendous economic detriment to businesses that are here, [but] you could have riots in the streets from people who want to come here from across borders,” Massell said. “…I just think it’s very distasteful.”

The idea of some type of improved Cobb-Buckhead mass transit line, however, got a good initial response from some Cobb officials, according to BNC Chair Mary Norwood and Robert Patterson of the North Buckhead Civic Association. Norwood said she recently met with Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce about transit issues and that he arranged for her and Patterson to meet with county planning and transportation officials in late April.

From those talks, Norwood said, a bus rapid transit route running between Cobb and Buckhead on I-75’s HOV lanes is “very much a possibility.” And while Cobb has been infamously resistant to joining MARTA, Patterson said, “When Mary and I met with Cobb [officials] two days ago, they said, ‘Don’t give up on rail coming from Cobb County.’”

MARTA and the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority had representatives in the audience at the BCN meeting, by Norwood’s request. They did not comment about the transit talk.

The BCN coordinating a privately funded transportation study for all of Buckhead or key corridors was another idea floated by Norwood.

The “Let Buckhead Breathe” initiative came out of the BCN’s recently formed interest area groups, or subcommittees, on such issues as transportation. Norwood now aims to gather three “task forces” of members to set priorities on its three general goals: “enhance transit options,” “protect neighborhoods” and “provide affordable workforce housing.”

Tolling and tech

BCN board member Robert Sarkissian led a presentation on how technology could aid the neighborhood-protection goal. He said that at minimum, the BCN should recommend local congestion pricing and “adaptive” traffic signals, which change based on traffic conditions rather than a simple clock. Such neighboring cities as Sandy Springs already have widespread use of adaptive signals and Atlanta has started installing some in Buckhead.

“One question is, can we implement some sort of congestion tax” on people driving through neighborhoods from outside addresses, Sarkissian said. “The technology for that is pretty easy now… I don’t know popular that’s going to be.”

He also envisioned a high-tech future where autonomous vehicles could be synched with traffic signals and personal data so that outsiders could be walled out by red lights, a notion that drew applause from the crowd.

Congestion pricing is used in several large cities around the world, including central London, and is a national discussion point due to New York City’s recent study of the concept for lower Manhattan. However, those cities also have extensive public transit systems as alternatives, well beyond metro Atlanta’s current systems.

Massell of the Buckhead Coalition said the city’s study of congestion pricing came up during his recent “summit” with leaders of the Midtown Alliance and Central Atlanta Progress, and their reaction was negative, with one suggestion that it might be unconstitutional.

“I don’t think it’s doable. I don’t think it’s practical. I don’t think [that] when they think it through they’ll recommend it,” Massell said of the city study. “I respect the effort to reduce traffic” and that many commuters come from Cobb, he added, but at the same time, “It’s a labor force. They work here.”

Transit improvements

In a presentation on commuter-oriented transit, Patterson noted that Buckhead already had some great assets, including two MARTA rail stations, and more on the way, such as bus routes, the Clifton Corridor light rail to the Emory University area and possibly a rail extension to Gwinnett County. “Most parts of Atlanta would love to have our transit infrastructure,” he said.

The missing bit is a connection to Cobb. Commuter buses currently run from Cobb to Downtown and Midtown MARTA stations, but none go directly to Buckhead, which Patterson called “completely crazy.”

Among the items he and Norwood discussed with Cobb officials was routing a proposed new bus rapid transit line – meaning large-capacity buses use some type of dedicated lane – proposed on Cobb Parkway so that it would come to Lindbergh Center Station.

Norwood revived talk of a Buckhead subway line last year. At the meeting, Norwood cited the idea of using airport funds to help pay for it, citing the precedent of New York City’s AirTrain to John F. Kennedy International Airport. She heard that idea from Ferdinand Levy, a retired Georgia Tech economics professor and Buckhead resident who says he helped to propose that funding mechanism while working as an airport consultant.

Affordable housing

Housing relates directly to Buckhead’s traffic congestion because people who work in the neighborhood but can’t afford to live there have to come from elsewhere, often by private vehicle. More affordable housing could mean more people commuting within the neighborhood rather than through it, or even walking to work.

The BCN is tallying the numbers of apartments, condos and townhomes in the neighborhood, and suggesting some could be made affordable to local workers via developer tax incentives and preferred-renter deals where landlords give breaks to employees of certain local employers.

The BCN effort largely echoes an affordable housing study underway by the Buckhead Community Improvement District and Livable Buckhead, though with more of an anti-development spin in its presentation. That BCID and Livable Buckhead effort came out of a master plan’s findings that, as of 2016, 98% of Buckhead employees commuted there from outside. Housing capacity was found to be a major issue, with 10 times more jobs than households in the neighborhood, and while many units are being built, most are luxury projects unaffordable to the roughly 40% of area employees who make less than $50,000 a year. The executive directors of the BCID and Livable Buckhead attended the BCN meeting, but did not speak.

Sam Leneaus, a real estate agent working on the BCN housing issues, said he counted 58,274 existing “attached” units (meaning two or more in one building) in Buckhead, with 2,702 units under construction and another 3,069 proposed. He suggested the data is an argument against approving more multifamily housing out of concern it would cause traffic.

Instead, the idea is to make some of those existing units affordable to local workers through the incentive programs. “We’re not suggesting Section 8 housing,” Leneaus added, referring to federally subsidized public housing.

One resident was concerned that apartment buildings lower local property values, while Kim Shorter, a board member of NPU-B, asked, “Are we sure we have an affordable housing problem in Buckhead?” and suggested that some people simply choose a “Cobb County lifestyle” instead of a “Buckhead lifestyle.”

Norwood said that affordable housing is a major city government issue and that Buckhead has to do its part. The current method of offering developers density bonuses for a “tiny piece that is affordable” isn’t working, she said. “The beauty of this is, it’s not a mandate at all. It’s an opportunity,” she said.

Private traffic plans

A review of privately funded traffic improvement plans was another meeting topic. It ranged from the massive North Buckhead Neighborhood Master Plan, completed in 2015 at a cost of $25,000, to a new effort in Tuxedo Park that could cost up to $40,000.

One audience member said she’s new to Atlanta and did not understand why citizens had to privately commission traffic studies. “It seems like we just need to ask the city to do its job better,” she said, drawing knowing laughter from the crowd.

Norwood said one reason for the discussion was the BCN might help coordinate and fund such studies, including on a large scale. “But as far as getting the city to do its job, that is really aspirational,” Norwood said.

Mentioning that she is a former elected official, but not that she lost the 2017 mayoral election to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Norwood added that she hasn’t seen a change in the city’s willingness to do such studies itself in the past 18 months. “The reality is, there are other parts of the city that get huge studies done,” but Buckhead doesn’t get them, she said.

John Ruch

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