It’s not unheard of for the head of a business district group to update the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods about a project or two. But something different was in the air at on Oct. 10 meeting where Jim Durrett, executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, broadly offered the BCN “just an intention to work with you and really nail down solutions and get them activated” on commuter traffic, an issue that has often divided the business and residential advocates.
A new era of unity on transportation and transit is dawning between Buckhead’s major business and neighborhood groups. In part, that’s due to the BCN’s revitalized role as an advocacy organization. Another factor, is business leaders’ willingness to look at a bigger, regional picture. And there are cultural shifts on both sides, as longtime residents of a once car-centric community seek sidewalks and mass transit, and a massive burst of apartments and condos transforms the business district into a neighborhood.
“A lot of things the Buckhead Council is talking about now are things we’ve never had alignment on before,” said Denise Starling, who has worked on commuter and environmental issues for 20 years as executive director of Livable Buckhead. “People are like, ‘What? Buckhead wants transit now?’”
Mary Norwood, the former city councilmember and mayoral candidate who made her political comeback this year as BCN’s chair, says it’s a “very unifying” time. Having Livable Buckhead and the BCID “collaborating with the Buckhead Council of Neighborhood means we no longer have a divide” on Buckhead’s various areas, she said.
And with more groups joining the BCN, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations, she says there is collaboration “all the way from the DeKalb County line to the Chattahoochee River.” “I think we can make progress together, which is the whole point,” Norwood said.
At the BCID, Durrett leads a group of major commercial property owners who tax themselves to make local improvements. He says today’s mood isn’t necessarily about fixing a relationship, but “just that some things that we work on brought some focus to the residential community.”
A key example was a BCID study over the past year of possible improvements to the tangled intersection of Roswell, Piedmont, Habersham and Blackland roads. “That project was sort of catalytic in bringing the different communities together to really understand the pain that is being felt,” said Durrett.
Focused on the rough border between the business district and the northwest Buckhead neighborhoods, that plan drew quick resistance from residents who said it didn’t address the larger sore spot of cut-through commuter traffic, and might make it worse. The BCID agreed to add broader, regional transit ideas in its study.
Now the BCID is putting the project “on a shelf,” Durrett said, and moving on to work with residents who are developing neighborhood-wide traffic plans. Tony Peters, a BCID program manager, drew applause from the BCN at the Oct. 10 meeting when he announced “pause” on the project and pledged to work with residents to “come up with something as a group.”
As that project suggests, there is still some friction among business and neighborhood groups; Norwood refers to the shelved BCID intersection plan, which involves building a new ring road behind the Tuxedo Festival shopping center as “the solution, quote-unquote.”
But there is collaboration as well, with leaders of the various groups regularly joining together in policy meetings, such as Durrett and Norwood’s recent participation in a meeting with the heads of MARTA and the Atlanta-Regional Transit Link Authority to discuss possible express bus service in the neighborhood.
Norwood emphasized that the business-residential ties now are practical. “Livable Buckhead and the BCID have both shared information with us and we have shared information with them,” she said.
Livable Buckhead had its own tension with the BCN on a recent study about addressing the problem of housing affordability in Buckhead through the lens of reducing traffic. The idea was to make it possible for more of Buckhead’s workforce to live in the neighborhood rather than driving in. On the eve of the study’s release, the BCN presented its own, different count of the neighborhood’s housing inventory. Livable Buckhead ended up delaying the study to reconcile the numbers.
Norwood said BCN’s housing subcommittee was “absolutely on the ground” and had better numbers.
“We didn’t want to have any reason to discredit their work,” Starling said about the pause to reconcile the BCN numbers. But now that the study is out, the BCN and Livable Buckhead are in agreement about the overall concept and its leaders are meeting on ways to move it forward, particularly on making existing housing more affordable. “They were the ones who really pushed on [the theme], ‘You can’t just build new,’” Starling said about the BCN.
Livable Buckhead is focused on alternative commuting options, and Starling oversees construction of the PATH400 multiuse trail, whose routes have sometimes caused neighborhood friction. She said she sees big changes in the desire for transit and pedestrian paths as demographics, attitudes and lifestyles shift. Residents are calling for sidewalks in the rural-style neighborhoods that people once moved to specifically because they were hard to access. And the business district is quickly becoming a mixed-use residential neighborhood itself.
“That’s why parks are becoming so much more important,” and multiuse trails as well, Starling said. “People didn’t want that, and now they do.”
The BCN recently generated a transportation policy “resolution” that it is circulating to various officials. It includes more affordable housing, tolling on local streets and adding MARTA express buses between Cobb County and Lindbergh Center.
Starling says she “skeptical” of such parts as the tolling, but was surprised to find herself agreeing with most of the resolution. “Ninety percent of it – I don’t agree with all of it – but [most of it] is in alignment” with Livable Buckhead’s program, she said.
Transportation discussions brought Norwood back to the political scene after her 2017 loss to Keisha Lance Bottoms in the mayoral race. Norwood emerged at one of the BCID’s intersection meetings, stumping for a subway line between Cobb and Buckhead, among other regional ideas. She soon was elected BCN chair with a mandate to be more proactive.
“We wanted it to turn into an advocacy organization where we took positions and got involved,” she said.
The resolutions are one such advocacy method. At the Oct. 10 meeting, there was some resistance to the speed with which Norwood generates them, as some transportation subcommittee members said they hadn’t seen the resolution before it was approved by a majority of member neighborhood associations. Norwood acknowledges she moves at “light-speed” and that “it’s always about action with me,” but said the transportation resolution is circulating with a cover letter elaborating some other concerns and ideas.
And at the same meeting, she was reelected as chair for another year-long term, starting in January. Asked why she wanted to stay in the BCN position, Norwood spoke in big-picture terms.
“This is a great city. Our people are really good in this town,” she said. “I say our people are better than our politics.”