It’s been 15 years since Sandy Springs Mayor-to-be Eva Galambos launched a new age of “let’s get small” political thinking in the sprawling Atlanta suburbs.
Things have changed a bit since then, of course. Inspired by Sandy Springs’ incorporation in 2005, more “new cities” roared to life as their voters became convinced that governments that were smaller and closer-to-the-ground had to be better than the ones running counties that were as populous as major cities. Now “new cities” carpet north Fulton and DeKalb and western Gwinnett counties wall-to-wall in a crazy-quilt pattern of interlocking towns.
Last month, a few planners from new cities gathered at a wood-paneled Dunwoody steakhouse to talk about whether they should give more attention to what’s going on in the communities around them. Bob Dallas, chair of the Dunwoody Planning Commission, called the meeting.
Conversations about regional issues often have been hard to launch in the metro Atlanta suburbs. This informal meeting was no different. Of the dozen city officials Dallas invited to meet for dinner, only three — Dallas and Mark Willis and Alan Kaplan, planning commissioners from Peachtree Corners – showed up that night. But a couple of hours of wide-ranging discussion convinced them they should meet again. They figure the others will join them eventually.
As Dallas sees it, they’ll have to. There have been efforts at cooperation among the cities in the past – the 911 service, for instance – but Dallas argues that planners and elected officials in these cheek-by-jowl communities regularly confront various troubles that cross city lines. Think traffic and transit. Then again, there are projects the leaders of these cities want to pursue that work best when they link together. Think trails or development at the corners where cities meet. “You ain’t an island,” Dallas said.
Instead, he argues, one city’s planners should know how the city-next-door plans to deal with an issue or a project. So should planners in the city-next-door-to-that. And the next one down the line.
As they have grown, several of the new cities have developed their own personalities of sorts. Peachtree Corners bills itself as High Tech Town with fiber optics and a city test track for driverless vehicles. Sandy Springs is building itself a shiny new downtown at what was once a country crossroads. Chamblee has grown up into what some declare to be a hip place to live. Changes among the towns are readily apparent. “Dunwoody hasn’t changed all that much,” Dallas told the other planning commissioners at their meeting, “but with Chamblee, you can’t recognize what it was 20 or 25 years ago.”
Big projects now underway — the nest of serpentine lanes that will carry cars through the multi-level intersection of I-285 and Ga. 400, or the construction of connected strolling/hiking/biking trails that eventually should allow cyclists to roll through city after city without stopping — are knitting the communities together even more. And, of course, there’s a pandemic to deal with.
Dallas argues that the communities’ planning leadership needs to at least stay in touch about how things are going. He’s proposing city planners gather regularly to chew over regional issues at restaurants and other gathering spots throughout the area. “Periodically, we will continue to reach out to each other,” he said. “This is an open-ended discussion.”
And city officials don’t always agree on how the area should change as it continues to grow. What Brookhaven and Chamblee officials want south of I-285 may not match what Dunwoody folks want north of the Perimeter and vice versa.
The same is true of other places where cities are separated only by a few lanes of pavement. The Perimeter area is expected to continue to grow in coming years, but one community’s development opportunity may sit alongside an adjacent town’s settled subdivisions, a mix that can give heartburn to residents and elected officials alike.
After all, many Dunwoody voters decided to create their city as a way to slow or stop the construction of new apartments in their community. But more people are moving to the metro area each year — apparently, whether you build places for them or not, they still will come — and developers often want to include multi-family living in new projects.
“During the Great Recession,” Dallas said, “you heard people saying, ‘Suburbia is dead.’ Suburbia isn’t dead. It’s going to be here. …. How do we manage that growth?”
Now that the map of Suburbia has been redrawn, is it time to start thinking a bit bigger again?