Why I will vote for Redevelopment Powers for Brookhaven

by Jack Honderd
 

Recently, a few Brookhaven citizens have articulately made the case against Redevelopment Powers for the City of Brookhaven, and I share some of their concerns.  It’s always dangerous, however, to let dedicated opponents define what Redevelopment Powers are and what they can do because one can end up with half the picture.

 

By way of full disclosure, I am a Brookhaven resident, and an architect and developer.  I am familiar with development economics and obstacles, as well as how public rules and incentives can mold development.  I own no commercial property in Brookhaven, nor do I have any plans to do so.  This is written from the viewpoint of a Brookhaven citizen with a keen interest in good urban planning and making Brookhaven a better place to live.

 

First, I agree with opponents’ assertion that we do not need to incent redevelopment in Brookhaven.  Brookhaven’s demographics and location make this one of the most desirable places to develop in the Atlanta metro area and, in fact, in the Southeast.  Developers are lining up for a shot at the MARTA station parking lot, and Buford Highway redevelopment is just a matter of time.

 

Why then Redevelopment Powers?  Because popularity, commerce and a growing tax digest don’t make a city a great place to live—it’s a city’s public realm that truly makes the difference.  It’s the streets, plazas, parks, trails, sidewalks, meeting places, public art, playgrounds, and neighborhoods that make a city a great place to live.  Well, it’s the people, of course.  But to realize that, people need myriad ways to interact, and it turns out that “incidental interactions”—ie. the kind that happen on the sidewalk or playground, at a local restaurant, in the dog park, during a neighborhood fun run or at a concert on the square—are the essential glue that creates a great community.  Yes, online forums, public meetings, schools, churches, and HOA’s also contribute significantly to this social fabric, and most communities have those.  What the most memorable communities have, though, is a great public realm.  Think about the towns and cities you like to visit or consider special.  What’s special about them?  Is it the flagship companies located there?  The convenient airport?  The low housing costs?  The smooth 5 lane commercial strip lined with restaurants and auto dealerships leading into town? These are all useful characteristics, but likely it is the public spaces and public life of a place that makes us want to spend time there.

 

To create this for Brookhaven, we have to provide healthy attractive ways for people to get out of their cars and experience Brookhaven and Brookhaven-ites face-to-face and on foot.  This requires some serious public investment.

 

Private development is good at doing several things.  It can build buildings and fill them with businesses which provide jobs and tax revenue for Brookhaven.  It can attract additional private development.  It can provide a return for its investors, thereby keeping the wheels of commerce turning.  Sometimes, it will provide public improvements such as sidewalks, turn lanes and rebuilt utility lines across the public frontage of its site.

 

But certain things, private development is NOT good at doing.  Private development has little interest in planning beyond its particular site boundary or investing more than what can be shown generating a clear-cut return on a proforma—it’s not a big picture enterprise.  It’s not interested in larger public investment per se.  This isn’t a knock on private development—it’s a micro-economic creature not designed to tackle macro-economic goals.

 

Let’s consider Buford Highway.  If our vision is to have new buildings and businesses line Buford Highway much as it is now, but spiffy and taller, private development can do that without City of Brookhaven investment.  If, however, our vision is of a transformed Buford Highway, a street vibrant with cars AND walkers and bicycles, with storefronts pulled up close to the sidewalks, offices above and parking behind, and with a linear park and bike/jogging path lining the North Fork of Peachtree Creek, then only City government has the vision and resources to make this public realm a reality.

 

The kicker on this kind of thinking/planning is that the redesign of Buford Highway and addition of a new linear park along North Fork of Peachtree Creek has the potential to transform the area in ways we can barely conceive. Much like along the Atlanta Beltline, new development may want to orient buildings toward the new park as much as to the street, thereby doubling the potential property value.  This, in turn, would generate a larger tax base for Brookhaven than a conventional redevelopment approach would.  More importantly, it would enhance Brookhaven’s public realm, the public spaces where we meet and enjoy activites and nature and build community—the realm that makes Brookhaven memorable and special.

 

And therein lies the great value of the Redeveloment Powers Act.  Private enterprise isn’t going to do this.  Only Brookhaven citizens can accomplish a vision and project on this scale.  The City staff and City Commission is the action arm of Brookhaven citizens, and Redevelopment Powers are the tool that can allow Brookhaven to do this at no incremental cost to Brookhaven citizens.  Good planning can pay for itself.

 

This scenario is perfectly laid out for a TAD (Tax Allocation District) under The Redevelopment Powers Act.  The City issues TAD bonds to finance the building of the linear park and redesign of Buford Highway; private development rejuvenates the corridor with new buildings and businesses built to meet the City’s design guidelines; the increased property value generates increased taxes which pay the interest and principal on the bonds.  We Brookhaven citizens get a new restaurant-shop-business district plus a 2 mile long park and multi-use path along a creek without paying higher property taxes.  How can this be bad for Brookhaven citizens?

 

In essence, when we talk Redevelopment Powers, we are talking the business principle of investment.  If we invest borrowed money (bonds), and receive a return higher than the cost of borrowing, that is generally perceived to be a good return on investment (ROI).  Why don’t we wait for surplus funds (savings) to accrue and invest then?  Because we would be foregoing years of ROI while we wait for enough funds to accrue.  Building through savings would be a safe financial route, but discouragingly slow.

 

We can give more examples of how Redevelopment Powers could be leveraged to enhance Brookhaven—the Peachtree Road corridor, a Brookhaven Beltline, a completely redesigned and rebuilt Ashford Road/Johnson Ferry commercial node. But utility doesn’t appear to be the heart of the opponents objections.  The objections seem rooted in fear of what can go wrong.

 

TAD bonds are issued and backed solely by the income stream generated in the TAD district (additional property taxes due to additional property values created).  By law, Brookhaven citizens and Brookhaven’s general fund have no obligation to make good should the income stream not meet projections.  Bondholders are at risk.  Opponents point out that in such a scenario, Brookhaven may feel the need to make good in order to protect Brookhaven’s general creditworthiness.  That’s possible, but the point made by TAD expert Sharon Gay at her recent presentation is that no TADs in Georgia (that she is aware of) have been supported by a government’s general funds.  The worst case scenario is that TAD bondholders’ payout term is extended a couple years–and that is rar, even after our recent Great Recession.  Most TAD bonds have been paid off early due to higher revenues than expected. This is testimony to the strict and conservative underwriting rules governing a TAD bond issue.

 

The bigger objection seems to be unnecessary use of redevelopment tools and unwarranted payouts to private enterprise.  Redevelopment tools such as TAD districts can only be activated by a vote of our elected representatives (City Council) and only after an extensive public review process.  At heart, then, this testifies to distrust of those we’ve chosen to lead us, fear of cronyism between government and developers, and, ultimately, a lack of confidence in our own ability to choose leaders and govern our city.  What can I say?  The newspapers are full of stories of political cronyism and corruption.  It happens.  Cynicism of government is widespread.  And yet, if we aspire to anything greater than a just-let-it-happen Brookhaven, government is our best tool to get there.  Only government—the voice and arm of Brookhaven voters—can have the vision, authority and fundability to accomplish large-scale projects of  public benefit.

 

If we want to create a better Brookhaven, then, we will need to do so through our City Council and City staff.  Talk more with your leaders if you don’t trust them.  Change them if you must.  If you believe government by nature is corrupt, I can’t influence your opinion.  But if you believe Brookhaven can be a great place to live, and you understand how public investment and the public realm make it so, then give our elected leaders the tools they need—Redevelopment Powers–to fufill that vision.

MARTA Design Workshop–Updated Schedule

Here is the latest schedule of stakeholder “tracks” specifically set up for neighbors participation. Note there are changes from the originally published schedule!  Click on the image below.  The complete schedule of all tracks can be found here.

MARTA Charrette schedule

MARTA Design Workshop, Details and Schedule

The MARTA Design Workshop being led by Southface, officially known as a “charrette”, begins next Sunday, Oct. 13, with a kickoff meeting at 6:30 PM.  All meetings are at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, 3016 Lanier Drive.  You may attend any “track” as an observer, although you must be a designated “stakeholder” in that track to participate and comment.  Monday and Wednesday 4 PM sessions are designed for neighbors’ participation, and the Thursday noon session will be a final presentation of neighborhood input.

Here is the general announcement and information;  below is a detailed schedule of “track” sessions.  Each track has a unique color on the schedule, and a unique set of stakeholders will participate in each track (although certain stakeholders may be identified to participate in multiple tracks).  A “stakeholder” is a person identified as a key participant because of their professional expertise; ownership of nearby real estate; representation of MARTA, ARC or GDOT; leadership position in the City or surrounding neighborhood; or other salient and pertinent characteristic.

If you live in Brookhaven Heights, Historic Brookhaven, Brookhaven Fields or Ashford Park, you are a minor stakeholder, even if not identified as an official stakeholder, by virtue of your location.  You may participate in the “MARTA Station Area N’hood Engagement” sessions.

MARTACharretteA

 

MARTACharretteB

MARTA Station Design Workshop

There will be a workshop in October to focus on design for the redevelopment of the Brookhaven MARTA Station parking lots.  The workshop will both build on the LCI work done to date and mine for fresh thoughts and approaches.

Grants from the National Board of Realtors and The Home Depot are funding the workshop and Southface Institute’s Sustainable Communities Design Group will organize and lead it.  MARTA, ARC, the City of Brookhaven, the BPCA and other citizens will participate.  Exact dates and location has yet to be designated.

Southface is currently identifying all “stakeholders” for participation.  If you have an interest, contact Alex Trachtenberg via email:  atrachtenberg@southface.org

BPCA Analysis of Overlay Text Amendments

The BPCA supports the recent changes to the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District zoning code initiated by the City of Brookhaven’s Planning Department and approved by the City Council on June 20th.  Here is a brief analysis of the individual components.

TextAmend1

The change here is the addition of the word “average” before “elevation of the finished sidewalk.”  This is to define the measurement of building height where the road slopes pronouncedly while the building maintains constant floor levels.  Alta Brookhaven on Dresden Drive is a good example.

TextAmend2

This is a detailed and clear definition of “second story.”  The previous code version did not define exactly what constituted a second story, thereby leaving it up to the Planning Director to interpret.  This allowed certain developers—Walgreen’s, for example—to try to “game” the requirement and argue that a mechanical and storage popup on the roof of a one-story building constituted a “second story.” The new definition ensures that designers must comply with the original intent of the Overlay.

TextAmend3

The original Overlay code version did not specify parking requirements for restaurants, leaving it up to interpretation as to whether they were “commercial” or “retail.”  Neither the commercial or retail requirement is adequate for restaurants, and we can see the potential effects along Dresden where multiple restaurants have opened with minimal parking capacity.  Additionally, in most districts of Brookhaven’s Zoning Code (inherited from DeKalb County), restaurants are allowed to add patio or outdoor space up to 50% of their indoor floor area without increasing parking capacity.  The theory has been that people either sit inside or out—not both.  However, this is patently untrue as we can see at Hudson Grille and Mellow Mushroom, thereby allowing restaurants a 50% expansion without providing additional parking.

 This amendment addresses both issues and ensures that new developments will provide parking better matched to actual use.

TextAmend4

This amendment allows businesses to have sidewalk signs, and carefully spells out their size, material and location.

TextAmend5

This is a rather subtle legal distinction geared to strengthening the City’s argument that residential density is not specified in the Overlay language, and therefore the underlying zoning district establishes it.  Effectively, this means that new projects along Peachtree in C-1 districts (think Hastings site) will have to apply for a Special Land Use Permit or for rezoning of the underlying zoning district if they want to include housing in their development. While clearly not the intent of the Overlay, which intends to entitle property for mixed-use, this interpretation does allow additional public input and review.  The public input and review period often encourages developers to put forward their best effort and think more deeply about public space aspects of their projects.

TextAmend7

This text amendment is a key change from BPCA’s perspective.  Section 27-915 lists zoning provisions which cannot be waived or altered by variance.  Previously, the second floor requirement could be waived by the Zoning Board of Appeals through a developer’s variance request—as was the case with the new veterinary clinic going up next to General Hardware.  This is no longer possible.

 

 

Proposed Overlay District Changes

Proposed changes to the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District will be heard before the Brookhaven Planning Commission on June 5th at the Brookhaven Municipal Court hearing room.  It will be a public meeting, beginning at 7 PM.

The draft changes from the Brookhaven Planning Director are not currently available.  We will post them here as soon as they become public.  The legal ad, as it appears in the DeKalb Champion, follows:

 

City of Brookhaven

Notice of Public Hearing

 PLANNING COMMISSION PUBLIC HEARING:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013 AT 7:00 P.M.

     MaYOR AND CITY COUNCIL PUBLIC HEARING:

MONDAY, June 11,  2013 AT 7:00 P.M.

 City of BrookHAVEN MUNICIPAL CouRT Chamber

ADDRESS: 2 Corporate Boulevard, Suite 125, Brookhaven, Georgia 30329

 The following text amendment to the City of Brookhaven Zoning Ordinance affecting property located within the City of Brookhaven is scheduled for Public Hearings as stated above.

TEXT AMENDMENT:                       RZ13-02

Property LOCATION:       Brookhaven-Peachtree overlay district

APPLICANT:                          CITY OF BROOKHAVEN

PROPOSED revision:                         Technical amendments concerning terms relating to parking, height, story, sidewalk signs, density, and for other purposes.

Moratorium Text

From 12:01 a.m. on March 27, 2013 until midnight on June 25, 2013, there shall be a complete moratorium on the City’s acceptance, review and processing of any new applications for amendments to the text of the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, official zoning map amendments, comprehensive land use plan amendments, variances, administrative variances, special exceptions, special land use permits, land disturbance permits, new building permits, new land development permits, new clearing or grading permits, and any and all new permits or licenses related to the development of land for property located within the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, as specifically described in Brookhaven City Code section 27-728.15.3, within the municipal boundaries of the City of Brookhaven as specifically described in House Bill 636.

This moratorium becomes effective at 12:01 a.m. on March 27, 2013.

This moratorium shall expire at midnight on June 25, 2013, and be of no force and effect, unless shortened or extended by an official action of the City Council of the City of Brookhaven.

Moratorium

The Brookhaven City Council has passed a moratorium on all variance and zoning applications, as well as all building and land use permits, in the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District, effective March 27th.  The intent is to allow time for the City to clarify a few key elements of Overlay District regulations that have been causing confusion for developers and city staff.  Examples are:  what is the definition of a second story?  what is the parking requirement for a stand-alone restaurant?  should parking minimums and maximums be the same number?  what is the residential unit/acre density allowed in Area 1 and Area 2 of the Overlay?

City staff will be studying the issues and proposing modifications to the Planning Commission and City Council within the next month or so.  While the moratorium is declared to last 90 days (until June 25th), the hope is that the modifications will be complete within 60 days so the moratorium can be lifted by the end of May.

The Moratorium text can be found here.

 

 

Kevin Quirk Receives 3rd Star

The BPCA has awarded Kevin Quirk a third star for his knowledge and support of the Overlay.  Kevin is a candidate for City Council in District 3 and is in a runoff with Bates Mattison, who also has earned a 3 star rating.  Kevin recently met with Bill Roberts and Jack Honderd of BPCA and impressed on them his commitment to the LCI vision and Overlay zoning code.  Kevin attended 4 different BPCA-led meetings to ask questions and learn more about zoning.  He stated that the whole campaign has been a “wonderful learning experience” for him as he’s met and talked with many Brookhaven-ites, and that he wants Brookhaven to exemplify a very different urban paradigm than that of Roswell Road in Sandy Springs.

Candidate Ratings Criteria

1st star 2nd star 3rd star
Standard Does candidate openly support the LCI vision and Overlay, and state as much on his/her website? Does the candidate know and agree with the specific vision and goals of the LCI and Overlay? Does the candidate know details of the Overlay requirements, and does the candidate publicly advocate for the Overlay?
Criteria  Self-explanatory Specific vision and goals for Brookhaven are 1) create a heart, a recognizable center  2) encourage development of public space, including parks & plazas, 3) promote mixed-use development, and 4) provide transportation options, in particular a walkable environment.  Candidate should be able to talk about these in general terms, even if he/she can’t list them all specifically. A candidate needs either a) to have read the Brookhaven Peachtree Overlay District zoning ordinance, or b) have reviewed either the “Overlay Slideshow” or the “LCI Guidelines” documents, or c) attended a BPCA education session.To get a third star, a candidate should know the answer to at least a couple of the questions like the following: How many sub-areas are in the Overlay? What max. bldg. stories are allowed in the Overlay? May parking lots be built between the street and a building? How wide must sidewalks be in the Overlay district? Must all building front doors face the street? Is mixed-use REQUIRED in new development?