A new path for Atlanta’s suburbs
In Sandy Springs, the next wave of building demolitions are set to begin this weekend in an aging commercial district on Roswell Road, clearing the way for a new city center.
In Alpharetta, developers such as North American Properties and Selig Enterprises Inc. are considering ideas for a downtown development that could bring new restaurants and stores to the city’s streets.
In Roswell, historic Canton Street just lured The Big Ketch Saltwater Grill, a concept from Atlanta-based Southern Proper Hospitality. It’s Roswell’s 24th restaurant downtown. Just one block away, the city approved its first apartments in 30 years.
Atlanta’s suburban cities are seeing investors pour money into their downtown districts with new housing, restaurants and shops, taking a page from hip intown neighborhoods. The projects are bringing new life to areas that lost vitality as suburban shopping centers and regional malls dominated the suburban landscape in the 1980s and ’90s.
The trend marks a turning point for Atlanta, often criticized for its suburban sprawl.
But even noted land-use strategists such as Chris Leinberger have observed, in the wake of the recession, the rapid expansion of the Atlanta suburbs has slowed and the region has embraced more walkable, urban developments.
Intown Atlanta, with sweeping projects such as the Atlanta Beltline and the redevelopment of historic buildings including Ponce City Market, has received much of the attention for this trend. Years ago, the city of Atlanta laid the infrastructure to support dense, pedestrian-oriented projects.
For many suburban cities, the explosive population growth of the ’80s and early ’90s, “Swallowed up many of us in a rapid expansion that left us no time to think, no chance to catch our breath,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.
The deepest recession in decades brought much of Atlanta development to a halt and offered more suburban cities time to reflect.
Many came to similar conclusions.
“People were searching for more authenticity, a sense of place,” said Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris, whose city is adding new restaurants and planning residential units near the downtown square.
“People didn’t want to eat in another strip center and they didn’t want to go shopping as much at the big regional malls,” said Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, who is preparing to open a new city hall and park in his downtown later this year.
“We were a collection of neighborhoods, with no overarching sense of community,” Paul said of Sandy Springs, whose city center project could include a performing arts center.
“We were missing that connective tissue,” Paul said.
For the past several decades, most of these suburban cities were known for something other than downtown charm.
Sandy Springs is part of the region’s biggest office market, the central Perimeter, home to corporations such as Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and United Parcel Service Inc.
It wasn’t even a city until 2005.
“The others, in a way, have it easier,” Paul said. “They have old downtown buildings. We are starting from scratch.”
Alpharetta spent the 90s building an impressive roster of tech companies along Georgia 400 such as Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Verizon Wireless. Windward was the giant residential development. North Point Mall was the sprawling nearby retail trade area.
“What we never had was an active downtown,” Belle Isle said of Alpharetta.
Suburban cities, once home to grocery and hardware stores, lost those retailers during the expansion of the interstates and county road networks that helped create the dependence on the automobile and fueled the growth of the regional malls.
Gwinnett County grew from about 70,000 people in 1970 to more than 600,000 people by the 2000s. Residential development kept springing up farther away from the region’s urban core. Retailers continued to follow.
Just before the downturn, another regional mall was on the drawing board — this time in Forsyth County.
“Atlanta was kind of like the Big Bang theory, expanding and expanding,” Paul said, referring to the ongoing discussions he had with Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell about Atlanta’s growth.
“Sam always said Atlanta had no physical barriers to growth. And that was true. But, we’ve realized we have psychological barriers,” Paul said. “We weren’t going to be willing to spend hours on end in our cars.”
Now, it seems that rapid expansion has snapped back upon itself, not just in Atlanta but across the U.S., where private and public investment is pouring into re-urbanization. And some amenities associated with Generation Y and intown living have started to find their way into more suburban Atlanta downtowns.
Both Duluth and Alpharetta have food truck events that can draw long lines.
People used to think of Buckhead when they wanted to go intown for a fancy dinner or Inman Park to enjoy a street-side café. Now Roswell boasts its fair share of both. Canton Street has been adding about two restaurants a year for the past three years. It could have 26 before this year ends.
But it’s the new residential units in walking distance of downtown that are the true difference maker. And more are in the works.
The resurgence in Roswell started three years ago, coming right out of the recession, more than a decade after the city had invested in new sidewalks and streetscape improvements on Canton Street.
“We know people who have put their suburban home on the market and looked for something closer to town where they can walk to the bank or the library or a restaurant,” said Steve Stroud, executive director of Roswell Inc., a group that fosters economic development.
Live-work-play was something the suburbs talked about 15 years ago, “but we couldn’t really do it,” Stroud said. “You still had to get in your car to go just about anywhere. We aren’t just preaching about these things any more. They are really happening.”
Adding new restaurants, including Dreamland Bar-B-Que. New residential units are planned in walking distance to downtown.
Another round of demolitions could begin this weekend on the aging commercial buildings along Roswell Road. They would make room for a new city center that could include a 600- to 1,000-seat performing arts venue.
Canton Street continues to add new restaurants. The latest: The Big Ketch Saltwater Grill. Some 24 restaurants line Canton Street and more are on the way. So are residential units in walking distance of the streetside cafés and stores.
New residential projects close to downtown; up to 15 restaurants could be in walking distance for residents and visitors. New stores, offices and parks are also planned.