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Roswell's bold step shows confidence in future



April 16, 2012
I went to a long, long Roswell City Council meeting last week, not that it was anything new. Roswell's tradition is one of letting everyone have their say, no matter what the clock says.

The big issue was to resolve whether to move ahead with the Groveway revitalization project. Now this project did not just jump up in the past few weeks or months. The idea of revitalizing the Groveway area – it's the area around and south of Roswell City Hall and includes the apartments of the Roswell Housing Authority – started in 2008.

It grew out of the Historic Square cherrette which was a plan to bring the square up to a par with Canton Street and its restaurants and shops. The economy shot that down before it could get started. But folks noticed there is an existing grid of small streets wafting up from Sloane Street in the Mill Village that with a little bit of work become a whole village of Canton streets.

Think of that. Cross the street at City Hall, and walk down to a village of shops and restaurants just like Canton's. Would this dry up Canton Street's business? No, it would create an even greater magnet of weekend visitors and night life.

So they got the property owners, and the business owners and the residents of Groveway to get together and start creating a vision for the area. The city took care to make sure the interests of the two great churches in the Groveway District and the Housing Authority residents.

But revitalization takes investment. How could Groveway best stimulate new growth. One of the best tools they found was to create a zoning overlay district called Form-Based, which did not worry so much about what use the property had, but that it conformed architecturally.

The idea is to create a sense of community in a mixed-use environment. People will live, work and play within walking distance. That means rented apartments above retail stores, offices and restaurants.

This let's the market shape what is going to work in Groveway. If you want a template of how this works, look at Canton Street. It was a run-down street with a few shops, cheap rental housing and some nice homes back up in the side streets.

But the city made it the first mixed-use area in the city and over time it has come to thrive. Ask anybody in Roswell where is the first place they will take out-of-town guests, and nine out of 10 will say Canton Street.

But somewhere along the road, a whisper campaign developed against Groveway. Oh, everyone was for revitalization, just don't use that Form-Based zoning. We should control and specify just what and how things should be there. Otherwise, everyone will just build apartments. After all, it does not limit the number of apartments.

Of course it does not allow unlimited apartment dwellings. What it does is make it a conditional use. The City Council would decide each project wanting apartments on a case by case basis. And as Mayor Jere Wood pointed out, council always has public hearings on big conditional-use projects.

A lot of people were concerned because they said they did not know enough about the project. Well, the meetings were open. We announced them in the newspaper, and we wrote stories about them.

But nothing proposed here was anything new. It has worked all over the country. Nationally known architect Lew Oliver has made a career getting communities to live in a smaller scale that resembles the towns most of us grew up in. He was a major contributor to the plan, and he lives in the Mill Village just a few blocks south of Groveway.

Most of those who preached delay and more talk sounded a lot like the old Roswell. In fact, I saw a lot of the old Roswell City Council come up and speak. They all lobbied for delay and for more control spelled out in the zoning conditions.

Well, look what the old way has done for Roswell's downtown. Just about all the big retailers and restaurants have left or closed. Lot's of storefronts are empty.

The old council wrote and rewrote zoning regulations always defining more closely what could and could not happen. What happened was the city started to die. As Wood noted, the council created new zoning classifications that have never been used. They were so restrictive, no one would build anything under them.

This new council sees things differently. They want new investment, they want a vibrant downtown. They believe a city is more than a cluster of fine homes surrounding a bunch of buildings people don't want to visit.

Canton Street has shown Roswell a way create livable, walk-able communities. Groveway can build on that and create something that could outshine its ideal. But the time to work all the kinks out of the plan and worry and study is over.

You can never get the kinks out, you can never solve all the unforeseen consequences until you make a start. This Roswell Council has moved forward. It took more than 10 years for Canton Street to morph into what it is today. It may take Groveway 10 years or more to do the same.

But the thing to ask is, where Canton Street would be today if it had never started.

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