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The 85 percent housing rule in Alpharetta: apartments, sprawl and Avalon

May 03, 2012
As Alpharetta has continued its growth from a sleepy suburban town to a bustling technology city, the question of residential density has become a lingering question in the minds of citizens and a flash point of controversy when developers show up for rezoning hearings.

Over the years, city officials have used a percentage calculation to determine the number of single-family houses versus multi-family housing allowed within the city limits. Beginning in 1996, this ratio was two-thirds single family and one-third multi-family. City officials, at the time, looked at surrounding communities with higher apartment ratios and believed that higher crime in those communities resulted from that higher percentage.

While this math had been used since the mid-90s to help regulate apartments within the city, it wasn't until 2007 when that number was changed to the 85/15 rule. The reason for this change was that the city annexed over 4,600 homes in one swoop. That one annexation would have allowed for the request of more multi-family projects from developers based upon the old ratio. So city officials, to maintain legal ground for not approving more apartments, changed the rule to allow a smaller percentage of apartments.

This new rule seems to have pleased some, but chagrined others. It creates a platform for denying new apartments based upon a much lower percentage. However, as some will point out, multi-family should be encouraged as it is encouraged in several key city documents:

1. Mixed-use zoning districts within the city encourage and/or require a multi-family residential component:

a. CUP, Community Unit Plan, which is the zoning that Windward is developed under, allows up to 25 percent of multi-family apartments.

b. MU, Mixed-Use district, allows up to one-third of the housing to be multi-family apartments.

2. The existing downtown master plan advocates additional housing:

The Downtown Master Plan, which was approved in 2003, iterates "several key aspects to the master plan framework." One of those three keys reads, in part, "...100,000 people work in Alpharetta, yet fewer than 40,000 live in the city. By attempting to equalize the number of residents and jobs while providing a variety of housing types for those desiring to live closer to their jobs, we believe this plan will entice more workers who prefer a mixed-use walkable environment to make their homes in Alpharetta. Doing so would reduce daily commutes, lessening overall traffic in the region and helping the area meet clean air goals."

While it's understood that this plan was focused on downtown, its goals and objectives discuss the overall condition of the entire city, therefore, the goals to rectify the citywide conditions should be considered with a citywide solution.

3. The city's "Comprehensive Land Use Plan 2030," which was approved in late 2011, calls for a variety of housing options as a goal. It reads in part:

"Housing Policy 1: Promote and encourage residential densities and designs that ensure varied

living areas and housing types...Policy 6: Assure that people who work in Alpharetta have the opportunity to live in Alpharetta by maintaining a housing-to-jobs balance."

Throughout all of these documents, housing variety, including multi-family, is a key and necessary component of the development of the city.

Further, it's helpful to look to urban planners who explain how segregated land uses contribute to sprawl.

In the book, "Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream," planners describe that single-family detached housing devoid of connections to our offices and shops contributes to the problem of sprawl and increased traffic congestion. We've created separate neighborhoods of housing and separate neighborhoods of shopping, but not neighborhoods of living.

In his book, "The Radiant City," published in 1967, Charles Le Corbusier hits home with his ominous predictions of the future of our cities:

"The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work ... enough for all."

Alpharetta has carefully contemplated its future. It is with great anticipation that city leaders have embraced a true mixed-use concept by the approval of the Avalon development at Old Milton Parkway and Ga. 400. Avalon will be a testament to the vision of our business leaders, political leaders and citizens for generations to come. The measured dialogue about our neighborhoods and what makes great cities was a welcomed conversation during the Avalon public hearing. Alpharetta is one of the best cities around; and its continued belief in itself as a world class location will be the stuff by which other cities are measured.

Brian Patton, CCIM is a commercial real estate broker, landscape architect and former planner with the city of Lilburn and the city of Alpharetta. He can be reached at 770-634-4848.

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  1. report print email
    Couldn't agree more
    May 03, 2012 | 09:09 PM

    If Alpharetta and Milton would adopt form based zoning then percentages wouldn't matter. We could have defined urban centers that would allow residents to live close to work if that's what they want. A sea of subdivisions; one monolithic block of suburban sprawl with fear and loathing of condos, townhomes and apartments is not a healthy diverse community that offers a mix of solutions and opportunities all communities need.

    Mixed-use, walkable and Smart Design shouldn't have the negative connotations they often do. Diversity of retail, residential, commercial and the experience it can offer will make our city more sought-after and our property values higher than they already are.

    Here's to the future!

    Bob Strader
  2. report print email
    May 04, 2012 | 02:02 PM

    Thank you for the article, Brian, and and the reinforcement, Bob.

    Blanket rules of thumb, with no design direction, are one of the many reasons Alpharetta and towns like it are text book cases for suburban sprawl.

    Personally speaking, I am a 42 year old professional male with a wife and 2 boys and have absolutely no desire to be a slave to a McMansion estate and Briggs & Stratton life style. The term "Multi-family" is too broad of a term to have such a generalized ratio given to it.

    I welcome the Avalon project to give a better variety and diversity to our community.

    The future is here and now.

    Reece Carter
  3. report print email
    Apartments are not the will of the people
    May 07, 2012 | 11:25 AM

    Apartments certainly are desirable to those in the real estate business, but to rank and file suburbanites, they are very unpopular. I think the city's elected officials are hearing that loud and clear. They have responded a number of ways including:

    - Requiring Avalon to transfer apartment rights before building
    - Updating the mixed-use code to not allow apartments at all (a proposal that is currently on the table)

    S Lee Guy
    Alpharetta, GA
  4. report print email
    Community support
    May 08, 2012 | 07:03 AM


    Thank you for the insightful commentary on our proposal. As you know, the vast majority of Alpharetta residents have spoken in favor of Avalon, regardless of the housing ratio. By our count, those who spoke in favor at City Council outnumbered those in opposition by a factor of 6:1, citing the opportunity to bring a transformational project to the City. And the Council responded to "the will of the people", unanimously approving our application.

    We are truly appreciative of the support the Alpharetta community has shown for Avalon and will continue to work toward making it a reality.

    Thank you,
    Mark C. Toro
    Managing Partner
    North American Properties

    Mark Toro
    Atlanta, GA
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