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

by Brian Patton

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.