Diana Wheeler leaves imprint on Alpharetta

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One of the first stories I covered in Alpharetta in 1993 was how the city manager then put together his “Dream Team.” It was that team that would guide the development of the city, he said.

The city was about to go through an explosion of growth that no one in his wildest dreams would suspect. Northpoint Mall was about to open, and Northpoint Parkway was about to be completed as a great collector road parallel to Ga. 400.

The key member of that staff who came aboard then was Diana Wheeler as Community Development director. She came from a similar job in Boca Raton, Fla., an upscale community that has a national reputation. Wheeler’s charge was to do the same For Alpharetta.

It was not her job to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Alpharetta was a small but upscale town poised for more greatness than anyone imagined. A town of 13,000 in the 1990 census, she would be a city of 60,000 today.

It was going to take a steady hand with a clear direction to manage that kind of growth. Now certainly this was a team effort, but Wheeler was on the frontline as director of Community Development. She had to oversee huge tracts of development that had been in the pipeline for years and now suddenly were coming to fruition.

More than $5 billion of new development was coming out of the ground like a Texas oil field. Master-planned communities and office buildings were gushing up and every developer wanted changes, every new project brought its own set of problems. Yet the boom was managed with far less distress than most other cities. That was because Alpharetta had a plan and stuck to it.

It took more than a little backbone in the boom era to stand up to big developers – who did a marvelous job by the way – to ensure things were done the way Alpharetta wanted them done. Diana Wheeler wouldn’t blink. She drafted the city’s Unified Development Code and made it stick. The city’s plans didn’t suffer from court challenges. Her ordinances were dog-tight.

As I got to know Diana well on a professional basis, I came to know her as of the most intelligent people I have met, thoroughly well-versed in her job.

But her real contributions were to the city. You don’t think of Community Development as a “creative” department, but that is only when you don’t have creative people in charge.

Over 19 years, I watched her creativity in action:

** Now Diana didn’t start the Alpharetta Greenway, she just showed the corporate giants along its path how they could acquire recreation impact fee credits in exchange for donation of land to the Greenway.

Thus, most of the land for the Greenway came at no expense to the taxpayer.

** When Diana came here there was one hotel in the city. Now there are 23. She helped establish the Alpharetta Convention & Visitors Bureau and then ran it for five years until a permanent director was chosen.

** She initiated discussions with Georgia State University to open a campus in the city.

** She first brought the concept of a City Center before City Council in 2004.

** She pushed for the acquisition of the Crabapple Silos, which had been for sale as commercial property. Now instead of a Taco Bell, the silos are a permanent and protected landmark.

** Diana initiated the talks between MARTA and Prudential Properties that led to the Windward Park & Ride.

** She took a small city festival off Milton Avenue and put it on Main Street and turned Taste of Alpharetta into the biggest, most popular one-day event in North Fulton.

** The co-op parking plan she initiated with downtown businesses resulted in 100 new parking spots at no cost to taxpayers.

** As the Gatekeeper, Diana developed the residential housing ratio used to limit rental housing in the city and made sidewalks mandatory in residential areas throughout the city.

** She also established pocket parks with fountains in the downtown.

I say all of this as she leaves for greener pastures to remind us all that she has meant to the city. Her imprint on the city has been truly enormous.

I will miss her professionalism in all that she did for the city. I will miss her dry wit that many who knew her never saw. I will miss the access she gave me no matter how controversial the case. I will miss the clear and concise way she would explain the pros and cons of each project without bias.

And I will miss above all the candor she always displayed. It all made my job so much easier.