Did Alpharetta jump for mega-development or was she pushed?



I received an email from Naomi Cara Braff, a master of city planning candidate from the University of Georgia. She had a question for me for an assignment for City Planning that I decided to try to answer. Here it is:

Can you tell me how Alpharetta got to be the city it is now from 1970 till today or send me a link to the information? I’m doing a small paper on whether the change was democratic or just pushed through by business interests. I sure do love living here, however it was done.

Naomi Braff

That is a tall order to encapsulate 43 years of development, but I lived through the last 20, so I can point you in the right direction.

The keys to North Fulton and Alpharetta’s development start with four things: the completion of Ga. 400 as a developmental highway; the quality public schools that were a product of Fulton County Schools and the parents in the area who made sure learning didn’t stop at 3 p.m.; securing a reliable water source through the creation of the Atlanta-Fulton County Water Authority; and the introduction of executive housing to North Fulton.

I don’t know how you separate what was democratic and what were “business interests” about all that. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Ga. 400 was dubbed “The Road to Nowhere” because there was so little traffic on it (those were the days).

It was pushed through by Fulton Commission Chairman Michael Lomax who had the vision to see what it would do for Fulton County and the political will to make it happen. Atlanta and Sandy Springs opposed it, and Alpharetta and Roswell appeared indifferent to it.

At great political cost (he would lose in his subsequent bid to be mayor of Atlanta), Lomax could see the Ga. 400 corridor would be a way to develop North Fulton, then just a rural buffer between the growth corridors up I-75 in Cobb and I-85 in Gwinnett.

Developer Jim Cowart secured the property that was to become Country Club of the South, the first golf and gated community in Atlanta. Then city of Atlanta Water Department officials showed up saying they wanted the property for a North Fulton reservoir. That was bad news for Cowart’s plans, so he contacted Lomax suggesting that since Atlanta would not be contiguous in any way to this reservoir, wouldn’t it make more sense for Fulton County to “get in the water business” to secure a source for future North Fulton development? Lomax quickly agreed. However, Atlanta wanted in as well and eventually, it was agreed there would be a partnership. That is what’s called politics.

Cowart also was able to convince the Atlanta-Fulton Water Authority that it would be cheaper to build the reservoir on what is now its current location farther north on Old Alabama Road. He showed how that saved money since rerouting the pipeline avoided tunneling under Old Alabama Road not once but twice.

Meanwhile, large development entities such as Cousins Properties (North Point Mall), Pope and Land (West Winds), Ross Perot, Mobil Land Development Corp. (Windward community development) and others began to buy land along the proposed route of Ga. 400. They too could read a map and see the potential for Ga. 400.

How successful was Windward? In 1996, Windward alone sold 187 houses for $65 million.

In the 1980s, Alpharetta Community Development Director Marie Garrett and Alpharetta Mayor Jimmy Phillips teamed to create a master plan for commercial and residential development in the city. It called for pods of development for commercial retail, residential and multi-story Class A office radiating from Ga.400.

The major real estate owners along what was to be North Point Parkway not only donated their rights of way, but built the four-lane road with landscaped median from Windward Parkway to Mansell Road, about a $20 million investment.

When Cousins built North Point Mall in 1993, the Alpharetta City Council invoked its development agreement to build the first six-story Class A office building north of the Chattahoochee River. Cousins balked at that, but the council held firm, so Cousins complied.

Almost immediately, the building was 95 percent pre-leased, and at no one’s behest Cousins began the next one. When it was three months along and 75-percent pre-leased, they started the third of eventually four office buildings inside the retail area. Soon, the race was on.

By 1995, the city and the large land owners joined to begin the planning for Westside Parkway, engineering the second arterial road parallel to North Point Parkway and donating the rights of way. This was to encourage the Georgia Department of Transportation to hurry along building the road, in stages as it was. Today, it is just starting to see major development projects but the potential is there to produce similar growth experienced in the 1990s.

The office boom of 1993-2001 created about $2 billion of new growth for the tax digest of Alpharetta.

Aiding the office boom had been the cooperation of Georgia Power to put power lines and fiber-optic cable in concrete-encased underground lines that virtually ensured these new office buildings came pre-wired for the dot-com explosion with near fail-proof power delivery. It is still today one of the largest fiber-optic systems in America, if not the world.

This gave Alpharetta a huge advantage over other Class A space that would have to be re-wired for the computer age.

As you can see, at almost every stage of the development, political and business interests were converging and driving tremendous growth in the area.

Executive housing and golf communities exploded, allowing top executives to live out the Windward catchphrase, “Live, Work, Play,” meaning you could do it all without commuting in Atlanta’s legendary traffic.

Business interests did not “push through” the development that has created Alpharetta of today.

County and city governments were willing partners in what was developed, creating a vibrant city and the economic center of North Fulton.

Johns Creek, Roswell and Milton are following their own paths. Each has its vision of North Fulton although none in such spectacular fashion as Alpharetta. No question that Alpharetta was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time for the huge expansion. But without having a plan and the political will from Fulton County and Alpharetta, North Fulton County would not be the same.

Was it democratic? I don’t see how else you can view Alpharetta’s rise any other way. The line of mayors from Jimmy Phillips to Chuck Martin to Arthur Letchas to David Belle Isle has been an unbroken chain in pursuing economic growth coupled with high-end residential growth and attention to quality of life amenities.

If their actions did not express the will of the people of Alpharetta, I don’t see how they could have all been returned to office.

Hatcher Hurd

Executive editor, Appen Media Group

770-442-3278, ext. 121


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