How cities get to where they want to go

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This week, Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle presented his State of the City address at the Metropolitan Club to a reasonably packed house to lay out what the city has done right so far and what it plans to do.

To that extent, it is what “State of …” speeches are all about. You expect a certain amount of back-patting and an exhortation to continue to do well.

What I liked about Belle Isle’s speech was the way he lingered on more than just the “what.” He spent a lot of time on the “how,” which is not usually dwelt upon in such addresses. But as Belle Isle pointed out, “the whats” die in the “how.”

Belle Isle said it has been the City Council’s goal to do two things (always good to keep goals short and sweet): to make Alpharetta the Technology Capital of the South and to make Alpharetta a good hometown.

“The ‘what’ we wanted was really easy. The ‘how’ is harder,” Belle Isle said.

The mayor and City Council decided that to make Alpharetta a hometown for residents, it has to have a character of its own and it has to be a place people want to be.

In a city today of 62,000 inhabitants, not many could say they were “homegrown” residents. So without ties to the place, how do you make a city a hometown? The mayor and council decided you can’t have a hometown without a downtown.

“A good downtown is built on music and good food,” Belle Isle said.

They had a good start with Taste of Alpharetta. But that is only once a year. So they began to add events that would bring food and people downtown. They added a beer fest, and then a music festival. They brought food trucks down on Thursday nights.

The big ticket though was what the mayor called “invest and invite.” That was the City Center project. The citizens were invited to invest in the project that will bring a new City Hall with a 7-acre park in the rear and a 1-acre mall green in the front. It will be home to the new Alpharetta Library.

With it will come commercial and residential components that will bring people to not only live downtown, but to shop and eat.

In short, there is the plan.

In Johns Creek, they talk about a City Center as well. But where is the plan? Their plan is to tell the development community they would like to have a City Center and sit back and wait. That was Alpharetta’s plan before they got serious.

Alpharetta had plans drawn up and invited the development community to buy in, but ultimately nothing happened because they didn’t have any “skin in the game.” They owned almost none of the property. When the city bought the land, then it began to take shape. Then the community could look at a plan and decide what they liked and what they didn’t.

Johns Creek should take a lesson from that. They should take a lesson from Roswell as well. Canton Street in Roswell used to be a somewhat quaint collection of old buildings, but many were rundown.

The City Council decided to put up $2 million to spruce up the street and the sidewalks. They changed the zoning for mixed use so residents and shop owners could live and work side by side. They put in stackstone walls, brick paver sidewalks, period lighting and a few benches.

The property owners did the rest, turning it into the trendiest place in North Fulton. It has worked so well, the city is looking to expand it (called the Groveway Overlay) to make the area from the City Hall to the Town Square a similar place to live, work and play.

It will take a bond referendum to make it happen, but the idea is fabulous. It is all about creating walkable neighborhoods where you can walk to the store, walk to restaurants, walk to the shops and leave the car in the garage.

Again, it is all about finding the “how.” It is about being proactive.

I have seen the signs in the yards of Milton homes that say Preserve Our Rural Character. If there is still time – and there probably is not – it begins with a plan. Horse farms will continue to disappear until and unless there is a plan to encourage owners to keep them.

What do Milton and Johns Creek really want? Whatever it is, it should include a plan and some skin in the game.