Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A disappointing decision, and my angry screed

So, my neighborhood voted for neighborhood commercial zoning.
The “Neighborhood Commercial” designation residents approved focuses on three “nodes” along North Highland Avenue and limits new buildings to three stories, requires sidewalks, permits open-air dining, and encourages shared parking. It would also prohibit in-front commercial parking and require developers to provide project information to the group prior to seeking permits from the city.
I think most of the zoning is good, but the three-story thing is short sighted. I think there are plenty of problems with The Mix - starting with it's name, and followed shortly thereafter with it's architecture - but how can you purport to be advocates of smart growth, pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, increased viability of transit, and then limit the density to three stories?

I don't think it is economically viable to develop anything on the numerous parking lots in the neighborhood without going higher than three stories. I could be wrong, but whatever you put there would have to be very expensive. Basically, I think the neighborhood is doing everything possible to keep N. Highland exactly the way it is. It is a bunch of NIMBYism dressed up as concern about historic preservation.

Which is a shame, because there are some great locations that could be developed/redeveloped to make the neighborhood more intimate, more pedestrian. Off the top of my head, I can think of the parking lot where The Mix is slated to go, redeveloping the CVS, those lame brick apartments/condos next to it, redeveloping the Hand in Hand lot that has parking in the front, or the lot on Amsterdam...

It's probably easy to discount my opinion - I'm an MBA student, worked for developers, want to continue in that line of work, etc. I'm the bad guy whose motives are easy to question. But I grew up in this neighborhood. It's been my home for 26 years. I probably know it better than most of the people around. I care about it as much or more than all the NIMBYs. I got into real estate because I saw how the urban environment affects our lives, and how smart growth and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods really can be a great positive force in our culture. Instead of trying to use public policy to shape growth, I decided to learn how to do it myself.

I realize that the only way for Atlanta to grow the way that we all want it to grow is to see greater density in areas like Virginia-Highlands. Why would five stories, tiered back (like The Mix is), with appropriate architecture, be so bad? I guess because I wasn't involved with this whole NC zoning thing, I don't have that much room to complain. The neighborhood voted 178-15 for this thing, I'm pretty sure my voice wouldn't have made a difference. Part of me wishes I had time in my life for this sort of thing - I just can't make it a priority right now. But hey, I'm a blogger, so basically the gig is to complain about stuff all day instead of doing anything, right?


  1. I think folks want more in-town density just as long as it's in someone else's' neighborhood. What with the tear-downs and the additional traffic these days, I'd guess our neighbors would vote to stop anything they could, the bad and the good.

    Leaving aside the name and the architecture, I think The Mix at 5 would be a great place to live for some folks.

  2. I honeslty don't think three stories is bad at all. If the commercial streets in Virginia Highland were lined with three story buildings, with parking out of the way and otherwise in accord with the requirements of the ordinance, you’d have an enormous increase in density and urban feel.

  3. I completely agree that three stories is very appropriate, and I'd love it if that were possible. The problem is that you won't actually see anything get built at three stories unless it is very very expensive. They've effectively discouraged any development from taking place, keeping things as-is.

    In-fill economics require greater density than that. With in-town lots, you generally have two choices: surface park everything, which limits you to two or three stories, or have a parking deck of some sort (like the Mix), and go up a to four or five stories. The problem is that land prices mean that two or three stories and surface parking doesn't work - there is no profit in it, so no one will build it.

    Look at the CVS or the Hand-in-Hand lot for what surface parking retail allows. From a land planning perspective, you could have those storefronts go to the street and have parking in the back, but it is still a very low density for an area that should be able to support three stories.

  4. Good points. Maybe some wily developers will get together and come up with a shared parking deck. I've seen some pretty creative things done along those lines. I especially like the one where they've camouflaged the upper 2 or 3 parking levels to make it look like a vine-covered embankment.


  5. I really couldn't disagree with your point more. FWIW, I have lived in the midtown/highlands area since 1985, and have been a homeowner in the highlands for 10 years.

    The whole reason that Midtown and the Highlands have 'survived' over the years (in SPITE of government plans to rid them ala the Presidential Parkway) is that these were very livable, vibrant, walkable communities. These nieghborhoods have had to take care of themselves over the last 30 years.

    When someone says 'The Mix is great except for the architecture' that's the whole point.

    To say '3 stories is too limiting because it makes it too expensive to develop' is completely backwards - set the requirements for what makes sense in the area, and if development makes economic sense it will come. Your position sounds alot like the Wayne Mayson position of slapping a horrendous 40+ story dual tower in Piedmont Park because it will make money.

    Are there better uses for the parking lots? Sure. But where are people coming from outside the neighborhood going to park? Unless you want to turn this area into Fenway or some such area where everyone is towed all the time, you have to have somewhere for the shoppers/diners/ to park. If you got rid of the Hand-Hand parking lot, where are all the patrons going to park? Ask the owners of those establishments if they want to do away with the parking spaces, which are like gold.

    I thought the community did a great job with the entire economic zoning.

  6. By highlighting the Hand in Hand parking lot, I'm simply noting a lot with a low intensity use that doesn't add to the pedestrian environment. I'd love to see it replaced with something denser, which presumably would mean that it has some sort of parking deck, a la the Mix, which has plenty of parking for it's retail.

    You say, "if development makes economic sense it will come." My position is that with the new zoning limitations on height, it won't make economic sense. It is a recipe for stagnation.

    I find it interesting that you bring up Midtown, which has by and large embraced density. I obviously don't see Virginia Highlands with that level of density, but I don't think it helps your argument.

    For the record, I thought that Mason's plan was bad, but I also thought that there was a compromise possible - something that might have mirrored to height of the 11 story condo building across the street (Virginia Hill).


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