Good Growth DeKalb seeks plans with long-term vision instead of a Walmart

By Guest Columnist BRIAN BARTH, co-founder and head environmental consultant of Urban Agriculture, Inc., an Atlanta-based design firm

Just north of downtown Decatur, a two-year long campaign to prevent metro Atlanta’s next Walmart-anchored development from breaking ground hangs in legal limbo. 

While local residents wait for a ruling on whether the developer, Selig Enterprises, circumvented some of the fine print in DeKalb County’s permit approval process, there has been ample time to reflect on what may better serve the neighborhood.

Brian Barth

Brian Barth

Good Growth DeKalb, the advocacy group that formed when Selig announced their plans in late 2011, filed an initial appeal a year ago stating that DeKalb County failed to follow the correct administrative procedure in granting a land disturbance permit to the developers.

The hope was to buy enough time to build a substantive case that would block the project from ever getting off the ground.

On Oct. 31st, the DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie dismissed the motion, stating Good Growth DeKalb did not have legal standing in the matter. Six weeks later, the group’s lawyers appealed the decision and are currently awaiting the court’s ruling.

As the legal battle drags on, the group’s mission has expanded beyond its goal of blocking Walmart to educating residents on the potential impacts of other proposed development projects nearby. Through a series of community forums, a vision has emerged for the sort of development that residents would prefer to see. The road to realizing some of the commonly-shared goals is less clear, however.

The site in question is currently known as Suburban Plaza and is at the corner of Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road, one the metro area’s most under-developed intersections. An unbiased look at the possible development scenarios for the intersection may illuminate a path forward that achieves ‘buy-in’ from all parties on this complex and contentious issue.

Setting the Urban Agenda

With daily traffic counts passing by Suburban Plaza in the six-figure range, the dated shopping center is destined for renewal. Walmart’s formula for success is in providing all those daily shopping amenities that were once separate businesses under one roof, and Selig Enterprises, as a for-profit venture, is easily wooed by such a courtship.

Unfortunately, the eclectic mix of locally-owned businesses advocated by Good Growth DeKalb does not have the same weight with financiers as an economic giant like Walmart. To turn the tables on the situation, other strings will have to be pulled.

If Walmart can be dissuaded by the negative publicity and ‘dragging on’ of the legal battle, perhaps the agenda of a truly neighborhood-driven plan can come to the table. Forward-thinking players like Emory University and the City of Decatur will undoubtedly cheer from the sidelines, but, jurisdictionally, DeKalb County holds the reins and has thus far demonstrated little political will for the cause.

Selig’s right to pursue a conventional big-box development at Suburban Plaza is seeded in the current comprehensive plan for the county which is set to expire in 2015, making this a ripe time to set a new agenda.

Interestingly, some of the proposed changes to the county’s zoning code being considered for adoption this year involve incentives for developers to adopt ‘green’ practices in exchange for permission to build at a higher density.

The Elephant in the Room

If the mantra of realtors and developers is “location, location, location,” for urban planners, it’s “transportation, transportation, transportation.”

Fortunately, Atlantans have one of the most cosmically successful examples of how orienting development around alternative transit corridors is the wave of the future.

The Atlanta BeltlLine is just getting started and has already shown the galvanizing power of the concept. It is rare for a project of its scope and scale to garner such a wide base of support.

Today, it may seem like a stretch to imagine mixed retail, residential and office spaces clustered around a green swath of intersecting bike paths at the drab corner of Scott Boulevard and North Decatur Road, which currently sports sidewalks on only two of its six legs. But such a reality is not as distant as it seems.

First off, the Clifton Corridor, MARTA’s planned light rail extension through North Decatur, is slated for an underground stop at Suburban Plaza.

Second, the demographics of the people moving into the Medlock neighborhood are the types who would love to ride their bikes to downtown Decatur and would walk or ride to shops at a future incarnation of Suburban Plaza — especially if it were safe and pleasant to do so and if future development had even a little of downtown Decatur’s charm.

The new PATH Foundation greenway trail between Medlock Park and Mason Mill Park is already bringing this flavor into the neighborhood with a bike/ped link to the VA Hospital-Emory area. Redevelopment at the gateway intersection to the neighborhood beckons for an extension of an alternative transit route from Medlock Park to Suburban Plaza and on to downtown Decatur.

Funding for the bridges or tunneling needed to do this is hard to come by at the moment, and DeKalb County does not have the authority to force Selig to contribute.

Selig would do well to contribute voluntarily, however, a token that would temper the resentment built against them in the neighborhood. It also could help change the community’s sentiment in favor of their project.

Selig has been down this road before when Walmart backed out of their strikingly similar development in Athens last year amid citizen outrage at the site plan’s lack of integration with the adjacent greenway.

Another redevelopment project across the street being pushed by Fuqua Development is seeking a zoning change to permit a higher intensity use, which does put the county in position to ask for contributions to related public infrastructure.

Moving Forward

The eventual development of the Clifton Corridor light rail line is the perfect opportunity to rearrange the six-pronged intersection and plan for future development at this burgeoning node with a revamped long-term vision. Making a baby step in this direction now will keep the door open to BeltLine-esque urban brilliance in the coming years.

Brian Barth works in the fields of landscape architecture and urban planning. In addition to his work with Urban Agriculture Inc., Barth writes for a variety of publications, exploring the themes of land use, urban agriculture, and environmental literacy. He holds a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning and Design from the University of Georgia.

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11 comments
samsams
samsams

I guess folks do not understand privately owned commercial property rights.

TR
TR

Also, I think its hilarious how you present the current tenants as an "eclectic mix of locally-owned businesses". If you've actually driven through Suburban Plaza, you'd see it is a rundown dump.

TR
TR

An unbiased look would include the option of Selig and Walmart moving forward to develop the lot as they see fit. Yes, I would like it if it was integrated with mass transit and bike paths, but honestly, everyone keeps presenting "bike paths" (of all things) as a panecea. Look at Ponce de Leon by Ponce City Market area where they just put in bike paths. Since they introduced the bike paths I have only seen a biker using it ONCE.

Dowager
Dowager

I don't think the writer is suggesting that Walmart is the answer.  What would be good businesses to replace the ones that left?  I, too, have my fingers crossed for Hancock Fabrics and Big Lots myself, and the music store on the corner. These are businesses that promote community. 

Phyllis Alesia Perry
Phyllis Alesia Perry

And we don't need another spa or specialty shop or restaurant. Downtown Decatur is full of them. 

Phyllis Alesia Perry
Phyllis Alesia Perry

Is Walmart going to include a fabric store, a theater, a bowling alley? Call it dismal if you like, but Suburban Plaza had/has a useful mix of businesses that I patronize often. If they could keep a grocery there it would be even better.  A renovation perhaps? 

Dowager
Dowager

An excellent article. I travel through this dismal stretch of concrete and intersecting roads almost daily on my way from the Emory Area to the DeKalb Farmers Market, Stone Mountain or Lawrenceville Highway. What a joy it would be to pass pleasant surroundings that would entice me to stop there, have lunch or indulge in whatever other amenity might be developed. Spas?  Specialty shops? More neighborhood restaurants like Melvin's App and Tapp? Businesses that promote community. As it is, I put on my blinders and hold my breath until I get past it. 

Come on, DeKalb County.  Think of us residents and quality of life for once.

DGN
DGN

@TR He was not referring to the few businesses remaining in the dump that is the plaza but to what could be on the site other than a Walmart.  Yes, there are a couple of businesses on the site that actually enhance the neighborhood but the plaza itself should have been razed years ago as it is ill-suited for contemporary urban retail success in addition to being a hideous eyesore.  It could and should be so much more than it is but a Walmart is not a good fit for the site or the neighborhood.  I have lived in this area for decades and expect to for some time to come and I promise you this awkward and awful intersection cannot handle super center traffic.  Nor can the site accommodate adequate parking for the proposed development but someone approved an exception for Selig and gave them a permit.  Zoning laws exist to protect the community but only work if the officials charged with enforcing them do so.  At the same time, an owner should be able to develop his property as he wishes if it is in compliance with existing laws and codes.  Regardless, he also should care what the neighbors think and as Walmart has done in more and more instances recently, sometimes he should admit defeat and move on.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

@TR That's because bike paths are not a real transit solution, but are instead a feel-good impulse by those who wear rose-colored glasses.

Let's wait three years and see how many people use the City of Atlanta's much vaunted bikeshare program, which is still not in operation.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Phyllis Alesia Perry There's nothing wrong with an area having more spas, specialty shops and/or restaurants as long as they are businesses of good quality and people and the surrounding community like them.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Phyllis Alesia Perry Or even better than a renovation of Suburban Plaza would be a complete redesign, redevelopment and reconstruction into a high-quality walkable high-density, mixed-use transit-oriented development built to human scale where the surface parking spaces were relocated below-ground underneath shops, businesses and restaurants at street-level and upscale condominiums and apartments on upper levels.

...Some upscale attached single-family homes (townhomes) should also likely be included within that redevelopment that should be designed to better integrate into the surrounding community at street-level and generate foot traffic instead of generating additional vehicular traffic on a very-limited road network that cannot handle anymore heavy traffic.

Any serious long-term redevelopment plans for Suburban Plaza should feature high-quality walkable high-density mixed-use human-scale transit-oriented development as the centerpiece of those plans.

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