Why not build dense residential at Walmart site in Buckhead, veteran development lawyer wonders

By David Pendered

There’s no reason to think the proposed Walmart in Buckhead will disappear just because the Atlanta City Council slowed the project by refusing to amend the city’s long-range development plan to allow it to be built as planned.

Piedmont Road corridor at MARTA's Lindbergh Station

Walmart would be built across Piedmont Road from this vantage point in the parking structure at MARTA’s Lindbergh Station. Credit: David Pendered

For starters, Walmart has a long history of winning its way. The site’s too valuable for its current use as low-rent apartments, given its proximity to two highways and a MARTA station. And the development team, with lots of experience navigating urban projects, has invested two years in assembling a $90 million development.

Doug Dillard on Tuesday expressed an interesting outlook on the future of the site where the Walmart would have been built. The veteran development attorney suggested the time has arrived to double down on residential development in this section of Piedmont Road.

“My reaction would be to go vertical, and that’s residential,” Dillard said.

A densely developed residential project, he said, would provide enough people to support future commercial projects, in addition to the commercial properties already in the area.

Dillard’s perspective reflects his 40-plus years of experience in handling many complex real estate developments in metro Atlanta. He’s argued and won cases in the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Dillard now serves as chairman of the Council for Quality Growth.

Atlanta’s existing zoning code allows buildings of up to 225 feet to be built along this section of Piedmont. That’s high enough to accommodate buildings of almost 20 stories.

Click here to read the zoning code for the Lindbergh area.

Doug Dillard

Doug Dillard

Right now, the apartment buildings in the area are about five stories. And these apartments are in demand. Occupancy rates are at or above 90 percent, according to research conducts by neighbors who opposed the Walmart on the basis of it failing to support the 11-year-old planning vision for this area to be redeveloped into an imminently walkable community.

For an example of how a dense residential development could alter the way of life along Piedmont, Dillard cited the retail center across Peachtree Road from Phipps Plaza.

The grocery store and retail shops are much busier than the parking lot would indicate, which suggests that many shoppers have walked over from homes in the nearby apartment towers and smaller townhouse projects.

The development team behind the Walmart project has completed the type of project Dillard noted.

At Perimeter Place, a mixed-use lifestyle concept near Perimeter Mall, the team included a 550-unit condo tower in a project with a retail sector that measures 452,000 square feet. That retail space is almost half the size of Phipps Plaza.

Incidentally, this project was developed by the Sembler Co., when its president was Jeff Fuqua. Fuqua left Sembler earlier this year, along with several executives, and formed a development company that intends to continue building upscale mixed-use lifestyle centers. Sembler has pulled back from urban developments.

MARTA's Lindbergh City Center

MARTA’s Lindbergh City Center combines low-rise retail space and mid-rise office buildings, which is the type of development envisioned for the Lindbergh area. Credit: David Pendered

In a previous era, a developer in Fuqua’s position at Lindbergh may have filed a lawsuit to allow the project to be built. All he’d have to prove in court is that the city refused to allow him to develop the land in a way that was reasonable and provided for its best use.

But lawsuits are messy, and Fuqua has other projects in the pipeline in Atlanta, including a planned project along the Atlanta BeltLine at Glenwood Park. Walmart also has found ways in other cities to proceed even after an initial rejection.

Two weeks ago in Miami, Walmart filed for permission to build a superstore in a trendy area next to the Design District. Construction is to move forward despite some troubles back in the summer. At that time, the city had considered – then rejected – the idea of allowing Walmart to build its loading dock along a busy street instead of along a side street.

Walmart evidently has decided it can live with its loading docks on the side street, a decision that will allow it to proceed without further zoning action by the city commission.

Walmart could reach a similar decision on the Lindbergh site. Existing zoning appears to allow the Walmart to be built farther from Piedmont than the store’s preferred location. If that option is taken, perhaps the 200 or so apartments now on the plan could be shifted to front along Piedmont Road.

Apartments across Piedmont Road from MARTA's Lindbergh Station.

This residential development that faces MARTA’s Lindbergh Station is the type of development called for along Piedmont Road by Atlanta’s long-range development plan. Credit: David Pendered

And that is the development pattern both Dillard and Atlanta’s existing development plan envision. After more than a decade, hopes are high among some neighbors that some positive changes can begin to occur along a thoroughfare that has more than its share of package stores and 1950s-era retail centers that don’t promote a densely developed, transit-oriented community.

“No doubt the existing land uses are inappropriate,” Dillard said of the Piedmont Road area. “When we look at the Piedmont corridor, we have to think about what we want from it – suburban or urban – particularly when you’re looking at its location within walking distance from a MARTA station.

“We’ve got to look at transit stations to provide real urban density,” Dillard said.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

3 replies
  1. LIngle says:

    Thanks to the author and to Mr. Dillard for interjecting some real “smart” growth strategies into this discussion. It only makes sense for Fuqua to move the residential component of the development to the edges—especially along Lindbergh and Piedmont. Also, as many critics noted, putting the green space at the back of the development virtually ensures that it does not truly meet its intended uses or values. So while we’re at it, let’s move that forward as well, to be an amenity for the residents and the broader community as well. Finally, Walmart is experimenting and building things other than supercenters now. Why would they not be interested in testing such a format here in this space? Why compete with Target and Home Depot when you can specialize in groceries or some other format that residents would be more likely to support—especially with the smaller footprint. At the very least, it does make most of the commentary Fuqua includes on his website sound very disingenuous. What it should say is our goal is to extract the maximum profit with the minimum investment. After all, isn’t that what a 4 acre surface parking lot is? Why not be a place and spacemaker here Mr. Fuqua?Report

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  2. howard roark says:

    First of all, SPI-15 (Lindbergh) was written into land use law in 2001specifically to do what this article describes.  It has in effect been official, legally binding land use policy at Lindbergh for over 10 years.  The ideas in this article are not breakthrough thinking by Mr. Dillard; his observations are catch-up thinking.  It is odd that the editorial slant of this article does not underline that (unless the article is actually a profile piece by the author rather than a public affairs analysis piece).  Planners are glad to welcome one of Atlanta’s most aggressive legal facilitators of commercial real estate developers on board with the community at large and with the visionary thinkers who DID put this breakthrough idea in public policy in place years ago.   Second, the nearby NPUs and NPUs citywide who aligned themselves to deflect the “busting” of this visionary SPI at Lindbergh have gone on the record over and over that their position is strictly about preserving the visionary goals that SPI-15 is aimed at.  No NPU in the city has argued that Walmart per se, should be blackballed from participating in the economic life of the city.   Not one.  Members of the press came up with that idea all by themselves (perhaps with the developer whispering speciously in their ears).   Opposition to the Fuqua plan was never anti-Walmart nor was it ever anti-development.  Per its by-laws, half of the board of NPU-B is drawn from the business community in the Buckhead area, and it is beyond absurd to characterize NPU-B as anti-development or anti-business.    It was necessary to oppose the Fuqua plan because it was bad planning, bad development, and because it would be detrimental to the future of the city of Atlanta,  pure and simple.Report

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  3. ScottNAtlanta says:

    I think the parking for this development should be more limited WAY more.  The idea of a 20 story tower doesn’t bother me as much as the traffic on Lindbergh which is way past capacity now.  If developed it needs to be transit oriented…way transit oriented.  3 acres of parking doesn’t say transit to meReport

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