The Sembler Proposal for N. Druid Hills & Briarcliff

Clairmont Heights Civic Association Question of the Month Posted: 10/23/2007 Authored by: Charlie Bleau As neighborhood representatives of Clairmont Heights on local issues such as transportation, zoning, and environmental issues among others, the Board feels that it is appropriate to raise significant issues with the neighborhood at large as they arise. It is important that the Civic Association account for the thoughts and the feelings of the neighborhood as they address the issues of the times. On the other hand, it may be that you feel that this is just too intrusive and you would rather not be bothered. Either way, please let us know what you think! Several new developments have been proposed recently for the intersection of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff Roads, the largest of which is proposed by the Sembler Corporation. Sembler is locally well known for introducing large mixed-use developments on brownfield sites and sites generally underutilized by aging apartment complexes, businesses and institutions. Recent Sembler developments include the old Atlanta Gas site on Moreland and the ongoing developments at Lindbergh, Brookhaven and Perimeter. The Sembler proposal on North Druid Hills has sparked other proposals, not least of which is for the mixed-use redevelopment of Executive Park, the oldest office park in metro Atlanta. Sembler proposes to buy the large apartment complex on Briarcliff near North Druid Hills which is owned by the DeKalb County Housing Authority and is the 4th largest apartment complex in Georgia, as well as the properties on North Druid Hills owned by the DeKalb County School Board including the old Briarcliff High School (currently occupied by DeKalb School for the Arts and Open Campus programs) Kittredge Elementary School (currently occupied by Kittredge Magnet program), and Adams Stadium. The Board of Education has already decided to move these programs out of the school buildings, which would leave them available to be sold. These properties would be razed and a massive mixed use development would be built with a total of 1.5 million square feet of floor space, including a shopping mall along the lines of Atlantic Station and 3700 homes of various high-density types including low-income and workforce housing, at a cost of $1 billion. In addition, the owners of Executive Park propose to tear down and rebuild buildings on their land, multi-story buildings containing 963,000 sq. ft. of new retail, 772 new housing units and a net gain of 300,000 sq. ft. of office space, on top of the current 500,000 sq. ft. Needless to say, this will drastically change the character of the area around the intersection of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff. As a result, Commissioners Rader and Gannon prevailed upon Sembler and the owners of Executive Park to fund a land use study of the quadrant defined by Holly Lane to the East, I-85 to the West, Sheridan Drive to the South and Cliff Valley Way to the North, an area of over 500 acres. The study was conducted by a city planner from New York by the name of Alex Garvin and includes comprehensive proposals for the streets and the area in general. Among the proposals include plans to send North Druid Hills under Briarcliff by means of an underpass, access roads in addition to the main thoroughfares, a grand 2-lane roundabout for circulating the local traffic, and a network of surface streets and bicycles paths and lanes within the areas of new development. It also calls for preserving and making the currently little-known Kittredge Park more accessible to the public, as well as reclaiming a substantial length of the creek and planting 900 new trees. That Sembler paid for this study, rather than the county would appear to be a conflict of interest. The commissioners say that there is no precedent or budget for the county to pay for this sort of pre-emptive study, and Garvin claims to have opposed many aspects of the Sembler plan. You can read more about this at the following websites: Here are some of the pros and cons that are commonly associated with the Sembler project. Pros • This sort of development is just the free market at work. This development is only possible because of the relatively low current economic value of the property. • This area is run down and is otherwise at risk for attracting nuisance businesses such as night clubs and strip clubs like Cheshire Bridge or Clairmont at Briarcliff. • This is an opportunity for surrounding neighborhoods to gain attractive amenities at Sembler’s expense in return for their support. Lake Claire gained bicycle lanes and traffic calming measures, an elementary school at Brookhaven gained a $30,000 computer lab. • There is a real need for a quality shopping mall in Central DeKalb. The shopping mall to be included is proposed to have stores of the caliber of Lenox Square, rather than the usual Sembler mix of Lowe’s/Home Depot, Office Depot and Target. • DeKalb has the lowest sales tax collection rate per capita in the metro with many residents having to drive to Atlantic Station, Lenox Square and other places outside DeKalb. • The schools in the area are regional schools that have very few local students. The school board is already moving the programs in these schools to other parts of the county as the buildings are old and run down and too expensive to renovate. • The schools are already being closed down and the stadium is only being used for a few hours a week during the school year. It makes more sense to move it to a less economically desirable location. • Although Lakeside and Druid Hills high schools are overcrowded, they are already very close to each other and putting another high school in between doesn’t make sense. It would be better to locate a new high school farther south to accommodate the students who now have to be bussed a long way. • Although the Public Housing in the apartment complex is being sold off, it is being more than replaced by low-income and workforce housing in the new development. Mixed income housing is generally better than segregating low-income and poor people from the rest of the population. • There is a tremendous amount of tax-exempt property in DeKalb. Converting the school and county properties to revenue and tax-generating properties is good for the taxpaying homeowners of DeKalb. • The area is already a traffic nightmare and this is an opportunity to completely overhaul the transportation network to better serve both through traffic and local traffic at the expense of the developer. • All the area improvements can be paid for through a TAD (Tax Allocation District) and/or CID (Community Improvement District), both of which are funded through property taxes on businesses. Cons • The school properties are invaluable and irreplaceable. We have trailers and multiple 30+ class sizes at all of our High Schools. We should be building new classroom space instead of selling land that could support those new classrooms. • If Sembler Corp. is willing to spend $64 Million to buy land that will then cost them a minimum of $15 Million to clear, there is no way that the DeKalb County School System will be able to afford to buy land for new classroom space when the Board of Education finally admits that Central DeKalb deserves more classrooms. • The Garvin study and followup LCC questionnaires were predicated upon the school system land being sold instead of the properties being used as schools. • One of the proposed sites for a replacement stadium is on the driving range property on North Druid Hills. Plans for redevelopment on this site have been abandoned three times due to the unsuitability of the site for any sizeable buildings and the difficulty of ingress and egress for the site which is on a blind curve and too close to an existing traffic light to qualify for a new signal. • Another possible site for a replacement stadium would be near the intersection of I-85 & I-285. This would require the three teams who currently use Adams Stadium as home field to get onto the interstate at rush hour on Thursdays and Fridays to get to their home football games. • The county Land Use Plan, which states what kind of development should occur where in DeKalb, and which was finally re-approved this past spring after multiple years of effort, shows only medium density residential for the school and DHA properties. This rezoning would completely trash the land use plans for the quadrant. • Although 900 trees would be planted under Garvin’s plan, Sembler has not committed to this and there would be many mature trees taken down. And Sembler took down over 150 trees in Brookhaven that they had promised to keep. With no notice to neighbors. • Traffic at the intersection of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff Roads is deplorable. The Sembler Plan does not adequately address this major issue. • Even if the school system agrees to finance the road improvements through a Tax Allocation District, the county will still need to pay for them through a bond offering at the risk of the taxpayers. • This project should be at the Doraville GM plant where re-development is sorely needed and a mass transit station is nearby. Or maybe at Northlake Mall. But it should not be next to single family residential neighborhoods on top of a totally dysfunctional intersection. • CID’s cannot provide for major capital projects, by law. • A TAD for this area would prevent any increase in tax revenue from existing or new developments from reaching the school system for 25 years. • Sembler has played very fast and loose with the residents of Brookhaven, insinuating one level of environmental protection, but ensuring that contracts state only the minimum, and not even practicing that. The county Development Department has failed to enforce numerous violations of zoning code that local residents have pointed out. • Sembler’s idea of “workforce” housing in Brookhaven is 5 story retirement apartments. • Sembler promised “high end” shopping to Brookhaven residents but what is being built is Kohl’s, T J Maxx and a HiFi Buys amongst others. • On some site plans for Brookhaven, Sembler shows a Whole Foods at the front of the property, but they are just finishing a fight to be allowed to put an 8 story building there. The neighbors feel this is a shell-game. Additionally, ownership of one of the back corners where height requirements were loosened is being questioned, with residents fearing it will be sold to another developer who will have free rein to build different from what was agreed to on the latest site plan.