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Economy stands in way of Executive Park overhaul
By TY TAGAMI, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, March 08, 2009
Posted: March 8th, 2009 @ 3:40pm
Source: The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Atlanta offices are emptying with each wave of layoffs, and big retailers such as Circuit City are going belly up, but that hasn’t dampened one developer’s ambitious plans for the aging inner suburbs of DeKalb County.
The owners of a 70-acre office park along I-85 are proposing an overhaul that would nearly triple the current square footage there, creating a campus with 2.8 million square feet of office, retail and residential space.
Executive Park, a half-empty complex of suburban-style, low-rise offices, would get a makeover. There would be new offices, a 12-story tower, a 10-story hotel, outdoor cafes and flats over boutique shops. Workers and residents could walk to stores and restaurants.
Neighbors seem satisfied with the project, and so are the area’s two county commissioners. The County Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to approve new zoning.
Assuming the project gets the nod, one thing still stands in the way — looming fear of a second Great Depression.
“We’re going to be poised at the end of this year to start construction,” Mike Irby, a vice president of developer Taylor & Mathis, said before adding a caveat as tall as an empty office tower: “as soon as the market swings back.”
The proposed development is on North Druid Hills Road, less than half a mile from a similar project that outraged neighbors.
The Sembler Co. proposed a mixed-use development with three times the retail space. That scale and its distance from the interstate had some residents panicking about traffic. They rallied against Sembler, and the company walked away last year, blaming the economy.
Executive Park has been greeted by comparative silence. It’s closer to the interstate, which helped sell the project to neighbors. Plus, the developer promised to reduce the cut-through traffic that plagues the nearest neighborhood, LaVista Park, by reconfiguring roads and intersections.
Those cars will be steered through the project site instead, said Gene Schmidt, a LaVista Park resident who led negotiations with the developer. When all the work is done, he said, “you’ll have to want to come to the neighborhood rather than just wandering in and then gunning through.”
The Park at Druid Hills, as the project is called, will draw more traffic to that part of DeKalb. Projections show the volume of vehicles on North Druid Hills Road rising by about a third. It is such a significant increase that the county is requiring the developer to improve intersections as much as two miles away.
The traffic worries Dan Wright, who represents the nearby North Druid Hills neighborhood. A transportation engineer, he read the traffic report and knows what to expect, but he said most of his neighbors are unconcerned and are looking forward to the shops and other amenities.
Wright credits the developer with responding to neighbors’ concerns. The plans call for sidewalks, paths and a grid of streets to connect to existing neighborhoods and ease congestion. Yet at its core, Wright said, the Park at Druid Hills will be a “car mall” — because few would be foolhardy enough to walk there.
“The big problem is nobody in their right mind wants to walk along North Druid Hills Road because you’ve got people talking on cellphones or putting on eyeliner and zipping by at 50 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before there’s a severe traffic impact, but once it gets built out, people will see.”
Executive Park, metro Atlanta’s first suburban-style office park, was erected in the 1960s when the area was a new suburb of Atlanta. Then development leapfrogged far into the countryside. Experts say part of DeKalb is ripe for resurgence because it is relatively central and near the confluence of three highways — I-85, I-75 and Ga. 400.
It’s accessible from the suburbs and an attractive alternative to pricey offices in Buckhead or Midtown, said Dale Lewis, a vice president at Carter, a real estate company that competed for the Executive Park development contract.
“It appeals to companies when they’ve got employees coming from a lot of different locations,” Lewis said.
Carter Vice Chairman Trent Germano said the Park at Druid Hills would be well-positioned to capture office tenants, but it will take a while to get off the ground.
Atlanta is awash in office vacancies amid the business slowdown, he said. “It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to finance a project right now.”
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