by Jack White
For many years, VHCA has paid a lot of attention to the corner of 10th Street and Monroe. When Wayne Mason bought the land that later became the BeltLine, he proposed an infamous pair of 38 and 42-story towers in the area. (A favorite memory from those days was his suggestion that a future trail could go in a tunnel under one of his skyscrapers.)
The creation of the BeltLine (incorporated as the Atlanta BeltLine Inc., or “ABI”) and the subsequent purchase of the Mason tracts were widely supported in this community. The joy didn’t last long; ABI spent most of 2009 advocating for land uses changes that would allow the construction of a combination of four- and eight-story apartment buildings on land that was – and still is – zoned for single-family. VHCA and NPU-F resisted very vigorously. ABI’s proposal would have shredded the principles in the NPU’s central planning document, the Comprehensive Development Plan ( “CDP”). Tom Wheatley’s excellent reporting in Creative Loafing from that time neatly and humorously sums up the community’s overwhelming and successful opposition. (You can read it here.)
Absent a consensus and facing the end of the City Council term, ABI abandoned their efforts. A year later, with new ABI leadership and Councilmember Wan’s help, a new plan for this area (Subarea 6, in ABI parlance) that was consistent with the CDP was amicably developed and adopted. It was a relief for us, and it helped ABI and the neighborhoods get on the same page.
With an eye on these proposed changes in the area, by 2009 one owner had privately assembled almost all the private land west of Monroe east of the BeltLine up to and including (except for the last house by the Park) all the property on Cresthill’s south side; he still owns it all. In the last few years that same owner has twice signaled – and then backed off – a push to change the land uses and zoning to allow more intense multi-family development.
This community has always supported a healthy mix of single-family and multi-family options. One of the early things we examined was the amount of multi-family we already have in this community. The answer was a bit surprising: VaHi already has more multi-family units – they’re easy to spot on Greenwood and St. Charles – than almost any other northeast neighborhood, including traditional Midtown. Even more will arrive at some point in areas already zoned for it, such as the North Highland Road Neighborhood Commercial districts and along the BeltLine itself from Ponce to Virginia.
Why is the Monroe/10th area different?
VHCA’s concerns for this area mirror those of many nearby neighbors. While some greater density there may be inevitable and acceptable, the challenges lie in determining an appropriate size and scale for development, mitigating associated traffic impacts, and – most important of all – coping with the implications for adjacent and nearby single-family residential owners along Monroe and its side streets.
More specifically, professionals in community planning observe that – unless paired with new protective provisions – any planning rationales that justify denser development around 10th Street have the capacity (whether intended or unintentional) to incentivize similar outcomes further north on Monroe.
Maintaining the single-family character of Cresthill and Cooledge and offering protection to the homes on the east side of Monroe are key outcomes. Strategically, that is one reason that VHCA has always carefully monitored all attempts to alter the zoning or land use in the CDP, both in our neighborhood and others.
Our chief strategist throughout this process has been Aaron Fortner, who has served this neighborhood for years in many capacities. (Aaron most recently led the Master Plan; it was his notion to count rather than just guess the degree of existing multi-family.) In addition to the importance of the CDP, Fortner has consistently emphasized several other points.
The middle of any street (particularly a busy one like Monroe) makes a weak line of demarcation for zoning purposes. If a street has the capacity to accommodate an intense use on one side, it’s very difficult to prevent that use on the other. The same logic applies on Cresthill. If multifamily is built on one side, it becomes harder to maintain single-family uses on the other. (Potentially less attractive too, obviously.)
There are accompanying quality of life issues attached to the uses and design of streets. As anyone who attended Master Plan meetings will remember, the residents along Monroe face some special traffic challenges – cars going too fast and jumping lanes when traffic allows, followed by congestion, and then back to speeding cars, and sidewalks that offer very little buffering from the street. None of these conditions support pedestrian or front-yard uses, as residential zoning aspires to do. Just crossing the road to get to Piedmont Park with children can be a real challenge on Monroe.
The Monroe Complete Streets program aspires to reduce excess speeds, calm driving behaviors, and protect the pedestrians and cyclists who keep showing up there in ever-greater numbers. Will it work, and what are the implications for zoning and land use?
We should all hope it works, because under no circumstances are the traffic levels of the last century going to return. If the auto behaviors on this street can’t be reined in and Monroe is unlivable at street level, that becomes another argument for replacing single-family residential there with more intense development. That would in turn produce more traffic and more development; it’s a classic domino pattern that is no stranger to Atlantans. (Lenox Road’s rapid change from single-family to very dense multi-family during the 1980’s is a classic example.)
If that’s the predominant direction the development takes, the nature of the single-family residential character of the whole west side of VaHi is in doubt.
These challenges were in the front of our minds when discussions about developing Monroe and 10th began anew this spring. We took them very seriously; the developer hired a well-known and competent zoning attorney and a prominent developer; the neighborhood had the Planning Committee, the comfort of our dialogue with local residents, and the experience and skills of Aaron Fortner, and former Atlanta Planning Dept. attorney Bob Zoeckler. Alex was there, watching and listening carefully. No formal proposals were offered; the developers explained their broad goals, and we explained ours. (They are the ones articulated above.)
Amidst this lobbing of ideas back and forth, the developers suddenly called a break. We expect that they will be back in a few months. It’s hard to imagine otherwise; this land has sat there for almost 6 years.
Trying to find a reasonable solution that doesn’t threaten this neighborhood in the long run and still satisfies the owner’s ambitions is a challenge. A few months ago a formal proposal seemed likely to be in front of us all by now; the timetable has turned out differently. Perhaps there’s an acceptable middle ground that provides outcomes that work for all parties; perhaps there’s not. That’s a decision we’ll all talk over and make together when there’s something to decide. We feel as prepared for the discussion and process as we can be, but the timetable is not ours.
Meanwhile, our own professionals have been looking for other ways to protect traditional residential areas from the impacts of any new proposals. If they have any useful ideas, they’ll be shared very openly with citizens first.
If you’d like to hear more about this, there’s an update at almost every Planning Committee meeting. That committee meets the Wednesday before the monthly Board meeting at 7 PM at the Church of Our Saviour, opposite FS 19. The next one is September 9th; it’s open to all members of VHCA, which – in this neighborhood – is all residents. You’re very welcome to come.
Jack White is on the VHCA Planning Committee and Board.