Some Background On Development in Virginia-Highland and Q&A on the Master Plan

VaHi-Logo-Vertical-Hypen-RGBEditor’s Note: The Virginia-Highland Master Plan – as adopted by the VHCA board on April 14 – can be viewed here.

By: Jack White, VHCA Board President

Aaron Fortner, the Market & Main consultant who led the Master Plan study, characterized this neighborhood a few years ago as being “in danger of being loved to death.”  His point was that our nearly ideal blend of home design, scale, small businesses, variety of residential options, and location had attracted so much attention and development pressure that maintaining the very features that distinguished VaHi could become a challenge. The rough model has been emulated throughout intown communities; our commercial aspects in particular now have real competition.

The adoption of Neighborhood Commercial (‘NC’) districts along N. Highland Ave. was an early response to that. These three districts allow flexible parking approaches in exchange for building height limits of 42’. Defining these districts was inspired by a proposal to build a much taller building opposite the American Roadhouse; such a building might still occur in that one location. Such redevelopment – when it occurs – is very likely to follow the modern intown models of ground floor commercial topped by 2nd and 3rd-floor residential. As that occurs, there will be still more auto traffic on N. Highland. Even sooner, there will be more auto traffic from the re-development of Druid Hills Baptist Church just south of Ponce.

We have mentioned several times this neighborhood’s historic and ongoing determination to maintain R-4 zoning along the BeltLine. That goal is important on its own merits, and also because there is the near-certainty of considerable new residential development along the BeltLine between Virginia and Ponce, behind the houses on Ponce Place. As that occurs, there will be much more auto traffic on Ponce Place, Virginia, and Monroe.

We will never return to the old volumes or speed of driving in Virginia-Highland. We can all work to keep cars moving, but as new traffic arrives, we are going to move at slower speeds – out of necessity (those other cars) and, because of safety (respecting other legal users).

Whether because of the traffic or in spite of it (or both), we now have many more citizens walking and biking. The importance of accommodating them safely and of keeping this neighborhood friendly to pedestrians were cited frequently during the Master Plan process. Keeping traffic moving is a goal we can all agree on, but it exists right beside the legal necessity of protecting other users.

Except on specified roads like interstate highways, cyclists have a perfect right to be on the road. And they are exercising that right in ever-increasing numbers. They don’t need anyone’s permission to do so and they haven’t asked; they’re just showing up and riding. That group includes many of our own residents. That those cyclists are a numerical minority is irrelevant and does not alter their legal right to be safe or our need to accommodate them.

Pedestrians – who every day include many residents of VaHi, some of them children – have a perfect right to cross the street in safety at marked crosswalks; cars have to stop for them and are more likely to do so when they are not speeding and the intersections are conspicuously marked. Any slight inconvenience that results to drivers from the slower speed is legally and morally secondary to protecting the rights of citizens to legally walk in our neighborhood.

Living in a civil atmosphere with an active street-side lifestyle that safely accommodates and encourages usages other than autos is a key characteristic of Virginia-Highland, and we all benefit from it.

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While the Master Plan addresses many topics, a few seemed to come up time and time again. The amount of noise this discussion created likely caused confusion among some residents. Following is an attempt to clarify some of the more frequently discussed topics:

Cars, Bikes, and Walking

Resident Comment: This plan supports those who walk and bicycle at the expense of those who drive.

Virginia-Highland is the poster child for good intown living: a vibrant neighborhood with entertainment, restaurants, schools and park facilities. Residents have overwhelmingly said that safe, non-automotive ways of getting around are a distinguishing characteristic of this community that needs to be protected and enhanced. Being able to walk and bike safely were mentioned enough to cause the consultant to summarize the Plan’s entire theme under the rubric of ‘Healthy Living’.

Resident Comment: Have other studies identified the importance of improving the safety of walking and biking?

The independent consultants from Safe Routes to Schools have looked at the same challenges and made recommendations about pedestrian safety and access that are very similar to those in the Master Plan. For example, the Springdale Park plan focuses first on making Briarcliff Road safer; N. Highland and Ponce are the next priorities. Supported by the Springdale PTA, Poncey-Highland, and the Druid Hills Civic Association, the Springdale program is trying very hard to make pedestrian access safer, a particularly important topic for children and parents since APS school bus coverage has been reduced. The Inman Safe Route to Schools Program specifically noted accidents and concerns about pedestrian safety on Monroe Drive.

Resident Comment: All these cars and delays make our neighborhood seem suburban.

Nobody likes traffic, and we all may wish for less of it, but it doesn’t make us ‘suburban’.

The most obvious difference between intown and suburban living is the intown concentration of retail, commercial, and entertainment options that can be accessed in non-motorized ways. Most of us are very dependent on our cars, but we typically use them much less than suburbanites because at least some of our recreational and daily shopping needs are close to home and are sometimes walkable and bikeable. Protecting those options was a frequent comment by residents in this process.

VaHi residents have also been active advocates for walking and cycling over the last decade. This community has historically backed groups that champion these practices (PEDS, Atlanta Bicycle Campaign, the Atlanta Track Club) because they’re fun and healthy.

Resident Comment: The Plan calls for painting sharrows (graphic of bicycles and arrows) on roads. Those give cyclists the right-of-way over cars.

Sharrows are only a visual reminder that cyclists are on the road and that the law requires sharing  – hence, the name. They are equivalent to a “Slow – children at play” sign – a reminder that other users may be present; they change no laws.

For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shared_lane_marking.

Resident Comment: You can’t pass cyclists who are in bike lanes.

Yes, you can. In fact, it’s easier to pass cyclists who are riding in a dedicated lane.

Resident Comment: Bike lanes, sharrows, pedestrian signals, and bulb-outs are bad ideas.

These are all tools, and like all tools, they are value-neutral, neither good nor evil. Not every cyclist wants or uses bike lanes; some take the motor vehicle lane. A poorly designed or marked bulb-out can be hazardous or irritating; at intersections where cars speed through turns, a bulb-out improves pedestrian safety by slowing the turn. One can find examples of both in northeast Atlanta.

Monroe Drive

Resident Comment: Does the VHCA support the road diet piece of the Connect Atlanta Plan?

The VHCA supports the outcomes that the CAP is designed to produce – a reduction in speed on Monroe, improvements in traffic flow (fewer cars stuck behind folks waiting to make left turns and making abrupt lane changes), better pedestrian conditions for crossing and walking along the road, and an improvement in the quality of life for residents on the road.

Resident Comment: Even if we can’t change the Monroe Drive road diet, this plan goes too far. It takes away lanes from cars on other roads and gives them to cyclists.

The Master Plan does not take lanes away from cars. Perhaps it should have; a number of people have said they thought it should. But it doesn’t.

The road diet maintains 2 dedicated lanes – one in each direction – and a third shared lane for making left turns at any of the 17 opportunities to do so between Piedmont and 10th. In the short run, it proposes bike lanes in the remaining space; to be replaced when the BeltLine is extended by additional pedestrian components and plantings designed to shield walkers along Monroe from traffic.

Resident Comment: If the Master Plan isn’t the mechanism for opposing the road diet, what is?

Such plans are updated periodically, typically every few years. In our experience, City Planners will be glad to hear your arguments. They are usually quite capable of explaining their own rationales and data, and talking to them is certain to be enlightening, even if you disagree with them.

Resident Comment: The road diet reduces auto capacity on Monroe.

The City’s transportation planners don’t think it will. The most recent road counts for Monroe show traffic at about 18,000 cars a day.

Resident Comment: How does that compare to traffic counts there 6-8 years ago?

It is less, down from the low 20’s. Many traffic counts have gone down nationwide. Oft-cited reasons for this trend include the recession, working from home, folks making conscious decisions to live closer to their work, and impatience with time spent on the roads incentivizing a search for better routes or methods.

Resident Comment: Traffic levels on Monroe will go back up when Ponce City Market opens next year.

Yes, they very well might, but the traffic models show that the road diet can handle 10-20% more cars than are currently using the roadway.

Resident Comment: Every developer who proposes a huge new development provides a traffic study that shows everything will be fine.

Skepticism is understandable and healthy, particularly when a party that stands to benefit financially from it is paying for such a study. Our consultants looked at it independent of the city’s examination and saw no obvious flaws. Any study can be erroneous, but those who have done the Monroe traffic models have no monetary motive in being inaccurate.

Also, the road diet is already City policy and has been for several years.

Resident Comment: The traffic signals on Monroe can be better programmed to handle more traffic.

That would be great. We encourage sharing such ideas with the City traffic engineers. Perhaps there is a very simple fix that can be made somewhere on Monroe that will really help there – or maybe not.  Either way, there’s no reason to delay trying, and we’d be glad to help arrange such a meeting, if that would be of assistance. Helpful or not, this single point has little to do with the Master Plan.

Resident Comment: Why don’t you just leave out any reference to the road diet? That would be interpreted as being OK with it by default without having a big discussion.

Deliberately NOT informing citizens about any law or process – or carefully not mentioning information because someone might not like it – is the exact opposite of good planning and totally inconsistent with this community’s historic approach, which has been based on openness. The iterative process is based on learning, asking, and discussing. That process takes time and has real value; a better-informed citizenry is one of the benefits of those who go through it.

It is interesting to note that our process appears to have informed many more citizens about the road diet than the city did on either of the two occasions it passed the plans that included the feature.

By the way, how exactly would anyone responsibly involved in the Master Plan process reply to a resident who asked if important content had been omitted because it might upset someone?

Resident Comment: Are there parts of the Connect Atlanta Plan that the VHCA does not like?

Inevitably, there are – specifically the concept of a new road though the Ponce de Leon Kroger from North Avenue to Ponce de Leon Place. We are very concerned that such a connection would funnel what we fear would be new large volumes of traffic from North Ave. (especially once Ponce City Market opens) into our neighborhood.

Resident Comment: Why isn’t that opposition part of the Master Plan?

Master plans start with and are based on existing policies and do not assume that that they will change.   No individual or group waives their right to try to change polices in the future by learning and acknowledging what existing policy is.

Resident Comment: Why didn’t the Master Plan seek to prohibit retail chain stores?

As with the road diet, the Master Plan approached commercial topics through existing law and policy.  Even if the commercial areas in VaHi were prospering, and even if city code contained a definition of what a chain store is (which is not as straightforward as it may seem), there is no basis in law for limiting them.

While the VHCA is a resident-based organization, the health of the commercial districts received a a good bit of focus in the Plan. Some proposals will have to await the expiration of or changes to the Park Atlanta contract (because that is law and no matter how much we wish we could change it with a master plan, we cannot), but there are some specific infrastructure recommendations for the Atkins Park NC district that are intended to improve the street-side atmosphere and make the area more attractive.

Board Process and By-Laws

Resident Comment: Why didnt the Steering Committee and the Board participate in the social media debates?

They did. Members of those groups made approximately fifty comments on various social media sites, providing a large amount of input on issues, process, and schedules. We also commented to ensure that resident concerns and comments were directed to the proper channels (www.vahimasterplan.org and specific board members) where they could be observed and recorded.

Resident Comment: No neighborhood votes are needed on one-foot variances; they’re not very important. But we should vote on the Master Plan, like Candler Park did.

Candler Park followed its by-laws and rules, as it should have. They vote neighborhood-wide on all requests: one-inch variances, one-foot variances, two-foot variances, and any and every other detail.

Virginia-Highland has very successfully used a representative model to engage on a wide and sophisticated range of processes (including running a very successful Tour of Homes and Summerfest that raise large amounts of money that is spent on – among other things – schools, parks, planning, and sidewalks.

We followed our by-laws throughout this process, as we should have.

It is worth noting that the distinction cited – variance review versus formal planning – is not nearly as broad as it might seem. While some variance requests are routine, others are not and their content and the manner in which they are handled have a great deal more neighborhood-wide significance than might be obvious at a glance.

Resident Comment: The Boards support of the Master Plan was pre-ordained; there are Board members on the Steering Committee who weren’t impartial.

We certainly were not impartial on the value of a Master Plan, or we would not have studied them, gone to other neighborhoods that were meeting on the topic, talked to the City of Atlanta’s Planning Office, sought out the opinion of several city council members, or asked two of them for financial support to defray the cost of developing the Plan.

No citizen – certainly not any board member or volunteer on a master plan – starts with a tabula rasa, a blank slate. But there were no pre-ordained conclusions about any specific content, where input arrived from a variety of sources – residents, the consultants, and other planners.

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The VHCA thanks the many residents who have engaged in the Master Plan process, providing valuable insight into current experiences in VaHi and goals for the future of our neighborhood. Please reach out to board@vahi.org for further information and continue to comment on the plan at www.vahimasterplan.org.

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