By Jody Steinberg

Over 50 people rolled up their sleeves and went to work mapping a long-range, strategic development plan for the North Druid Hills corridor that stretches from west of Buford Highway to Mason Mill Park.

The North Druid Hills Living Centers Initiative Study brought together citizens, developers, businesses and government to chart a course of land use, transportation and connectivity that will better serve all stakeholders and improve the quality of life in the area. The Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI program links economic and land development projections with air quality, transportation and sustainability.

“All streets should serve all users – that’s the goal of good urban design,” Maureen Gresham, project manager at ARCADIS, the urban planning firm that is guiding the process, told the group at a recent meeting at the DeKalb International Student Center (formerly Kittredge Magnet School).

The recent meeting was the first design workshop, one of a series of meetings to collect community input and priorities for a comprehensive plan addressing transportation needs, density of development, residential/community/business zoning and more.

Table-sized maps of the planning area were distributed, along with markers, color-coded stickers, building images and idea prompts. After an hour of discussing development and then transportation possibilities, the maps sported new lines and arrows delineating participants’ visions for new pathways, sidewalks, green space, bus routes, streets and developments.

Some of the goals included:

Sidewalks, bike paths and connectivity to enable the ability to move freely and safely throughout the area without cars, Town Center designation west of Briarcliff Road, connectivity to Emory, curb cuts in retail areas, wider sidewalks placed farther from roads, greenways connecting Toco Hills, WD Thompson, Mason Mill and Kittredge parks, good mixed-use development incorporating a senior center near Toco Hills, and better public transportation.

The area already has better-than-average public transportation, said Gresham. ARCADIS also noted that some traffic changes are already in the works, including improvements to key intersections, signal timing and traffic-control upgrades.

Many in attendance liked the emphasis on neighborhoods and parks connected through bike and walking paths as well as increasing green space and improving the roads.

Bike enthusiast Gene Schmidt sees the need for safer pedestrian and bike routes every Sunday morning when he bikes the region on “zoning patrol.” He figures it’s the only time all week he can safely bike the area – as long as he’s home by 9 a.m.

The need for a comprehensive plan became public in early 2007 when Sembler Development proposed a 109-acre mixed use development at the intersection of Briarcliff and North Druid Hills roads for a concept similar to Town Brookhaven. Had Sembler succeeded in acquiring 30 acres from the DeKalb County School System, including the former Briarcliff High School, the Kittredge campus and Cross Keys High’s home field, Adams Stadium, the project would have surrounded the public Kittredge Park with retail, office space, high-density housing and a new road system. Anticipating the community backlash, county commissioners and the LCI engaged Alex Garvin and Associates of New York to devise a plan for the area’s public space. The Garvin Plan (www.AlexGarvin.net), with a heavy emphasis on increasing green space, public transportation, traffic flow and pedestrian and bike-friendly roads and sidewalks, had raised hope that effective planning and funding could enhance quality of life for residents.

Planners are using DeKalb County transportation and comprehensive plans, demographic and traffic data, Atlanta Regional Commission’s objectives and Garvin’s plan as a starting point for the NDH comprehensive plan, which covers a larger area in more financially challenging times. Once planners complete the proposal, their next job will be to secure the funding – a tough sell in any economy, but especially these days, Garvin proposed a tax on new developments through a Tax Allocation District (TAD), but that idea wasn’t popular the first time around.

Schmidt questions the accuracy of some of the demographic data. “They’ve skewed the numbers on the chart,” said Schmidt, also the president of Friends of Kittredge Park and member of the LaVista Park zoning committee. “They’ve redlined around the single family home areas and included most of the higher density of apartments and condos.” That could lead to projections for more retail, office and parking development than the neighborhood really needs, he added. Like most residents, he wants higher density industry and office development to remain around I-85, from west of Briarcliff Road to the Buford Highway corridor, up near the Curtis Drive area that county planners have proposed for Town Center designation.

A Town Center designation does not mean an actual development is being proposed. Under the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI, Town Centers are areas close to major transportation arteries zoned for higher-density live-work-play developments. This allows communities to exert some control over the path of development and prevent prospective investors from locating their projects wherever they can get the land, Commissioner Jeff Rader recently told the Drew Valley Civic Association.

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