Nearly two years into a major reorganization, the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts is poised to unveil a new master plan that is laser-focused on better transportation in the booming business district.
In a new preliminary project list approved by the self-taxing business group, the PCIDs is shedding old ideas that aren’t transportation-related, including a sister business association and a long-planned new park at the Dunwoody MARTA Station. Topping the new to-do list: New multiuse trails, mass transit planning and grappling with towering new toll lanes that will transform neighborhoods along the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange in the next decade.
“This is our lane. We’re going to stay in it,” said PCIDs Executive Director Ann Hanlon about the transportation focus during a recent interview in the group’s office in Sandy Springs’ Northpark complex.
“The fact that our work plan is a list of just [transportation] projects speaks volumes about the direction we’re heading in.”
The PCIDs’ board approved the project list on Aug. 22. With budgets and timelines attached, the list is the basis for the new master plan, which is scheduled for a board vote Sept. 26. Hanlon says the master plan will be a “glossy document,” but with a technical and practical focus.
“This is not propaganda for the district,” she said. “This is meant to be a tool to guide our actions. … This is a real work plan.”
The PCIDs consists of two separate but jointly operated districts in Perimeter Center, one on the DeKalb County side and one on the Fulton County side, whose members voluntarily pay extra taxes to fund local improvements. The PCIDs fell into turmoil in September 2016 with the surprise resignation of its previous executive director, a change that exposed some doubts about the group’s focus and organization.
Hanlon said the PCIDs, which had a record revenue last year of about $8 million, lacked a solid budget or work plan. One of the PCIDs most attention-getting acts in recent years was a $10 million contribution to the state’s I-285/Ga. 400 project. While Hanlon doesn’t directly criticize it, she made it clear that sort of unrestricted donation won’t be happening in the future.
The PCIDs had a backlog of 66 projects and studies that dated as far back as 10 years and were “all over the place,” Hanlon said. For the master plan, that list was whittled down to about 37 projects, prioritized under the categories of “access,” “mobility” and “sense of place.”
Aside from getting a budget and timeline, each project will have a “fact sheet” laying out its goals and partners. In part, that aims to avoid paperwork problems that last year led to the embarrassing situation of the city of Sandy Springs suing the PCIDs, a case that was later settled.
While the project list got trimmed, the PCIDs itself might expand. Hanlon said the group would welcome more property owners and likely would seek to add them to carry out other transportation-related projects, such as extending the PATH400 multiuse trail from Buckhead. Also possible is a change in the self-taxing millage, but for now it is staying the same at 4 mills.
Transit and 285/400
Transit and the I-285/Ga. 400 highway changes are first among equals on the new project priority list.
“Realistically, I think transit is the future here,” says PCIDs project manager John Gurbal, who spends a lot of time figuring out how to move commuters in and out of Perimeter Center.
For the PCIDs, that means planning better access and rider options. Perimeter Center and the Medical Center already boast four MARTA stations. But so-called last-mile connectivity – getting riders to and from the stations and their destinations – remains an issue. That’s why multiuse trails are among the priorities. The locations include Ashford-Dunwoody Road, Peachtree-Dunwoody Road and the Medical Center.
“I think I’ve heard from my board pretty loud and clear they want to get some shovels in the ground and start building these things,” said Hanlon about the trails.
The biggest transportation project right now is highway-driven. The state is in the midst of reconstructing the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, but that’s only the beginning. The state wants to add toll lanes on elevated ramps 30 or more feet high around the interchange over the next 10 years. That has sparked questions about effects on mass transit options and quality of life in the area, though the concepts remain little-known to the general public.
Hanlon says the highway project is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to wrangle some localized transportation improvements. It also shows the importance of having a master plan for “exploring what in the world we can do to affect that,” she said.
On Aug. 22, the PCIDs board approved contributing $15,000 to a multi-jurisdictional study of transit options along I-285, an idea spearheaded by Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.
With the toll lanes, Hanlon said the state has been “guarded” with information, but the PCIDs is thinking about ways to approach them.
“Some board members really want us to prioritize the aesthetic part of it” and help “those big overpasses look better,” she said. “We call it extreme bridge makeover.”
Others are interested in the increasingly controversial topic of where the lanes would connect to surface streets. The PCIDs is among the backers of adding such lanes to Johnson Ferry Road in the Medical Center. Less settled options previously discussed by local leaders include Hammond Drive and Mount Vernon Highway.
On both aspects, Hanlon said, the PCIDs will work to “shape them into what is going to help the district.”
What’s out of the plan
Among the projects that didn’t make the master plan cut is what Hanlon calls a “kind of grandiose idea of a park” under elevated tracks at the Dunwoody MARTA Station along Perimeter Center Parkway. Unveiled in 2014, the plan involved turning a drainage ditch into a park-lined stream with a lawn on land owned by the city of Dunwoody and Perimeter Mall.
“The price tag was very expensive,” says Hanlon, and the group has “board members who feel PCIDs shouldn’t be in the parks business.” The PCIDs might still create a multiuse trailhead there, she said, but a park would be left to the city or other groups.
Also meeting its end is the Perimeter Business Alliance, a kind of sister organization founded in 2012 by PCIDs board members. The PBA’s purpose was fuzzy and the group was most visible to the public as host of luncheon speakers on business and development topics. Hanlon said the PBA will be formally dissolved as of Dec. 31, but it’s defunct and its logo was already removed from the lobby wall in the PCIDs office.
Even some projects that made the final cut may not happen for other reasons, Hanlon said. One example is a proposed Perimeter Center Parkway extension between Lake Hearn Drive and Johnson Ferry Road in the Medical Center area along the Brookhaven/Sandy Springs border. Hanlon said there is “recognition on our board that this is not a popular project” after talking with Brookhaven city officials.