Stretching from the tony outskirts of Buckhead to a bustling I-285 and beyond, the Buford Highway Corridor stands at the precipice of an economic renaissance the metropolitan Atlanta area hasn’t seen since Atlantic Station opened for business in 2005. However, unlike the toxic brownfield that once sullied the north Atlanta skyline, the Buford Highway corridor has a lot that needs to be preserved and curated.
Celebrated for its ethnic diversity, hundreds of businesses, large and small, call the corridor home and its collection of international restaurants can take diners on culinary adventures around the globe featuring exotic cuisine from Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, Colombia, Cambodia, China, Japan, Ethiopia and beyond. Mixed into the pocket communities that line the corridor are schools, parks, retail, multiuse trails, playgrounds, a movie studio, historic neighborhoods and other urban amenities.
The dilemma for Brookhaven is how can the community and culture be preserved when redevelopment is a certainty? It’s a matter of when, not if.
This conundrum is the impetus for the painstakingly deliberate approach Brookhaven has taken for the current zoning rewrite process, which codifies more than two years’ worth of citizen input into the zoning law that will shape this region’s future.
On one hand, we have to set realistic and attractive standards that allow developers to build what the community needs. Things like mixed-use projects were not even addressed in DeKalb County’s zoning code a dozen years ago. Parking lots between buildings and the street used to be the accepted approach to development, but not anymore.
On the other hand, we have to ensure that these developments create the opportunity for the existing communities to remain in place, if they want to.
This means we must address the affordable housing/workforce housing issue. We must also have standards for greenspace and integrate multimodal transportation options at every opportunity.
An example of how this works successfully is Brookhaven’s partnership with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Zoning was put in place that allowed the hospital to begin construction of its $1.6 billion campus, which includes a multimillion-dollar commitment to infrastructure improvements, including transportation. The zoning for Children’s Healthcare is limited to a specific area south of I-85 and the campus is purposefully oriented to connect with the Peachtree Creek Greenway that will ultimately connect Mercer University in unincorporated DeKalb through Brookhaven to the Atlanta Beltline.
An example that didn’t work is the recent proposal to build a townhome project in an assembled residential neighborhood off Buford Highway. The developer’s proposed investment matched the character envisioned for the corridor, and the 30 units of affordable housing included were a welcomed component. However, the accompanying demand for a 30-year, 100 percent property tax abatement for all 300 apartments and parking deck was not realistic.
The Buford Highway corridor has long been identified as a priority redevelopment area, as outlined in Brookhaven’s 2034 Comprehensive Master Plan. I have always said that this area is prime for $3 billion to $4 billion in development in the next five to 10 years. Children’s Healthcare, Emory and the Atlanta Hawks already get us halfway there, but that’s on the other side of I-85, and not a residential area. Buford Highway itself has such a large population that it must be addressed in a holistic fashion.
The corridor continues to morph into much more than Atlanta’s melting pot, far beyond the cuisine and international flair. Families and young professionals are being drawn to its laid-back charm and promise of economic opportunity.
This is the Buford Highway corridor, with a personality, presence and promise like nowhere else. We have a moral obligation to be faithful stewards of Buford Highway’s heritage, while ensuring its sustainable growth for generations to come.
Joe Gebbia is a member of the Brookhaven City Council.