City leaders say they are ready to renew talks with the MARTA board of directors about a long-discussed redevelopment of the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe Station site.
The efforts come two years after MARTA dumped a “town center” project that included an officer tower, more than 500 residential units and a small public park space. The abandonment of the plan followed months of community backlash over density and failed negotiations with the City Council over tax breaks.
In a Feb. 8 letter to MARTA board chair Freda Hardage, Mayor John Ernst said the city “would like to advance the redevelopment of the MARTA properties” at the station, which is located on prime real estate in the heart of the city at Peachtree and North Druid Hills roads.
“The city views this station as a strategically important development site within the region and would like to advance in a purposeful manner,” Ernst wrote.
That is the “total reset” the mayor envisioned in 2017 when he directed city staff to halt any work on tax abatements for the planned transit-oriented development following several rezoning delays.
Trouble between the city and Integral and Transwestern Development Company, which made up Brookhaven City Center Partners, the developers hired by MARTA for the project, had been brewing for some time before the mayor’s reset request.
Hundreds of residents packed City Hall in red shirts to protest the proposed density of the development, the traffic they thought it would create and its design. The MARTA board finally cut off talks and dropped the project.
At the council’s Feb. 16 annual retreat, Economic Development Director Shirlynn Brownell said it’s taken about one year to rebuild relationships with MARTA enough move forward with potential redevelopment talks.
The previous plans included an eight-story office building fronting Peachtree Road; a 125-room hotel; 100 senior housing units, 107 for-sale residential units; 340 apartments; and nearly 56,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.
“The first round was undervisioned, to be honest,” Brownell said. “We want to make this project community focused with what we want to see in a city center.”
A MARTA spokesperson said in a written statement that, “MARTA enjoys a strong relationship with the city of Brookhaven and is open to discussions with respect to its land owned next to the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station.”
Brownell said the city is set to work with local architecture firm TSW on a pro bono basis to come up with another draft site plan for a “city center” vision, but the work is not intended to be a final design. No illustrations are yet available, the city said.
The recent approval of the Peachtree Road Overlay District and North Druid Hills Corridor Study now underway are all steps being taken that could help Brookhaven and MARTA find common ground on density, according to city officials. Talks about tax incentives to fund infrastructure needs such as stormwater, sewer and green space are also open for negotiations, they said.
The idea, said City Manager Christian Sigman, is to resolve such issues as traffic, infrastructure and green space before moving on to the aesthetics of the project.
The city has community input from some previous planning processes for the site, including a 2013 Atlanta Regional Commission report and a 2006 Livable Centers Initiative plan that originated an early version of the station redevelopment.
Council members and city staff agreed another round of community meetings is desirable.
The council also wants to be a partner with MARTA in selecting the developer when the time comes – a condition not granted two years ago. MARTA officials have been hesitant in the past to agree to such a request because the property belongs to MARTA. But the location is so central to Brookhaven’s identity, city officials said, that having a say in who develops the site as part of an exchange of tax incentives seems fair.
Bill Roberts is president of the Brookhaven Heights Community Association, which includes neighborhoods adjacent to the station.
Residents have long been interested in development at the station, where more than a dozen acres of empty parking lot exists, he said. Roberts said he’s been involved with MARTA planning for 15 years, long before Brookhaven became a city in 2012.
“The city is relatively new to how long the project has been going on,” he said.
Somehow a balance must be struck between the neighborhoods; MARTA, as owner of the property; the city; and developers, Roberts said.
“One of the concerns neighborhoods always have is density, which is shorthand for traffic,” he said. The last MARTA project had more than 500 residential units and, according to many homeowners, that was too many, Roberts said. Perhaps the next version could scale that number back, he suggested.
“We’re all interested in this project as citizens,” Roberts said. “We’re all wanting to see something transformative and spectacular done there. This project has the potential to be a dynamic and game-changing place that would forever change Brookhaven.”