After 20 years of a population boom, increasingly jammed highways and skyscraper-sprouting mega-developments, it may sound quaint that people worried about Perimeter Mall traffic way back in 1999.
But the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, the self-taxing groups of business property owners that formed out of those concerns, are among the reasons the local boom has happened and why the traffic isn’t even worse. If you go to Perimeter Center today, you may well get there via one of the big projects the PCIDs pushed – like the Hammond Drive ramps on Ga. 400 or the Ashford-Dunwoody Road diverging diamond interchange at I-285 – and you’ll see smaller touches they’re responsible for, like landscaping and rush-hour traffic cops.
“They had a reputation for, number one, cleaning things up, providing some of those cosmetic amenities we’ve all become used to,” said Ann Hanlon, who watched the CIDs form as a longtime Dunwoody resident and now serves as their executive director. “At the time, that was pretty revolutionary, that a private group was willing to pay for those amenities.”
Back in 1999, the three cities that today cover Perimeter Center – Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs – did not yet exist. As the PCIDs looks ahead to its next 20 years, it has refocused its mission on transportation, leaving previous proposals such as park-building to the cities. Transportation these days means everything from helping to build multiuse trail networks to shaping the future of toll lanes and transit on Ga. 400 and I-285. That’s in addition to some of the basics the PCIDs currently provides or coordinates, like sidewalks and crosswalks, commuter shuttles, traffic signal timing and the Perimeter Connects commuter advice service.
An increasingly residential sector is part of Perimeter Center’s future, with an estimated 9,000 people already living there and more large-scale, mixed-use projects in the pipeline. It remains to be seen whether the PCIDs will join similar business groups in leveraging residential property owners into the self-taxing district.
“The CIDs’ story, in some ways, is a mirror of the story of metro Atlanta,” Hanlon says of the growth. “I’m excited to see what the next 20 years brings for Perimeter… Metro Atlanta is changing so rapidly and Perimeter is no different.”
Self-taxing Community Improvement Districts are authorized by state law. Virtually any business area can form one and institute the tax, as long as a majority of commercial property owners representing 75% of the local property values agree and the state legislature gives permission. The PCIDs’ district in Perimeter Center is roughly bordered by Ga. 400 to the west, I-285 to the south, and residential areas of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs to the north and east.
Another rule, and the one responsible for the PCIDs somewhat awkward plural name, is that a single CID cannot cross county lines. Perimeter Center happens to be split nearly in half by DeKalb and Fulton counties. The PCIDs is a joint staff that operates on behalf of two separate CIDs: the DeKalb CID, the one that formed in 1999 and is the basis for the 20th anniversary celebration, and the Fulton CID, which followed in 2001.
Today, there are 27 CIDs in the metro Atlanta area, according to the Council for Quality Growth. But in 1990s CIDs were still a novelty. “The CID was really a novelty,” Hanlon says.
Cobb County’s Cumberland CID was the first, founded in 1988. Another early example was Central Atlanta Progress in that city’s downtown. Buckhead attorney Chuck Palmer had worked on the CAP legislation and was drafted by Perimeter Center leaders to form the DeKalb CID.
“There was a group of property owners who believed they really needed to focus on transportation out there… and that they would come up with some solutions for that,” Palmer said. “…Basically, these property owners are putting their money where their mouths are.”
Yvonne Williams, then the president of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, was brought on to lead the new CID – partly because the Cumberland CID had been an affiliate of the chamber, giving her experience in that world. Williams led the PCIDs for 17 years, leaving in 2016, and is now president and CEO at the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
“We went in reverse, [by] not having a strategic plan in the beginning,” Williams recalled. “We decided to get a project done very quickly” to show the value of the tax dollars — relatively minor crosswalk and landscaping improvements to the intersection outside Dunwoody’s Crowne Plaza hotel in the Ravinia complex where the CID was based.
“We started with small projects with small wins to engage the public,” Williams said. “Then, of course, it just evolved to be huge.”
The PCIDs came into being when the Fulton side joined in 2001. At an April 25 20th anniversary reception, held in Brookhaven’s Hyatt Regency at Villa Christina, founding DeKalb CID board member Bob Voyles recalled that gathering Fulton property owners was “more fractious” because there were more of them, with smaller businesses. Another founding board member, Diane Calloway, was honored at the reception for her work, which included wrangling those Fulton property owners.
Williams soon found herself advocating for projects much larger than landscaping. On the Fulton side, she said, “Everybody was frustrated with Ga. 400” and long-stalled road improvement ideas to reduce its infamous congestion. The PCIDs joined the Sandy Springs Development Authority in partnering with the state to add a new half-interchange on Hammond Drive in 2011, which Williams called a “game-changer.”
Another huge project, the Ashford-Dunwoody diverging diamond, followed in 2012, helping to establish the PCIDs’ reputation as a big builder and partner with the Georgia Department of Transportation. The intersection, where traffic crisscrosses the street for better flow and safety, was the first of its kind in Georgia and is now widely imitated.
Cities join the picture
The cityhood movement trigged by the incorporation of Sandy Springs in 2005 swept Perimeter Center, with Dunwoody coming in 2008 and Brookhaven in 2012. It was reportedly something of a surprise to PCIDs leaders who had come to view Perimeter Center as its own location. As Voyles said at the 20th anniversary reception, “Business owners think more about the region. And we don’t see Perimeter as cities. We see it more as an entity.”
Williams said the PCIDs always got along well with the new cities and saw itself as a “uniting partnership” among them. But there could be some frustration as well, as the PCIDs was used to dealing with the much lighter project review process of a single county.
“You can’t erase history” and the partnership with new cities was good, Williams said. But, she added, “You can’t always have things go as smoothly” and projects could sometimes face a “smorgasbord” variety of review processes that made them “labor-intensive” and a “heavy lift.”
“[City reviews] probably adds another layer of complication to it,” says Palmer, the attorney who continues to advise the DeKalb CID, adding that there is good cooperation.
At the city of Dunwoody, which recently partnered with the PCIDs on a new multiuse trail connecting the Georgetown neighborhood with Perimeter Center, Mayor Denis Shortal and City Manager Eric Linton had effusive praise for the organization.
“They’re just a tremendous partner,” said Linton. “They understand that their success is our success, and our success is their success.”
Shortal called it a “true partnership,” not like some where you “smile for the camera and when the cameras go off, things turn around.” Without the PCIDs, Shortal said, some projects would take the city longer to do, and some might not happen at all. And both Linton and Shortal said the PCIDs’ political leverage is a huge asset for the area.
“They’ve got influence with GDOT and under the Gold Dome because they’re very much an economic engine for the whole state,” Shortal said.
Hanlon agreed the relationship with cities is going well. “It’s like they’re the cake and we have the ability to be the icing on the cake,” she said.
Hits and misses
A conflict with one local city is among the controversies and misses the PCIDs has seen amidst its successful efforts. In 2016, Sandy Springs sued the PCIDs for $2.8 million over a project paperwork problem; the PCIDs later settled.
Some efforts are viewed differently with the passage of time. In 2017, the PCIDs gave GDOT a $10 million check to boost its “Transform 285/400” highway interchange reconstruction project, which is now underway. Williams says the money and the political symbolism made the project happen up to a decade faster. Current PCIDs leadership hasn’t openly criticized the donation, but had made it clear such unrestricted funding won’t happen in the future.
Hanlon and Williams have differing thoughts on the PCIDs’ missed opportunities. Hanlon says a trail plan was dormant for too long – something the organization is reviving now with a new master plan. Williams is disappointed a planned park alongside the Dunwoody MARTA Station fell by the wayside, and in the disbanding of the affiliate group the Perimeter Business Alliance, whose exact function was fuzzy but which she says served as a “regional forum” for innovative ideas.
However, Hanlon and Williams agreed on the PCIDs’ biggest success. It also happens to be the most widely mocked: the Perimeter Center Parkway bridge over I-285, which opened in 2007 and was nicknamed by critics as the “bridge to nowhere.”
While hardly remote, the immediate area was not booming with new development at the time, essentially connecting the back ends of the Medical Center and a Dunwoody hotel. Now State Farm is building an enormous multi-skyscraper office campus at one end, and more redevelopment is coming at the southern end, at Lake Hearn Drive. And GDOT is eyeing the bridge as an interchange for its future toll lanes system.
Williams said it was the first joint project of the combined CIDs and the $35 million was secured by her relationship with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who personally drove an earthmover across it as a ribbon-cutting for construction.
Hanlon calls the project “visionary” and partly responsible for “billions” in new investment. “I can say without question the Perimeter Center Parkway bridge was the best project the Perimeter CIDs has done,” she said. “With big infrastructure projects like this, time really does tell the story… Now it’s the bridge to everywhere.”
The next 20 years
As the PCIDs looks ahead 20 years, the current slate of service and transportation planning is still on the agenda. So is coping with demographic and traffic changes well beyond its direct control at this point, including an influx of residential properties in the increasingly urbanized Perimeter Center and GDOT’s enormous toll lanes projects.
“I think the next 20 years are going to be a continuation of those basic services… [while also] finding new and innovative ways to invest,” Hanlon said.
From the point of view of the PCIDs, residential properties in the district get many benefits of the public improvements without paying the extra tax. In fact, conversion of former commercial spaces to mixed-use – or nonprofit or government headquarters, like Dunwoody’s new City Hall on Ashford-Dunwoody Road – mean properties come off the PCIDs’ special tax rolls. Many CIDs recently lobbied the state legislature, unsuccessfully, to allow bringing residential properties into their taxing system; Hanlon was among the advocates. In some CIDs, like Buckhead’s, the counterargument from residents is that they shouldn’t pay higher taxes or rents to a private business organization over which they have little influence or access and whose board members may have personal profit motives. It’s a tension that’s likely to grow along with the residential population.
Already contentious is the toll lanes project, which the PCIDs has met with general support for traffic relief and some skepticism about the look and placement of the gigantic ramps and interchanges that will weave throughout Perimeter Center. Along with the Transform 285/400 project already underway, it means a solid decade of construction in the area.
Hanlon recently appeared in a GDOT video supporting the toll lanes, which are planned to include MARTA bus transit on Ga. 400 and may have transit on I-285 as well. “My take on it, especially as a Dunwoody resident… [is] right now, our interstate system is not functioning as efficiently as it should be,” she said. “New road construction is not always popular… especially when you’re talking about the potential to take land, to take homes, to take neighborhoods.”
She said that toll lanes present a tradeoff between “do you want to build big elevated managed lanes and look at that” or build even more regular lanes and see them fill up again. She said that if the pricing of toll lanes pushes anyone to use alternative transportation, “I consider that a victory.”
“Generally speaking, our western wall and our southern wall are going to be under construction with mega infrastructure projects for the next 10 years,” Hanlon said, adding that the PCIDs will seek input on everything from minor lane closures to major transit advocacy. “I think it’s absolutely critical that some sort of transit be built in the top end [toll lanes] project.”