City's turn to chime in on Sembler project

Planners want smaller, more transit-friendly project

Most of last week, Jeff Fuqua was one smiling developer. The company he presides over, Sembler, was three major steps closer to breaking ground on its massive retail and residential project on Atlanta Gas Light's Moreland Avenue property just south of Little Five Points.

Despite some minor skirmishes, the Atlanta Regional Commission and two neighborhood organizations gave his project enthusiastic green lights. That happened on Monday and Tuesday.

But Thursday night, Fuqua had little reason to smile. The Neighborhood Planning Unit next door — the one that includes Little Five Points and Inman Park, but doesn't include the neighborhoods that would actually host the development — voted to give Fuqua's plans a thumbs-down.

While that certainly doesn't kill the project, it makes Sembler's case before the city's Zoning Review Board that much tougher; the company was hoping to come before the zoning board next week with nothing but endorsements from various neighborhood groups.

"We were very surprised at the patronizing way and demeaning way in which some in the [Thursday night] meeting, particularly the Inman Park representative, announced they were taking charge, summarily dismissing the hard work and extremely professional and positive contributions of the Edgewood community to the development of our project," Fuqua said through a spokesman.

The NPU that opposes Sembler's plans includes some wily veterans of other not-in-my-backyard battles. They're rounding up other opponents of the project to ensure a heavy turnout at the zoning board's meeting next Thursday.

More crucial, though, is what the zoning board's planners have to say about the project. And right now, they have one big worry — traffic. The project, which is slated to include big box retail stores surrounded by residences and restaurants, is expected to draw an additional 20,000 cars a day on Moreland Avenue.

Charles C. Graves III, the city's commissioner of planning and development, is pushing Fuqua to further decrease the size of the project, and do something about the traffic problems it will likely create.

Graves and Sembler are currently negotiating those points. How those negotiations turn out will go a long way toward determining whether the zoning board greenlights Sembler's project for the 42-acre parcel.

"We're sharing with [Sembler] our thoughts related to the scale, issues of traffic, and linking it with light rail [to MARTA and other shopping districts]," Graves says. "I think there are some opportunities to make this a very good transit-oriented development project, to make sure it is a positive addition to the neighborhood."

Fuqua has already promised to run a shuttle system to make it easier for shoppers to use nearby MARTA stations. And some officials, including City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, want to see the project linked to the East Atlanta Village with transit, either shuttles, buses or vans.

Already Sembler has agreed to several serious concessions in order to appease the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Organized Neighbors of Edgewood.

It scaled back its ambitions for the parcel from 1.3 million square feet of retail space to 800,000 square feet months ago, and recently cut it down again to just under 600,000 square feet. Fuqua also agreed to put $500,000 into an escrow account to be used for traffic-calming measures that could include speed humps, narrower roads and traffic circles (instead of intersections with stop signs).

To satisfy the ARC, the company added about 100 more residential units, agreed to run the shuttle system, and earmarked 25 percent of the space above the planned commercial buildings for either offices or apartments.

But Sembler just barely got past the ARC. In its approval letter to Mayor Shirley Franklin, the ARC criticizes Sembler for devoting only 1.5 acres out of 42 to greenspace. The ARC also worries that failing to implement a traffic plan, like speed humps and narrowing streets (which the developer has mentioned but not officially presented to the ARC) "would cause unnecessary and detrimental impacts on the quality of life for the impacted communities."