City allowed Atlantic Station to skirt law

Traffic plan to protect Home Park tossed by former commissioner

For two years now, a half-dozen Home Park residents have waged a war against Atlantic Station. They moaned about traffic problems the 135-acre project would generate, about the city siding with the project's developer and not doing enough to protect their neighborhood, and about their own neighbors, who they say are parroting the developer's spin.

Now, they have some real ammo.

Superior Court Judge Constance C. Russell ruled last month that city officials exceeded their authority when they weakened zoning conditions intended to protect the neighborhood from Atlantic Station's traffic. Russell's ruling gives Home Park a chance to put the traffic protections back into a package of requirements Jacoby Development Inc. must follow as it constructs the massive project just west of the Downtown Connector.

When Jacoby announced its plans for Atlantic Station in 1997, most homeowners in Home Park, which lies south of Atlantic Station and north of Georgia Tech, were enthusiastic. Atlantic Station offered new shops, restaurants and parks, not to mention increased home values. The city sweetened the deal by adding 27 zoning conditions intended to protect the neighborhood.

One of Atlantic Station's conditions was to develop a traffic plan that would reduce as many vehicle trips as possible. Because of that plan, and because Atlantic Station will be a place where thousands can live, work, shop and eat without ever firing up an automobile, the project was hailed nationwide as an antidote to sprawl.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was so impressed with Jacoby's proposal that it gave Atlantic Station a special exemption from a road-funding freeze then in place because of Atlanta's failure to meet air pollution standards. The EPA exemption guaranteed the project would get federal funds for the new 17th Street Bridge — a link to Midtown that's vital for Atlantic Station's success.

City Hall was so enamored with Atlantic Station that it agreed to float $76 million worth of bonds to finance the project's infrastructure, including streets, and water and sewer systems. The bonds are backed by the prospect of more tax revenue from rising property values.

While the rest of Home Park bought into Atlantic Station, Cole Cowden and a handful of others looked past the architect's renderings and saw cars, lots of them, streaming down State Street in front of their homes. Last July, they split off from the Home Park Community Improvement Association, formed a rival group and filed a lawsuit against the city to enforce promises the developer made to control traffic.

But Cowden's lawsuit instead revealed that the traffic plan was put on hold. On March 30, 2001, Jacoby attorney Carl Westmoreland sent a letter to then-Planning Commissioner Michael Dobbins saying that a zoning condition requiring the traffic plan was "impossible to satisfy."

Westmoreland had a point. A wording snafu in the zoning condition created a Catch 22 for the traffic plan. The condition demanded that the plan be finalized before construction began; yet it required traffic data that could only be gathered after the development was open for business.

"It was one of those things that got by everyone," says Hilburn Hillestad, a senior vice president of the development. "We always intended to do a traffic management plan."

Dobbins' solution was to give Westmoreland written permission to wait until after parts of Atlantic Station were built and occupied to do the traffic plan. He told no one in Home Park.

Russell ruled May 20 that Dobbins' "interpretation that no action need to be taken completely disregards the intent and direction given in the [traffic plan] condition." She sent the traffic plan condition back to the city where it must be rewritten, and go back through the process of gaining approval from Home Park, the Zoning Review Board, City Council and the mayor.

Hillestad is asking that the new zoning condition require that the traffic study begin 60 days after 50 percent of the first tenant moves in.

Cowden contends that will be too late.

Cowden and company want a traffic plan based on pre-existing data and computer modeling, a method commonly used by planners. And they want it sooner rather than later so the neighborhood won't be bombarded with uncontrolled traffic between the 17th Street bridge's opening and Atlantic Station's occupancy, a gap of about a year.

"What's really the issue here is that the city of Atlanta turned away from [Home Park], and there are other large development projects going on all over the city," Cowden says. "We should all be concerned that it's the city that's guaranteeing that intown neighborhoods will be protected."