Virginia-Highland rezoning aims to repair white flight’s wrongs

On a mild Monday night in October, more than 200 Neighborhood Planning Unit F residents packed into the Hillside psychiatric treatment center off Monroe Drive, fanning their sweaty brows while discussing the enthralling topic of rezoning.

John Peak, the Virginia-Highland Civic Association’s planning committee co-chairman, had worked for nearly two years with consultants to draft a “Neighborhood Commercial” rezoning ordinance that would place restrictions on future development at three “economic nodes” along North Highland Avenue.

Supporters say the change could protect the neighborhood from developers salivating over the possible payday of an oversize intown project. They think Virginia-Highland needs to follow such historic neighborhoods as East Atlanta, Little Five Points and Grant Park, by closing a gaping zoning loophole.

Many Va-Hi retail areas carry “C-1” zoning, a category so outdated that it allows buildings as tall as 11 stories along roads that can’t handle them without wider roads or mass transit. The dusty old classification is bad news if you want a more walkable future Atlanta. C-1 doesn’t even require sidewalks.

As Peak stood before residents last Monday night, however, a vocal band voiced concern that the rezoning might allow small parking decks.

To understand how things got the way are, roll back to the “white flight” era of the ’60s, when middle-class residents took their spending and property taxes to the suburbs. Much of the city became a glorified office park by day and a ghost town at night. Planners – egged on by mayors and City Council struggling to fund services – zoned areas with such a wide berth that practically anyone was allowed to build anything. Storefront strips that had been neighborhood hubs – Flat Shoals Road in East Atlanta, Confederate Avenue in Grant Park – were left vacant or lived depressing second lives as mattress stores and methadone clinics.

How imes have changed. Today, intown is the prime place to live in the metro area. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, 13,000 people moved into the city limits last year. Atlanta’s current population is projected to double in the next 20 years.

But the influx presents planners and neighborhood groups with a formidable challenge: how to replace antiquated zoning with codes that encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development, while avoiding the ire of homeowners suspicious of changes that might encourage any type of development.

Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Tech professor and former Atlanta planning commissioner, crafted “quality-of-life” zoning ordinances during the late 1990s to come to grips with the growth.

“When I got here, we had these really crappy zoning categories,” he says. “Of which C-1 was one.”

His department, emboldened by community anger over a Little Five Points Starbucks with foot-unfriendly streetfront parking, saw a chance to help neighborhoods use zoning to retrofit their surroundings to become “places where people want to be.”

“Neighborhood Commercial,” or NC, was one of the new classifications. The designation, which passed City Council in 2000, limits buildings to three stories, requires sidewalks, bars car-centric architecture, and encourages such smart-growth concepts as shared parking and mixed-use development. NC already is being used to keep the storefront charm East Atlanta and Little Five Points intact.

An ambitious proposal prompted Va-Hi residents to push for the rezoning. The Mix – a $15 million, four-story development proposed for a parking lot south of the CVS Pharmacy on North Highland – royally pissed off residents. When one resident at the NPU meeting asked what prompted the decision, numerous residents snapped in unison: “The Mix.”

Peak lives down the street from the yet-to-be-built project – it’s slated to break ground early next year – and said the disgust surrounding it inspired his first foray into community politics. The civic association formed a steering committee and retained two consulting firms. Councilwoman Anne Fauver agreed to introduce rezoning legislation only if residents were able to secure the cooperation of 50 percent of commercial property owners – a difficult feat for a neighborhood that Peak says hasn’t had the most cordial of relationships with its businesses.

“A lot of commercial property owners think they think alike,” Peak says. “But a lot of them have totally different interests. We have some that want historic preservation, and we have some that don’t want any rezoning – they want Virginia-Highland to look like Miami Beach.”

Dobbins applauds the rezoning push and says other neighborhoods should explore the idea. NC zoning may stop bad development before it happens.

“Things are pretty tight and close along that corridor,” he says. “There isn’t a whole lot of excess traffic capacity in that area. Leaving it zoned in a way that could further strain the infrastructure is risky. And there really isn’t any significant transit activity that affects that strip one way or another. You could put another bus along there. But there’s not going to be any rail or high-capacity running through there.”

Some residents at last week’s meeting were convinced rezoning was really a push for more development; they wanted more time to digest the idea. But Peak and others convinced most of the crowd that it was a good thing. The NPU approved the proposal, 178-15. It now goes to the city’s Zoning Review Board and then finally to City Council.

“We’re a diverse city, and you can’t apply one-size-fits-all to everything,” Peak says. “Personally, I would like to keep the neighborhood as it is and have it not grow. But I don’t think that’s an option. And the people who own these properties do have a right to make money off them, build a successful business on them, and to grow their business on them. ... You have to acknowledge that. NC allows that.”

Scott Henry contributed to this story.