Northwest Atlanta's future depends on a 300-yard road

Area's dreams of a grocery store hinge on the city's willingness to fund a small but vital road project

Ryan Blythe thought he had found a diamond in the rough when he moved to northwest Atlanta in 2007. The 36-year-old director of a Kennesaw welding school and his wife purchased a two-story house in Bolton. The area north of the CSX railroad line and east of the Chattahoochee River has transformed itself from industrial to residential neighborhood over the past few decades.

But Blythe and hundreds of other residents say northwest Atlanta's ongoing revitalization largely hinges on the redevelopment of Moores Mill Shopping Center, a long-vacant strip mall along Marietta Boulevard. Located in the heart of a food desert, the strip hasn't sat empty due to a lack of development interest, but a 300-yard extension of a road.

The road project seems minor at first glance. But residents say it holds the key to addressing many of northwest Atlanta's problems related to development, crime, and a pungent water treatment facility. If the city doesn't help, the area's development woes could linger on for years.

"This could be the end of road," Blythe says.

Since the mid-2000s, commercial developer Edens has wanted to build a mixed-use development near Marietta Boulevard and Bolton Road. The Bolton project could include a 45,000-square-foot Publix, additional shops, and nearly 350 residential units.

Herbert Ames, vice president of the company's Southeast division, says the development was delayed because of lawsuits challenging the Perry-Bolton Tax Allocation District, and a subsequent referendum to amend the state constitution. With those legal challenges resolved, Edens wants to break ground next year so the Publix could open in 2017.

Federal cash earmarked for the road project was supposed to help reduce traffic congestion by connecting Moores Mill Road, which currently dead-ends at the strip mall, to Marietta Boulevard. The project also would decrease liability to the grocery store given that motorists frequently (and illegally) cut through the desolate lot during rush-hour traffic. But the federal cash won't be available until later this year — something that would likely kill the developer's timeline. So Edens wants the city to contribute cash for the road project.

"The time for this project is now," Ames said in a statement. "The extension of Moores Mill remains a critical component of the project."

Kyle Vaughn, a Whittier Mill Village resident and owner of Hottie Hawg's BBQ in Riverside, fears the deal could fall apart if the city does not act. The stalled effort has already had negative consequences for northwest Atlanta. Vaughn says more crime has occurred without more police patrols. Business owners have subsequently moved to Cobb County. Residents now have less leverage to pressure city officials to fix the nearby — and foul-smelling — R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center.

"You have these neighborhoods that have tons of good people living here that are trying so hard to bring it up," Vaughn says. "Then we keep getting empty promises about the things that aren't in our control. ... The sky's the limit. Right now we're stuck on an island."

The fate of the development largely rests with Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm. At Invest Atlanta's meeting on April 22, Edens asked for officials to commit an additional $700,000 — bringing the city's total investment to $1.2 million — to fund the road extension running adjacent to the proposed shopping center.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who represents the neighborhoods near the proposed development, says the economic impact of the project would be much greater than just her district. She says new sales and property tax revenues would make the project worth the city's initial investment. It would also improve the lives of residents from all socioeconomic backgrounds in her district.

"The desert is so dry even a cactus can't live in it," Moore says. "The impact would benefit residents from Bankhead to Buckhead."

In a last-minute campaign, local residents last month packed the Invest Atlanta meeting to show support and sent officials a three-inch-tall stack of printed-out emails urging the agency to allocate cash from the Perry-Bolton TAD to the road project. Invest Atlanta plans to vote on the road project on May 28. Mike Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance, says residents' passion about this particular project speaks to the broader lack of development in that part of the city.

David Chen, a 28-year-old finance professional who lives in Riverside, says the road project would be a "no-brainer" for the city. Turning an eyesore property into a bustling shopping center would generate far greater tax revenue than the moribund buildings. A thriving development would attract businesses back inside the city limits, increase home values in the surrounding neighborhoods, and breathe life in to an area that he says could be the "next Buckhead."

But first, he says, that relatively short stretch of asphalt must be paved.