Why you should care about Avalon

The 86-acre mixed-use development in Alpharetta could help build case for more transit

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  • Avalon/North American Properties

Yesterday, North American Properties, the owner of Atlantic Station, cut the ribbon on Avalon, its $600 million, 86-acre mixed-use development served by Gigabit internet in Alpharetta. Conor Sen, a Brookhaven investment manager and demographer, argues why the development is worth cheering for.

Even if you’ve never gone north of I-285 and never intend to, if you care about the future of regionalism in metro Atlanta, you should care about the new $600 million Avalon in Alpharetta.

Why, and what does this have to do with regionalism and building support for transit expansion?

A wise journalist in this town told me, “The only way to be anybody in Atlanta is to have a hand in real estate.” For all of the damage the Great Recession did to the real estate psyche here, that remains the case. Look no further than the impact and excitement Ponce City Market is generating, both as a place and as a catalyst, for the Atlanta Beltline. There’s a lot of buzz in town about tech startups, yet our winners upon succeeding seem more interested in developing real estate for startups (see David Cummings and Buckhead’s Atlanta Tech Village, Michael Tavani and Downtown’s Switchyards) than building new companies. Keith Parker’s vision for MARTA has generated a lot more excitement now that there’s talk of turning stations into transit-oriented development. Mayor Kasim Reed has become Atlanta’s “Chief Real Estate Executive” as he looks to sell off city property to free up cash and service the debt on next year’s bond offering.

In a region with no natural boundaries, real estate developments become the map for how we live and define our identities, and that in turn leads to transportation infrastructure decisions by policymakers. In New York maybe you’d meet someone at “49th and Madison.” In San Francisco, you’d meet at “Union and Polk.” In Atlanta, you’re going to say “Decatur Square” or “Ponce City Market” rather than “Church and Sycamore” or “Glen Iris and North.”

We’re never going to have the endless grids of a New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. The best we can hope for is places of significance, whether those are neighborhoods or real estate developments, and transportation solutions that allow us to get from one place to another in a reasonable amount of time.

Avalon is one such place of significance.

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After attending the development’s opening ceremonies and walking around, it felt like the first place built for affluent Millennial families. It’s got a Whole Foods, a Lululemon, and an Antico Pizza. There’s Ford Fry’s El Felix and gigabit internet. I have to admit, even as an avid intown person who likes to hop around town, it felt convenient to have so many amenities in one place. Unlike many poorly designed real-estate developments in metro Atlanta, which feel like a mish-mash of random commercial tenants next to each other in a generic complex surrounded by oceans of parking lots, Avalon was designed with a demographic and experience in mind, and the execution reflects that. Sure, you have to drive to Alpharetta to get there, but once you’re there, it’s walkable. It’s the kind of place where, for a lot of people, when they think of Alpharetta their only reference point will be Avalon.

The knock on Avalon is that the development is “Atlantic Station in the suburbs.” So how is Avalon different from Atlantic Station? The problems with Atlantic Station, which NAP took over in 2010, from the start were manifold. It wasn’t cool and hip enough for Midtown and Buckhead residents, and wasn’t convenient enough for suburban residents. It tries to be a walkable mini-neighborhood, but its tenant mix has a generic suburban feel with Target, Ikea, Dillard’s, and Publix. There’s the cavernous parking deck. The Great Recession changed its socioeconomic reputation. It’s inside the city limits and yet doesn’t feel connected to anything else. NAP has done what they can to improve it. They’ve brought in events - the Atlanta Tennis Open, the Shaky Knees Festival, and Cirque du Soleil shows - to help attract their target demographic. And the dining options continue to improve. Whatever your feelings on Atlantic Station are, you probably like it more now than you did five years ago.

Avalon, on the other hand, was designed with a demographic and an experience in mind and the execution reflects that. They’d probably be the first to tell you that their experience rescuing Atlantic Station taught them a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Atlantic Station to me still feels somewhat out of place and artificial as a hermetically sealed complex tucked in between Midtown, Buckhead, and the Westside, but the Avalon experience is a lot more pleasant and better suited to its environment.

If personal, professional, or economic reasons ever compel you to move to the North Fulton suburbs, you’re going to consider being close to Avalon a selling point probably more than settling in one of the area’s subdivisions. As it is, I’m sure every two-bit real estate developer is trying to buy up all the land within a two-mile radius of it. It will create its own economic center of gravity and build pressure for more density in its immediate vicinity.

That pressure, in turn, will lead to pressure for transit. North American Properties, Avalon’s developer, is already on board. Avalon’s going to bring even more traffic to Alpharetta and the GA-400 corridor. There are a lot of affluent residents of Midtown, Buckhead, and Brookhaven who might take a 25-30 minute train up to Avalon on a Tuesday night but wouldn’t dare going north on 400 during rush hour. That works in reverse too - a lot of people who end up living and working near Avalon are the kind of people who enjoy intown amenities. It’s about the same distance from Buckhead to Avalon as it is from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to Buckhead.

You can’t help but note the juxtaposition of Nordstrom announcing the closing of its Mall of Georgia location in the same week that Avalon opened in Alpharetta. Real estate developers and chambers of commerce surely will. Suburban-style malls have failed and Avalon-type concepts make a lot more sense for our era, both as places to be and as places that make sense to tie together via transit. You should root for their success.

Conor Sen recently co-wrote an opinion column for CL about the dispute between the Atlanta Public Schools and Atlanta Beltline. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic and Business Insider.