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DeKalb neighbors make sure Sembler feels their clout

Residents weigh in on proposed $1 billion development

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For neighbors of the Sembler Co.'s proposed $1 billion development at Briarcliff and North Druid Hills roads, the goal is to not end up like Brookhaven.

So far, so good.

Since May, local homeowners have taken part in a series of public meetings intended to help shape a retail-and-residential project so dense and expansive it's been compared in size and impact to Lenox Square, Atlantic Station – even to a mini-city plopped down in a traffic-clogged section of suburban DeKalb.

When the preliminary master plan for the area is finally unveiled for neighbors next week, it seems most folks feel confident they'll be looking at a document that accurately reflects their collective input, rather than a developer's wish list that can be rammed down their throats.

"I think this is the first time the county will have produced an overall, comprehensive plan for an area, instead of simply responding to a rezoning application," says Liz Beyer, a board member of the North Druid Hills Residents Association.

Consider this process the result of a lesson learned in Brookhaven.

DeKalb County Commissioner Kathie Gannon explains that when Sembler was preparing last year to apply for a 50-acre retail-and-residential development on Peachtree Road next to Oglethorpe University, it successfully employed a "divide and conquer" strategy. The Florida-based developer approached neighborhood groups individually, agreeing to their pet concessions, she says, until it had leveraged enough local support to squeak through the rezoning process.

As a result, many residents felt shut out of the decision-making process and powerless to influence the resulting project.

To ensure the same thing didn't happen with this much larger Sembler proposal, Gannon and fellow Commissioner Gale Walldorff – who was succeeded in office by urban planner Jeff Rader in January – devised a planning process to give neighbors a say in what happens around the intersection of Briarcliff and North Druid Hills roads.

Sembler's proposal calls for a million square feet of retail-and-restaurant space, more than 3,000 homes and two condo-and-office towers.

In what could be a model for future high-density planning, the hat was passed among neighborhood groups and local commercial landowners, as well as Sembler, to raise $305,000 in private funds to hire a New York-based firm to produce a recommended plan for the surrounding area.

Gannon and Rader will then use the final plan – expected to be ready by September – to help determine what kind of transportation improvements and other changes Sembler would need to undertake if the company's project is to win their approval.

According to county bylaws, a DeKalb rezoning can't be approved without the support of the two local commissioners.

Even though the planning process won't be completed for several more weeks, it's already had an effect on some aspects of Sembler's proposal. Alex Garvin, the planning consultant overseeing the process, has suggested a sort of loop road encircling the intersection, allowing some drivers to bypass the dreaded junction.

Sembler spokesman Angelo Fuster says the company has already embraced the suggestion, reconfiguring the project design to divert traffic away from what he acknowledges could be "one of the most dysfunctional intersections in DeKalb."

Also, Fuster says, the developer is willing to expand a belt of green space through the 100-acre property, improve public access to an onsite lake and to develop a system of shuttle buses to link the project to nearby public transit – perhaps even to add a mini bus station so visitors have a pleasant place to wait for their ride.

The transit possibilities are especially exciting to Rader, who envisions the creation of transit-priority lanes along Briarcliff and a busy system of shuttle buses that could carry riders to the Lindbergh and Lenox MARTA stations, as well as to Emory University. In fact, he says, it would make sense for Sembler to coordinate its efforts with Emory's existing Clifton corridor transit system.

The Atlanta Regional Commission is conducting a traffic study, but early numbers predict the Sembler project could bring an additional 50,000 cars a day to a gridlocked intersection already choked by a load of about 35,000 cars a day.

Who would pay for the buses and other traffic upgrades?

"I think Sembler is being realistic about the need for developer-funded improvements," Rader says. "I don't see anyone else standing in the wings with bags of money to do this."

Although no hard dollar figures have surfaced yet, Fuster says the company is open to providing transit to ease the traffic crunch around its proposed development.

If all of this may make it seem that approval of the Sembler project is a foregone conclusion, well, that's probably not far wrong, says Gene Schmidt, a member of the LaVista Park Civic Association.

"This project is expected to produce $15 million a year in property taxes and another $30 million a year in sales taxes," he says. "Those economic generators are difficult to argue against, and I think our commissioners are feeling the pressure."

Still, Schmidt – a commercial architect who serves on a planning advisory committee for Gannon and Rader – believes the current planning process is the neighborhoods' best hope for having a voice.

"I feel like some redevelopment is inevitable," he says. "But now we have the opportunity to influence what happens."

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