This is a cross-post from my monthly column, Community Design Matters, in The Current.
You can call the project whatever you want; apartments, stacked flats, too dense, gentrification, revitalization, progress, catalytic. But, no matter where you stand, it increasingly looks like we will soon see the first major redevelopment in Roswell’s historic district under the new Groveway code. Lennar Multifamily is planning on dropping $43 million+ into the parcel of land where the Frazier Street Apartments currently sit and the Roswell City Council allowed Lennar to take a major step forward last month when it approved the site plan by a 5-1 vote. It should come as no surprise to readers that I am a proponent of this project. I actually purchased a home in April that quite literally backs up to this project, not in small part due to my strong convictions about the project’s value to the surrounding community.
That said, there have been no shortage of arguments made as to why this is a bad idea. These tend to center around six main themes; Density, Mix of Uses, Cars, Schools and Displacement. If you were able to attend the May 13th City Council meeting you would have seen Chris Cassidy, Regional VP, Lennar Multifamily, address these concerns with the council and audience. Here’s a recap with color. As far as density is concerned, this project will be 32 units per acre (320 units on 10 acres) which is an increase from the roughly 16 units per acre currently. Given the cost of the property and need for profitability, this is the optimum amount that Lennar believes is suitable. Additionally, people living in close proximity to amenities is what creates truly walkable places.
Another big concern was that it did not adhere to the Groveway code because it was not mixed-use. First, there are many varieties of mixed-use from vertical to horizontal. Second, not every building or parcel in our historic district needs to be mixed use and the code does not require that. All mixed-use all the time is a nice vision but realistically, it doesn’t always work. Putting space for retail on the ground floor doesn’t magically bring a business to fill it. Ideally, these apartments will provide patrons for what should eventually be a vertical mixed use parcel right next-door where the Value Village and Southern Skillet strip mall currently sits. These apartments will be the spark needed to finally get that parcel redeveloped.
Probably the single biggest concern centered around the car. Yes Roswell, we are preoccupied with our cars, but not just our own cars. We are preoccupied with everyone else’s cars and what they do with them.
The evil twins of Traffic and Parking came up numerous times and were addressed well by Mr. Cassidy. On parking, Lennar feels that the number of spaces they are requesting (a variance, as they are requesting fewer spaces than our minimum parking reqs. require) is appropriate given the usage in other similar properties. They have found that they require approximately .9 spaces per room in similar projects. This means that the 420-445 that they are considering would be appropriate and they will tweak the # of spaces to meet the number they feel is appropriate. Big concerns were raised by councilman Igleheart as well as others in the audience that this would not be enough and the “what if’s” were flying. But, you must remember that apartments are rarely 100% leased, people vacation, take business trips, work at different times and some don’t even have cars (some). The point is that you don’t build the church for Easter Sunday and we shouldn’t build our parking lots with excess capacity. It’s a waste of space and money.
It’s as simple as this. Lennar and Mr. Cassidy understand apartment parking needs far more than an ordinary citizen going off their gut feelings. If Lennar isn’t interested in doing more projects in Roswell, it would be shocking considering they are putting such a sizable investment into the heart of our city. Gambling on parking requirements and upsetting the city seems like a losing deal for them. Additionally, we want walkability in this area. NOTHING kills walkability more than the blank expanses of surface parking lots. Mr. Cassidy referred several times in his presentation to the Highlands of West Village project in Smyrna as being a good comparison for what they are looking to construct here. The parking allotment there is roughly the same as what they are looking to do here without any significant issues.
The car dominated another discussion which was about what cars do when they aren’t parked. Arguments were raised that the traffic counts would be unbearable and that we would grind to a halt in that part of town. The city’s traffic studies suggest otherwise (these are the same people that were crazy enough to suggest that the round-a-bout would not be a total disaster). Lennar had the most conservative analysis possible done. They did not remove the Frazier St Apartments traffic from the count and added the estimated traffic from their project on top of that. The models showed increased traffic but not significant enough congestion to warrant concern from DOT.
The concerns raised about the impact to schools would normally apply. The only problem is that the demographic that Lennar is targeting generally won’t have kids or won’t have them living with them. Thus, Fulton county’s estimates of 168 to 265 students borders on absurdity. The true number will be much lower than that and comparable properties say that the number may even be in the single digits but it is more likely between 10 and 20. That does not account for the displacement of the school age kids that are currently living there which could end up with an overall reduction to Roswell North, Crabapple Middle and Roswell High.
Another concern raised, which I agree with, is that the current conceptual name is not appropriate. Canton City Walk tries to play on the success of Canton Street and the fact that the target demographic will desire walkability. However, it just doesn’t sit well with most people who hear it. That said, the name is conceptual and will be reviewed by Lennar. I have even heard that they may be open to suggestions.
Finally, there were some folks in the audience who were appropriately concerned with the designs. The initial concept was exactly that, a concept. Lennar has worked extensively with our city staff and their team of architects and advisors to put together a project with a design that will reflect some of the history and vernacular of Historic Roswell while also incorporating a new feel. Mr. Cassidy stated that the designs had “significantly changed” since they were initially released. Having seen them, I can agree. The new designs should go before the Historic Preservation Commission for final approval on July 17.
It is exciting to see a project that increases walkability, brings unique residences and cleans up the heart of our city coming to us in the near future. if all goes well, we could see construction begin toward the end of this year and we might have some new neighbors sometime next year. Once that happens, the true power of proximity and walkability will start to be realized in our historic district.