How Chamblee Went from Sleepy to Sizzling by Embracing Walkability and Transit
Byline: Curt Holman
When Chamblee mayor Eric Clarkson attended the grand opening of Bluetop Restaurant and Bar last year, he was struck by the resurgence of the north Dekalb County city.
While the crowd waited to set foot in the hip, new eatery and check out the festive back patio, Clarkson recalls thinking, “This is crazy: people are lined up along Peachtree Road. When was the last time you saw something like this, in the 1950s?”
Two decades ago, the same Chamblee strip was mostly a concrete desert, defined by vacant buildings and empty parking lots. That describes much of the city at the time, as Chamblee struggled after generations of factory jobs relocated.
Sparking a Renaissance
The turnaround began in 2000 with a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission that helped the city craft a revitalization plan focused on 300 acres near the Chamblee MARTA Station. While some communities fought to keep rail out, Chamblee made a long-term bet that embracing transit would spark a renaissance.
The city worked deliberately over the years to implement the plan. And it has paid off. Today, Chamblee’s downtown has become a lively, walkable district filled with shops, restaurants and multifamily housing.
Clarkson credits Chamblee’s success to the perseverance of the city council and staff. “We attribute it, pretty simply, to having a vision and keeping to that vision, parcel by parcel, block by block, year after year. It was hard to do during the recession.”
Shortly after the initial LCI plan was adopted in 2000, the city developed guidelines that set the standard for how development would look in the area. In all, Chamblee received $2.7 million in LCI funds that paid for additional studies as well as the construction of sidewalks that connect to the MARTA station.
Patience Pays Off
He recalls having to stand firm against development opportunities that offered only short-term gains. “I got tired of hearing the quote ‘It’s better than what’s there now.’ Maybe, but it wasn’t going to be better 100 years from now.”
Clarkson feels proud to see that the patience has paid off. “I do believe that private investment follows public investment. We’ve put in sidewalks, streetscapes, the Chamblee Rail Trail – I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they walk from Sexton Woods to Big Daddy’s Burgers now. The lighting makes people feel more comfortable.”
Chamblee’s transformation has earned accolades. Earlier this month, ARC awarded Chamblee a Development of Excellence in LCI Achievement.
And the city is far from done. “2019 will see us moving some dirt on new development and City Hall. That’s a big deal for us,” Clarkson said.