The Urbanization of Atlanta’s Suburbs: Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee
by Michael S. Rodgers
The Creative Development Council of the Urban Land Institute (Atlanta District) was formed in 2016 to bring together ULI members who are focused on entrepreneurial development so that they may share best practices and resources with the goal of elevating creative place-making and promoting high-quality infill development across the region.
The Creative Development Council recognizes that the urbanization of the suburbs is a major national trend that is also being experienced in the Atlanta metropolitan area. While the vast majority of development in the current real estate cycle has been concentrated in transit-oriented, urban core locations such as Buckhead, Midtown and Perimeter, for example, there is growing opportunity for development in walkable suburban environments. Of course, the dynamics between urban and suburban “walkable environments” is different, each with their own built-in advantages and disadvantages. To better understand and appreciate these differences and, in particular, how best to bring about vibrant suburban downtowns, members of the Creative Development Council recently met with the mayors/city managers, planning staff and local developers of three Gwinnett County, Georgia “railroad towns” – Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee – to discuss and learn from their ongoing downtown urbanization efforts.
Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee all share a common history as each was founded as an in-land port for rail transportation of agricultural commodities during the latter part of the 1800’s. Similarly, as Gwinnett County transitioned away from its historical agricultural land use and became more integrated with the growing Atlanta suburbs of the 20th Century, each town faced similar issues on how best to reinvigorate a vibrant downtown area and to bring together their respective communities in a walkable urban environment. While each town has approached their urbanization efforts in fundamentally different ways – Norcross built upon its existing historic downtown, Duluth essentially bull dozed buildings and started over in the same spot, and Suwanee entirely relocated to a new “town center” development – they also share many of the same successful development attributes. Highlighted below are the four key components of their past successful and ongoing urbanization plans and lessons learned.
The 10/10/10 Rule. As originally espoused by author Roger Brooks, the 10/10/10 rule prescribes that a vibrant downtown should maintain 10 full-service restaurants, 10 destination retail establishments and 10 businesses open after 6 p.m., all within reasonable walking distance of each other. All three towns either have or are in the process of reaching (or exceeding) these key benchmarks. In the case of Duluth, the city even liberalized its alcohol beverage ordinance to allow pedestrians to walk the downtown area with drinks in hand to further contribute to the evening hour vibrancy that they wanted to achieve.
Pedestrian Friendly Parks. Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee have all developed new pedestrian friendly parks as a key component of their downtown experience, with an emphasis to avoid a single use park facility like a sports field or amphitheater. And, in each case, their city government offices anchor or are close by these newly developed parks. In the case of Norcross, their Lilian Webb Park was formed out of a rarely used baseball field that just sat empty most of the time.
Community Input on Plan Elements. All three cities also emphasize the need for community input into the downtown master plan elements. The resulting master plan has the added benefit of attracting the developer who can see what the community wants before they invest much time and effort in a bid that would never get approved. It creates a win-win for both the developer and the town as it helps to expedite the plan approval and permitting process. Similarly, if the development community fails to respond positively to the master plan, these communities are willing to wait for the right development partners to surface when conditions are more conducive to the plan or, if needed, pull back and reconsider their master plan altogether. In other words, these cities do not feel the need to rush into a development just to show progress.
Promotion of New Homes and Apartments. Finally, each of these three cities also recognized that a livable downtown environment required more residents and new homes to make it work. In other words, people had to actually live there. Interestingly, all three communities credit the millennial generation for absorbing much of the new living spaces built in the past few years, which they also recognize as supporting the restaurants and businesses that are open in the evening hours. While not entirely predicted, the growth of millennials now seems logical given the underlying investments made by each city in creating a walkable urban environment. And, while apartments will continue to contribute greatly to the downtown population growth in each locale, many observed that these downtown areas are actually starving for more condominium units and other high density, residential for-sale product. Each community has received a large number of inquiries from empty nesters and retirees who also want to get into the downtown core and enjoy all of the amenities, but these residents prefer to own and not rent.
As the cost of living increases in core gateway markets – including the urban core of Atlanta — it is apparent that a fresh look at suburban opportunities is gaining favor. As recently reported in ULI’s Emerging Trends in Real Estate (2017), many observe that time is on the suburbs’ side. For example, many have predicted that the deferral of marriage and family formation by the millennial generation (or Gen Y) is just that: deferral. Coupled with this generation’s preference for denser downtown living, this all begs the big question: “When will the millennials head to the urbanized suburbs?” In the case of Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee, they are already on their way, wedded or not.
Special thanks to David Hutchison with the Beck Group and Jon M. Davis, RLA for organizing the day.
Mike Rodgers is a Shareholder of Polsinelli, a full-service, Am Law 100 law firm, where he leads his firm’s Real Estate practice in Atlanta. Mike provides creative, business-oriented legal counsel to clients who develop, invest, lease, lend and use real estate assets in urban core and suburban locations. He is also a member of ULI Atlanta’s Community Development Council.