Induced Demand: GDOT’s Misguided I-285 Top-End Plan

Update (5/1/2019)

GDOT has announced public meetings in affected to “inform” the public about these plans. One meeting is currently scheduled for Doraville on Tuesday, May 14 from 12 – 2pm. I encourage anyone who cares about this issue to attend. If you can’t attend the Doraville meeting because of work, there are some meetings in other cities that were scheduled at better times. I created a Facebook invite that has all the information about the Doraville meeting and the dates/times of the meetings here.

Also – Integral group recently did a presentation to the ATL Transportation Board about mobility at the Assembly site. There was a little bit of information about how the toll lanes will affect that development (mostly it seems neutral to positive). I thought the most interesting piece of the presentation was the map posted above.
You can see the full presentation here.


Original Post (4/27/2019):

For several years, I’ve been hearing about the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) plan to build express toll lanes across I-285. Originally called “Revive 285,” they are now calling it the “I-285 Top-End” project. The GDOT website explains that it will add “two new elevated, barrier-separated express lanes in each direction on I-285, alongside the existing general purpose lanes.” These new lanes will be part of the Georgia Express Lanes system, and the goal is to “provide drivers more reliable trip times” – presumably by taking some traffic off the general purpose lanes of the freeway. The Reporter newspapers published an article with pretty good information about what the lanes may look like earlier this year.

An illustration of what the I-285 Top End project may look like

In Doraville and other cities affected by the new express lanes, acres upon acres of productive land will be paved over (and taken off the tax roles). It will also create more noise, traffic and pollution in our neighborhoods. Because of that, I’ve been impatiently waiting to find out more detailed information. Some news has has dripped out here and there – as far back as 2017, the AJC published an article that stated the mayors of Doraville, Brookhaven, Dunwoody & Chamblee wanted to make sure that a mass transit component was included in the final project plan – but it’s only been in the last few months that we have really started to understand the scope.

Last week, the mayor of Brookhaven held a town hall meeting where he announced that at least 300 properties along the I-285 corridor would be taken from their owners through eminent domain – including some that are in residential neighborhoods. A few days later, the Reporter Newspapers ran an article with the news that 5 acres of Assembly in Doraville had been taken by GDOT eighteen months ago – and that a massive interchange will be built in the city. This is on top of any other properties Doraville will see taken by the department of transit to make room for the new lanes.

I don’t know how wide a swath the Top End project will cut through our city, but I do have a reasonable guess about the areas that will be affected. I’ve highlighted those areas in the satellite view of 285 and the Buford Highway Corridor below:

Potential impact of the Top End 285 Project

I am going to be up front and say that I am skeptical about this entire plan. While adding additional lanes may temporarily relieve traffic congestion, adding more supply will ultimately just encourage more people to get on the road – this is a rule of economics called “induced demand” and has been documented since the 60s. The video below has a good explanation of the concept:

Doraville has already been scarred by big-idea projects like this one. The original construction of I-285 back in the 70s split the city in half, and the MARTA station that was built in the late-80s and early-90s demolished our historic downtown. We’re still recovering from these previous traumas – and now GDOT has come saying, “We are going to take more.”

I do not fault Mayor Pittman for negotiating with GDOT to minimize the impact to Doraville – and using this as an opportunity to connect some of the disparate pieces of our city. The city has limited negotiating power with an agency like GDOT, and any concessions she was able to get from them are appreciated.

That does not mean that I think this freeway extension is a good thing.

Over and over, I have asked various elected officials – in Doraville and other cities – whether this project is a done deal and if they think anything can be done to stop it. Everyone has said, “there’s nothing we can do – the managed lanes will be built whether we agree with the project or not, so we need to make the best deal possible for each of our cities. One official made the point that this project is not going to be funded by the legislature (the contractor will be paid back from revenue that comes from the tolls) – this means that GDOT is not accountable to any elected body (or to the people) – and that means (as far as GDOT is concerned) that public opinion does not matter.

At the end of the day, I want to be vocal about my opposition to this project, and encourage others who feel the same way to speak up. Maybe if enough voices come together, the governor and other state officials will ask GDOT to pause and consider whether this is really the project we need to solve our transportation problems.

That Vision Thing

A while back, there was an article about Chamblee, and the development success they’ve had over the past decade. In the article Chamblee Mayor, Eric Clarkson, describes their achievement this way:

“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.”

Doraville also has a vision – it’s the comprehensive plan that went through a long public vetting process, and was approved by the council in 2016. Along with preserving our existing single-family neighborhoods, it plans for building out a town center where our civic buildings are today; for mixed-use development along Buford Highway and Peachtree Industrial; and for a transition toward general office uses (or “office hubs“) in areas along freeways and busy roads that are currently primarily warehouses and wholesale businesses.

The plan is outlined in broad strokes in the map below:

As we try to bring the comprehensive plan to life, the council has recently been working on updating its zoning for Office Hubs (also known as Office Institutional/Office Warehouse zoning or “O-I” and “O-W”) . The plan states that “Office hubs will serve as integrated centers of office uses that transition between higher intensity uses and existing neighborhoods. These businesses and incubator areas will be centers of innovation, leveraging the city’s diversity to attract unique business.”

The plan lists several strategies for bringing the office hubs to life. The first of those is to make sure our ordinances (including zoning) allow the kind of employment opportunities we hope to see there. Another strategy is to make sure that our zoning encourages light industrial buildings to be converted to flex, loft-style office spaces.


One of the concerns people have when there is a zoning change is that existing businesses may be adversely affected. The truth is that these businesses are already protected, because when you change the zoning in an area, existing businesses are called “non-conforming uses” and are “grandfathered” into the new fabric of the city. When those businesses leave, however, any new ones that come in to replace them will have to meet the new codes – and conform more closely with the city’s master plan.

The proposed new Office Hub (O-I/O-W) zoning makes some important changes to how these areas can be used. Notably, it would require a minimum percentage of space be used for office use, as well as prohibit businesses operating there from having more than 4 fleet vehicles parked in the lot. The minimum percentage of office space (25%) is meant to start nudging the use in this area away from wholesale and towards more of the innovative business we want to see. The restriction on fleet vehicles is to discourage dispatch operators from using these office hubs as parking lots for their pest control, carpet cleaning, or other vehicles.

It’s time for us to value what we have in Doraville! We’ve got the best location in Metro Atlanta. It’s time for us to wake up and realize that land this valuable should not be used to store fleet vehicles.

The zoning changes will move us away from using our land like this:

And instead to start encouraging more developments that attract the innovative entrepreneurs of the future like this one:


I’ve heard some concerns about changing the status quo, but believe this is exactly what our city needs if we are going to bring our plan to life. In the end, I think the proposed changes will raise the value of the properties in our office hubs, while bringing Doraville closer to its vision for its future. To that end, I hope the majority of the council takes Mayor Clarkson’s advice and has the courage to stick with our comprehensive plan when it is time to vote.

Planned Intersection Improvement – Wheeler/Chestnut

Two important infrastructure projects in the Northwoods neighborhood are being bid for contract right now. The first is the addition of the ADA ramp to Brook Park, which I’ve written about before. The second is an improvement to the intersection at Chestnut and Wheeler.

Currently, the intersection of Chestnut and Wheeler is very dangerous. There’s not a clear delineation where one street starts and the other ends. In situations where there is a lot of traffic, it can be confusing for drivers coming from both streets. Here’s what it looks like from Google Streetview:

Intersection of Chestnut & Wheeler – November 2018

The change would force traffic going coming from Buford Highway on Chestnut to either turn into a left or right curve. Traffic coming from Dekalb Tech Parkway on Chestnut would turn into a clearly marked turn lane onto Wheeler. Vehicles going from Wheeler to Chestnut would have a stop sign (whether heading towards Dekalb Tech Parkway and Buford Highway).

I think this will make the intersection safer for vehicle traffic. What do you think about this improvement? Let me know at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us

Planning Commission Chair Forming Committee to Evaluate a Potential Northwoods Overlay District

At the March 20th Planning Commission meeting, that body’s chairman, Andy Yeoman, created a committee to investigate the potential boundaries and scope of a proposed Northwoods zoning overlay district. This ties back to the town hall meeting I hosted in September, where many residents of Northwoods came together to learn about different strategies for preserving the character of the neighborhood and protecting its property values.

At the city’s November 5th council work session, I presented the concept of an overlay zone to the other council members. They agreed that this was a topic worth exploring, but wanted to make sure it was a process that had plenty of public input. In my subsequent conversations with the city manager and community development director, they indicated that the next step would be to take this to the planning commission for consideration. This was also discussed in the joint work session with the Planning Commission that council held on February 4th.

After that work session, I had follow up meetings with both the Chairman Yeoman, as well as some leaders from NANA, the Northwoods Area Neighborhood Association. They thought that forming a planning commission committee which included ex-officio members who live in various parts of Northwoods would be a great start. This committee could do research, get public feedback, and give some recommendations for the Planning Commission and then the City Council to vote on.

Here is the statement that Chairman Yeoman read announcing this committee:

On September 11, 2018, the Northwoods Area Neighborhood Association held a community meeting to discuss strategies that people in Northwoods could pursue to protect their investments in their homes and preserve the character of the neighborhood.

Over 20 neighbors attended and many more watched a video of the meeting that also featured the Dekalb County Historic Preservation Commissioner and representatives from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

On November 5, 2018, the council discussed a potential overlay district on a work session agenda and there was consensus among the elected officials to move this forward.

Pursuant to the Planning Commission charter I will be forming a committee to work within the framework of the Planning Commission to continue moving this item forward.

The charge of the committee will be as follows:

The committee will form in April with interested planning commission members along with ex-officio members of the public that live in the potential area.

The committee will hold a meeting with broad members of the community to rank concerns in order of importance and hopefully build consensus as well as define potential borders if this is a going concern.

The committee will hold a second meeting with City staff to establish a clear framework and reduce any ambiguity. The committee will resolve any issues at this point between the city staff and the neighborhood.

The committee will then give staff time to work on any requested product and reconvene to review the final work product that would eventually be forward to the full Planning Commission and City council.

If anyone is interested in being a part of this process I encourage them to reach out to me. As I finalize the committee assignment In the next week and coordinate schedules I will announce the first public meeting.

If you are interested in participating, you should reach out directly to him at andy.yeoman@doravillega.us. I appreciate him being so engaged and am hopeful that this community input process will result in the best outcome for the Northwoods neighborhood and for Doraville. You can watch the discussion about this in the last few minutes of the video from the meeting.

Design for Brook Park Improvements

Shortly after I was sworn into office, I began looking at the city’s plan for our parks – particularly in Northwoods, which had not seen any significant investment in its parks for several years. I was happy to see that there was a $30,000 budget item for Autumn Park – meant to build a walking path and for stream improvements there.

While I was glad that there was some money allocated to the neighborhood’s parks, I did not think this was the best use of that money. I believe the stream improvements in Autumn Park are necessary – particularly removal of invasive species. That said, this amount of money would not have fixed the problems there. The issue is that state environmental regulations prevent us from removing ivy on the banks of streams without doing something else to prevent erosion. This does need to be fixed, but it needs a better funding source before we try to tackle it piecemeal. I wrote about this issue about a year ago – also indicating that I thought the money would probably be spent better in Brook Park.

In April, Councilman Naser and I went to NANA’s Spring meeting, and asked residents for feedback on what they’d like to see in our parks. The consensus was to focus primarily on Brook Park, and to make improvements in its accessibility. In particular:

  • The general consensus was that we should focus on building an ADA accessible path to the pavilion, clear out some of the trees (especially the ones that produce pine straw) around the pavilion (replacing them with hardwoods elsewhere) , add tables, and generally spruce up the pavilion. If we could extend the path to the playground, that would also be nice for people with strollers.
  • People were vocal that they did not want a path around Autumn Park, or trees planted on its perimeter.

You can watch a full video of the meeting here.

Once we had this meeting, I met with city staff to determine what we could do for $30,000. I then had to lobby the other council members to fund this project (even though $30,000 had been budgeted toward Northwoods parks initially, that money has to be reallocated each year in the budgeting process).

While I know that residents have not seen much movement from the outside, any time the council has discussed budgeting or funding projects, I have made sure this one is not forgotten, and is close to the top of the list. It’s important to me that we do this after going through the process of getting neighborhood consensus, and not something I’m willing to let drop.

I am happy to say that my persistence, combined with the hard work of city staff, has paid off! We now have a preliminary design, which you can see here:

Proposed Brook Park Improvements

I think this plan would accomplish everything that residents said they wanted to see done with this money – and is actually even more comprehensive than I initially thought we’d be able to do for $30,000. Here are some notes to consider when reviewing it:

  • The ADA trail will start by the dog-poop station and loop around by the pavilion and then end at the playground. It will be a hard surface suitable for wheel chairs. Some trees will have to be removed to make room for it.
  • They are proposing to add 5 additional grills, along with 9 picnic tables that will be placed along the path as well as by the playground.
  • They are proposing putting in a retaining wall along the path, as well as some stairs leading directly to the playground area
  • They are proposing a soft-surface (unpaved) path on the far side of the park that would also connect to the playground area and pavilion.

I do think the plan above provides most of what Northwoods residents asked for. That said, there is still time to give feedback about any other changes that you’d like to see. If there’s something missing, or you have a suggestion for some other change, please email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us and I will ask our Public Works Director to look into it.

SPLOST Update

Over the last several months, city council has been working to finalize the first set of infrastructure projects to spend its SPLOST funds on. Doraville can only spend these funds as they come in, so prioritization is important.

The council came to a consensus on these issues at its retreat in February, and we will be voting on them in a special meeting on March 4. I believe we all agreed that the city should focus on completing projects that had been started in the past and never finished (notably Oakcliff Road); projects that had been long-promised (demolishing derelict buildings owned by the city; making improvements in Brook Park); and focusing on needed safety improvements (upgrades to police systems, and fixing the cross walk at Buford Highway and Park Ave).

I have put the list of projects that council will be voting on into the spreadsheet below (it can also be accessed here). I ordered it based on completion/delivery date, which is what I’m most focused on (next to the cost).

I think this is a good list of projects that touches every neighborhood in our city. I’m hopeful we’ll see progress on many of them by the Summer. You can read the full city council packet here.

Addressing Speeding Traffic on Chestnut

Many people who live in Northwoods have been discussing traffic along Chestnut Drive, and talking about the need for better speed enforcement or else traffic calming. This has been a long-standing issue, as well as one with a lot of nuance.

Per state law, ​the Georgia Department of Transportation must approve any road where speed detection devices are going to be used. Before I was elected, in 2017, the Doraville council approved several reductions in speed limit: on Chestnut, Winters Chapel, Oakcliff and Tilly Mill. The changes were made because of legitimate safety concerns about the speed and volume of traffic in these areas – unfortunately, GDOT must approve any road where speed detection devices may be used. By changing the speed limit, Doraville lost its ability to use radar detection on these streets.

I have spoken about this with both Chief King as well as our city manager, Regina Gates. Both have told me that GDOT denied our first request to be able to use radar detection on Chestnut and the other streets. This decision is being appealed right now, but we do not know how the state will rule.

It’s important to note that I also don’t think radar detection is going to solve all the problems with this road. There are some rules that even police using radar detection must follow, which will make enforcement a bit difficult, including:

Ultimately, I think that there will need to be some kind of traffic calming installed on Chestnut if this issue is going to be resolved. Before that happens, though, I believe that the community that lives on and that uses that street needs to weigh in on what they would like to see. The city made several “traffic calming” changes to Oakcliff Rd a few years ago, and many people feel that it did not go through a good process for getting citizen input. Rather than move ahead with the same process for Chestnut, I have asked that the city hear from a wide range of people who use that street every day. This process will take longer than just jumping in and doing something, but I hope that the end-result will be better.

I am hoping that this is one of the projects people identified as a priority in the SPLOST survey that was done in December, and that we can get started on the community input process in 2019.

Fireworks (Not so Silent Night)

Many people in Doraville have always celebrated big holidays with fireworks and firecrackers.  In the past, it was usually just the big 3 (New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year, and 4th of July) where people lit up the night.  This could be annoying, but it was also fairly limited. There were state laws against personal use of fireworks, so it was not too difficult to regulate.

In 2016, the state legislature changed this, however, by legalizing all fireworks and firecrackers and enacting legislation that allowed them to be set off all year long. In 2018, they restricted the ability of local municipalities to set their own laws about fireworks ( they do allow some limited city regulation through noise ordinances). You can read a handout the state published about this change here: https://georgia.gov/blog/2018-06-28/fireworks-know-law-use-caution-and-be-courteous

These laws set the stage for Christmas Eve in Doraville this year, which was ridiculously noisy going late into the night. This video from Northwoods illustrates a little bit of what it was like:

Video Courtesy of Mitchell Cave

Doraville is in the process of updating its noise ordinance to make sure it covers fireworks to the extent the state will let us. That said, I want to caution anyone who thinks this is going to be a cure-all for late night Christmas Eve fireworks. Here are some issues to be aware of:

  • The Doraville police received many calls about noise related to fireworks over Christmas and Christmas Eve. Finding the source of the complaints and then responding to them takes time. By the time the officers locate the source, the fireworks may have stopped
  • Doraville can pass regulations within its city limits, but that does not affect what people do in Chamblee and unincorporated Dekalb. A lot of the places with the loudest displays were outside our jurisdiction
  • No matter what our laws are in the city, fireworks are cheap and easily available for people all over Georgia. Doraville might try to send one message, but the state is sending another (much more permissive) one.

This problem is much bigger than Doraville, and has been driven by state legislators who care more about the fireworks lobby than they do about the safety of children or peace and quiet in neighborhoods.

If this is an important issue to you, I encourage you to contact our State Representatives (Scott Holcomb for Northwoods and Oakcliff; Mike Wilensky for Tilly Mill & Winters Chapel Hill) and State Senator (Sally Harrell) to encourage them work on this at the state level. Until something changes there, I think any actions the city of Doraville takes will be of limited effectiveness at best. With that said, I will continue to work with other council members on sensible laws around noise and nuisance within the city to fix things where we can.

Recap: Doraville Council’s November Work Session

On November 14, Doraville City Council held a work session to discuss possible changes to our ordinances and fee schedules. The topics covered included:

Parking in Residential Neighborhoods: this was a follow up discussion related to code enforcement. We currently have codes on the books that restrict “commercial” vehicles. It is difficult to define what vehicle is or is not used for a business. We are considering a change that puts vehicles into different classes, and prevent certain types (dump trucks, tow trucks, heavy construction equipment) from parking in residential neighborhoods at all. Given the nature of our neighborhood, and the fact that most homes do not have garages, we are considering a allowing limited number of vehicles with ladders attached to be parked in driveways – none may be parked on the street. The goal is to make what is allowed and not allowed in our residential neighborhoods much clearer so that code enforcement does not have to try to interpret fuzzy concepts like whether a van with a ladder is “commercial” or not. I expect a draft of a new ordinance sometime early next year. I’m glad that the city is finally working on this – we need better written codes in order to be able to successfully enforce them.  View the presentation here.

Permit Fees: Doraville has run into some complaints from developers that our permit fees and processes are out of line with those of our neighboring cities. Our city staff is in the process of comparing what we charge compared to what other cities charge. The end goal is to have permitting fees pay the cost of administering the process, which is the same goal of other cities. I believe we should look at what successful cities like Brookhaven and Chamblee are doing and mirror their processes as much as possible. Staff is going to report back to us next year after doing more research. View the presentation here.

Zoning Updates: The Planning Commission and Community Development Director have been working for several months on an update to our zoning. Our codes are currently very difficult to read, and that makes it harder for a business trying to open in our city, or a developer interested in a project, to know whether or not they would require a conditional use permit. The zoning code would be moved into a grid format where you can easily see whether something is permitted by right or needs a conditional use permit. I fully support this, as it should make Doraville an easier place to do business in. View the presentation here.

 

You can watch the full meeting here, and download the agenda packet here.

 

Banquet Hall/VR Arcade – Conditional Use Permits

At our December meeting, the city council voted to approve a conditional use permit for a new banquet hall in the Treasure Island shopping center. The woman opening this business got her start renting furniture to people throwing parties in their backyards (quinceañeras and other birthdays, weddings, etc). She said that many people would ask her about renting space, too, because their yards were too small to accommodate the party. Under our C-2 zoning, banquet halls require review by the Planning Commission and must be approved by City Council. That’s why we reviewed this application.

When the banquet hall came before the Planning Commission, they voted 3 to 1 to deny the Conditional Use Permit. Their reasoning was mainly over concern about the noise the business might bring to the area if people spilled out into the parking lot or there was loud music in the facility itself. Some concerns were also brought up about the lack of any kitchen or cleaning facilities.

When Council reviewed the request for a Conditional Use Permit, we considered the same things – but it was pointed out that there is already a jazz/salsa club and a loud restaurant next door. Not only that, this business would be required to follow Doraville’s noise ordinances just like any other operator in the city. When these points were brought up – along with the fact that there is a 60 foot buffer between the shopping center and the closest houses, my noise concerns were answered.

Although they plan to have mostly disposable cups, plates, etc, as well as will cater any food that is provided for parties; the fact that they did not have a place to clean dishes or wash things up bothered me. We did put a condition on their permit that they must have a cleaning sink (apart from anything in the restrooms). They could use this to get water for a mop; to clean dishes; etc.

Several people spoke in favor of this – and no member of the public spoke against it. One of the biggest arguments in favor is that there is a need for this kind of venue in the city. People have loud parties at their houses, and then the police get called on them. This gives them an option to have a celebration without risking annoying their neighbors.

With my concerns addressed, I did not see any reason deny the CUP, and voted with the majority to approve it. The vote was 5 to 1 in favor. The vote against the banquet hall was Pam Fleming.

At the same meeting, we voted to approve a Conditional Use Permit for a Virtual Reality arcade. The planning commission had unanimously recommended that council approve the CUP, and the council unanimously approved it.

You can download the packet that includes the CUP Application here. I will update this with a link to the video of the meeting once it’s posted.

The Planning Commission meeting with this applicant can be viewed here.