By John Schaffner

The economic downturn and a slowdown in construction have given DeKalb County planners an opportunity to re-evaluate and renew visions for the future rezoning and redevelopment of key commercial centers and “character areas” in and around Brookhaven, Dist. 2 Commissioner Jeff Rader said recently.

Three such areas are the Town Center node on the inside of I-85 at North Druid Hills Road, which includes Executive Park and runs to Briarcliff; the Suburban Redevelopment Corridor along Buford Highway from the Atlanta city line to Northeast Plaza shopping center; and the Brookhaven Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) area surrounding the Brookhaven MARTA rail station, along Peachtree Road to Oglethorpe University and along Dresden Drive.

Major rezoning requests have been withdrawn from county consideration in recent weeks.

Developers who proposed the Symphony Park residential development on the north side of Buford Highway have backed off. So have the developers proposing the redevelopment of the former Southern Bell Training Center at the southeast corner of I-85 and North Druid Hills.

At the same time, consideration of a rezoning plan for the Buford Corridor area has been deferred for four months to allow for a long-range re-evaluation of how the county would like to see the area develop and redevelop in the future, without the pressure of a pending Symphony Park zoning issue.

Rader said he and fellow DeKalb County Commissioner Kathie Gannon have been promoting a comprehensive review of that Buford corridor are. They want the area to be considered as more than simply a commercial development on both sides of a major highway. They see it in relation to improving street connectivity between surrounding areas and creating complementary design and lifestyle objectives, he said during a recent driving tour of the area.

“We want to be much more specific about individual areas so that real estate speculators and developers will know what they can expect in those areas,” Rader said. “If we give a good idea of what will take place (in terms of future development) then land will be appropriately priced.”

At the same time, Rader said, “It will give the public a better idea of what is going to happen. The reason is that the public has gotten pretty good at stopping things that they are afraid of. You are more likely to be afraid of something that is unknown than something that is well thought out and well presented.”

Rader cited the Sembler Co.’s ill-fated proposed redevelopment of the DeKalb Housing Authority’s land and the school board property at North Druid Hills and Briarcliff as a situation that flared up because there had not been good planning in place for what might happen in redeveloping the area. Sembler walked in with a massive plan that shocked the neighbors.

Rader says the lull in development gives the county breathing room to produce well-thought-out and well-defined “Character Areas” as part of the county’s Comprehensive Development Plan.

Rader sees great opportunities to correct some areas involving higher-density commercial development on both sides of I-85 at North Druid Hills to incorporate pockets of green space, to improve connectivity with roads and bike and walking paths, transportation infrastructure and ability to deliver services and, where appropriate, to create mixed-use, live-work-play developments.

DeKalb residents, he said, should have a chance to walk to stores, restaurants and parks. They shouldn’t have to get in a car every time they want to shop.

He said garden apartments, single-use shopping centers or office parks are not urban in any way. “You get all the disadvantages of higher density development without any of the benefits of urbanism. At the very least, it forces people to think about the properties next door and connect them, rather than relying on a single access point to an arterial.”

So the county is taking a new look at the area while development has slowed.

“We need to think about what places ought to be like before someone comes in with a proposal,” Rader said. “One of the biggest things we are trying to bring to the table is the notion that you can build higher urban density in appropriate places in a better way than we have done it before.”

For instance, Rader cited the Buford Highway Corridor area. “Homogeneity is a real problem. You need something that is diverse to make it real stable.”

The Suburban Redevelopment Corridor designation anticipates a much lower level of density—approximately the same as is there now. “The question is do we want to replace what is there now with something very similar, that in 30 years will be a problem again,” he asked.

Rader said that lower Buford Highway area is well located area when it comes to infrastructure and accessibility. “The question is how do you develop it to make sense,” he said.

Editor’s note: The Brookhaven Reporter will highlight visions for the Executive Park area Town Center node, the Buford Highway Corridor and the Brookhaven LCI plan in future editions.