Dunwoody Village, long the heart of the community, is now also the center of a cultural debate on whether it should keep its “Williamsburg” architectural style or open to a modern look and feel.

But where exactly did the Dunwoody Village style originate? Whose idea was it to create this colonial style?

It all started with a gas station, actually.

In 1968, a Chevron gas station with a brick exterior and arches and a gabled, asphalt roof was built at 5465 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road. It was the first new retail in the area at the time and was built two years before the creation of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association.

That gas station then inspired the developer of the shopping center behind it, now known as Dunwoody Village and owned by Regency Centers, to continue the architectural style. The idea was a homey center that blended in with the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

The Chevron gas station at 5465 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road is undergoing renovations as the auto repair part of the business is converted to a convenience store. Longtime Dunwoody Homeowners Association members say this gas station, built in 1968, set the precedent for what is now known as the Williamsburg architectural style required in the Dunwoody Village Overlay. (Dyana Bagby)

The look is now official in a zoning overlay district. According to longtime local residents involved in the area, the romantic notion that the Dunwoody Village Overlay and its distinctive architectural style was specifically created by residents and the Dunwoody Homeowners Association is just not true.

“Somebody built a gas station that had a brick exterior and arches … and the next guy who built the shopping center behind it built off what he [gas station developer] did,” said Bill Grossman, who has been with DHA since the 1990s. “DHA bought into it and requested all others follow the style.”

Added Bill Robinson, who moved to Dunwoody in 1973 shortly after the DHA was founded: “We weren’t trying to be unique. We were trying to stabilize the common design we already had.”

That 1968 Chamblee-Dunwoody gas station has been there ever since and is currently undergoing major renovations. It was recently sold and the new owners are taking out the auto repair part of the station to replace it with a convenience store. The architectural style of the building, including a cupola, remains the same.

Grossman said he recalls when he joined the DHA board in the mid-1990s, there was much discussion about what to do about the Williamsburg style that was already established in the area.

At the time, DHA was a powerhouse in DeKalb County government and fought off many developments in the area while also fighting successfully for certain zoning codes, such as the Dunwoody Village Overlay.

While the DHA wanted to preserve the architectural style that had been established, it also wanted to protect its current shopping centers in the overlay district — Dunwoody Hall, The Shops at Dunwoody, Dunwoody Village, and Dunwoody Plaza — by not letting in new shopping centers, Grossman said. So the DHA got a zoning ordinance passed that the only way a new store could come into the city would be to redevelop in a current shopping center.

When Publix moved into the metro Atlanta market in the mid-1990s and wanted to build a new store across from the Dunwoody public library, the DHA successfully convinced the DeKalb Commission to turn it down. It took 10 years before Publix finally agreed to redevelop a site in Dunwoody Hall and build it to the architectural standards in place.

“For a decade, they didn’t like us at all,” Grossman said with a chuckle.

Grossman said DHA later hired design firm Urban Collage for about $25,000 to write the text for the overlay they wanted. When the city was incorporated a decade ago, it adopted essentially the DHA’s overlay specifications through an extensive public process and using the same design firm.

It was believed the architectural style would usher in new restaurants and businesses, but it was only the banks that were really able and willing to deal with the strict restrictions of the overlay, Grossman acknowledged.

Changing times

But as times have changed and people can now order their groceries and just about everything else they want from their laptop or apps on their smartphone, convenience retail that was the draw of the Dunwoody Village Overlay is just not as important anymore, Economic Development Director Michael Starling told the Planning Commission at its July 9 meeting.

Retail is at a crossroads, he said, and people today with busy schedules are bypassing convenience for experiences. These experiences include places like Ponce City Market or the thriving restaurant scene in Chamblee, Starling said.

“Convenience has always been the driver for the Village,” he said, “but there is less demand for convenience and more demand for experience.

“Time has become the new currency and when people have time they want to experience something unique,” he added.

Many restaurants today are creating community gathering spots rather than just a place to grab a bite to eat, he said, by offering outdoor seating, green spaces and distinctive, contemporary architecture.

But if Dunwoody wants to keep up with the times and create a true destination spot where people want to go, some changes are going to have to be made in the overlay, Starling said.

Common complaints he and the Community Development Department hear from businesses and also property owners, such as Regency Centers, is the current architectural style dissuades restaurants from coming to the area.

Restaurant tenants want flat roofs and large windows, for example, which are not currently allowed in the overlay.

There is a sense of urgency, Starling said, as several major properties in the overlay are now for sale or ready for redevelopment: Jiffy Lube, the former Burger King and the Wells Fargo and Sun Trust banks at Mount Vernon Road and Dunwoody Village Parkway.

Crim and Associates is also seeking several special land use permits to build a contemporary, industrial building with a flat roof and large windows at the visible corner of Mount Vernon Road and Chamblee-Dunwoody Road.

Amy Swygert, who has lived in Dunwoody for more than 20 years, says there is a “huge undercurrent” of people who want the Dunwoody Village Overlay to be changed. The current architectural standards tend to attract chain restaurants, or pizza chains or just more banks, she said.

She said she lives within walking distance of Dunwoody Village but would rather drive to Ponce City Market or downtown Roswell because these places provide an experience. “If our Economic Development Director and our planners are saying the overlay is too prohibitive, then it’s time for a change,” she said.

Robinson, longtime member of the DHA, said the Dunwoody Village area is like Helen, a tourist town in north Georgia known for its Bavarian-style architecture. He noted the Dunwoody Village district is at 95 percent capacity and the city forced the current tenants to abide by the current overlay.

Changing things now may be unfair to them. Plus, he said, there is nothing wrong with staying the same.

“You can survive without change,” he said.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.