The Georgia Department of Transportation has taken 5 acres of Doraville’s gigantic Assembly mixed-use redevelopment for a massive toll lane interchange on I-285, according to the site’s developer.

“We actually have had 5 acres taken to create a direct interchange from the Doravilla MARTA Station to the managed lanes,” said Matt Samuelson, chief operating officer of Assembly owner and developer Integral Group’s commercial real estate division. He added that while Integral had no choice in giving up the land, which was pegged for valuable office development, it is “thrilled” by the toll lanes plan, especially because the lanes may double as routes for mass transit buses.

Samuelson said the property was taken roughly 18 months ago for a settlement he legally can’t disclose. He said GDOT showed Integral detailed plans for the huge interchange, which would plug into both sides of the highway, in both directions, on New Peachtree and Flowers roads. It includes flyover ramps spanning the highway and a rail line at heights of 45 to 75 feet, he said. The main toll lanes on that section of I-285 likely would be elevated on columns, GDOT has said.

The area of the proposed toll lane interchange in Doraville. The large area of excavated dirt to the left is the Assembly site. The Doraville MARTA Station is at the bottom. The interchange reportedly would connect to New Peachtree Road and Flowers Road. (Google Earth)

Amid intense controversy over land-takings for the new toll lanes, which would be added to Ga. 400 and I-285 over the next decade, GDOT has presented the project to the general public as still highly conceptual and too vague to show any detailed plans. Part of the controversy is that, despite those GDOT statements, there have been repeated revelations of early property purchases based on detailed designs shown to governments, property owners and special interest groups, with the Assembly taking and Doraville interchange the latest case. GDOT reportedly has said that more than 300 properties could be affected by the top end I-285 toll lanes construction.

GDOT spokesperson Natalie Dale did not comment directly about the interchange plan, only confirming that the Assembly taking occurred and claiming that its settlement price is exempt from disclosure under state open records laws. She noted that GDOT has always broadly said that it would do early land acquisition for the I-285 and Ga. 400 toll lanes “when and if the need arises due to new development and changes to existing development to prevent future impacts.”

Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman, in a written statement, did not address specifics of the toll lane interchange plan. She spoke generally of traffic congestion problems and how the city is working with GDOT on the toll lanes program – also known as “managed lanes” or “express lanes” — as part of a solution.

“The project has been evolving and now includes connections to the Doraville MARTA station, improvements at existing interchanges to improve accessibility and safety, as well as additional roadway improvements to enhance connectivity on city streets,” Pittman said. “These improvements are necessary to address ongoing traffic issues and as a means to facilitate continued economic growth for the city and the region.”

Matt Samuelson, chief operating officer for the commercial real estate division at Integral Group. (Special)

Assembly, a redevelopment of an enormous former General Motors plant, has gained regional renown and attracted businesses ranging from a movie studio to the new headquarters of the Serta Simmons mattress company. GDOT’s taking of land fronting I-285 was a significant economic hit for Assembly, as Samuelson says it was pegged for “high-density commercial office” space that would have been the densest use on the site.

However, he said, “It was a positive trade” because of the toll lanes’ potential to reduce congestion and boost transit.

“We think that’s an enhancement,” Samuelson said, and it’s important for business attraction, too. “What we’re finding is, when companies are looking to choose locations, access to these broad and efficient modes of connection has been high on the… list.”

GDOT is already working with MARTA on plans to include some form of bus transit on the Ga. 400 toll lanes, complete with new stations. Similar transit on I-285 is still in a study phase, but Samuelson said Integral believes it will happen and tie into its own recently announced plan to run an autonomous shuttle on the Assembly site.

“What we’re confident [about] is they’re using the… managed lanes for regional buses to use in a semi-dedicated fashion,” Samuelson said.

As GDOT designs the toll lanes, it is operating under a 2012 policy order from the State Transportation Board to include space for transit in any such plans.

The area around the interchange described by Samuelson includes a wide variety of existing buildings, such as the Buford Highway Farmers Market and a DeKalb County School District facility. The market did not respond to a comment request. DeKalb Schools spokesperson Scott Belzer said the district has not been contacted by GDOT about land acquisition in that area. “The district has not seen any plans,” he said.

However, DeKalb Schools was notified by GDOT about the overall toll lanes project in August 2018, Belzer said, and it could have mild to significant impacts on two other district properties along the Perimeter. One is Henderson Middle School, which sits near the I-285/Henderson road crossing that is pegged for a toll lanes interchange as the eastern limit of the top end segment of the project. The other is DeKalb Preparatory Academy, a charter school that leases a district property — the former Glen Haven Elementary School — and sits nearly touching I-285 at Covington Highway, which would be in a future phase of the toll lanes project.

Henderson Middle could be affected by temporary construction noise and short- and long-term traffic, Belzer said. The noise could be “mitigated somewhat” by foliage between the highway and the school, he said, and construction impacts on buses and other school-related traffic “would likely not be significant.”

“If the project proceeds, there will likely be some noise associated with construction, and it is likely that there will be significant roadwork at Henderson Road and I-285, which will disrupt traffic along Henderson Road,” he said. “If the elevated lanes are provided an access point at Henderson Road, then it could change traffic patterns once completed, possibly adding more traffic to both Henderson Road and Henderson Mill Road.”

At the charter school, impacts could be greater, though even fewer details are known.

“DeKalb Prep is directly adjacent to I-285, and the building is only about 200 feet away from the nearest travel lane,” Belzer said. “It is clear that construction would cause disruption, but further information on the express lane design will be needed to determine the ongoing impact once the lane is completed.”

System-wide plan and withholding details

GDOT is planning the toll lanes as part of a metro-wide system that includes those that recently opened along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb County. In the Perimeter Center area, GDOT plans to start work on Ga. 400, which would add two new barrier-separated express lanes in both directions alongside regular travel lanes in a project estimated to cost $1.2 billion and begin construction in 2021. The I-285 Top End Express Lanes project, estimated to cost close to $5 billion, would add similar lanes and is expected to begin in 2023. The boundaries of the top end project have shifted over time, now extending west to the Vinings area and east to the Henderson Road area, and, in a confusing twist, including a section of Ga. 400 as well.

Property impacts have been a big concern for the public and elected officials, both for GDOT refusing to disclose them and for the scope of the effects when they are known. At least 40 buildings, mostly homes, are proposed to be taken in Sandy Springs for the Ga. 400 lanes, and Fulton County Schools has seen maps of possible takings on many of its school sites.

GDOT has broadly said that the public should already be aware of the toll lanes due to their approval as a general concept a decade ago, and that the public must wait longer for specific details. In response to Reporter open records requests for property taking information, GDOT has both cited specific legal exemptions related to real estate transactions, as well as a preferred policy of not revealing details to the general public until the agency decides it is ready. Meanwhile, various local governments and private groups have been shown highly detailed plans and proposals and negotiated about them on such aspects as home-takings.

One example is the city of Sandy Springs’ controversial proposal for a toll lane interchange on Crestline Parkway in Perimeter Center, for which GDOT produced highly detailed modeling of Ga. 400 toll lanes. The proposal was privately arranged and discussed for months without the knowledge of the owners and residents of eight homes that would have to be demolished for the plan. Also involved in the review was the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, a self-taxing business group whose board membership includes executives from Cox Enterprises – the parent company of WSB-TV and radio and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution – and its cable subsidiary Cox Communications. Cox’s headquarters sits across the street from Crestline Parkway.

Emails obtained by the Reporter through open records requests show that Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough last year consulted privately with two Cox Enterprises executives about the Crestline interchange plan: Cody Partin, a human resources vice president who previously chaired one of the PCIDs’ two boards, and Anne Lofye, the vice president for real estate and a current PCIDs board member.

Partin said in response to Reporter questions that “we had a brief conversation, but I didn’t offer any substantive feedback.” Cox Enterprises did not immediately respond to questions as to whether it has seen and reviewed GDOT’s detailed toll lanes plans.

Update: This story has been updated with comments from the DeKalb County School District.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.