The rebirth of town centers

Moderated by Rick Badie

It’s hard to keep current with the number of suburban communities with plans to spruce up city halls or town centers. Today, I highlight Lilburn and its plans for a city hall-library complex. A companion column touts the regional push toward sustainable living and notes communities that embrace the concept. In a third column, a consultant challenges everyday citizens to connect with their communities via small-scale projects.

Town center a catalyst for growth

By Rick Badie

You’d be hardpressed to find the heart of Lilburn, especially City Hall.

Soon, that will change in this Gwinnett County hamlet, whose logo is “Small town. Big Difference.”

Town leaders plan to build a joint City Hall-library complex that sits atop a hill at the northeast corner of Main and Church streets. It would be highly visible from Lawrenceville Highway, arguably the primary town artery.Construction starts in May on the estimated $10 million complex, a 24,000-square-foot municipal center with a 20,000-square-foot library that will replace the town’s current branch on Hillcrest Road. The current municipal complex on Main Street in Old Town would continue to house the police and courts.

With the new complex, City Hall will be visible for all motorists to see. And that’s what the Lilburn City Council and other concerned folk wanted: a major presence on a major road that offers potential economic benefits. Moreover, the new complex will open up Main Street properties for private capital investment.

“We want people to know this is where Lilburn is,” said Doug Stacks, director of planning and economic development. “Main Street is the heart of the city, but Lawrenceville Highway is the lifeblood, along with all the other major arteries.

“We wanted to create a destination, a catalyst for change. This will set the standard for the area.”

To entice change, other projects complement the town center redevelopment. One example: A Main Street realignment will create a more traditional intersection at Lawrenceville Highway. Two roundabouts will aid traffic flow on Main to Old Town. City officials expect development to follow; 25 acres will have road frontage when the $3.5 million realignment concludes in April.

Already, developers have shown interest. The City Council has approved a $50 million mixed-used development for the southwest corner of Main and Lawrenceville Highway, across from the future City Hall. Nacoochee Corp. has plans for retail space, offices, condominiums and up to 325 one and two-bedroom apartments on the site. The firm is under contract to purchase 7.7 acres from the Downtown Development Authority.

It’s a project first-term Mayor Johnny Crist calls a “game-changer” for the community founded in 1890 and home to nearly 12,000.

“We have one kind of house — a house on one acre or a half-acre,” Crist told me. “We need housing for millennials. We need living quarters for retirees. Our pony needs to learn new tricks, so to speak, and this project will really change that. Lilburn has not had that kind of inventory to offer, and I am thrilled we finally get to have these kinds of amenities.”

John Souter, a businessman who serves on the Lilburn Community Improvement District board, hopes the revitalization projects “stir growth” in his home of 25 years. He owns a local trucking company and the Barn Brew House off Beaver Ruin Road. In November, he purchased Spiced Right BBQ on Lawrenceville Highway, made renovations and renamed the eatery the Barn Smokehouse.

Souter would like to see Lilburn rival other suburban communities that have crafted their own identities with revitalization projects. Think Duluth, Decatur or Smyrna.

“Future development is our angle,” he said, “and I believe (these projects) will be a catalyst for that growth.”

Atlanta’s “green scene” grows

By Jane Hayse

Local governments in the 10-county Atlanta region have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to sustainability, an issue of significant importance to our current and future success. So important is sustainability that in 2009, the Atlanta Regional Commission launched a program to recognize municipalities that reduce their environmental footprint.

Five years later, ARC’s Green Communities program boasts 18 certified “green” cities and counties that represent more than 25 percent of metro Atlanta’s jurisdictions and 60 percent of the region’s residents.

The Green Communities program is among the first of its kind in the nation and one of the most ambitious. That many metro Atlanta governments voluntarily participate is a testament to their commitment to protect our natural environment and operate more efficiently.Local governments are leading the way to a more sustainable region by example, modeling green practices and increasing awareness of how “being green” can contribute to the bottom line. Many practices can be adopted by businesses and residents as well.

Local governments report Green Communities practices have resulted in financial savings, enhanced quality of life for residents and increased community pride in being a place known to care about its environment.

Each year, cities and counties earn Green Communities certification (or re-certification every four years) from ARC by implementing practices and policies in 10 categories. They range from energy efficiency and green building to transportation and water efficiency.

In 2014, Decatur became the first local government to reach Platinum certification, the highest level possible; Gwinnett was the first county to reach Gold certification, and Sandy Springs became certified for the first time. Following is a sampling of the 2014 Green Communities’ accomplishments:

• Alpharetta encourages commercial and residential developers to go green through its Community Green Building Incentives program.

• Cherokee County requires outdoor lighting that is energy efficient and reduces sky glow.

• Decatur has committed to building LEED-certified facilities. Fire Station No. 1, the latest, is designed to achieve a 33-percent reduction in energy consumption and water usage.

• DeKalb County became the nation’s first local government to capture methane landfill gas to produce electricity, natural gas and compressed natural gas at a single site.

• Fulton County upgraded traffic signals on Fulton Industrial Boulevard that reduced travel time by 16 percent and volatile organic compound emissions by 28 percent.

• Gwinnett County will conduct water audits on 113 government buildings by the end of 2018, anticipating the ensuing conservation measures will save approximately 1.3 million gallons of water per year. That’s enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools.

• Sandy Springs developed a citywide bicycle, pedestrian and trail plan and invested more than $8 million to build new sidewalks.

Over the past five years, the seven local governments recertified as Green Communities this year have cumulatively produced 155 million kilowatt hours of green power; protected 2,475 additional acres of green space; cultivated 32 community gardens; collected 910 tons of household hazardous waste; generated $1.32 million in energy savings, and saved or reused 49 million gallons of water

The Atlanta region continues to distinguish itself as a green region in other ways as well. Just this month, the U.S. Green Building Council ranked Georgia eighth in square feet of LEED space per state resident. Metro Atlanta leads the nation in sales of Nissan Leaf electric vehicles, while Georgia ranks No. 2 in overall electric vehicle ownership.

The Atlanta region is well on its way to being one of the greenest in the country.

Jane Hayse is director of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Center for Livable Communities.

Just $500 can have an impact

By Peter Kageyama

It’s easy to say you love your place. It’s much harder to show it, in part because of the way we think about the nature of city building. We see powerful leaders in government or business, or rich developers and corporations, build cities. Most of us are spectators to the process because it all seems so very big. We need to show people — everyday citizens — that we have a role to play.

Citizens can’t build roads, schools or waterfront parks. We cede this power to government and business. And what we can do — pop-up festivals, yarn bombing, block clean-ups and murals — is often seen as nice or sweet, but not “serious” city building. Because of this, citizens don’t believe in the importance of small-scale efforts.

Do not mistake small for unimportant. We need to re-calibrate our radar to see how important small, hyper-local and fun interventions are to the health and progress of our communities.

There is game-changing power in these small things. Perhaps not in the first iteration, or even the second or third, but as citizens learn how to make things happen, they gain confidence and advance their ideas. Small aspirations become big, and a few iterations down the road, silly projects and their instigators — co-creators, as I call them — may create a transformative project.

Even if they don’t, along the way, they create experiences that make our cities better, more interesting and more lovable. What we build, we value. What we own, we cherish.

In my work with cities, I do an exercise called the “$500 Project.” I show lots of examples of fun, cheap and creative projects led by citizens all over the country. Then, I challenge participants: If you had $500 to make your city a better, more interesting and more lovable place, what would you do?This challenge works because it pitches at the right level. If I said $5,000 or $10,000, that is too much money. But $500 pitches at the right level, where we look at each other and realize we could raise $500 from what’s in our wallets.

It’s a project we could do next weekend with some supplies from Home Depot. It makes us the doers, not the city. This is the key shift. We have to believe that we can make things happen and see that small, hyper-local projects can have big impacts. Once we learn that, we begin to see opportunities everywhere and, hopefully, we become the grassroots, bottom-up complement to the city’s top-down, big project efforts.

Cities mostly get the big stuff right. There is a playbook for work at the city scale and all kinds of best practices and consultants to help cities through major projects. But there is no playbook for small, quirky, citizen-led endeavors.

Co-creators and projects they initiate are the magic variable — the unexpected X-factor — critical to making great places. If we all follow the handbook, the established formulas, we all arrive at about the same results. When we add the co-creative variable to the mix, we get the extra spice of something different, and the possibility of something amazing.

For more information, go to:

Peter Kageyama, author of “Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places,” lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.


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