The Beltline Project at 670-690 DeKalb

The Beltline Project at 670-690 DeKalb
by Neil Kinkopf

To this point, much of our deliberation over the proposal for this site has centered on whether the development would preserve or inhibit the potential future placement of transit along the Beltline path. I am pleased to report that our goal of preserving the possibility of keeping trail and transit together has been achieved (more on this below). The zoning aspects of the project remain and will require the neighborhood to vote at our meeting on Wednesday.

This is a lengthy post, so I have divided it into three parts. The first section describes the issues we will be voting on Wednesday. We are asked whether the proposal is sufficiently beneficial to the neighborhood that we should support the developer’s request to deviate in two ways from applicable regulations. First, the proposal would exceed the applicable height limit. Second, the density of the residential component of the development exceeds the applicable limit. The second section lays out the compromise to resolve the Beltline transit issue. The third section responds to some questions that have been raised regarding the process the IPNA board has followed.

1. The Zoning Issues

The developer asks the neighborhood’s support for its requested height variance. Our historic preservation regulations contemplate that variances up to a certain height can be granted (though they need not be). The proposal’s height is within the limit that we may (but, again, need not) permit.

The setting of the developer’s request to exceed the density is somewhat more complicated. The residential square footage (or floor area) of the development cannot exceed a proportion (or ratio) of the area of the lot on which the building is constructed. The residential component of the 670-690 DeKalb project exceeds the allowable floor-area ratio. The developer proposes a transfer of development rights to offset this excess. In essence, this means that the developer purchases rights from a second developer, where the second developer did not use all of the allotted floor-area ratio on a separate development. In this case, a development along the Beltline in Old Fourth Ward did not construct all of the residential square footage it was allowed and has proposed to sell those unused development rights to the 670-690 DeKalb project.

There are arguments to be made both for and against these requests. The parcel, in its present state, is an eyesore. Replacing this kudzu farm with the proposed development is an undeniable improvement, all the more so because it will remediate a contaminated brownfield. It will add a number of units of much-needed affordable housing. The project is also consistent with the City’s broader push for greater density in residential development. If this project does not move forward, it is possible that the parcel will remain an eyesore for the foreseeable future and that any future development would not include these benefits.

The requests raise concerns as well. There are good reasons for the limits imposed through our zoning and historic preservation regulations. Ours is a residential neighborhood on a livable scale. Height and density limits play a crucial role in maintaining this characteristic of our neighborhood. Moreover, granting exceptions to these limits makes it more difficult hold the line against future requests to exceed our limits.

These are the issues the neighborhood will have to weigh at our next meeting.

2. The Beltline

I am pleased that we have reached a compromise that preserves the potential to develop transit alongside the Beltline trail as originally envisioned. The previous site plan for the development (presented at the last IPNA meeting) would have seriously jeopardized this potential. The alignment in that plan would have prevented the transit line to cross under DeKalb Avenue and the train tracks and emerge with sufficiently long run to then rise over Krog Street as originally envisioned. The new (compromise) site development plan aligns the trail further to the west so that the original plan remains possible.

We have also raised concerns about the width of the reserved pathway. The developers and Atlanta Beltline Inc. originally proposed a pathway that would be 70 feet wide. They then increased that to 80 feet. We requested 105 feet in order to build in a cushion for contingencies. Our request was predicated on the unknowns relating to the site. Much of this was fueled by the unwillingness of ABI to share engineering studies. In the last weeks, ABI has shared engineering studies that provide much greater reliability for the 80 foot wide pathway. I can report that this is the view not only of the IPNA board, but also of Ryan Gravel – the Beltline’s original visionary.

I do not believe we could have arrived at this compromise without the extraordinary involvement and commitment of the neighborhood. Your willingness to attend multiple meetings and sit through hours of discussion impressed on all parties the importance of preserving the Beltline’s original vision. Having said that, there is still no guarantee that ABI will actually fulfill the possibility we have preserved with this compromise plan. It could still pursue the alternative of routing transit through the Atlanta Streetcar extension. If we want to avoid that, we need to remain involved.

3. How We Got Here

This Wednesday will mark the fourth consecutive IPNA monthly meeting at which we have discussed this proposal. Back in July, our VP- Zoning, Chuck Clarke, presented to the neighborhood what the developer had presented to the IPNA board. At that point, the developers had not yet settled on a final plan and could not yet say whether they would be seeking any variances. The IPNA board was aware that the project would have important implications for the neighborhood and would be coming up for a vote, so we wanted to be sure the neighborhood was aware of where things stood. At our August meeting, the developer presented its proposal to the neighborhood for discussion. ABI also sent an engineer to discuss its plans for transit. Ryan Gravel presented his concerns regarding transit. The neighborhood then had a lengthy discussion. Last month, we heard from the developer, ABI, and a Beltline activist. At the request of the developer, we postponed our vote on their requests to exceed height and density limits, though we approved the abandonment of the Gunby St. right of way.

Over the span of many months, IPNA board members have on behalf of the neighborhood focused many hours of attention on the many iterations and permutations of this project and sought to keep the neighborhood apprised of developments at our monthly meetings and through posts in the Advocator and on social media. I point this out because of some understandable concerns raised at the last neighborhood meeting regarding an ad hoc working group. This ad hoc working group consisted entirely of IPNA officers with relevant jurisdiction (zoning, planning, historic preservation, and NPU plus the board President) with one exception. Then-IPNA President Dennis Mobley included Regina Brewer, who is not an IPNA officer, because of her expertise with the neighborhood’s historic preservation regulations. Although we do not for a moment believe that this ad hoc structure was intended to circumvent neighborhood review, the IPNA board has discontinued its use.

Given the concerns raised at the last meeting, we have been dismayed to learn that the developer has within the last week held at least one private meeting with select neighbors. This meeting was scheduled without consulting, notifying, or inviting the board. I do not know what representations regarding the project were made at this private meeting. We are concerned that the developer has misrepresented the IPNA board’s involvement or even suggested that IPNA has failed to notify the neighborhood of significant details of the project. This is flatly untrue. The IPNA board has diligently attended to this project for months and has consistently informed the neighborhood and involved the neighborhood in deliberating about the project.

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Please join us on Wednesday night for the IPNA monthly meeting. There are important issues remaining to be decided and your input is critical.



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