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Mayhem on Moreland 

Traffic. People. Big retail boxes. Sembler's plans for Moreland would change intown Atlanta forever.

Some call it Frankenstein, which gives an idea of just how huge is the development proposed for a blighted tract just south of Little Five Points on Moreland Avenue.

Four retail big boxes would anchor the four corners. A Lowe's, maybe. A Circuit City, perhaps. A grocery store. And yes, probably a Target.

From the street, though, the stores will be practically invisible, shielded by street-front boutique shops and restaurants. At night, you wouldn't even have to leave; the complex will boast townhomes and lofts. Picture a combination of Virginia-Highland storefronts and suburban retail giants, bumping up against each other.

To get an idea of the size, picture one of the developer's other projects -- the Borders/Home Depot shopping center on Ponce -- and triple it. In sheer size alone, the development will dwarf neighboring East Atlanta and Little Five Points.

Now picture the traffic -- 20,000 more cars a day streaming south on Moreland through Little Five Points, or north from I-20. All of them filled with drivers who are relieved they don't have to drive to Buckhead to shop at Target, or eager to grab dinner at a funky new restaurant on Moreland.

Predictably, the neighbors are fighting back. Or at least using their bargaining power to make the project "less negative" -- those are the words of Don Bender, the man largely responsible for the look and feel of nearby Little Five Points.

Paul Thompson, president of Organized Neighbors of Edgewood, represents the area in high-stakes negotiations with the developer, which is eager for the residents' approval so that it can get permission to build.

The neighbors want less retail space and more grass and trees. They want less traffic.

"We have to think about not only how to preserve our quality of life, but how to enhance it," Thompson says.

This is not a typical case of the "not in my back yard" syndrome. The development will change irrevocably a big chunk of intown Atlanta.

How this fight turns out will determine the fate of neighborhoods Edgewood, Reynoldstown and Little Five Points, and, to a larger degree, whether intown Atlanta's character can survive the coming of suburban sterility.

Even if you've never heard of Sembler Co., you've certainly helped the company's bottom line.

One of the biggest retail developers in the Southeast, Sembler builds strip malls and stores for retail giants such as Publix, Eckerd and Home Depot. Last year alone, the company built 2.6 million square feet of retail space in metro Atlanta, making it the biggest developer of its kind in Georgia. According to its website, Sembler manages or owns more than 5 million square feet of store space throughout the Southeast.

Like any developer, Sembler goes where the need is greatest. For years, and especially in Atlanta, that has meant the suburbs. Last year, the company stayed true to that vision, building shopping centers in Henry County and in Woodstock.

But it also recently opened Midtown Place, a retail complex anchored by Borders and Home Depot that sits right across the street from Atlanta's City Hall East. Sembler also built the Publix/Walgreen's complex at North Avenue and Piedmont.

To Sembler, the developments make sense; they're designed to fulfill a need created by the vast influx of affluent residents into intown Atlanta. In 2002, more than 8,000 people moved intown.

Sembler, looking to expand its intown presence even more, put in a bid for Atlanta Gas Light's campus on Moreland last year. AGL is moving its offices to Peachtree Place. If you're in the development business, the parcel, now just a sea of broken asphalt and stubborn weeds, looks like a potential gold mine. It's close to the neighborhoods of Candler and Inman parks, and the Marta stations located there. Plus, I-20 is just a mile away. Hip Little Five Points is closer than that.

While the area's zoning would allow Sembler to plunk down another development like the one it did on Ponce, the company's ambitions for the Moreland property go far beyond anything it's done before in metro Atlanta. Besides the four big boxes in the corners, 39 single-family town homes will line the eastern edge; 156 senior citizen units make up the southern border, and a shoe factory built in the 1920s, converted into 40 lofts, will sit in the middle.

The scale of the project has met with stiff resistance from neighbors. Sembler's president of development, Jeff Fuqua, has met more than 40 times with surrounding neighbors, anxious to hammer out an agreement that both sides can live with. Sembler's concessions have included scaling back the project's size from 1.3 million square feet to 850,000. The developer threw in a park space, and reduced the number of parking spaces by a quarter, above and below ground.

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