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Deconstructing DeKalb 

For better or worse, Sembler's big project may be the model for remaking Atlanta's suburbs.

It's a few minutes till 10 on a Tuesday morning and the three northbound lanes of North Druid Hills Road have achieved their rush-hour rhythm: stacking up with cars, then flowing fitfully as impatient commuters travel the last few hundred yards to I-85.

On the other side of the busy road, a line of drivers makes the right-hand turn into Loehmann's Plaza, some using its expansive parking lot as a cut-through to avoid the traffic signal at Briarcliff.

Apart from a few new shops and chain restaurants, little has changed around here in the past decade. The strip centers, low-slung office parks, aging apartment complexes and ranch-home subdivisions that make up the landscape bring to mind a concept of progress from an earlier era.

Local traffic likewise has been consistent – consistently congested.

Mike Jacobs, a state House member who lives in nearby Merry Hills, counts himself among those worried that plans for millions of square feet of new stores, condos and office space will overwhelm this corner of DeKalb County.

"There are some people who look at this intersection and say it's run-down and out-of-date," Jacobs says, as he nurses his coffee in a bagel shop with a picture-window view of the creeping traffic. "On the other hand, there are a lot of folks who like it as it is."

He's acknowledging widespread apprehension over a plan by the Sembler Co., metro Atlanta's largest retail developer, to build a $1 billion, live-work-shop complex on 100 acres at the southwest corner of Briarcliff and North Druid Hills.

"It's an insane amount of density," Jacobs says.

When neighbors first learned of the proposal last summer, many were horrified at the thought of thousands more cars feeding through the already clogged intersection, making an awful traffic situation worse and effectively destroying the area's suburban feel.

But planning experts and county leaders say central DeKalb's long era as a semibucolic community of quiet cul-de-sacs and midcentury shopping plazas is drawing to a close. With 1,000 new residents moving into its boundaries every month, simply locking out new projects isn't a practical – or legal – option. Instead, they argue, the county must grow in a way that eases congestion and enhances quality of life, but doesn't smother existing neighborhoods with more traffic.

"Some people just want us to say no to new development, but we can't do that," county Commissioner Kathie Gannon says. "DeKalb is changing from a bedroom community to an urban county. How do we do this in a way that protects single-family housing? If we don't have those kinds of plans, then we develop willy-nilly and get more of what we have now. And folks understand that what we have now is gridlock."

In aging suburbs such as central DeKalb, the old-fashioned planning rules that gave us automobile-centric places like the sprawling Toco Hill shopping center and Buford Highway may already be dead on the side of the road. But how do you convince homeowners to accept denser developments of stores, offices and condo towers when they're already mired in traffic? And how can a county pay for new roads and mass transit to handle all that new development before it develops the tax base to pay for the roads and transit?

Those questions don't just apply at North Druid Hills and Briarcliff. They're part of a larger challenge facing DeKalb and, indeed, much of metro Atlanta. Namely: Is it possible to transform the region's suburbs into the kind of vibrant, walkable communities touted by advocates as "smart growth" and "new urbanism"?

Jim Smith insists he's not anti-growth. He understands that redevelopment is coming to central DeKalb, that changes are coming to residents' way of life. But Smith, a foe of the Sembler project and leader of an activist group called StandUp DeKalb, argues that the proposal is simply too big, too dense -- too much for a neighborhood already overwhelmed by traffic and development.

"To put something like that next to single-family homes really isn't fair to homeowners," he says. "The intersection isn't even the main issue. It's the wrong size development for that location."

Smith, who lives about a mile to the southeast, and his cohorts have been focusing their blocking maneuvers on the most immediate battleground, the DeKalb Board of Education, which has a tentative agreement to sell Sembler 30 acres of land fronting North Druid Hills Road. StandUp argues that the deal would displace three public schools and a football stadium at a time when many students around the county are housed in trailers. The site's other 70-plus acres are currently occupied by the aging, 1,000-unit Park at Briarcliff apartment complex owned by the DeKalb Housing Authority. The company has a contract to buy that property contingent on a successful rezoning.

Sembler wants to place a half-million square feet of office space, 3,700 condos and mixed-income apartments, and 1.5 million square feet of retail on those 103 acres.

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