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Lawrenceville, Duluth Pursue Density In New Gwinnett Boom

The key to Downtown Lawrenceville's revival may be the same thing that is bringing back Atlanta: density.

Downtown Lawrenceville from North Perry Street

Lawrenceville officials are partnering with private developers to transform the historic downtown square area into a residential-focused, mixed-use nirvana with some 1,000 housing units within two blocks.

So far, Lawrenceville has inked a deal for Richport Properties to develop a $20M mixed-use project on seven acres off Oak Street that will include office space, single-family cottages and townhouses in a project called City View.

The city is also evaluating development partners for another 40 acres in the city that would predominantly go residential, including apartments, flats, townhouses and small, single-family houses. Pricing for the owner-occupied housing is expected to fetch between $200K and $500K, Lawrenceville city manager Chuck Warbington said.

Chuck Warbington, city manager, Lawrenceville

The density of this planned project is a scope rarely seen outside of Interstate 285's confines. But it is one that some cities in Gwinnett County are beginning to flirt with. Even apartments, still one of the most frowned-upon products in suburbia, are getting second thoughts in many cities competing with Atlanta's booming housing pipeline, Warbington said.

“Density is no longer a bad word around the downtown area,” he said. “The way we look at it is the more folks we have in a downtown area, it helps with all the activity."

And the project is not just geared toward millennials, Warbington said. That is because the city has a strong daytime population thanks to big employers, including the Gwinnett County government, Georgia Gwinnett College and the Gwinnett Medical Center. The city sees a pent-up demand for housing in the city thanks to employees of those groups, as well as the attorneys who spend much of their time at the Gwinnett courts, he said.

“We have a unique opportunity here,” he said.

Some 15 years ago, the city allowed houses near the downtown area to become commercial with the thought that attorneys would turn them into offices. Today, Warbington said the opposite is happening: Buyers of those homes are rezoning them back to residential use.

In the past six months, a dozen homes have re-emerged as living quarters. So developers see that population — and not millennials, the typical target for new multifamily projects — as “low-hanging fruit” to buy housing units around the square, he said.

Rendering of Parsons Alley in Downtown Duluth

The City of Duluth also is flirting with density, with not only a $64M mixed-use apartment project by Dunwoody-based The Residential Group, but also a $7.4M retail redevelopment of the downtown village area called Parsons Alley, across from Duluth's Village Green, from Fabric Developers.

Already the project has attracted retailers more typically found within an urban setting, including Jacksonville-based Maple Street Biscuit Co., opening its first metro Atlanta eatery, and Good Word Brew Pub, run by the team behind Decatur's popular Brick Store Pub.

For Fabric founder Jerry Miller, whose projects are focused inside I-285, the idea that Duluth was encouraging a walkable city environment convinced him to spearhead the downtown retail redevelopment in conjunction with the city. He said the city is spreading out the more than 900 parking spaces throughout the district instead of creating one mass of asphalt.

That, Miller said, encourages people to park and wander the city, a necessity for retailers to thrive there, even with a new apartment project just across Buford Highway from Downtown Duluth.

"The City of Duluth is creating a walking environment that you just gotta have," he said. 

Cumberland CID Chairman Tad Leithead

There are many reasons suburban cities are densifying to various degrees, said Tad Leithead, chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District and noted regional planning expert. Adding to downtown populations is among them.

But perhaps one of the biggest reasons is pure land cost. Historically, Atlanta's suburbs were havens for inexpensive land. That has become less true, Leithead said. And that is driving the need to go vertical, especially for cities closer into the urban heart of Atlanta.

Places like Suwanee and Acworth and Duluth may be densifying, but they are not seeing skyscrapers.

“They are more dense than they were in that they are adding a residential component, but that's not density with a capital D,” Leithead said. “I think they're aiming at sort of a different market dynamic.”

And that difference is to densify to give suburban cities more of a village feel, one that is walkable and attracts residents to stay in the city longer than just a workday, or even just passing through.