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Inside The Proposal To Fix Buckhead's Traffic Problems With Less Parking

City officials are targeting parking spaces in their efforts to ease Buckhead's worsening traffic congestion, but some business leaders question whether reducing the number of spaces at future developments will help ease traffic, or simply make those buildings less appealing to commuters.

A view of Peachtree Road near Peachtree Battle

Council members Howard Shook and Yolanda Adrean are proposing a new ordinance that will aim to reduce the number of additional vehicles in portions of Buckhead, mainly along its Peachtree Road spine. While the ordinance will not face a vote until at least November, Shook said, the issue rose to attention last week when Mayor Kasim Reed issued an executive order that imposed a development moratorium in sections of Buckhead until mid-November.

There are exceptions: new eating and drinking establishments are exempt. Any new development that already conforms to the proposal in terms of parking can move forward. 

The impetus of the proposed ordinance was a city study late last year that determined Buckhead's many arteries were at risk of being overwhelmed by vehicles in the future, Shook said. Traffic is already a problem, with Buckhead's rush hour lasting from early afternoon to well into the evening on most days, he said.

“What little road capacity we have left will be peaked out in 10 years,” Shook said.

Travel time averages in Buckhead from 2004 to 2016, according to a 2016 Arcadis study

According to a 2016 traffic study by Arcadis, traffic volumes in Buckhead have jumped since the Great Recession in 2009. Some of that added capacity is having to do with a 75% increase in renter-occupied housing units from 2000 to 2010 in the area immediately surrounding Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls, the study found.

For Shook, the problem of traffic goes beyond what has already been developed. Along the Peachtree Road corridor, there is the potential of another 122M SF of new development.

“Absent some astonishing changes in technology that will move you around … I don't see how we achieve that without having gridlock 18 hours a day,” he said.

In essence, the proposed ordinance will take similar parking ratios found in Downtown Atlanta's zoning districts and impose them in sections in Buckhead.

Regent Partners did an assessment on the proposal for its own immediate area and found that the biggest impact would likely be for multifamily projects. As it stands now, developers are required to supply two parking spaces per one- and two-bedroom units, 2.5 spaces for a three-bedroom unit and a third of a space per unit for guest spaces.

Under the new ordinance, that would shrink to 1.25 spaces per one-bedroom unit and 2.25 spaces per two-bedroom and larger units, Regent Partners Director of Development Adam Allman said, while eliminating guest spaces altogether. Current parking ratios for retail and office would remain untouched within the heart of Buckhead, which was the focus of Allman's analysis.

Rendering of Regent Partners' proposed Buckhead project

Regent has been planning a mixed-use project at 3354 and 3356 Peachtree Road, a four-acre parcel behind Capital City Plaza, that could include a $400M, 45-story office tower topped by condominiums and a 300-unit apartment high-rise. While it has yet to break ground on the project, Allman said Regent Partners has been assured the plan will be grandfathered into the older ratio requirements.

“As a developer, you don't want to build more parking than you have to because it's very expensive,” he said. “I don't think it is so drastic that it would curb development.”

AMLI Residential President Philip Tague said he has not read the ordinance proposal yet, but he is generally in favor of mandates and requirements that promote sustainability and reducing Buckhead's carbon footprint. 

“The ordinance probably serves those purposes, even though the primary goal is traffic reduction to lessen congestion,” he wrote in an email. “Consequently, assuming it's a well-drafted ordinance, it's probably something that I would support.”

“It is no secret that Buckhead has traffic and we need to be aggressive and forward thinking in our search for solutions. Our council people are doing exactly that with this study,” Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling wrote in an email. She noted that the existing parking requirements in both special public interest districts 9 and 12 are “already quite strict and not that far off of the SPI-1 requirements that are required for the new parking overlay district.”

Special public interest districts are collections of neighborhood authorities throughout the city, created in the 1980s, that review development plans and control the density of development in their boundaries. 

Starling said the plan dovetails with Livable Buckhead's proposed Buckhead Redefined plan, which, among its proposals, pushes for expansion of commuter walking and biking paths. That said, the areas of Buckhead outside the SPI districts, particularly south of Pharr Road, will see a greater change to ratios affecting more types of commercial properties than those within the two main SPI districts of Buckhead.

Former Fulton County Commissioner and 2017 Atlanta mayoral candidate John Eaves

During a Bisnow event earlier this week, former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves also threw in his support for the proposed ordinances.

“I think it's a good idea,” Eaves said. "I think we need to have balanced development across the region."

But support for the ordinances is not universal. Buckhead Coalition President and former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell said there are members of the Buckhead business community who are skeptical about the proposals.

Massell said the new requirements could put apartment and hotel projects at a competitive disadvantage if they get built with less parking than their older peers.

“It's a definite disadvantage to new development,” Massell said. “But maybe that's an unspoken intent — to decrease the number of developments."

RADCO Cos. CEO Norman Radow

RADCO Cos. CEO Norman Radow echoed those sentiments, and said he was skeptical that the ordinances would really reduce traffic in Buckhead at all. RADCO has no potential developments in Buckhead, he said.

But the developer said he is discovering that his residents in the apartments around Buckhead and other urban areas are not forgoing car ownership despite transit and the revolution of shared transportation providers.

“In general, we are not finding that Uber or Lyft are having a dramatic change in the number of cars per bed. It's being used a lot, but it's not affecting people's desire to own a car,” he said. “I think it's political chest-pounding. But I think it has no impact on the problem they say they're trying to solve. This is a poorly thought-out, feel-good policy that won't impact what they're trying to get to.”

Radow also said there is a trend of people getting roommates and adding more heads per unit, especially at a time when apartment rents are reaching record levels inside the city. Reducing the number of spaces residents will have, especially for guests and roommates, will only make those future apartment projects less appealing to renters.

Instead, Radow said he would like to see a more comprehensive plan to address congestion in Buckhead that could potentially include light rail, wider streets and projects that would change traffic patterns, perhaps even in conjunction with a reduction in parking ratios.

“My view is build the freaking infrastructure and don't hide behind things like this,” he said. “Solve the problem fundamentally instead of tinkering around the edges.”