This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Georgia Trend.  

Boosting Business

Gwinnett CIDs tackle common challenges to improve transportation and recreation.

Gwinnett CIDs tackle common challenges to improve transportation and recreation.

Streetscapes, sidewalks and trails are the bread and butter of many community improvement districts (CIDs), and those in once-suburban Gwinnett are no exception. In fact, the tiny Braselton CID devoted its efforts to partnering with the city, county and state Department of Transportation (DOT) to create the LifePath, a 10-foot wide multi-use trail that connects retail and restaurants to residents (some of whom drive their golf carts to and fro).

But that’s not all these districts, whose members are businesses that agree to use self-imposed taxes to fund improvements, do – especially in rapidly growing Gwinnett. From major road realignments and intersection changes to branding and landscaping, they are literally on the ground as the county changes from a sprawling collection of suburbs to clusters of live-work-play environments. Here’s a look at how the five larger CIDs work with their members, the county and each other to boost businesses in their areas.

Making It All Move

Sidewalks may seem like a pedestrian concern, but they provide an anchor for residents, shoppers and workers along some of the busiest streets in the Gateway85 CID, which runs along both sides of I-85 in the southern part of the county. It’s focused particularly on Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Indian Trail Road, where the Atlanta Regional Commission’s (ARC) Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) studies encouraged ways to create and sustain more walkable communities.

“We’re up to somewhere over 14 miles of sidewalks that we’ve constructed, and we have about another 5 or 6 miles that are in the pipeline,” says former Executive Director Marsha Bomar, who was with the CID from 2016 through April 2019. Along the way, the CID is keeping an eye out for spaces to build little “parklets,” places where a few benches can provide a respite for pedestrians – or people waiting for transit.

“The first one we built on Brook Hollow Parkway, as a pilot, was not too far from an existing bus stop,” says Bomar, who is also a member of the board of directors for the ATL, or Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, the new agency charged with providing coordinated transit planning and funding for the metro area. “We worked with the county, and they ultimately relocated the bus stop to our little parklet. So that’s the model we’re trying to build wherever we can find space to build an area, so that it’s a little nicer for people who are using transit.”

The CID was an early advocate of sidewalks, and Bomar says that when two segments on Jimmy Carter Boulevard are completed, there will be sidewalks on both sides of this major thoroughfare from Buford Highway to Lilburn. “For what used to be the heart of suburbia, this area is extremely walkable,” Bomar says.

The largest CID in the county in terms of land, Gateway85 includes parts of Norcross, Peachtree Corners and unincorporated Gwinnett. It’s a freight-intensive cluster, according to the ARC, and about one-fourth of the area has a heavy concentration of industrial, manufacturing and warehousing distribution locations. So the CID is partnering with the ARC and the county department of transportation to fund a freight study that looks at how freight moves in and out of the area, what the infrastructure looks like and other factors that impact freight (such as transit and workforce transportation).

Although Gwinnett voters said no in March to expanding MARTA, county commissioners later voted to go after an LCI grant to help fund a study on potential bus rapid transit along Brook Hollow and Satellite Boulevard.

Bomar says the area will have expanded transit under any plan – it’s just a question of what that looks like. She points out that the area is getting denser as it redevelops. “We have some key corridors where we expect development to densify,” she says. In many cases, developers will face additional costs – for example, meeting current stormwater management requirements, which may be very different from when a property was originally developed.

The CID has approached the county with a plan for a “regional pond,” which means each developer wouldn’t need to build their own stormwater facility. The CID encompasses two tax allocation districts (TADs), so funds could be available to help with parking and stormwater.

The CID has had great success with these projects, and new Executive Director Emory Morsberger, who comes to Gateway85 from the Lilburn CID, is looking forward to continuing to enhance the quality of life here.

“I plan to work closely with our commercial property-owner members to enhance the amenities in our business district,” Morsberger says. “In the coming months you can expect to see upgraded landscaping, additional lighting and more sidewalk projects … all part of phase one of our effort to create an incredible corridor where businesses and the community will prosper.”

The Parallel View

Development as well as redevelopment is a factor of life along U.S. 78, which anchors the Evermore CID. Running along the highway corridor from Snellville to the DeKalb County line, the CID is the oldest in Gwinnett and has contributed about $157 million in improvements since it started in 2003.

One of its major accomplishments has been the construction of a parallel road system to the heavily trafficked U.S. 78. With significant portions of the project completed and more to go, the parallel road is a big safety issue, says CID Executive Director Jim Brooks. “Many times our emergency equipment can’t get to a location because of the traffic [backup caused by an accident],” he says.

The parallel roads also will allow local travelers (and especially shoppers) to more easily access the 600 businesses on either side of the highway. “We have a lot of through traffic, but we also have a lot of traffic that shops in the area,” says Brooks. The CID uses the opportunity to upgrade infrastructure, too. For example, some 82 percent of Evermore’s businesses are on septic tanks, so the CID partners with Gwinnett’s department of water resources to install sewer lines along the roadway projects.

Already the portions that are completed have sparked more commercial and even residential development. “In the last 20 months, we’ve had around 751 housing starts immediately adjacent to the corridor,” says Brooks. “That’s a huge opportunity for our business community.”

That kind of opportunity prompted Lidl to open one of its first metro-area grocery stores in Snellville in January and haunted-house-turned-year-round-attraction Netherworld to move from Norcross to just off U.S. 78 in Stone Mountain in 2018.

Evermore is also one of the only regions in Gwinnett with open acreage – a huge plus. “We are one of the few places in the county where there’s still 100 acres available for development,” says Brooks. That drew the so-called “Project Rocket,” a 2.5-million-square-foot warehouse and distribution facility proposed for a still-unidentified company (rumored to be Amazon) along the Gwinnett-DeKalb county line. The old Stone Mountain Tennis Center, now demolished, is another big redevelopment opportunity that should move forward in 2019.

Creating a Sense of Place

Sidewalk and streetscape projects are prominent in the Gwinnett Place CID, which runs along I-85 around Gwinnett Place Mall. “Walkability has been something our CID has been focused on since day one,” says Joe Allen, executive director. Given the commercial nature of the area, that’s not the only means of getting around the CID has addressed: everything from working with the state DOT on better traffic-signal technology to manage local traffic flow to extending two lanes at the northbound on-ramp at I-85 and Pleasant Hill Road.

Construction of a roundabout at Venture Drive and Day Drive, and improvements to the intersection of Venture and Steve Reynolds Boulevard, are underway this year.

Another major project is a trail system that connects McDaniel Farm Park and Shorty Howell Park to the commercial areas around the mall. Connecting “two great gems,” is how Allen describes it. “I hear all the time from the hundreds of people working at the Satellite Place office development, ‘We can look out and see the park – we just can’t get to the park,’” unless they drive there, he says. The CID is partnering with the county on the project. Engineering plans for the first part of the connection are underway this year.

The CID has also put effort into connecting with local, regional and national developers to promote sites for redevelopment. One big win: the proposed conversion of the 32-acre Gwinnett Prado site to include residential, retail, restaurant, hotel, office and greenspace. Named Orchid Grove, the mixed-use project could be underway in 2019, according to Allen. It advances one of the CID’s goals – to bring residential into the area. “We want people to call Gwinnett Place home,” Allen says.

The biggest redevelopment site – the mall itself – is still waiting. “For me personally, professionally, to consider my tenure at the CID to be successful, something needs to happen at the mall,” says Allen. He says the CID sees its role as a “facilitator and convener” that can bring interested parties together, both public and private. “We feel our role is being a champion for the area,” he says.

As for transit, count Allen among those who believe some measure will be back on a ballot in the future. An existing transit hub near the mall is always busy, and in 2018 the county acquired about 10 more acres for expansion. “It’s not going away,” Allen says. “Transit is going to be part of our future. For us … we want to see that transit-oriented development.”

Making Connections

Connectivity is on the minds of the businesses in the Sugarloaf CID, too. The youngest of the county’s CIDs, it has expanded twice since its formation in 2016 and is poised to grow again.

It’s also home to one of the biggest mixed-use developments in the metro area: Revel, at the Infinite Energy Center. The project, developed by North American Partners (the team behind Alpharetta’s Avalon), will include more than 800,000 square feet of office space, plus retail, restaurants, a hotel and almost 1,000 residential units.

“We already know it’s going to change – there’s development happening now,” says Sugarloaf CID executive director Alyssa Davis. “We are well positioned to be part of shaping our own future.”

The CID is ready, with an LCI plan completed last summer. Revel will bring more residents and jobs to what’s being billed as “Gwinnett’s downtown,” but the study identified two other nodes that are ripe for mixed-use development. One is Sugarloaf Mills, where the trend for malls to redevelop portions of their surface parking lots could add mixed-use. The other node is at Satellite Boulevard and Duluth Highway.

The CID is also focusing on trails, including the county’s proposed 16-mile Infinite Loop Trail, which includes the trails in the Gwinnett Place CID and would connect Shorty Howell Park at the southern end to Peachtree Ridge Park at the northern end. Trails like this aren’t just catnip for millennial residents. “More and more, we’re seeing demand from the office community,” Davis says. “Businesses like to be in places that have trails and connections.”

And they’re important in the Sugarloaf area, where I-85 bisects the district (Sugarloaf Parkway actually goes under 85). “The interstate can be a barrier,” says Davis. “We want to have more connections – that’s why we looked at trails and creating walkability from one side of 85 to the other.” Currently the CID’s members are clustered along the west side of I-85. A hoped-for expansion would bring in businesses from the east side, where Sugarloaf Mills is located.

Other projects include banners along Sugarloaf Parkway and improvements to the Sugarloaf and Satellite Boulevard intersection, as well as plans for gateway signage there. “Our goal is to mark the intersection as the gateway to the district,” says Davis. The CID is also working to reduce car break-ins by installing cameras and license plate readers in partnership with Gwinnett police.

Looking ahead, Davis says that although Revel will transform the area, it’s “really just the beginning and will be the catalyst for more development. We will see more walkability and more of that kind of street life, more trails and more transportation options, including transit.”

Fixing Bottlenecks

Lilburn CID Executive Director Emory Morsberger (he’s doing double duty here and at Gateway85 through the end of this month) describes the results of the Gwinnett transit referendum as a “temporary speed bump.” He, too, believes Gwinnett’s future includes more transit. After all, he says, the CID – located along the Lawrenceville Highway corridor – is home to about 1,000 residents who work at Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in DeKalb County. “Those folks would like to not be driving,” he says dryly.

In the meantime, the CID will find other ways to reduce the bottlenecks along its busy corridor, possibly by partnering with the county and the employers to run a shuttle system. “If we can’t do it one way, we’ll do it another,” he says. “These folks, and their employers, want them taking transit. In fact, their employers are willing to pay for that transit.”

Allocations from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) and state funds provide the means to upgrade two main intersections along Lawrenceville Highway (U.S. 29): at Ronald Reagan Parkway and at Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Another bottleneck is where Indian Trail crosses Lawrenceville Highway and turns into Killian Hill Road. “We’ve gotten funding to take that from two lanes to four lanes,” says Morsberger.

And last year the CID finished the Pleasant Hill Road Small Area Plan to leverage the investment in Plaza Las Americas, a Latino shopping mall. “We are working on sidewalks, beautification and improved transit in that area,” Morsberger says.

One reason the Gwinnett CIDs are successful, he says, is that they regularly share information and plans at a monthly lunch. “We’re all in the same neighborhood,” he says. “If one of us does well, the others do well as a result. We all face common challenges, and we’re all trying different things and figuring out how to move forward.”