Those attending the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods August meeting Thursday evening wanted to know where Dist. 7 City Councilman Howard Shook stands on the issue of the changing 21 acres off Piedmont Road in the Lindbergh area from high-density residential to commercial zoning for a planned ‘big box’ development.
Many walked away from the meeting not knowing if they got a commitment from Shook on how he would vote or not. But the Buckhead councilman told the audience he is in a listening mode.
The strongest statement Shook made on the issue was “I have never told anyone that I would vote for this development,” which would be in opposition to the positions that Neighborhood Planning Unit B (NPU-B) and many neighborhoods in his district have formally expressed.
That remark by Shook was directly in response to a posting by a report by the Garden Hills neighborhood’s Town Crier report earlier in the day, which said Shook and Dist. 6 Councilman Alex Wan both had committed to vote in favor of the development.
Over almost 18 months of negotiating, NPU-B repeatedly denied plans for the mixed-use development with a 150,000-square-foot big box store near Lindbergh Center that is proposed by The Sembler Co. and Fuqua Development. NPU-B denied both land-use changes in the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan and changes in zoning for the entire 21 acres from high-density residential to commercial.
Since 2001, the area surrounding Lindbergh Center has been designated a Transportation-Oriented Development (TOD) and Special Public Interest District (SPI) by the city of Atlanta, with specific zoning regulations meant to maximize transportation resources and create more pedestrian-friendly, urban development.
Shook told the group his vote has to be governed by whether or not the development plan submitted by The Sembler Co. and Fuqua Development meets the criteria laid out in the SPI-15 (Special Public Interest district 15) legislation or not. “That is what I have to look at,” he said.
He said he sees a plan that has a 3-acre park or greenspace, and less than 50 percent of retail and a little over 50 percent of residential development. And he said the parking spaces meet the SPI-15 criteria.
“Tell me point by point how the final plan submitted violates SPI-15,” Shook challenged the group, which included representatives of both NPU-B and neighboring NPU-F as well as representatives of neighborhoods which are BCN members.
Shook said that, although the NPU-B full board almost unanimously denied both the land use and zoning changes for the property, the city’s Zoning Review Board approved the plans by a vote of 4-3 and the city’s Planning Department also approved the final plans. He also indicated that the Development Review Committee for SPI-15 approved the developer’s plans.
NPU-B board member Abbie Shepherd, who also is a member of the SPI-15 Development Review Committee, challenged Shook on that, saying the DRC “tore the plan apart during its discussion” but then decided it could not take a vote on the issue “because there had not been a change in zoning approved for the property.”
Shook said he will seek to have the zoning change from residential to commercial held in the City Council’s Zoning Committee for further study when the committee meets Aug. 20, the same day the full council was originally scheduled to discuss the issue.
That all may be moot, since the Community Development Human Resources Committee of City Council first must approve a change in land use for the plan before any zoning change can be considered by the Zoning Committee.
Another wrinkle in the process was brought up by Jane Rawlings, chair of NPU-F which also has gone on record as opposing the proposed 21-acre development bounded by Lindbergh Avenue, Morosgo and Adina drives and is behind the Zesto;s on Piedmont Road.
Rawlings pointed out that the Atlanta Regional Commission is required to conduct a Development of Regional Impact study on the proposal because of its impact on regional transportation arteries and the additional traffic it is likely to create. She said that study was only requested on July 15 and would take some time to complete.
Both Rawlings and Shook agreed that no city action can proceed until that Development of Regional Impact study is completed and submitted to the city for review.
After several in the audience questioned that the developers would stick to their “mixed-use” site plan and turn the site into an all-commercial development, Shook said, “I am aware that there is a back door issue that needs to be locked up to make sure that somehow this doesn’t end up being totally commercial, which I have committed to do.”
Rawlings asked Shook point blank if he would vote in opposition if he was presented with a list of how the development violates SPI-15.
“If you show me facts, I will follow you around all day long,” Shook replied.
To the approval of many attending the meeting, BCN Chairman Jim King challenged Shook to vote with the neighborhoods in his district and his constituents and vote to deny the rezoning for the development and the plans as proposed.
King urged Shook to work on his colleagues to get them to also vote against the development plans saying, “I would think out of respect for you and your vote they would follow your lead,” Shook said his colleagues certainly respect him and his positions, but he is not “entitled” to having them vote the way he would like.
King then said to Shook, “I have not heard you ask for help in convincing your colleagues” to vote to against these land use and zoning changes and against the development plans.
“The neighborhoods want you to vote no,” King said. “It is your district. I think they [other council members] will respect you if you represent your neighborhoods. I’ve seen you vote many times on principal before on other issues and I think this is an issue to the neighborhoods that is a matter of principal.”
“With well connected developers and their attorneys, and an administration that would love to see us start crawling out of our depression, I don’t have a monopoly on the outcome of this,” Shook said.
He went on to explain that council members are going to be told that the development meets the legal criteria as asserted by the planning department, ZRB and some neighborhood members – even ones that don’t like the project.
“They are going to listen to me, some more than others, although there will be some that, the more they become aware with Buckhead’s displeasure with the project, the more enticing it will become to vote for it,” he explained.
“It is zoned residential and they want to change it to commercial. That doesn’t seem like people are acting in good faith with whatever SPI-15 is, however weak it is,” King said. “If that is what the agreement was, that it be residential, the City is not acting in good faith on that. That is the way it comes across and i think that is what is rubbing everybody wrong.”
NPU-B Development & Transportation Committee Chair Andrea Bennett, who was attending the meeting and supported the actions of her committee and the NPU-B in denying the zoning change for the property, said she heard no real commitment of support from Shook during the meeting.
“If he votes against the zoning change and the development plans, there is at least a chance some other members of City Council will follow his vote,” Bennett said. “But if he doesn’t take a strong stand against it, there is no chance other council members will vote against it.”
Bennett said those that might follow Shook in denying the development plans could be Dist. 6 Councilman Alex Wan, Dist. 9 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, At-Large Councilman Aaron Watson and maybe Dist. 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore. That would provide five votes against. With just three more votes the controversial issue would be denied and go away.
Shook urged those at the BCN meeting to send him emails with their thoughts, but cautioned them to sign their emails. He indicated he does not pay much attention to emails from people who refuse to say who they are.