Some residents say they don’t want to see more apartments in their city, particularly after the millions City Council spent to raze troublesome apartment complexes throughout the town.
Jean Martin, an almost 50-year resident of Smyrna, said the city’s efforts improved the quality of life.
The 726-unit Hickory Lakes complex at the intersection of Old Concord Road and Windy Hill Road and the 144-unit Smyrna Commons were knocked down.
“I think you got rid of the rat’s nest,” Martin said. “I think you got rid of many undesirables and probably saved some lives.”
Martin says she wants to see people “take ownership of the city” and purchase houses or condos.
Buckhead-based Branch Capital Partners will appear before the Smyrna City Council on Dec. 2 to request a rezoning to develop Jonquil Village, an 11-acre site at the corner of Atlanta Road and Spring Street in the downtown area.
The development was first introduced in 2006 and was intended to be a $181 million mixed-use project, including 20,000 square feet of office space, 160,000 square feet of retail space, 300 luxury condominiums and an underground parking deck. The property has changed hands several times since the first proposal.
That plan has evolved into one that includes 288 apartments and 25,000 square feet of retail space to be distributed through two free-standing buildings and on the first floor of apartment buildings. It’s ultimately expected to cost $40 million.
Though the city’s professional development staff recommended the rezoning be approved, the city’s planning commission recommended denial. The City Council gets the final say Dec. 2.
Attracting retailers to Smyrna
Martin remembers shopping at Jonquil Village before it was razed years ago and wants to see the retail space promised in the development’s original plan come to fruition.
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, who conducted the meeting Wednesday at City Hall, said he can’t force companies to move into the city. Bacon spent much of the meeting defending the city’s apartment purchases.
It’s all about the numbers, Bacon said, and if a company doesn’t think it will make the profit they need in Smyrna, “Guess what. They’re not going to come here.”
“Every day, somebody says what a great location for a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Publix,” Bacon said. “You can’t make them come out here.”
He maintains a lack of retail in Smyrna isn’t the result of an apathetic city government.
“It’s not because we’re not trying to get them to come out here,” Bacon said.
Studies conducted by retailers have shown that Smyrna’s population can’t support much more retail in addition to what the city already offers, Bacon said.
But Martin takes issue with that reasoning.
“We don’t have any places to support,” Martin said.
She told Bacon there’s got to be a better option for the future of the 11-acre property, a statement that received applause from the crowd packed into City Hall’s meeting chambers leaving only standing room available.
Luxury apartments with a price tag
Ted Sandler, who represents the owner of Jonquil Village, said the property was under contract with three different retail developers, but each of those contracts were terminated because the developers couldn’t make the numbers work.
“It wasn’t that we saddled up with Branch and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Sandler said.
Nick Telesca, president of Branch Capital, attended the town hall meeting attempting to refute the claims of residents and ease their concerns.
At times, the town hall-style meeting turned into a one-on-one conversation, with agitated residents demanding answers from Branch representatives and causing Bacon to step in and exert control over the meeting.
“We are a retail developer,” said Telesca, adding the company has developed more than 10 million square feet of retail space.
When Branch first pursued the property, it talked to Publix about coming back to the site, but the company wasn’t interested.
“We don’t make a $40 million investment on a gut feeling,” Telesca said.
Telesca said the development would be a “catalyst” for more retail development.
And the renters the company is targeting for the upscale development aren’t the same people who lived in the ill-fated apartments the city razed.
“Renters are people too,” Telesca said.
Branch wants to see people who make a minimum of $60,000 annually live in its apartments. Those renters would pay a rent of at least $1,200 a month. No low-income subsidized housing would be available.
“It is something the city will be proud of, and it will stand the test of time,” Telesca said.
Waiting for the ‘halo effect’
Brian Bober, a Smyrna resident, thinks upscale apartments could be a point of pride for the city.
“I agree that it was residential if we can get high value residential there, I think it would be good for the city,” Bober said.
Talk of Jonquil Village’s plans led residents to also spotlight the future of empty lots in the city where apartments once stood.
Hickory Lakes sits empty on Windy Hill Road while a committee of City Council members and community leaders try to find a buyer.
“For anybody who thinks we’ve been sitting on our hands and not trying to get anybody to invest in this community, you’re just sadly mistaken,” Bacon said.
The city could have sold the site to a big box retailer, but Bacon didn’t think that would be enough of a return on the city’s $16 million investment.
In October, City Council opted not to vote on a resolution supporting the Smyrna Downtown Area Development Corp.’s intention to sell Hickory Lakes to Vinings-based Southeast Capital Companies, a residential developer, for $13 million. Council members did not discuss or vote on the sale and it has not been finalized.
The $13 million sale would have meant a $3 million loss. That sale has not come before the council again.
Bacon said it may take 20 years before the city gets a return on its investment, but when it does, the city will see a “tremendous halo effect.”
“What I don’t want is to have a big box there and then in 15 years have an empty big box,” Bacon said. “What goes in Hickory Lakes is going to be a long-range, I hope, development that’s going to come back and increase the value of the properties around that.”
Bober supports the mayor’s vision.
“I think you’re making a smart choice not putting a big box there,” he said.
Still, other residents questioned if the City Council will vote in the interest of the people.
Bacon said the answer is simple: It’s illegal for elected officials to vote the way their constituents want. They must make decisions based on their own analysis.
“The law requires you to vote on things based on the information that you have been shared,” Bacon said.