Alpharetta had a little party last week when city officials and developers broke ground March 23 on its new City Center.
It is an $85 million mixed-use project that will surround City Hall and the Alpharetta Library. It was a day that was long in coming, but in the end it appears well worth the wait.
It is the icing on a cake that cements Alpharetta as the leading community in 21st century North Fulton.
Mayor David Belle Isle was almost giddy in pointing out how the City Center will house 450 new employees, more than a dozen new restaurants, 20 to 30 retail shops and 200 new residents.
Now if you have not been to downtown Alpharetta you have been missing a lot, what with the city’s Wire & Wood Songwriters Festival, Taste of Alpharetta and Brew Moon Fest.
And there’s a lot more to taste now. Established eateries such as SmokeJack’s and Hop Alley are now joined by Ceviche Taqueria, Salt Factory and the new Cajun spot on North Main Flatlands Bourbon and Bayou (see the April Northside Woman).
The long-awaited City Center had already spawned a renaissance in its downtown area. Along Alpharetta’s Canton Street, Academy Street and Milton Avenue new townhouse developments have sprung up along with new retail shops, and more is on the way.
You can feel the energy when you are in Alpharetta’s new district. And never was it more palpable than at last Thursday’ groundbreaking.
You know, it wasn’t always that way. Alpharetta was about as small a town as they get. Growing up in the shadow of Roswell, it didn’t have the history, the big houses, the shopping or the restaurants.
But with the coming of Ga. 400, the city fathers looked down that road in the 1980s and had a vision. That vision was to embrace the growth that developmental highway would bring.
It was the reason Ga. 400 was built. Fulton County, Cobb County and Gwinnett County were enjoying growth with the help of I-75 and I-85 respectively.
Ga. 400 is the only reason about 95 percent of us live where we do today.
It paved the way (literally) for the great subdivisions, the excellent schools and now the white-collar jobs That make North Fulton what it is.
What Alpharetta enjoys is no accident. It made a plan in the 1980s, and successive city councils have stuck to that basic plan.
I got here in 1993, and already big changes had been made. There was Windward Parkway with its huge residential. Big office development plans were on the drawing board.
The residential was well on its way. The office buildings would be a little later. From Main Street to Ga. 400, Windward Parkway was nothing but trees and just a Red Roof Inn hotel and little restaurant named Vinny’s out in the middle of nowhere.
But they had just opened that shiny new shopping mall on North Point Parkway. Here was this magnificent parkway that was carved out of the forest from Windward to Old Milton Parkway.
Well, you know the story. Throughout the 1990s little Alpharetta grew, and tall office buildings sprouted on Windward and North Point Parkway. More gorgeous subdivision communities erupted all around.
I still have my White Columns umbrella when they broke ground on White Columns golf community on Freemanville Road. It was way out in the woods too.
Jimmy Phillips was the mayor back then. He and his City Council had a vision that if growth was coming up Ga. 400, then little Alpharetta would be ready for it.
Before the first spade of earth was turned on Northpoint Mall, the city had a master plan for Class A office. Developers bought into the idea and it was they who built Northpoint Parkway.
But one thing had nagged succeeding city councils. To be a great town, that town has to have a face. Alpharetta’s identity to most visitors was the Northpoint Mall and Windward Parkway.
Developers have the expression, “There’s no THERE there.”
So they began to cultivate a downtown profile. The city offered low-interest loans to downtown businesses for façade renovations. It started Taste of Alpharetta to get people to come downtown.
Then, Mayor Arthur Letchas and his council moved forward with a plan to build a city center that put a “there THERE.” It got stalled in the recession and probably for the best.
The city didn’t control the land, and that turned out to be a major flaw.
So during the recession, the city acquired the land that would become the City Center. They had a wonderful five-acre site on the other side of Haynes Bridge Road, so they moved the road to include it inside the City Center.
They donated the land for the library and built a parking deck. That left just the last piece of the puzzle, to bring in the private development that will make “there HERE.”
As Mayor David Belle Isle said, “Most of the people who live here didn’t grow up here. We want Alpharetta to be their hometown.”
That was the goal, build a downtown where people would congregate, celebrate and be proud, happy Alpharettans.
Alpharetta could have sat back and been overwhelmed as Ga. 400 brought its inexorable march of development. But then it would have been reactive, always a step or two behind.
With its bold plan, it met urbanization head on and on its terms.
Some say we didn’t want urbanization, we wanted to stay that quaint small town we moved here for.”
But without all of those plans made in partnership with developers long ago, Alpharetta would be the city everyone loves so well.
Like it or not, development is following Ga. 400, and you can make it come on your terms or it will certainly come on its own.
Alpharetta could not avoid change so it made it the changes it wanted.