By Maria Saporta
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/09/07
“A town center makes for such a nice communications point,” says Wade, who has served as Clarkston’s vice mayor since 2004. “I miss that small-town flavor. We had that once, and we don’t any more.”
Clarkston, however, is developing a strategy to rediscover and redevelop its downtown area and the rest of the town, which is only 1.1 square miles.
Later this month, a revamped zoning ordinance —- which will promote smart growth development practices —- is up for adoption before City Council. It is the latest piece of a multi-year effort that Clarkston has undertaken to redefine and revitalize itself.
Back in 2004, Clarkston was awarded a $65,000 Livable Communities Initiative grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission to plan for its future. It then adopted a new comprehensive development plan for the entire city. Now the new zoning ordinance would help implement that plan.
The changes proposed in the new zoning ordinance include more mixed-uses —- people living above stores or offices; higher density; smaller lot sizes; as well as requirements for sidewalks. The plan also respects the integrity of the city’s historic street grid system, which parallels the railroad line that goes through the middle of town. The city also is in line to receive a $5 million federal grant to help upgrade its sidewalks, lighting and downtown area. Those funds would help developers improve the area around their project.
Clarkston Mayor Lee Swaney believes his city has a natural advantage —- location. It is about 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta, five miles east of downtown Decatur and five miles west of Stone Mountain.
Swaney moved to Clarkston in 1970 after looking for the best place to live and start his heating and air-conditioning business. Clarkston’s easy access to I-285, the Stone Mountain Freeway and I-20 made it ideal.
‘It was a stable community in the ’70s,” Swaney says. “It was slow-paced. Council members many times went to sleep during the meetings.”
That has changed. Clarkston, once designated as a Federal Refugee Destination Center, received an influx of immigrants from around the world.
It went from having a population that was 90 percent white in 1980 to one that is less than 20 percent white. Most of the city’s 7,200 residents are African-American, and the second-largest group is a wide array other ethnicities. More than 50 languages are spoken among the students attending Clarkston’s high school. The town’s rich mix of ethnic restaurants also reflects that diversity.
The six-member Clarkston City Council now has two African-American members and one Vietnamese, and Swaney said council meetings today are “really vibrant.”
“The diversity that the city has here is good,” Swaney says. “These people are only looking for a better way of life, and I want to help them in any way I can.”
Swaney believes that attracting new development and re-creating a town center will help bring the community together. One advantage Clarkston has, Swaney says, is that people can walk to most places in town.
The city also has several major green spaces, including Friendship Forest, Milam Park, Armistead Field and Forty Oaks Nature Preserve. There is a PATH bicycle trail that runs right through town, another amenity that has helped draw attention to the city.
“We’ve got a city prime for development,” says Harry Housen, a landscape architect with Wood + Partners Inc., who has been working with Clarkston through its planning process. “The street network is already there, and we are trying to come back and stitch it together.”
A key piece, in his mind, will be the redevelopment of Thriftown, a seven-acre strip shopping center that is centrally located in the city. Because Clarkston does not have a wealth of historic buildings, Housen believes that the greatest potential will be redeveloping existing properties and creating a live, work, play environment with artists, lofts, apartments, condos and neighborhood-friendly retail.
Clarkston is one of a half-dozen small cities in metro Atlanta that is considering smart growth zoning guidelines to revitalize their communities. It is part of a metrowide trend to redevelop healthy town centers with existing infrastructure —- steering growth to occur without contributing to sprawl and traffic congestion.
Clarkston’s proposed new zoning guidelines were written to help create that kind of place, according to Dan Cohen, director of planning for Pond & Co. firm who actually drafted the new ordinance.
“We want a mixed-use feel with more public spaces,” he says, adding that the proposed zoning ordinance included input from residents, council members and outside developers. “We are able to bring some developers in so we could test the regulations with the development community to make sure it makes sense.”
In the future, developers will present their projects before a soon-to-be created Planning and Development Commission, which will make sure the proposals conform to the new ordinance before getting city council approval.
By having a clearly stated comprehensive development plan and new zoning ordinance, Clarkston officials hope they will be able to attract quality developers who will buy in to their vision.
“I want Clarkston to become a showpiece,” Swaney says. I want to be able to look back and see all the work we’ve been striving for to get started.”
It’s a dream that Joyce Wade has been working on for decades —- from helping establish Friendship Forest as a public green space to saving the old Clarkston High School from demolition and raising money to turn it into a community center.
Once Clarkston’s town center is redeveloped with a true community feel, Wade has faith that the rest of the metro area will see it as she does: “a fabulous little city.” In fact, Clarkston’s slogan is “Little City. Big Heart.” And its city leaders envision their little city soon having healthy heart in its downtown area.
“We will bring the community back with a small-town flavor,” Wade says. “I get cold chills because I think it’s going to happen.”