June 26 , 2006
Village renovation inches closer to new identity
From one perspective, the changes that will start happening soon in Emory Village are six, maybe seven years in the making. But for some people, the re-imagining of the small commercial area has been overdue for much longer than that.
“I think the first attempted plan to improve Emory Village was made over 30 years ago, and they could never get it to work—they could never get everyone to agree to it,” said Stuart Meddin, owner of several commercial properties in the village and co-chair of the Alliance to Improve Emory Village (AIEV), founded in 1999. “A lot of people have lived in this community for that long or longer, and they’re thrilled. They’re saying, ‘It’s finally happening.’”
By now, what is in store for Emory Village is common knowledge: a traffic roundabout in the main intersection; improved streetscapes that are inviting to shoppers and pedestrians; removal of the diagonal parking along North Decatur Road; and, eventually, construction of mixed-use retail and residential space, along with off-street parking facilities, that together will breathe new life into an underperforming, potentially vibrant center of activity.
Originally, the traffic roundabout was to be the first domino, as plans called for construction to begin this summer. But the approval process among all the private, local and state agencies involved has taken longer than expected, and now the best guess is that work on the roundabout will start next spring. Hector Morales, a former project manager at Emory who now serves as senior project manager at Silverman Construction (hired by DeKalb County as the lead contractor for village renovations), acknowledged that progress has not occurred at the pace AIEV and the University wanted, but he said there were hurdles that had to be cleared.
“There’s a development process that has to occur whenever you have federal monies,” said Morales, referring to a $2 million Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grant through the Atlanta Regional Commission, which he said was matched by $500,000 from the county. “We had to essentially prove that we’re not impacting the historical nature of Emory’s entrance [at Dowman Drive], and there was a lot of paperwork that had to be filled out and a lot of studies that had to be done.”
But what could happen sooner than the roundabout also will have a significant effect on aesthetics: burying the village’s utility lines underground, a development Meddin called “fabulous.”
“It is being done because of Emory,” Meddin said, explaining that the utility relocation’s costs cannot be paid for out of the LCI grant, so Vice President for Campus Services Bob Hascall negotiated a deal with Georgia Power to complete the project.
Morales said the final scope and schedule of the utility relocation is still being developed. It will necessitate some short-term pain as lanes occasionally will have to be closed along North Decatur and Oxford roads on both sides of the main intersection.
Indeed, once the jackhammers start going, life at Emory’s main gate will get more interesting, as the University also plans to completely rework the Dowman Drive entrance in conjunction with the roundabout construction. Dowman will be turned into a one-way, entrance-only road, paved over with red brick to match Emory’s other pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. The road will be rerouted to once again pass under the historic Haygood-Hopkins Gate, with its stately, sturdy marble signage that marks the University’s front door. All parking along Dowman up to South Kilgo will be removed.
“We’re going to enhance the pedestrian aspects and appeal of that area,” said University Architect Jen Fabrick. “The whole entrance to the University will be upgraded.”
Fabrick said the Dowman Drive project likely will start before the roundabout construction. Once the traffic and streetscape improvements are done (or, at least, well under way), that is when investors are likely to look harder at the village. As explained in a May 24 public meeting, AIEV is attempting to have a “zoning overlay” placed over all of Emory Village—circumscribed as the area along North Decatur from the bridge over Peavine Creek to the Bank of America, and along Oxford from the Georgia Power substation to 1463 South Oxford—to allow for the kind of mixed-use redevelopment it wants, and also to impose standards on storefronts and property uses.
Meddin acknowledges that the vacant properties (several of which belong to him) are an unfortunate blight on the current landscape, but he said some could be occupied as early as this fall, and at any rate he is focusing on the village’s long-term future.
“People come up to me and ask, ‘Don’t you want [those empty properties] occupied?’ Of course I do,” Meddin said. “But I’m more concerned that the appropriate mix of retailers and restaurants exists in Emory Village over the next five, 10, 15 years. We’re talking to people who will be a great mix of retailers and restaurant people, and they’re savvy enough to understand that yes, it’s going to be a hassle for six or 12 months while it’s under construction, but they really want to be there when it’s done.”
AIEV’s website (www.emoryvillage.org) contains a downloadable report produced by Peter Drey & Co. that outlines the design standards and business restrictions it hopes to establish for the village (right down to the species of trees, both small and large, to be planted along the streetscapes), but consultants and AIEV officers at the May 24 meeting were quick to add that everything at this point is merely a draft. All plans must be publicly vetted before DeKalb County gives its seal of approval.