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Posted: 6:38 a.m. Monday, Sept. 24, 2012

Gwinnett still awaits stadium commercial development

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By David Wickert

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gwinnett County’s dreams of a bustling commercial complex at Coolray Field keep sliding further into the future as owners of the surrounding land squabble over competing visions for the property.

Developer Brand Morgan still hopes to build the office, retail, hotel and residential complex he promised when he sold Gwinnett the land for the $64 million minor league baseball stadium on Buford Drive in Lawrenceville. But the owner of one of the properties needed for the development says those plans are unrealistic and wants to replace commercial buildings with hundreds of apartments.

Critics fear substituting apartments for upscale commercial space will lower the property values of nearby residents and generate less tax revenue for the county.

Tuesday, the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners likely will reject the changes to the original plan.

Coolray Field, home to the Atlanta Braves’ AAA affiliate, has cost more and brought in less revenue than commissioners expected when they approved its construction in 2008. The cost of the stadium rose from $45 million to $64 million. And though Gwinnett officials said the stadium would pay for itself, they later approved a 3 percent car rental tax to help repay the $33 million stadium debt. Even that might not be enough.

An AJC investigation last year showed the tax – along with parking, rent and other stadium revenue – won’t be enough to cover the debt when principal payments begin in 2014.

Commissioners also said the stadium would spark nearby development. It appeared that would happen in 2009, when Morgan unveiled plans for 300 hotel rooms, 610 residences, 351,000 square feet of retail space and 617,000 square feet of office space on 73 acres adjacent to the stadium.

Morgan has broken ground on 248 upscale apartments. But the hotels, shops and offices haven’t materialized. Morgan has cited the poor economy.

What’s more, Morgan owns only 54 of the 73 acres acres needed for his original plans. He had an option to buy 19 acres owned by Garland Roberts, but they were not able to come to terms.

Now Roberts wants to sell it to developer Marty Orr. Orr has asked Gwinnett for permission to replace most of the commercial buildings planned for the property with an additional 212 apartments. His plans also call for some commercial development on Buford Drive, including a car wash, fast-food restaurant, auto parts store and general retail shops.

Orr and Roberts didn’t respond to requests for comment. But they have said the original vision for the stadium property is unrealistic, given the economy.

“That’s just not going to happen,” Mitch Peavy, their representative, recently told the county planning commission.

Morgan also has proposed reducing commercial space and adding more residential units on the property he owns. Between the Morgan and Orr proposals, the stadium area would lose165,000 square feet of commercial space and 150 hotel rooms. It would gain 276 residential units.

Those plans have sparked opposition from nearby homeowners, who have asked county officials to reject the proposed changes. They say they were promised an upscale commercial area, not apartments and car washes, when the county built the stadium.

“We’re anxious for the commercial side – the shops, the restaurants – for some of that to be built out,” said Sheryl Bean, who lives in the nearby Brook Forest neighborhood.

Others want the county to wait for better economic times and stick with the original development plan. Planning commission Chairman Chuck Warbington said the county could reap less property tax revenue from apartments than from an upscale commercial development. It also could miss a chance to create a unique mixed-use development with a sense of place.

“It may not be viable at the moment, but I think it was a good plan originally,” Warbington said. “Over a period of time, the market will recover.”

Morgan agrees. Faced with opposition from local residents, he recently asked the planning commission to reject his own plans to reshape the property. Planning commissioners voted 9-0 to do that earlier this month. They also vote 8-1 to reject the Roberts/Orr proposal.

County Commissioner John Heard, whose district includes the stadium, said he expects the commission to follow suit on Tuesday.

“We’re not going to do more apartments,” Heard said.

Morgan said it’s still possible he can acquire the other property. And he’s still in touch with hotel and retail establishments that have expressed interest in the stadium project. He hopes something will happen in the next two years.

“It’s going to be the same quality (development) as we presented back in 2009,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been presented with the worst real estate market ever.”

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