Smyrna approves divisive downtown overhaul

A proposed blueprint of the redevelopment for Smyrna's downtown corridor was approved by City Council during a meeting Monday night. (Provided by city of Smyrna)

A proposed blueprint of the redevelopment for Smyrna's downtown corridor was approved by City Council during a meeting Monday night. (Provided by city of Smyrna)

After months of heated debate that included heavy criticism from residents, a multi-million dollar plan to transform Smyrna’s downtown was endorsed by cheers from dozens of supporters late Monday.

City Council approved the reboot by a 4-2 vote with council members Charles “Corkey” Welch and Susan Wilkinson dissenting.

The plan calls for the removal of the iconic fountain and roundabout in the downtown’s Village Green area. They will be replaced with open green space. Construction of that portion of the downtown overhaul is expected to cost $5.7 million in special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) funds.

“It was a big win for Smyrna last night,” Mayor Derek Norton, who helped spearhead the downtown redesign, said Tuesday morning. “We listened to the people, were able to deliver on what they want for that space, and I’m just proud of everybody who came out and participated in the process.”

The additional green space will represent phase one of the downtown transformation. Greg Teague, president of Marietta-based consultant Croy Engineering, said major construction on the park will begin in March or April and that phase of the project is expected to be completed by early 2023.

A three-story, $4 million parking deck proposed to be built just north of the Smyrna Community Center was not included in Monday’s vote. The city plans to use SPLOST money to pay for the parking facility, but there is no timeline on when council will finalize those details.

Council members did not discuss the sell of an acre of city-owned land along Atlanta Road during Monday’s vote either. City officials intend to sell the property to StillFire Brewing, a downtown Suwanee beer maker that plans to open a brewery in Smyrna.

About 70 Smyrna residents filled the council chambers for a lively back-and-forth discussion.

Supporters of the project showed up in full force. About 15 of the two dozen residents who addressed the board during public comment spoke in favor of the overhaul. Many of them held signs that simply said “YES” in bold black letters.

They said the revamped area would breathe life into the small business community near the Village Green and would improve the experience during live events.

“I think this project is well overdue,” Smyrna resident Kris Mellstrom, who lives in Sherwood Park, told council. “I love the fact that we think about how Smyrna’s growing...I just want to say thank you for putting this plan forward. I totally support it.”

But those opposed to the plan, as they have throughout the process, questioned the redevelopment’s estimated cost, how much traffic it will cause downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods, and insisted the process by which City Council reached Monday’s final vote was less than transparent. Some questioned why the parking deck and land being sold to StillFire weren’t included in the discussion.

“The process is flawed and goes against best management practices for city planning,” said Shaun Martin, a leading member of Smart Smyrna, an opposition group. “Cities are not planned in silos. To not bring in the desired brewery at this point is unfair, as much taxpayer dollars that are going into facilitating and accommodating all of the accessory needs.”

Welch and Wilkinson, the council members, opposed the measure just as they did during a June 21 vote when the overall concept was approved. Councilman Lewis Wheaton missed the Monday vote due to a death in his family.

Welch estimated the full downtown redevelopment will actually be about $11.8 million when including costs for the new parking deck as well as engineering expenses and contingency fees.

“I simply can’t support spending almost $12 million to revitalize a downtown that, in my opinion, is already a vital asset to our town,” he said.

Norton said that was an inflated price tag. He insisted the full scope of the project would be about $10.5 million when the parking garage, engineering and contingency fees are incorporated.

Councilman Austin Wagner said he supported the downtown redesign but was “conflicted” because a number of unanswered questions remain about the parking garage, the proposed Atlanta Road property sell and improvements along South Cobb Drive. He motioned to table Monday’s decision until the board discussed how the downtown vote could impact those projects.

With Wheaton absent, council deadlocked 3-3 on Wagner’s motion to delay the decision, with Welch and Wilkinson favoring it. Norton cast the deciding vote to push the project past its final hurdle moments before it was officially approved.

“I think it’s gonna have a huge positive impact, both from an economic development standpoint and just having another amenity to connect that downtown area that people can enjoy,” the mayor said of the plan Tuesday. “Businesses locate where people are. And we’re taking a space that is not used right now and making it a vibrant activity center.”