Beyond serving as the seat of government business, the $78 million project is intended to establish a city center that can serve as a community gathering place, complete with an atrium and a rooftop park.
The building will sit at the corner of Peachtree Road and North Druid Hills Road, on top of the current long-term parking lot at MARTA’s Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station. Rail proximity — the building will sit one-tenth of a mile walk from the station — was a key selling point over other locations considered over the years.
Credit: City of Brookhaven
Credit: City of Brookhaven
Brookhaven’s efforts have been inspired by projects like City Springs in Sandy Springs, and Ernst’s hope is that Brookhaven’s City Hall will come to serve similarly as an anchor. But the ambitious vision is not without detractors, including some of the mayoral candidates vying to replace a term-limited Ernst, who have questioned the cost, location and even the need for a city center.
“There’s no need for what they are doing, other than they wanted to make a really pretty building,” candidate Lauren Kiefer said.
‘All these little jewels’
Brookhaven’s effort to spur a downtown center around a grand City Hall follows a trend of suburban cities trying to establish their own urban gathering places around Atlanta’s sprawl. Rather than identify with established city centers, newly chartered cities like Brookhaven are aiming to create one within their borders.
“We have all these little jewels,” Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said. “The northern part of metro Atlanta is becoming a magnificent tiara filled with jewels of these little town centers.”
Sandy Springs’ incorporation in 2005 is credited with kicking off a wave of new city charters across metro Atlanta. The wealthy suburb was also among the first to lead this city center charge with its $220 million City Springs project, a district of restaurants, shops, apartments and townhomes surrounding a newly christened City Hall.
Other cities have undertaken similar projects. Chamblee finished a new City Hall last October, which its leaders hope will spur investment along the corridor. Avondale Estates’ Town Green project is its’ attempt at creating an urban feel. Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Peachtree Corners and Suwanee also have plans in the works.
Paul said it took several years before Sandy Springs was able to shift focus from propping up city services to creating a city center.
The city reached into its $50 million reserves and issued bonds to finance City Springs’ first phase, which opened in 2018. The district now hosts concerts, food truck events, ice skating in the winter and a performing arts center.
The project’s cost drew criticism, especially among the tax hawks who formed Sandy Springs for fear of being absorbed into Atlanta’s city limits. The project was derisively dubbed the “Taj Ma-Paul,” the mayor said.
“That irritated me a little bit, but I was thinking, ‘Well heck, if they’re standing in line 400 years from now, it’s probably worth it,’” Paul said. “That’s what they do at the real Taj Mahal.”
Brookhaven residents opposed to their City Hall’s exorbitant cost also compare their city’s plans to the iconic 17th-century mausoleum in India. Mark Frost, a candidate running in Brookhaven’s upcoming mayoral election, is centering his campaign on opposing the City Hall.
“If I’m elected mayor, I’ll do everything I can to shut it down, even if it has a multimillion penalty,” he said. “... To me, it’s pure ego.”
Ambition or arrogance?
Opponents have pointed to Chamblee’s project as evidence of Brookhaven’s excess. Chamblee moved into its new City Hall in late 2022 after spending $17 million.
Chamblee Mayor Brian Mock said the two City Halls may not be an apples-to-apples comparison. His city was lucky to have its plans underway before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Contractors have told him the project would cost double now. Chamblee’s City Hall is also smaller, at 2,700 square feet compared to Brookhaven’s 6,000.
Political consequences have befallen other metro Atlanta elected officials after implementing costly and ambitious projects. Tim Lee, the late Cobb County chairman, lost reelection after leading the charge for the Atlanta Braves to move from downtown Atlanta to the suburbs.
Brookhaven critics argue the City Hall should be located closer to the Peachtree Creek Greenway, the city’s multi-use trail network, and should be on land the city owns. Brookhaven entered into a 50-year ground lease last year with MARTA to build the structure on the transportation agency’s land.
Eric Hovdesven said the appeal seems to purely be the Peachtree Road address.
“That’s the priority, not trying to do the business of the city or finding the best place or best use of our tax dollars,” Hovdesven said, who came to the groundbreaking with homemade protest signs.
John Park, a former city council member who stepped down to run for mayor, said the City Hall will create a center that Brookhaven lacks. Right now, there are a collection of spaces throughout the city that compete for attention.
Building a City Hall is the final step to take the city from emerging to mature, he said.
Hilerie Lind, the fourth candidate running for mayor, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mock, Chamblee’s mayor, said the city is already seeing the downtown revitalization it hoped would follow the City Hall construction. They still have a ways to go, though. The property across from City Hall is still empty. But just building City Hall sent a message to others, he said. There’s interest now in potentially putting a hotel or condos there, along with more restaurant and retail space.
“We were trying to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “If the public sees us investing in downtown, they’ll invest in downtown, too.”