A $2 billion vision for an NHL hockey arena and entertainment district passed muster with a regional planning agency, a procedural step that clears the path for consideration by Forsyth County officials.

The Atlanta Regional Commission recently finished its Development of Regional Impact (DRI) study on The Gathering at South Forsyth, which combines an 18,000-seat arena with hotels, offices, apartments, shopping and dining. A DRI review is required for massive projects that will impact surrounding areas and must take place before local officials can rezone land or clear permitting hurdles.

First unveiled in April, the proposal captured the attention of starved Atlanta hockey fans and Northside residents looking for a new entertainment district. But it also sparked concern among some residents that tax dollars might help fund the project and doubt from some economists given its exurb location 30 minutes north of Atlanta — without accounting for traffic.

The DRI review is designed to give local officials more information on a development’s strain on traffic infrastructure, utility services and the environment. The ARC, which does not endorse projects, deemed the Gathering’s proposal mostly aligns with the needs and surrounding activity of the 84-acre site along Union Hill Road and Ga. 400.

The Gathering is pitched includes the arena surrounded by 1,800 apartments, 1 million square feet of new offices, restaurants, shops, a fire station, a community center and up to 500 hotel rooms. The DRI evaluated larger development numbers to slightly overestimate the project’s infrastructure and traffic demands.

Forsyth is not part of the MARTA network and has limited existing transit service.

This is a site plan of The Gathering at South Forsyth included within a Development of Regional Impact filing.

Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

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Credit: Atlanta Regional Commission

One design aspect the DRI review questioned was whether it had enough parking spaces. The project’s proposed 8,780 spaces is only about half as many spaces as code allows, and the Gathering’s site plan did not include any bicycle parking spaces or EV chargers. But the development team said they expect alternative transportation, such as rideshares, to be popular among visitors.

“At this moment, we don’t see any issues whatsoever with being able to handle getting people to and from our site in a safe, efficient and quick manner,” said Carl Hirsh, a managing partner with consulting firm Stafford Sports and a development team member.

The regional review does not evaluate a project’s financial viability. The Gathering team has yet to say whether they will ask for taxpayer assistance funding the development, which has been a sticky issue in conservative Forsyth. Hirsh said any public funding ask will come into focus once county leaders rezone the property and approve the project’s design and density.

“We need to know what we can build first,” he said. “... As soon as we get a little further with the county and understand the scope of what we can build, we can answer the question of how much it will cost.”

The Gathering team says the arena will be viable with or without a professional sports team. Atlanta already had two NHL hockey teams downtown — the Flames and Thrashers — that failed to gain traction, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said expansion isn’t currently a league priority. However, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said earlier in September that “some of the challenges that we’ve seen in the past in Atlanta can be overcome.”

Frank Ferrara, the Gathering’s senior project executive, called the DRI’s findings “resounding validation of the development.”

Ferrara, a former NFL finance director who also led Arizona State University’s campaign to build Mullett Arena, said pro hockey in Forsyth is a different situation than downtown.

“It’s not the third strike. It’s the first time of doing it the right way,” Ferrara said. “This arena will be built in the right location.”