Gwinnett transit vote could bring new life to Norcross

Plans for a MARTA train station could bring more than passengers to Norcross.

As early voting begins Monday in Gwinnett County, a decision to begin a new tax to pay for transit could also bring new life to the working- and middle-class part of the county in Norcross near Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

A transit station planned in that location would become a hub for expanded bus service within five years, and MARTA train service could follow within 10 to 20 years.

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The county acquired 103 acres of land near the intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 in December that could become Gwinnett's gateway to the rest of metro Atlanta, pending the referendum's passage. Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash also has said she envisions an "urban-style mixed-use development" on the site.

That kind of development coupled with more access to public transportation could transform the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor, currently a high-traffic stretch of road lined with strip malls, fast food restaurants and warehouses.

But the development could also bring a downside: Development centered around a transit station could raise rents for residents and businesses in the area, according to planners who have seen it happen elsewhere.

The intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 is just inside Gwinnett County’s borders — so close to Doraville and unincorporated parts of DeKalb that some homes and businesses in the area have Atlanta addresses. The transportation hub site and the surrounding area are not currently inside Norcross city limits, but are considered unincorporated parts of the city.

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The Gateway 85 Community Improvement District has been interested in “upgrading” the area around the intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and I-85 for the past 12 years. Emory Morsberger, a member of the CID’s board and a longtime Gwinnett County developer, said the passage of the transit referendum would increase interest in building mixed use developments there that combine residential, retail and office space.

“I think it will rapidly move toward mixed use,” Morsberger said of the hub. “It’s one of the best sites in Gwinnett County for access to the metro area.”

But because it is expected to take more than a decade for a future train station to be operational, developers aren’t expected to make a mad dash for property if the referendum on March 19 succeeds. Morsberger said the pace of land acquisition and development will likely be dictated by the pace of the transit hub’s construction.

Gwinnett County Transit currently has three bus routes that include stops on or near Jimmy Carter Boulevard. If the referendum is passed, the Norcross station would serve as a hub for several modes of transit. The site would see:

  • Expanded local bus service within five years
  • Bus rapid transit (high capacity buses operated in dedicated lanes) within 10 years
  • MARTA train service within 10 to 20 years

“You’re talking about a 15- to 20-year project before someone gets on a transit car,” Morsberger said, referring specifically to heavy rail or trains. “That’s a long time for someone to actively sit on a piece of real estate for development.”

Transportation as an ‘amenity’

If and when that development happens, the housing costs that will increase the most will likely be those in walking distance of the train station, according to Michael Rich, an Emory University political science professor. While areas with easy bus access could also see price hikes, the highest premium is on walkability. Doraville, Lindbergh Center and Edgewood/Candler Park are all examples of the “mini-cities” that have been built around existing MARTA stations, Rich said.

“The station becomes an amenity in regards to not only what is built around the station, but accessibility to the greater Atlanta region,” Rich said. If that development comes along with the Norcross transit hub, “there will likely be a significant boost in land and housing values. If it’s farther away and requires a longer trip or non-walking trip, the impact wouldn’t be as dramatic as it was if you were in walking distance.”

Potential increases in rents could be offset by residents having to rely less on a car, or no longer using one altogether, Morsberger said.

“Cost of living includes transportation. You may pay $100 a month more to live closer to a MARTA station, but not owning a vehicle may reduce your monthly costs by $500,” Morsberger said. “The decreased cost of transportation more than makes up for that and the increased quality of life is going to make up for that.”

Vanessa Levingston hopes that will be the case for her young adult daughter if the referendum passes. Levingston’s daughter, who lives with her in nearby Peachtree Corners, does not have a car and relies mostly on public transportation for work. She hopes to enroll in college soon, but will also need to access public transportation to get to classes, Levingston said. The cost of rent and having a car is what’s holding Levingston’s daughter back from moving out on her own, Levingston said; access to more extensive public transportation could change that.

“The change is going to have to come soon,” Levingston said. “People can’t live like that. With the cost of insurance, car payments, rent — people aren’t making it.”

Preventing displacement

Residents in the area surrounding the potential transit hub have expressed concerns about future affordability and possibly being priced out of the area, said both Gwinnett County Commissioner Ben Ku and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, Democrats whose districts both include the Jimmy Carter Boulevard corridor.

“We have to make sure that’s always at top of mind, not only affordable housing but also not displacing the current residents and current businesses that are living and operating up the Buford Highway-Jimmy Carter area,” Lopez said. “We have to focus on smart development to ensure affordability and not displacing business owners.”

Lopez cited the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland, California, as a model Norcross could follow. A “transit-oriented development” including affordable housing units, a library, retail space and a charter high school was built with the station as its centerpiece in 2004.

A 2018 study by the University of California - Los Angeles a found that the development “increased the socio-economic well-being of residents in the immediate neighborhood” while preserving racial and ethnic diversity in the historically Latino neighborhood while other parts of the region experienced gentrification.

The county is exploring ways to possibly redevelop areas like that around the potential transit hub with those outcomes in mind, Ku said.

“If we raise housing costs and push people out, that just puts more cars on the road,” Ku said. “There are ways we can do redevelopment without displacing people.”

Key dates for Gwinnett's transit referendum: Election Day is March 19.

Advance in-person voting starts Monday at the Gwinnett elections office (455 Grayson Highway in Lawrenceville) and will be held there every day through March 15, including weekends.

Between March 4 and 15, advance in-person voting will also be held at several satellite locations. Those can be found at Hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Gwinnett voters will go the polls on March 19 in a historic special election that could change the face of metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

Residents there will decide if Georgia’s second most populous county will join the MARTA system and chip in a new 1 percent sales tax to pay for billions of dollars in transit improvements. A successful referendum in Gwinnett may ignite action for more mass transit in other metro Atlanta counties that have long been resistant to the idea.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will provide comprehensive coverage leading up to the vote and on Election Day. Our reporters will help readers understand the issues, the key players, what’s at stake, and provide information for voters to make an informed decision at the ballot box.