The mixed-use development will create a new central hub for the city — including apartments, library, restaurants and a greenway — and will serve as Snellville’s defacto downtown. The city is expected to pay $17 to $18 million towards the project, according to spokesman Brian Arrington.
“Snellville never really has had a downtown,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Dave Emanuel. “At one point ‘downtown’ was the intersection of [Ga.] 124 and [U.S.] 78. We used to put a Christmas tree in that intersection, but now have 100,00 cars a day going through.”
The project is expected to break ground this spring.
The push for a real downtown began quietly in 2003 as part of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, which promotes walkable communities. Mayor Barbara Bender read the early plans in 2005, when she was first running for city council.
“I had never thought of an area where Snellville could have a downtown,” Bender said.
The plans were similar to those now in place, calling for homes and businesses to be built near Wisteria Drive, close to Snellville City Hall. A developer bought the land with the intent of building a mixed-use development similar to the Grove at Towne Center.
“Then the recession hit and he ran out of money,” Emanuel said.
The land was foreclosed upon, and the bank offered it to the city at a “fire sale price,” Emanuel said. The city bought it in 2011 and continued acquiring more property over the next seven years.
After a years-long effort to acquire the city's old post office was complete in July, Snellville had 18 acres and was ready to sign onto the deal with developer MidCity Partners.
A modern city center
The project will transform land with drab 1970s-era low-rise buildings into a modern mixed-used city center, Bender said.
Plans for the project show ground-level retail topped with multiple floors of apartments, a town green with recreation space and trails connecting to area parks.
A marketplace called The Mercantile and inspired by Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Market is expected to be a space for local, small-scale artisans and makers to sell their wares.
Both Emanuel and Bender want the retail and restaurant tenants to be local and connected to the community; something you couldn’t find in another city or even further down Ga. 124, a road heavily populated with national chain restaurants and big box stores.
The planned 250 apartments could also attract residents that wouldn’t have previously considered Snellville, Emanuel said. Eastside Medical Center is the city’s largest employer, and a new cache of housing options could make it easier for more of those workers to live in Snellville, he said.
“We can attract people who don’t necessarily want to live in a house on a third of an acre,” Emanuel said. “A lot of people want to live in a condo or apartment or somewhere that doesn’t have all the maintenance requirements of a house.”
The development will also allow residents, whether living at the Grove at Towne Center or nearby, to access amenities to which they’d otherwise have to fight through traffic. That access is something residents are after, Bender said.
Right now, without a downtown, Snellville consists largely of shopping centers and residential subdivisions. Bender hopes adding a central hub for new development will stem the continued sprawl of suburban development.
“Instead of spreading out development and having the new shiny stuff on the outskirts of the city, it will help centralize things in the city where we already have the road structure and already have the sewer structure,” Bender said.
Models of success
Snellville isn’t taking a shot in the dark with its Towne Center project.
Residents there have long admired Suwanee’s Town Center, opened in 2003 and similarly built with no pre-existing downtown, and have asked for their own for years, Bender said. Across the county in Peachtree Corners, that city’s new Town Center has been officially open for nine months.
Peachtree Corners started working to make the Town Center a reality less than a year after it officially incorporated as a city in 2012. Residents’ top priority was to have a downtown of their own, as none existed at the time the city officially began, said Diana Wheeler, director of community development.
While the residential aspect is still in the works, city officials already see it as a success.
“It’s given people an opportunity to get together to share experiences, create memories, meet with neighbors and friends,” said “They didn’t have something like that in the past.”
With a town green and two dozen restaurants and shops, it also allows Peachtree Corners residents to enjoy their free time while remaining close to home, Wheeler said. That was a major priority in creating the Town Center, as it is in Snellville’s ongoing project.
“We didn’t have a lot of options for evening entertainment if you wanted to go out on a Saturday for date night or as a family, especially if you wanted to stay out past 9 o’ clock,” Wheeler said. “Now, we’ve done everything from huge concerts and a firework show to a cornhole league and kids events.”
Peachtree Corners is continuing to think of ideas to make the Town Center a destination for all of its 45,000 residents. A botanical garden and 70 townhomes are under construction. The key is to continue looking towards the future, Wheeler said.
“One thing we made sure to do is design for generations,” Wheeler said. “Not just for now, not just for the next 20 years, but to grow over many, many years. It’s our goal to think long term about what will work for the community.”
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