A clean sweep on Buford Boulevard, er, Highway?

Credit: By Bill Torpy

Credit: By Bill Torpy

One day, motorists may cruise into Brookhaven on Buford Boulevard or Buford Vista, a tree-lined street with old-timey street lights, elegant apartments, trendy shops, hotels, walking trails and, of course, bike lanes, because any new urban development these days must accommodate pedalists.

Buford Highway has a tacky connotation, a busy seven-lane thoroughfare with dumpy apartments, low-end businesses and numerous buildings that haven't had a brush with paint in years. Brookhaven officials are hoping a new name (why not Ye Olde Buford Way?) and a multimillion-dollar rehab job might just be the ticket for their community fix-it project.

On Nov. 4, Brookhaven will ask residents whether the 2-year-old city should receive redevelopment powers that would enable the government or its development authority to issue bonds to create tax allocation districts or TADS. (I’ll explain TADS later but don’t want to run off my few readers just yet.)

The effort has a group of residents pushing against the vote, arguing that city officials are expanding their original marching orders — low taxes and improved service. But mission creep is inherent in government, and so re-engineering Buford Highway seems natural.

Opponents of the new government powers, like local attorney Catherine Bernard, a libertarian-leaning Republican and leader of a resident group fighting the effort, said Brookhaven is one of metro Atlanta’s hottest markets and redevelopment will happen along the road anyway.

“It gives advantage to big box stores and big corporations because they have teams of lawyers to take advantage of the process,” she said. “These complex legislative schemes automatically hurt the little guy.”

Mayor Max Davis said the city, in seeking the redevelopment powers, is simply trying to get something all new cities want. A video of the meeting at which a visiting attorney explained tax allocation districts to the council showed officials who were A) unclear of the ins and outs of the plan and B) worried whether their big brother, Dunwoody, had such powers. There is certainly a economic arms race in the northern suburbs.

Davis said lots of “misinformation” about the new powers is buzzing about. He said the city won’t be on the hook for paying TAD bonds, nor will the government or developers be taking property under eminent domain. (TADs designate an area for improvement, freeze the amount of property taxes governments receive at current levels and then use all increases in property taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements.)

No strip clubs, but a gun range is OK. Hmmm.

Davis said the future Buford Boulevard is the only appropriate area in Brookhaven for such a tax scheme. “That’s where the free market lags behind,” he said.

The city placed its police headquarters on Buford Highway because that is where the lion’s share of the city’s crime occurs, the mayor said.

The city has already tried to “mend” the strip, writing numerous code violations against properties and going to legal war against the Pink Pony strip club and a sex toy novelty shop. (It is interesting that while the city is moving to close the sex shops, a gun range has opened. But, in Georgia, guns will almost always win out over sex.)

About three miles of the highway run through the city, from the Atlanta border near Lenox Road northeast to Clairmont Road. More than a mile of the road toward Clairmont is taken up by apartment complexes, mostly two-story and spread out.

A study showed that half of the residents in the area are Hispanic. A drive along this area finds numerous carnicerias, small restaurants and businesses supported by that population. The stretch of the highway that features a stretch of Asian restaurants is to the northeast in Chamblee and Doraville.

A Buford Highway Improvement Plan prepared for the city said several of the “gateways” to the city resemble an unmade bed. There are vacant commercial properties, “previously productive” properties that have “devolved” into marginal uses like auto businesses and run-down businesses at “highly visible locations” that “undermine the positive appearance of Brookhaven.”

'What the American dream is all about'

And those aging apartment complexes “are in need of reconstruction.” The improvement plan says there needs to be increased density in the apartments, with newer and more luxurious units. It adds there will be an effort “at retaining one-for-one” of affordable housing. But such plans always say that. Making that happen in reality is usually something different.

The sense that redevelopment is happening along the road is giving pause to immigrant businessmen like James Wang and Ron Surani.

Wang, who immigrated from Taiwan 35 years ago, owns a sad little strip mall that is half filled. Still, he said his property taxes increased $12,000 last year. He senses something is on the horizon because he keeps getting feelers from real estate agents for him to sell.

“I have that feeling that others have got a better information source than me,” he said.

Ron Surani, a Pakistani by birth, bought a busy supermarket on Buford nine months ago and has spruced up the place, even planting palm trees outside.

“This is what the American dream is all about,” he said, walking through his busy store.

He thinks the move to remake Buford Highway “will destroy small businesses. The Buford Highway demographics has been here for many years. And all of a sudden Brookhaven wants this to be Hollywood and run everyone off.”

Back to the Mayor: “That’s not our goal. We’re just trying to improve it for everyone along Buford Highway.”

More to be seen later.