Sugar Hill to build downtown district

Sugar Hill is one of Gwinnett County's largest cities, but to lifelong resident Dawn P. Gober, it suffers from a lack of identity.

Drivers en route to Lake Lanier often whiz by this north metro Atlanta municipality of 17,000 without even realizing they've traveled through it, the 54-year-old said.

"We're in the same Zip code as Buford, and people know Buford, not Sugar Hill," said Gober, who is also chairwoman of the Downtown Development Authority. "We're trying to give Sugar Hill some identity."

That identity could come in the form of a brand-new downtown eight years in the making.

This year, city leaders will begin turning dirt on the half-mile downtown district, eventually peppered with restaurants, coffee shops and barbershops and anchored by a new $8.5 million to $9 million City Hall. It would run along West Broad Street, book-ended by Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Ga. 20.

City leaders are aiming for a downtown with19th century appeal. It would feature old-fashioned double-globe street lights, wide sidewalks, on-street parking and brick accents. The buildings would conform to a neutral color palette and be constructed of brick and stone.

"What we want is someday when you drive into the downtown, it has the character and feel of a lot of the old Georgia small towns," said Sugar Hill spokesman Don Kelemen citing cities such as Buford, Hartwell and Lavonia.

Currently, the downtown consists of a church, cemetery, town green, community center and a smattering of businesses and homes. Its current City Hall, too small to hold council meetings, will be replaced by a three-story, 30,000-square-foot municipal hub with underground parking.

The city will break ground on that building in the fall. Already, 20 architectural firms have expressed interest in designing it.

Downtown's development started years ago, when the city surveyed residents on their expectations for Sugar Hill. Seventy-five percent of the populace hails from another region, and many grew up in areas with established city centers. That's what they wanted out of Sugar Hill, City Manager Bob Hail said.

"They've told us, ‘This is a great place to live. You guys have all the family activities, the recreation, the community center, the classes and everything else but what you don't have is a downtown,'" Hail said. "They said ... ‘We want somewhere we can walk. We want a place that's our downtown."

The Gwinnett municipalities of Buford, Lawrenceville, Duluth, Norcross and Suwanee have recognizable downtowns, both old and new. Without a city center, Sugar Hill's only identification markers are a bridge over the Southern Railroad tracks and E.E. Robinson Park, where the city holds fireworks displays over the Fourth of July, Gwinnett historian Elliott Brack said.

"Sugar Hill has never had a downtown; they had a collection of buildings," Brack said. "They were arranged in such a way, there was no focus."

This spring, the city will start building the infrastructure to entice developers to set up commercial ventures, with zoning that allows for mixed-use properties. In addition to streets, streetlamps and sidewalks, Sugar Hill will construct a roundabout, or circular intersection where traffic flows counterclockwise.

It also will move utilities underground and create a stormwater system with regional detention. One of its two ponds, behind the site for the new City Hall, will include an area for an amphitheater and small park.

"This is truly a build-it, they-will-come [project]," Hail said. "It's making the land fertile for the developer, entrepreneur, business person to come in and build a building."

For its part, the city is tapping into money from its capital improvement plan and special-purpose local-option sales tax, or SPLOST. The city's total investment: about $13 million to $14 million -- paid in cash, Hail noted.

"We've been stashing away money for eight years now," Hail said. "It's time to come to build."

Sugar Hill's portion is expected to be finished in 2011, city leaders said. And already, West Broad Street has seen two shopping centers go up.

In addition to the downtown, Sugar Hill is in the midst of upgrading E.E. Robinson Park and putting in synthetic turf fields for the new 55-acre Gary Pirkle Park. In the northwest quadrant of the city, Kroger is building a 110,000-square-foot store, the company's largest in the Southeast.

Those developments could help bring additional businesses into the city, Mayor Gary Pirkle said.

"While it isn't a direct tie to downtown, it helps build the city itself," Pirkle said. "It gives residents things to do locally rather than go to other places."

Residents like Gober can envision a day when they can sit downtown, eat lunch at a restaurant or relax on a park bench.

"The downtown would create an atmosphere where people would love Sugar Hill as much as I do," she said. "Now we have an opportunity."