The American flag flies outside the Chamblee civic building. (John Amis)
Photo: John Amis
Photo: John Amis

Opinion: My city’s 20-year-long ‘overnight success story’

When you visit Chamblee today, you’ll find a lively, vibrant place.

People are walking or biking to restaurants, shops, their homes and our local MARTA station. There’s an energy and a buzz that’s exciting and filled with promise.

Chamblee’s transformation didn’t happen suddenly. It took time. We like to call it our 20-year overnight success story. What do I mean by that?

I’ll explain by referring to the three “P’s” that guided our approach: Planning, Place and Perseverance.

First: Chamblee believes in planning. Planning has been critical to our success. Parcel by parcel, block by block, year after year, and in some cases, minute by minute – the dedication to a vision must be there if you are serious about making change a reality.

In 2001, I was elected to the Chamblee city council. We developed a bold vision to become a leader in transit-oriented, new urban development. Around this same time Chamblee was an original recipient of an Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Centers Initiative planning grant.

The LCI plan we created led to a number innovative ideas for our city and planted the seeds for our Chamblee Rail Trail, pocket parks and other public amenities. We also adopted new zoning ordinances for the LCI area. The first projects proposed under this new code were primarily multi-family developments with no real ground-floor activity centers. We realized our new ordinances needed to be updated to require first floor retail, office, restaurants and other amenities.

It became increasingly apparent that not everyone was embracing the changes that were taking shape in our city. We would need to provide more communication and education if we were going to keep moving forward.

Now, on to our second “P”—place. Chamblee is deliberate about creating place. We had to stick to our vision of the place we wanted to create, even when the Great Recession hit it in 2008

We were sometimes ridiculed for having the audacity to think that we were anything other than state highways lined with strip malls, outparcels and tired industrial properties.

Do you know how many times when being presented with a development idea I heard, “But it’s better than what’s there now?”

Well, better than what’s there now is not good enough for us. We were determined to create place in Chamblee, a place that is truly visionary.

And that also meant working closely with our neighbors. In 2014, I proposed the idea of the formation of a 501(c)6, like Aerotropolis Atlanta, comprised of Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Doraville and Chamblee, PDK airport and private stakeholders of the area. The Peachtree Gateway Partnership is fostering a large interconnected trail system and what’s now become a well-coordinated effort to potentially add transit and trails to GDOT’s top-end I-285 managed-lane project.

And lastly, Chamblee’s story is one of perseverance.

We’re a place defined by our rich history, dating back to the 1800s. From an agricultural beginning to a Southern rail town and later an industrial center. More recently, our community has welcomed the arrival of many new immigrants to our city. Chamblee has truly represented this past century’s greatest eras of progress.

In keeping with that progress our autonomous vehicle study was funded this year, and a pilot program soon could set the tone for the region and beyond, way beyond.

Chamblee now has the opportunity to redevelop even further into a modern city while maintaining our small-town charm. The city is working hard to create a sense of place, complete with bike and pedestrian trails, landscaped streets and architectural designs that invite people to stroll down wide sidewalks and gather at festivals.

Through it all, we never stopped believing in our vision.

I like to think that Chamblee offers some lessons to other communities considering embarking on a similar journey of transformation.

First, they must be prepared to ask themselves hard questions: Are you preparing for that first, second or third chance for a door to open? Do you know who you are and who you want to be? Will you be prepared to answer when opportunity knocks?

Take advantage of the resources that you have and don’t waste them. Have a plan that is visionary, unique and bold! Don’t go it alone; you will need many partners.

And most importantly, stick to your vision, parcel by parcel, year after year!

These are the keys for any community seeking to create their own 20-year overnight success story.

Eric Clarkson is Mayor of Chamblee.

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