Coming very soon Smyrna council will be asked to make a decision on a zoning request to permit apartments to be built at the former site of Jonquil Plaza shopping center. This vote, perhaps above all others made in recent months, should be taken very seriously and not made without significant input from stakeholders as well as potential retail tenants of both the new shopping center and others existing nearby. I know that in writing this opinion I may very well be in the minority. However, I feel it is important for all citizens who care enough to voice an opinion to have a clear understanding of the implications, history and likely scenarios for this site.
Before I explain my position on this issue I would like to share my background and reason for having a strong opinion. To begin with, I work for a firm that does site planning for mixed-use and multi-family developments (a.k.a. apartments) and just a little over a year ago my firm did several conceptual site plans for Jonquil Plaza for a client of ours who was considering acquiring the property before Branch Properties took the reins. I am also a former employee of Post Apartment Development and in my twenty years of consulting for developers I have worked with most of the major apartment builders in Atlanta at one time or another. Through these experiences I have learned a great deal about the site attributes apartment developers seek and the various issues that affect maintenance, management and long term viability of an apartment complex.
THE MARKET FOR APARTMENTS – First let’s discuss the market. Over the last four months our firm has prepared at least five or six conceptual site plans for various apartment projects for several clients. That alone is clearly a strong indicator of a favorable market. In recent and prior years we had no requests for such investigative planning. Even this very morning, we were asked to help one of our clients to identify property suitable for apartments in central areas of Cobb County including Smyrna.
I won’t go on about this issue except to say that many experts with far more understanding of the markets and trends have come out over the past year including experts at the ULI and various apartment management associations and very plainly stated that there is a significant and growing market for apartments across the nation. With the change in laws and regulations for who qualifies for home loans and the many people who have lost their jobs and credit ratings, there is a substantive and growing demand for rental units of various types. Add to that the growing number of seniors looking to downsize and simplify their lives and we should expect this growth in rental markets to continue for a long time.
Conversely the market for condos and townhomes has completely collapsed nationwide. One can see this here in Smyrna with the least three high quality townhome developments around the city that have shown no signs of resurgence including the one by the fire station and in Williams Park. Our firm has not received a single request to look at doing townhomes in over four years and on several projects where townhomes were originally approved the developers have come back to us to ask for help in re-designing the projects for smaller detached homes.
“LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION” – Next, I have seen several comments where citizens have stated that they could find little reason why any apartment developer or apartment dweller would want to have a complex at this site next to a rail road, in downtown Smyrna. Let me put that to rest right away. There is absolutely clear interest in this site by well-known and respected apartment developers. When our firm did concepts for Jonquil Plaza in 2009 and 2010 it was for a large retail and mixed use developer and we understood there to be several interested apartment companies. This site offers key elements that most apartment developers are looking for: built-in-demand, ready access to transportation and proximity to amenities. The Jonquil site is centrally located in the core of Smyrna where not one new apartment community has been built for many years. The lack of quality apartments means many people who would like to live in Smyrna but don’t want or can’t afford to buy have to look elsewhere. The only apartments Smyrna offers in downtown area are typically very old and in various states of decline. Beside the pent up demand, this site offers direct access to Atlanta Road a little known (thankfully) but very quick and reliable low traffic access to downtown Atlanta. Finally, the site offers amenities. Besides the proposed adjacent retail that would be built, the Market Village is across the street and there is a brand new multi-use path to Taylor Brawner Park located just down the road.
COST VS. RENT REALITY AND DEMOGRAPHICS Most of our clients are looking for land suitable for “garden style” apartments because they are cheaper to build and can rent at lower rates providing a wider demographic as potential tenants. However, in order to build apartment community at Jonquil Plaza the developer will have to build a parking deck and create a mid-rise courtyard style apartment community (Sometimes referred to as a “Texas Doughnut”). This style is typically a three- to four-story building with a courtyard in the center and parking deck attached. It is a completely secured community where the lower floors of the parking deck are typically public and visitor parking and the upper floors are gated. The cost of building a parking deck is typically north of $12,000 space so if you are planning a 200 unit project you have to provide 350 spaces at a cost of over $4 million just for the parking deck! That cost along with the added cost associated with multi-story apartment construction and the downtown land translates to much higher development cost requiring much higher rents. A higher rent generally means the apartments are only affordable to those with greater disposable income and higher education. Statistically speaking these are the kinds of people that eventually chose to buy homes or are empty nesters. We’re not talking about large families that will impact our schools here, were talking single professionals, students and downsizing empty nesters.
In addition to higher rents, the type of construction generally lends itself better to smaller units with mostly 1 and 2 bedrooms and only a few larger units. That coupled with a lack of greenspace and playgrounds makes these types of urban apartments un-appealing to large families and most appealing to young people who like the night life and urban lifestyle. These are the same people that most often spend money in our restaurants and clubs and would make the downtown a lively and thriving area.
SUCCESSFUL MIXED USE - One of the things Smyrna is struggling with is the vacancy in our retail, specifically this site (Smyrna-Vinings Patch) has had many postings about the vacancy rate in the Market Village. How do you all think those businesses would be affected by 300-400 new residents within a stone’s throw? You don’t need to be a professor of planning to understand the basic principles of successful mixed use require residential density mixed with other uses. One only has to look to downtown Atlanta to see what great changes have been made over the last ten years as the area finally achieved a density that includes many people now living in lofts and apartments along Peachtree Street. Twenty years ago no one lived downtown and at night it was a ghost town. It was not safe, shops were closed early and many businesses struggled to survive on sluggish lunch and dinner traffic from people who worked downtown. Now on any night, you can drive downtown and see that there is a lively and vibrant night time atmosphere and many new businesses where previously there were none. Peachtree Street is finally realizing its full potential.
RENTERS, WHO ARE THEY – I am guilty as the next guy for stereotyping renters as mostly transient and rarely getting involved in local advocacy but that is the problem with a stereotype. Because frankly, it is not true for all renters, not by a long shot. I ask each of you reading this if you have you ever rented? I know I have. My wife also rented here in Smyrna before we bought our first house here. Many people rent first before buying. We have several renters in our neighborhood that are looking for homes right now. Some rent forever (which may be the new norm with falling home prices). It is that first local rental experience that introduces them to our town and gets them thinking about eventually buying here. If we don’t have quality rentals available right here in Smyrna how are we going to introduce and attract high quality new citizens to replace outgoing neighbors who leave for various reasons? Right now we have zero high quality rental complexes with nice amenities near downtown.
SUMMARY - I for one, think that residential components are absolutely necessary for a mixed use development to succeed at Jonquil Plaza and if we are going to add more retail to the area then this is even more important. If we can’t even support the retail we have now in the Market Village, how could we support more at Jonquil without the addition of patrons? The approval of apartments would be a substantive incentive to potential retailers. Put yourselves in the retailer’s shoes for a moment at the new shopping center: Would you rather have more retailers as your neighbors or 300-400 captive patrons in an apartment community with excess spending money? I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that Branch will either pull out completely or they’ll come back to the table with a retail only concept if they don’t get the apartments approved. They are not going to be interested in townhomes or condos at all. And personally I just don’t see a destination retail center being very viable at this time and place in the economy.
Now all that said, I recognize the irony of being in vocally in favor or buying and demolishing apartments in other areas and yet proposing new ones to be built here. However, I see these as completely different issues. The apartments the City has bought and demolished have been very old and out of date and not just in their finishes but in the sizes of their rooms, closets, kitchens as well as their infrastructure and amenity packages. Even with major face lifts these older facilities could never achieve the higher rents that more modern apartment communities can obtain. An apartment community such as they would have to build at Jonquil would be a completely different animal. It would be smaller and more manageable, it would be secure and it would have much less surface area to maintain (single large building vs. many smaller buildings). The quality of the renters would likely be very high and also be the type of people who would eventually look to buy and live in Smyrna permanently. There would likely be minor impact on our schools which is one of the major issues at the other older apartments that cater to families on limited incomes.
Now some of you are going to ask: “What about 10 years from now or 20 or longer?” Well, no one can predict the future, certainly not me, but I can point to examples of other similar apartments such as Post Stratford, Post Biltmore, Post Parkside, etc. now entering their teenage years…they still look as good as they day they opened and they still rent to very high quality residents. You can also find much older apartment facilities in certain areas of downtown that are 40-50 years old and still hold their value and quality renters, not always, but still it is possible with good management and well done projects. I suspect we would have no issues related to age for many years.
I propose to Smyrna Citizens that we approve the apartments but with significant restrictions and requirements. We must require a top notch and reasonable sized project through zoning stipulations and perhaps we can request that at some future point the apartments be converted to condos (although there are some enforcement issues there). I support the citizens in Williams Park who have suggested that the Council establish a citizen’s advisory group specifically for this project. I also agree with the requests for the project to go back to P&Z for an additional public hearing on the latest and greatest plan. If the plan is substantively different than when it previously went through P&Z then we need time to provide our elected officials with feedback on the new plan.
I know that the Mayor and council are taking this project very seriously and I am thankful for the time several members have given me to share my opinions with them privately. Thank you all for taking the time to read this.
Sean J. Murphy, RLA, LEED AP