Mixed-use Development Planned near Atlanta

The developer proposing to build a commercial and residential hub on government land in north DeKalb County said he'd like to break ground in a little over a year, despite ownership and zoning challenges.

Sembler Co. wants to develop a mixed-use project that some estimates value at up to $1 billion. It would rise on land now occupied by several schools and modest rental housing owned by the county - land bordered by homeowners who are hungry for details about the massive project that would increase population density and traffic around their neighborhoods.

The land is zoned for residential development, and a zoning change to accommodate Sembler's proposed mix of stores, homes and offices would entail a lengthy series of hearings. About a third of the 106- to 110-acre parcel is owned by the DeKalb County school system and is home to Open Campus High School and two marquee schools: Kittredge Magnet School for High Achievers and DeKalb School of the Arts.

The rest is owned by a family that granted a long-term lease to the housing authority, which has 1,017 apartments on the site.

Negotiations are ongoing with the school system, but Jeff Fuqua, Sembler's president for development, said his company has

secured agreements on the rest of the property.

"We have a contract to purchase the fee [title on the land] from the family and an agreement to buy the leasehold estate from the Housing Authority," he said.

The DeKalb County Housing Authority produced documents late Thursday in response to an open records request that indicate Sembler has offered $56 million to buy the lease while committing to build at least 1,000 units of work force-affordable housing. The offer is described in an August resolution by the Park at Briarcliff Inc., a subsidiary of the housing authority. Sembler outbid two competing developers, the resolution says.

Sembler's bid was deemed most responsive by the Park at Briarcliff's board of directors after a 26-minute meeting, the minutes show.

Fuqua said his company hopes to break ground soon.

"We would like to start construction in 2008," he said.

Fuqua appeared with the county's top planning official at a breakfast talk Thursday sponsored by the county Economic Development Department, and he divulged a few details about what has so far been a top-secret project.

It would combine a mix of "work force" housing and high-end retail - stores selling everything from groceries to shoes and books - geared to attract shoppers who now drive through the area on their way to Lenox Square.

Nearby residents have raised concerns about traffic, and Fuqua said his company would try to ease congestion with shuttles to nearby employers, pedestrian-oriented design and road improvements. Sembler also would help build trails and other passive recreational amenities on about 30 acres of county-owned green space adjoining the property.

And the bottom line for the county, Fuqua said, would be $25 million to $30 million in annual sales tax revenue and $12 million to $15 million in property taxes from a site he said currently produces about $700,000 a year.

Officials from the DeKalb Economic Development Department and tax commissioner's office said a project that produced that much property tax revenue would have to be worth at least $763 million - and maybe as much as $1 billion or more.

Patrick Ejike, the county planning director, spoke at the same event Thursday morning and suggested the county was open to such mixed-use developments because they bring in more tax revenue than standard housing subdivisions.

Ejike said DeKalb grew as a bedroom community of Atlanta and needs higher-value commercial development. The county is "looking to balance our tax rolls," he said.

Despite the scale of the project, the negotiations have been conducted in secrecy. And even high-ranking elected officials such as DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer have been given little or no information. She complained that the parties, including the county's own housing agency, were "bypassing" her and the other commissioners, assembling the land without their involvement.

"We haven't had any discussion yet," Boyer said. "This is outrageous."

On Tuesday, Commissioner Gale Walldorff, who represents the area, got her colleagues to schedule an Oct. 24 vote on a resolution calling on the DeKalb school system and the housing authority to meet with the commission and discuss the county's stake in the deal.