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Fifty questions to rate projects on quality growth

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on March 18, 2008 

Any development can claim it's an example of quality growth. But how do you determine if that project really measures up?

The Livable Communities Coalition, a broad group of development stakeholders, might have the answer.

The coalition created a quality-growth test that poses 50 questions covering a variety of issues, including housing diversity, compactness, community needs and connectivity.

"We're taking assessment of local projects to the next level — asking detailed questions and keeping score," coalition spokesman Kevin Doyle said.

The first test results, for a 52-acre mixed-use development next to Town Center at Cobb, will be presented Tuesday at a Cobb County Commission zoning hearing.

The nonbinding evaluation is meant as a guide for government officials considering projects.
The developers of Hidden Forest — the Pacific Group and Marthasville Development — are seeking rezoning, and they hope a strong score on the new exam will strengthen their case.

"I believe this particular project is a poster child for what they want to do," said Woody Snell, a partner in the Pacific Group.

Three judges — two planners and a developer with no ties to the project — evaluated Hidden Forest based on information submitted by the developers.

To protect the integrity of the scoring, the Hidden Forest developers and the judges were not allowed to interact during the process.

Each question was graded either 0 for poor, 2 for good, 3 for very good, 4 for excellent or not applicable.

A project's total average score ought to be at least 3, Jim Durrett, the coalition's executive director, said.

The coalition's new process is one of a handful that have been established to address quality growth. Two of the better-known ones are Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a national program run by the U.S. Green Building Council, and Georgia's development of regional impact review conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

The Hidden Forest developers paid $2,500 to have their project scored. The evaluation program is expected to be the nonprofit coalition's first moneymaking venture.

The coalition began 2 1/2 years ago with a three-year, $600,000 grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, and that led to other donations. Among the group's 42 members are the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association; the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club; the Georgia Municipal Association; and AARP Georgia.

Trustees include Mike Beatty, Department of Community Affairs commissioner; Larry Gellerstedt III, president of Cousins Properties' office and multifamily division; and Carol Couch, director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

The coalition will limit its evaluations to developments where concentrated growth already is happening.

"We didn't want to stand up and support a project in the middle of nowhere," explained John Maximuk, the coalition's program director.

Durrett said he hopes local governments will get in the habit of telling developers to run their projects by his group.

"If governments are thinking this way throughout the region, we're going to have better outcomes," Durrett said. "We hope it's almost viral after we get comfortable using this."

Questions and answers
Test questions and examples of answers the Hidden Forest developers submitted:
1. Does the project plan minimize areas devoted to parking?

We will be accommodating 3.6 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial space and 1.7 spaces per residential unit. We accommodate street parking, have created a shared parking strategy, and are assuming structured parking within the development.

2. Does the project physically mix housing types and/or price levels within the project or within the adjacent neighborhood?

All housing types that we offer will be within 500 feet of each other.

3. Are frequently visited uses with a half-mile of the proposed project? We anticipate accommodating all seven listed land uses within the development.

4. Does the street plan avoid cul-de-sacs and promote connectivity? Although blocks are more than 500 feet, we provide mid-block relief for pedestrians and vehicles, offering visual relief to the plan.

5. Does the project plan achieve the smallest possible development footprint? Plan calls for a concentration of density along the new main street ... [and] for up to 50 residential units per acre and we are below this density. Our site plan preserves 30 percent as open space.

6. Will the project design and location likely contribute to improving regional air quality? We believe the project will be an improvement over existing suburban development trends. Also, the planned transit station will be within a quarter mile of the site.

7. Does the project require an expansion or extension of the water service in the area? The site is currently served by adequate domestic water infrastructure. We are also committed to the installation and maintenance of a stormwater bio-retention system, and will also capture and reuse storm water for our limited irrigation needs.