Transformation of ‘a small town lost in time’

How Woodstock Downtown became the dynamic center of a sprawling Atlanta suburb

Author: 
Julie Herron Carson and Philip Langdon
Better! Cities & Towns

Metropolitan Atlanta’s outward development slowed to a crawl in the years after the homebuilding bust of 2007-2008 and the ensuing national financial crisis. “The fall-off in homebuilding happened so suddenly and so deeply that everything stopped,” says Cheri Morris, principal in the development firm Morris & Fellows.

So severe was the collapse that the inventory of housing for sale plummeted 83 percent between 2006 and early this year, according to Metrostudy, a housing information source.
Now recovery is tentatively stirring. And one area that inspires hope is Woodstock Downtown—a 32-acre development in the center of Woodstock, about 30 miles north of Atlanta.

“It is just cranking,” Morris says of the restaurant and retail precinct Woodstock Downtown. The restaurants—six of them, in five buildings that her company renovated or developed from scratch—are busy, often well into the evenings.

The liveliness they’ve infused into a once somnolent town center has prompted another developer, Walton Communities, to begin creating a mixed-use project on the other side of the railroad tracks that run through Woodstock’s center. Historically a narrow ribbon, the center is filling out. The street grid is broadening, says Richard McLeod, community development director of the 8.8-square-mile municipality.

Creating a development with character

Thomas Walsh, founding partner of the Atlanta-based design firm Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh & Associates (TSW) sees Woodstock Downtown as an example of how to revive a town center without sacrificing history and character.

The center of the 24,000-person municipality was, he says, “a small town lost in time” when TSW, known for its use of traditional town planning principles, was asked by municipal leaders in 2004 to advise on what to do there. Woodstock, chartered in 1897 after a railroad stop was established, had over the years seen the core lose much of its allure as strip shopping centers and malls proliferated. It became engulfed in sprawl.

Ironically, this same sprawl made Woodstock a good candidate for redevelopment. Outlying subdivisions contained thousands of residents who, it was felt, would be eager to have an alternative to big-box shopping and traffic congestion. They could park once downtown and walk to boutiques, restaurants, offices, churches, parks, and cultural offerings.

“We saw a trade area that in a 10-mile radius had almost 500,000 people, with an average household income above $100,000,” says Morris, whose firm specializes in retail development. “It was 15 to 20 minutes north of the nearest mall, so there was unmet retail demand.”

“To lay the groundwork for the transformation to come, the mayor and City Council drafted a vision for how the city center could be revitalized,” McLeod recalls. “We held numerous community meetings to solicit input and buy-in from the community, and even took field trips with citizens to review other successful ... smart growth developments.”

The city won funding from the Atlanta Regional Commission for a Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) study that further helped to define the town’s vision. Afterwards, Hedgewood Homes, a homebuilding firm owned by husband and wife Don Donnelly and Pam Sessions, joined forces with Morris & Fellows to study Woodstock and figure out how to develop an energized downtown, including a revitalized commercial district, based on the goals the study had outlined.

McLeod took Woodstock’s mayor and Council to visit Vickery—a new urbanist community in Cumming, Georgia, planned by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, designed by TSW, and developed by Hedgewood and Morris & Fellows. McLeod advocated that the Vickery development team become involved in Woodstock’s revitalization.

Hedgewood and Morris & Fellows thus assembled 32 acres in Woodstock’s center. The planning process moved rapidly into workshop mode once the City embraced the concept, says Walsh. In mid-2004, Walsh, McLeod, Sessions, Donnelly, and Morris sat down to brainstorm ideas and rough out a plan.

“Cheri [Morris] saw from the very beginning that Woodstock was viable as a retail/commercial development,” Walsh says. “Studies showed there were about 30,000 cars passing through the intersection of Main Street and Towne Lake Parkway each day, and the extensive surrounding neighborhoods were underserved in terms of retail and restaurant choices.”

A form-based code

Sessions and Donnelly “believed the market was ready for the type of high-end, EarthCraft House-certified homes they specialized in,” Walsh says. “As we polished our ideas, it became apparent our vision could not become a reality under the City’s existing codes, so [McLeod] convinced the City to hire TSW to develop a master plan for downtown and draw up new form-based codes.”

Woodstock’s leadership also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants. As Walsh sees it, a high level of cooperation between the City and the development team “was the greatest factor in the project’s ultimate success.”

Other factors that aided redevelopment included:

• A decision to assemble a team of commercial, retail, and residential specialists who would work together to shape the area, rather than assigning the project to one developer. A single developer might excel in one field—commercial or residential—but would probably be weak in the other.

“Many mixed-use communities are simply neighborhoods with a retail area added by the residential developer, with no idea how to balance supply to demand or merchandise the retail mix, or even where to locate and how to configure the shops,” Morris says. “In contrast, Woodstock’s development plan was the joint product of highly-skilled experts in each development area.”

• A financial commitment by Hedgewood to get the project right and not cut corners. “These are stunningly beautiful buildings,” McLeod says. “There is no vinyl.” A signature retail/residential building designed by TSW became the project’s cornerstone.

• Establishment of a tax-allocation district, which helped offset the cost of the infrastructure and allow a street network with no cul-de-sacs to be built.

Morris worked to make sure there was “a critical mass of boutique and restaurant space in a well-designed commercial district with the right mix of merchandise to entice shoppers and diners to the area.”

“Throughout the process, we stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town,” she says. New commercial buildings deploy the vernacular of the railroad—the city’s economic engine at the turn of the last century. One takes the form of the old engine sheds, with high ceilings and large arched windows. The largest new building was designed by TSW Architecture Studio to reflect the appearance of the old rope mills that populated the area in the 19th century.

“Because no authentic town is built all at once, we took great care to preserve the historical integrity of the retail center and maintain its organic feel,” Morris emphasizes. “Older buildings were carefully restored while others were adaptively reused. Newer structures were inspired by the architectural forms that would have existed at various times during the life of the town.” In her view, they blend seamlessly.

The former train depot is now a popular restaurant. The Hubbard House, one of Woodstock’s oldest surviving homes, also has been adapted into restaurant space, with an outdoor dining garden. All the restaurants accommodate outdoor dining, in settings ranging from shaded gardens to decks, patios, and rooftop bars, for active day and night life. “A lot of energy is created as people move from shop to park to bar to restaurant,” Morris says.

The City purchased the nearly century-old Woodstock Community Church and renovated the historic sanctuary for use as City Council chambers.

Sidewalks, landscaped streetscapes, and green space add to the development’s attractiveness. Pedestrian pathways lead from the center to detached houses and townhouses.
The recession’s blow

In 2007-2008, development in metro Atlanta became paralyzed as banks became nervous about the value of residential lots. Hedgewood Homes, which until 2008 was under pressure to get houses built as fast as possible, suddenly saw the project shut down by banks, which stopped funding construction loans in Woodstock and across the region. Hedgewood ceased operations with the residential neighborhoods—handsome though they were—only partly built.

After the worst had passed, John Wieland Homes joined the project, building detached houses, townhouses, and a cluster of attached cottages on the remaining residential lots. Prices range from condominium units as low as $130,000 to detached houses a bit above $500,000, according to McLeod.

“Certainly, the real estate slowdown of the past few years has impacted Woodstock Downtown, but this project’s reputation for success and quality has attracted new players who took the risk in a down economy to get involved,” Walsh says. Hedgewood has since resumed homebuilding in Vickery, but at a smaller volume than before.

Morris & Fellows has been a constant in the project, creating a variety of shopping and dining options, ranging from dress shops to a gourmet pizzeria place to fine dining. The firm bought several buildings back from the banks. (Not among the purchases were two large buildings containing 20 retail spaces at street level and several floors of housing containing 90 condo units.)

“Power of well-executed urbanism”

In 2008 a Congress for New Urbanism judging panel chose Woodstock Downtown for a Charter Award, saying the project revealed “the power of well-executed urbanism to strengthen communities, achieve broader sustainability and create places worthy of respect and admiration.” That judgment has proven prescient, for the project not only revived faster than most development in the region but also sparked new undertakings nearby.

“My property is 100 percent leased,” Morris happily reports. And on the west side of the railroad tracks, a 22-acre tract originally assembled by Hedgewood is now being developed by Walton Communities into a combination of 310 apartments—some for “active adults,” others for all ages. Perhaps 20,000 square feet of retail or office space will be added later.

The layout continues the new urban traits used in Woodstock Downtown. “We mandate on-street parking; it counts toward on-site parking,” McLeod says. A parking garage will be wrapped by residential units. The buildings have small footprints. “We’ve got strict controls ... to keep big boxes out,” he says.

In that west side project, he notes, “we are implementing a grid network.” The existing Main Street, which parallels the railroad tracks, will be paralleled by two new streets and eventually by a third. “The grid is mathematically a superior way to get around,” he believes. “’If there’s an accident or a derailment, vehicles can get around it. Connectivity is critical.”

On the south end of downtown, the first phase of a 90-acre project called Southgate has been approved. It, too, will have a mix of uses.

One of the most exciting results of Woodstock Downtown, says Walsh, is how it has sparked new endeavors undertaken by the city’s leadership and citizen groups. Two examples:

• Greenprints was launched—a 60-mile network of trails, with its central portion running along Main Street. The paths bring people to and from Woodstock Downtown, offering them a pleasant alternative to driving. City Council provided funds for the Greenprints master plan along with nearly 10 miles of mountain bike trails. Citizen groups worked to further define the trail system, while a new non-profit, the Greenprints Alliance, was formed to raise private funds to complete the trail system.

• Elm Street Cultural Arts Village was founded by several local artists. The initiative grew out of a desire to preserve the historic Reeves House downtown. With support from the Towne Lake Arts Center, a local group looking to move into the downtown area, plans are underway to convert the Reeves House into studio and gallery space surrounded by a heritage garden. In addition, a 100-seat black-box theatre has been proposed for the grounds.

Woodstock Downtown’s development team, in partnership with the City, sees its project as having successfully combined critical densities, quality open spaces, connectivity, compatible design, and seamless integration of uses—ensuring that the community is alive with residents and visitors.

To Morris, one of the guiding strategies is that as the more urban parts of a region revive, one of the first things that comes back is restaurants; they lead the revival, so it’s essential to make sure that they’re placed, designed, and operated in ways that will help them succeed.

“We gave the people of Woodstock their heart and marketplace by giving them back their downtown,” Morris says. That, in turn, has fostered grassroots activity and cultural enrichment. “America is full of suburbs like Woodstock,” she says—places where “consumers would like a better choice than the commoditized retail we see everywhere.”

The financing world still makes such projects hard to carry out. “We need more success stories,” she believes, “and we need more of the commercial portions of new urbanist projects to be financial successes.”

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