Dan Cathy’s Mixed Use Development Serves as an Epiphany

Copyright © 2016 Julie A. Hogg All rights reserved. No portion, partial or entire, of the blog posts contained on the Alpharetta Post may be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the owner and writer.

Awhile ago I posted this hateful title:  “I Hate Avalon”.  Extreme.  I allowed it if only to examine my own mistrust of the mixed-use development model, although it failed to clarify, in my own mind, my lingering doubts.  But recently I read about Dan Cathy’s project in Fayette County.  And the comparison of his project to both Avalon and Serenbe served to enlighten me.

It was the comparison to Serenbe that unfolded things.  If  you’ve never been to south Fulton county to visit Serenbe, you should.  South Fulton county is really very beautiful – and rural; not unlike Milton, the way it used to be.  And it’s in the middle of this rural backdrop that Serenbe exists; a cloister in the middle of nothing, the fruit of the mind of former Peasant Restaurant chain owner Steve Nygren.  Serenbe is all beautiful homes, an organic farm, restaurants.  Serenbe is pastoral and idealistic, but it is a carefully controlled community. You better like your neighbors. It is a community that can only retain it’s idyllic posture with the extreme cooperation of residents; one flavor, one goal – that goal being to preserve the status quo of Serenbe.

Detractors of Serenbe commonly mention one thing:  it is too Stepford Wives-ey; meaning, it is tightly controlled by internal community guidelines, not simply county, city or state guidelines, but internal community guidelines that are foundational to the original business plan for the development.   Unfortunately, the fall-out from such controlled guidelines can be the failure to diversify, the failure to thrive and grow in the quest to maintain the status quo; in a word, the failure to be dynamic.

I believe that the new urban fad of “mixed-use development” fails to be dynamic.  The goal of home ownership within specified, covenanted ideals must co-exist with what makes hotels ideal and what makes businesses ideal and what makes retail stores ideal and what makes restaurants ideal.  To meet these goals is to require many constraints and these constraints delete the dynamic from the equation in favor of a business plan.

In reality, the mixed-use development is the ultimate gated community, but without the physical gate.  Mixed-use development is gated by the corporation that controls it.  It is not the city, county or state codes, ordinances or laws that make it unique and govern it so much as  the very specific business practices of the corporation that manages it that make it unique; the corporation whose goal, after all, is to profit.

It is this sense of the over-riding corporate culture that manages it that makes me uncomfortable with the mixed-use development known as Avalon, and other mixed-use developments like it.  It bombards you from every direction the minute you drive onto the development: in the carefully controlled grounds, in the carefully selected signage, in the thoughtful, age-specific marketing details, in the sexy placement of the high-end luxury cars at the Plaza.  It is, to the best of it’s ability, mind control.  It is a community to which I, and you, have been invited.  We should behave within the guidelines of it’s mini-culture.  We should purchase, we should take part in the carefully thought out schedule of events.  We should feel the pull of it’s cloister; the invisible, but high walls and gates.

I contend that this isn’t the best and brightest that our society has to offer.  I contend that this business model is inherently flawed because it pretends to be, indeed, markets itself to be the organic, human village; but humans are messy and business plans can’t be messy.  Real villages come about despite diverse and competing interests.  The mixed-use development can’t have competing interests within it’s gates, within it’s business plan.  The mixed-use development mimics the village but avoids the more difficult aspects of the human village – the friction, the hard work it takes to get along, the struggle to accept and allow, even the ugly.  These are the foundational elements of a true village.   Mixed use is simply a business model; a tightly controlled business model.  It makes the concept of the ‘mall’ look virtuous by comparison, ironically, because the malls weren’t trying to be virtuous.  The mixed-use development is.  The mixed-use development declares, ad nauseam, it’s virtuous ideals in the urban and sub-urban landscape.  This is how people ‘should’ live, it tells us.  This is not wasteful, it tells us, as it whispers, “Come buy from us, come buy from us.”  Live here, shop here, eat here.  Let us entertain you.  But do it all within our business model.  Don’t be messy.  Don’t look ugly.  Make us profit.

I contend that it is, and always has been, the struggle of diverse human beings to cooperate that brings about an authentic village.  I contend that it is only by the juxtaposition of the ugly with the beautiful that we appreciate the beautiful and that by necessity, these things must endure one another, side by side, in an authentic village.   I’m not sure this can happen in the corporate-controlled mixed-use development.

As the dust settles around all of Alpharetta’s new development, all of this new development will in time become authentic, that is to say, it will come to have a flavor and flair and personality that no one specifically set out to engineer or construct and that could not have been predicted.  It will become all this from the thing we call “time”; specifically, the time it takes to walk, sweat, play, be sick, be well, repair, re-build, enjoy, avoid, compete with, cooperate with and live among other people.  It’s success or failure depends upon no business plan.  It will simply depend upon the intentions of extremely diverse human beings, for all of us are unique and individual thumb-prints.

How long it takes mixed-use developments to settle in and become authentic places remains to be seen, for the business plan and corporate entity control it.  I suspect that, in general, mixed-use developments will have to go through several management companies, several ownerships, and multiple business cycles before the good and the bad shake out.  It will take the continuing creation of a Disney World experience, in perpetuity, for these developments to even have a chance.  Short term, maybe.  Long term, very doubtful.

It’s not something I would invest in.






7 Replies to “Dan Cathy’s Mixed Use Development Serves as an Epiphany”

  1. as someone who grew up poor in the US and near areas that were undesirable for children, I have to say that now as a middle class adult person I love Avalon. I love the safety, I love the security, I love the immaculate grounds, I love that people make an effort to dress up and look their best. I don’t mind over paying a bit for coffee or a pizza because Avalon has done what government has failed to. Avalon has given us what today’s generation wants. Walkability, safety, community and a town center where we can meet up neighbors, talk, have coffee, listen to music (plus thy have nice clean rest rooms). Avalon is especially appealing to the international crowd and reminds me of Europe where at night families (0-100 yrs old) walk the streets all night, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. I think Avalon fills the needs of the international crowd that have immigrated here and infected the American crowd a bit (and are telling Americans don’t sit in your oversized house and media room, come outside and live a little). It’s a fabricated town (much like Disney), which makes it truly American and gives international transplants and fabricated taste of home. I was skeptical of Avalon, but I believe they were smart and succeeded. Look at downtown and the slow pace at which its developing. Avalon proves that capitalism can often trump government. I don’t think Avalon is telling us how to spend and live. The market has told Avalon how we want to spend and live. Avalon listened. Local government didn’t.

    1. The developers of Avalon are businessmen. Indeed, they listen to how people want to spend their money and live because that is their business. They bet on the fad of the moment and perhaps it will pay off for them. My view is more long-term. I think the premise of MU Development is fundamentally flawed. As for local government, it is not a business like the big companies that are funding and creating these mixed use developments, nor can it be. However, local government did, in fact, listen, for it is local government that had a hand in the zoning that allowed Avalon to come about. Therefore, if you favor Avalon, you are intrinsically saying that you are happy with the local government that helped to bring it about. It is important to understand that the role of local government is to determine land use, among other things. I’m very happy that you enjoy the positives mentioned in your comment.

  2. Welcome back from vacation Julie. Wow, you came back with guns blazing! You have done an excellent job of expressing your thoughts with this column. I agree with most of your sentiments.

    Reading your thoughts helped me to crystallize my own regarding Avalon. For me, what Avalon lacks is authenticity. As you wrote, it is not a community that arose organically, but rather a prefab construct that arose from market research and a choice to mimic what has already been done elsewhere.

    One of the selling points to develop Avalon was to provide a place for millennials to live/wok/play. I have read anecdotal info elsewhere that suggest the average age of Avalon residents is >50. The rents at Avalon simply do not encourage the average millennial to move in, simply because the rents are out of their reach.

    I agree in part with the response above, Avalon appears to be a success. That’s good for NAP and good for Alpharetta. Its long term viability will, of course, be determined over a long period of time.

    I dearly wish our leaders in Alpharetta government would slow down a bit with the accelerating development in and around downtown, and perhaps not allow the developers to turn downtown into a glut of multi family developments. What looks good today doesn’t always work tomorrow. Alas, that ship has sailed.

  3. My wife and I live very close to Avalon and visit there about once a month.
    We have tried most of the eateries and purchased goods from a few select retailers.
    However, better quality, healthier food with known ingredients can be prepared much cheaper at my house.
    At this point, the retail is hit and miss.
    I suspect most items can be purchased cheaper elsewhere and/or online…without a visit to Avalon.

    The experience is pleasant enough, though perhaps a little contrived. People do seem to enjoy being there.
    What’s with parking the expensive luxury and sports cars upfront? Is it to wow all who enter the grand circle with a staged presence of wealth and exclusivity?
    I am a major car enthusiast and can drive whatever I choose.
    There in no way any car I own would ever be parked on the circle to help create some cheesy marketing illusion.

    I wonder how the new convention center and Marriott “Autograph” hotel will impact the Avalon community.
    Will the Avalon “experience” and sense of community still be the same?
    I could not live next to or on top of all that activity.

    Avalon has developed it own sense of community, it’s just not my sense of community.

    In the end, I believe Avalon will continue thrive as regional destination.
    It will appeal to a specific resident and consumer base that values this type of live, work and eat environment.
    It will evolve, mature and will achieve the authenticity you described.

    I’m really waiting for the true and complete revitalization of downtown Alpharetta to be realized.

    I would much rather spend my time and money there.

  4. Julie, you make a good point. City council did make Avalon happen along with the private sector. Like you, I’m not so much a fan of mixed use, as a I am about a walkable town center that is safe and clean. I’m a europhile at heart (as I have have a Mediterranean background) and Avalon has a tiny touch of the following Italian/European concept: “Passeggiata” Here’s the definition:

    As evening falls and the harsh sun inches out of the your favorite piazza, an evening ritual is bound to begin, the Italian tradition of passeggiata, a gentle stroll (slow! think slow!) through the main streets of the old town, usually in the pedestrian zones in the centro storico (the historic center) or along the lungomare if you’re by the sea.

    Italians tend to dress up for passeggiata, and tourists are usually easy to spot in their shorts and day packs.

    Older folks sit along the route, on a bench or nursing a beer or a glass of wine in the bar, and watching for things to gossip about; la passeggiata is where new romances and new babies are on display as well as new shoes. Folks of all ages take part in the passeggiata, from the youngest babies being pushed in their strollers to the oldest members of the community who take it all in from the sidelines.

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