A game plan to change development patterns in Gwinnett County, Georgia

Downtown Suwanee in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Photo by Smart Growth America.

Located just outside Atlanta’s Perimeter beltway, Gwinnett County stands at the crossroads of change. Long known as a low-density bedroom suburb, Gwinnett today is a diverse county of more than 800,000 people with and rapidly increasing jobs base.

But Gwinnett County is quickly bumping up against the limits of suburban development. Older retail and jobs centers are changing rapidly and some are in decline. As is the case everywhere in metropolitan Atlanta, traffic congestion is overwhelming. The County and its business leaders have sponsored several transit plans for the I-85 corridor in recent years, but the defeat of the recent transportation initiative has made it unlikely that rail transit will extend to Gwinnett County anytime soon. In a few cases – the City of Suwanee in particular – new development has taken on a different pattern. But most of the county is still stuck in the problems of suburbia.

Last week, Smart Growth America led a two-day workshop to help civic and community leaders in Gwinnett County work through some of the challenges associated with implementing these ambitious plans and helping the county move on to the next level. Participants included Gwinnett County Commissioner Lynette Howard and a wide range of local planning commissioners city officials, business association executives, and property owners.

Over the course of the workshop, Gwinnett’s leaders identified two types of challenges – and laid out a series of actions that, if pursued together, can help overcome those challenges.

First is the challenge of providing on-the-ground tools to help revive and improve the existing activity centers along I-85. These tools are wide ranging and including a more flexible zoning ordinance that allows taller buildings in the activity centers, better use of the county’s Tax Allocation Districts (tax-increment financing districts), optimum use of the two key Community Improvement Districts, and innovative financing to assist in creating the infrastructure to support “park-once” districts, such as parking garages and shuttles.

But these “hard” tools won’t be enough without an effective branding effort that will attract developers and businesses interested in doing business a different way – and creating high-quality places that will attract talented young employees to live in the county. Gwinnett has been very effective in recent years in attracting Fortune 500 companies, but most of their employees live elsewhere in the Atlanta area. And although the county schools are still the best in the region – with test scores still rising – a growing immigrant population has discouraged some types of investment.

So a parallel effort must be undertaken to highlight Gwinnett’s advantages to smart growth developers – the existing businesses, the well-educated immigrant populations that are rising economically, the development opportunities in the activity centers – and to many of Gwinnett’s longtime residents as well. By effectively branding Gwinnett’s emerging opportunities, the county and its cities can then work with smart growth developers to create more high-quality places that will encourage local employees to live in Gwinnett, encourage educated young Gwinnettians to stay, and create a virtuous upward cycle of prosperity and high quality of life for the 21st Century.

With Smart Growth America’s help, Gwinnett County now has more than just plans. The county has a game plan to turn those plans into reality.

Workshop Materials:

Technical assistance