By Meris Lutz - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, Smyrna officials are hoping a public park and hundreds of new homes will transform the waterfront from an industrial corridor into a flourishing attraction.
While cities like San Antonio and Asheville have invested in their rivers with walkways, trails, restaurants and shops, the Chattahoochee remains largely undeveloped with limited accessibility. The ‘hooch is less of a meeting place than a border separating Cobb from Atlanta.
Today, the river is cleaner than its been in decades, and, some say, ripe for development.
“Our goal is to make sure we have a clean river and then after that we would love to increase access,” said Kevin Jeselnik, staff attorney for the Chattahoochee River Keeper. The organization won a lawsuit against Atlanta in the nineties that was instrumental in fighting pollution of the waterway.
But redeveloping the Cobb section of the river has proven difficult. Jamestown Properties, the investor behind Ponce City Market, spent nearly ten years working first with Cobb County and then the city of Smyrna to try to build Riverview Landing, a $300 million mixed-use development on 82 acres. It would have included more than 1,600 residential units in addition to office and retail space.
Last year, Jamestown sold the land to the Ardent Companies, which downsized the project significantly. The plan submitted by Ardent and approved by city council in March includes about 600 apartments, town homes and detached houses, and 3,000 square feet of commercial space.
Ardent and Smyrna are also in talks to deed 12 acres on the river to the city for a public park.
Neville Allison, a director at Ardent, said his company is committed to giving Smyrna a public park on the water, which would also serve as the “main draw” for the development.
“We think this is an incredible civic opportunity,” Allison said. “I think that a development of this size will absolutely spur additional development. It’s going to be a catalyst.”
The Riverview Landing project in Smyrna proposes hundreds of homes on the Chattahoochee. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Allison said the decision to scale down was based on market research, and he expected to break ground soon.
But two dozen local businesses, some of which have been operating next to the river for more than half a century, say sandwiching residential development between heavy industrial facilities on Riverview Road threatens their livelihoods. The road is heavily trafficked by tractor trailers and cranes, and much of it falls below the 100 year floodplain.
Clint Stamps, president of the Chattahoochee Business Industrial Association, said he understands the desire to build by the river, and while he’s not thrilled with the project, he’s not opposed to it either.
“I just want to make sure after the ribbon cutting takes place we’re not inundated with lawsuits for what we do,” Stamps said.
Smyrna City Councilman Ron Fennel said he respects the existing businesses along Riverview Road, but that the area was on a trajectory toward residential and reacreational use. He pointed to Smyrna’s status as one of the hottest real estate markets in the metro area, and said the city needs to attract and retain a millenial workforce.
“That land is right on the river, close to the city of Atlanta, in the middle of one of the fastest-growing metros in the country,” Fennel said. “There are areas where certain activities are more appropriate and welcome, and certain areas where the growth is obvious and coming.”
Stamps and other business owners want the county and the developer to raise the road above the floodplain and get rid of parallel parking they say poses a safety risk. The county is planning improvements to the intersection of Veteran’s Memorial Highway and Riverview Road funded by $4 million in SPLOST funds.
Cobb County Transportation Director Jim Wilgus wrote in an email that the project is to realign the intersection of Riverview Road and Veterans Memorial in anticipation that a signal could be placed at that location in the future. The project also adds a turn lane and drainage improvements, he wrote.
The industrial history of the area could also pose an obstacle to further development.
Riverview Landing is an approved brownfield redevelopment project with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, meaning the developer has agreed to bring the site into compliance in exchange for a release from liability. The riverbank was a popular dumping site before environmental standards were enforced.
Test pit samples from the site showed concrete, wood, and plastic waste, according to the EPD.
“From what we know of the site, there’s nothing dastardly there,” said Kent Pierce, an environmental engineer with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Brownfield Program.
Nakul Sharma is captain of the Georgia Tech crew team, which has been using the boat launch at Riverview Landing with the permission of the previous and current owners. He fell in love with rowing as a high school student at Woodward Academy and likes to hit the river as early as 5 a.m.
“The water is clear, pretty nice,” Sharma said.