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Traditional architecture in Roswell’s Historic District, left, and the hotly contested Vickers project.

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Roswell activists: Metro Atlanta’s most impassioned preservationists, or the NIMBYs from hell?

In the historic core of a growing suburban city, that is the question

For the past 15 years, Miller Lowry has been acquiring the requisite thick skin of any big-city developer that plies high-growth areas and weathers neighbor complaints. His company, Miller Lowry Developments, has completed 29 projects worth more than $200 million, ranging from condos at the edge of Atlanta’s iconic Piedmont Park and lofts in Chamblee powered by renewable energy to highbrow houses in up-and-coming suburbs. Along the way, Lowry’s heard the full gamut of NIMBY gripes about his team’s ideas: It’s too tall, too much added traffic, too much pressure on sewers and schools.

But what Lowry encountered in Roswell a couple of years ago was a whole new level of pushback.

Lowry was trying to win approval for a multifamily complex with shops at its base that would become a new sort of gateway on the northern end of Roswell’s prized Canton Street. It was the type of proposal that, once vetted, would hardly merit a second glance in Brooklyn or Chicago or denser pockets of Atlanta, but in Roswell, it was a lightning rod.

Among a maelstrom of naysaying, one particular moment stands out for Lowry. At a heated meeting about the project, a man wearing red came before the governing board and put on a slide, which projected for the audience an unsettling image involving a kid, a bike, a street, and a traffic accident. If y’all approve this, said the man, as Lowry recalls, children will die!

“It was unbelievable,” says Lowry. “It was absolutely the most challenging zoning I’ve ever been through, and I’ve heard a lot of other astute developers say that’s the most challenging [approval process] they’ve ever seen.”

It was, in short, the wrath of the Roswell Red Shirts.

Call it laudable localized activism, a movement, a phenomenon, a syndrome, civic tribalism, downright bullying, shameless rabble-rousing, or something in between, but the loosely organized Red Shirts—alongside Citizens for Responsible Development in Roswell, or CRDR, an affiliated group focused on the city’s historic core that has many common associates—have come to hold real sway in and around Roswell since about 2015.

Red Shirts live in the incorporated city, which is more than 76 percent white with median household incomes of $88,000 (versus about $52,000 in Atlanta) and mostly affluent neighborhoods beyond. They’ve turned out in numbers north of 100 to butt heads with development proposals. Whether they represent the ultimate in impassioned preservationism or rampant NIMBYism—an acronym for oppositional, sometimes unreasonable “not in my backyard” thinking—is the subject of debate. Lots and lots of debate.

For every developer who calls the Red Shirts “a gang,” as one did for this story, a dozen people associated with Roswell preservation efforts will say their goal is not to kill all development, but to make sure it’s done right, in the best interests of the community, in a way that preserves the historic fabric. In a time of national housing crises, when hot-button, construction-delaying NIMBYism has been described as “the new N-word,” the founder of CRDR professes herself, without blinking, a NIMBY and proud of it.

Even for the most involved participants, however, quantifying the Red Shirts movement is difficult. There’s no email list. No scheduled meetings. No organized ranks. The CRDR counts about 320 people on its email list, but the scope of Red Shirts causes is much broader, extending beyond the Historic District, or “HD.” One example is a 60-acre tennis-complex proposal for a city park that was canceled this year—days after dozens of red-clad opponents turned up in protest at Roswell City Hall.

Red Shirts activists gather outside Roswell City Hall in August as a show of solidarity against plans for a 60-acre tennis center in bucolic Big Creek Park.
Photo contributed by Shawn Brunner, courtesy of North Fulton Neighbor

Roswell Red Shirts are fighting what they perceive as the constant threat of building-code manipulation on the part of developers, a unified voice in an increasingly desirable pocket of the nation’s third fastest-growing metro, which packed on nearly 76,000 new residents across 10 core counties last year alone. The rejections of proposals that fail to meet their exacting standards are considered victories—but not by everybody.

“The Red Shirts, in my opinion, they say ‘No’ and don’t listen to the facts,” says Jeremy Smith, a commercial real estate agent and resident of the Historic District for 13 years. “It is quite a process [to develop] in Roswell. Everyone has a say-so. It’s a different animal.”

Michael Hadden, author of the New Urban Roswell blog and former member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, moved his family to Roswell in 2009 for its walkability and inimitable charms. For years, he championed projects such as Lowry’s but has since moved 17 miles away, to exurban Cumming, to escape what he calls the Red Shirts “noise.”

“Ultimately,” says Hadden, “this movement has helped drive a lot of good development and business away from Roswell and toward neighboring areas, which are now building vibrant walkable centers of their own.”

A counterpoint to those opinions comes from Michael Palermo, a Red Shirts-approved member of the Roswell City Council. He’s advocated for development patterns with less density and more breathing room—sidewalks with a minimum width of 10 feet and reduced lot coverages, for example—that would reflect the city’s growth across previous generations. The city’s Unified Development Code, as adopted in 2014, often lacks the teeth to thwart development Palermo sees as being detrimental. And claims that NIBMYism runs amok in Roswell, he posits, are misguided.

“I do absolutely feel that Roswell is fortunate in that we have the most active, most passionate citizenry,” Palermo says. “I think that is absolutely a fact, and it creates an interesting atmosphere, because we have many vocal residents on both sides of the issues.”

The friction between Roswell preservationists (some argue that’s a misnomer, as we’ll explore shortly) and developers, who generally count urbanists like Hadden on their side, has shown up in allegedly deceitful petitions, politicized smear campaigns, threats of libel lawsuits, an actual lawsuit, a Red Shirt who lost her day job for her outspokenness, shouting matches in backyards, hundreds of millions in investments being pulled, and perhaps most importantly, shakeups at city hall influenced by development squabbles.

Two-lane Canton Street is lined with century-old architecture, art galleries, boutique shops, and restaurants that draw regional crowds.
Josh Green

Broadly speaking, it might be just the beginning—the “leading edge” of a national trend where groups opposing development assume an organized identity, says Michael Hankinson, a Baruch College political scientist who studied NIMBYism extensively as a fellow at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

“In a successful place like Atlanta, there’s just increasing pressure to build, so prices are going up, [and] people who might have NIMBY tendencies are ... visibly mobilizing in a way they haven’t had to do before,” says Hankinson. “The idea that people are wearing shirts, organizing, and continually activated to the point that it’s become, in this case, similar to a political party, at the local level—that seems to be pretty extreme and new.”

One thing everyone can agree on: The clashes, both online and face-to-face, wouldn’t be so intense if the City of Roswell hadn't evolved into something remarkable in the past couple of decades: an organic island of walkability in metro Atlanta’s sprawling seas, a bona fide tourist destination with lax open-container laws, a hub of history and foodie delights, an inarguable success story.

On a gloomy, chilly November weekday after Thanksgiving, the trees of Canton Street still clung to splashes of auburn and gold, and pulpy aromas wafted from Gate City Brewery’s rollup garage door. Ladies in down jackets walked briskly, arm-in-arm, near a Christmas tree bedecked in red bows, as classic rock spilled from Mac Magee’s two-story pub. Beyond garland-wrapped storefronts that look positively ancient by Atlanta standards, several blocks of one and two-story post-Victorian cottages have been converted to commercial uses; here, you can retain an attorney before dining on Thai, seafood, upscale Italian, wood-fired pizza, Fickle Pickle fare, vintage custard, and other options so numerable they’ll make a hungry passersby’s neck sore. When even the cat clinic in a converted old home looks historically significant, it’s basically a Christmastime jewelry commercial, sprung to life.

But then, an anomaly.

Where mixed-use Vickers meets Canton Street.

At the end of the Canton Street corridor, which has been described as Roswell’s “beachfront,” and where more than 90 percent of retail and office spaces are occupied, it’s hard to not notice developer Lowry’s upscale apartment and retail project, Vickers. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a sore thumb of incompatible materials and scale.

Vickers was finished in the spring, but as of November, all of the street-facing storefronts were still empty. Less than one-third of the apartments—pricey, sure, but with finishes on par with top-tier intown Atlanta builds—were occupied. Online, detractors have derided the brick-clad, three-and-a-half-story structure as an “absolute eyesore,” “horrible,” and “a monster.” It’s Canton Street’s only apartment building, and as Hadden’s writings insist, it was the rallying point for Roswell’s NIMBY zeitgeist. But whether it represents a regression in the Historic District’s architectural charms and functionality depends on whom you ask.

Vickers’s elevated amenities area and a sign from the drive-up auto repair shop the development replaced.

In the eyes of Jere Wood, an animated business attorney and former five-term Roswell mayor, the idea that the fight against Vickers was a preservationist quest is laughable. The apartments replaced overflow parking areas for restaurants and four structures Lowry says were in disrepair. They included a couple of houses and a 1960s-era filling station, fronted by a parking lot, where a guy named Hobo Coleman once sold gas and bootlegged beer.

“Folks talk about preservation, but there was nothing to preserve,” says Wood, a Roswell native. “They had already wiped out the history, years ago.”

The entrepreneurial spirit and uniqueness of Roswell traces to its deepest roots.

Founded in the 1830s where Vickery Creek meets the Chattahoochee River by Roswell King, a Presbyterian expat from the Georgia coast, Roswell sprang to life as a mill town, while Atlanta came to prominence as a railroad hub 20 miles south. Sherman’s troops scorched the Roswell mills, but the city’s elegant mansions and town square were largely unharmed, lending the area regality as an identity shift from rural to suburban began in the early 1900s. Canton Street, meanwhile, became the uptown to the square’s downtown, a destination for farmers that bustled with a couple of drug stores, doctors offices, grocers, and a movie theater. The saving grace for two-lane Canton Street, as Wood says, was that road-builders deemed it too narrow when Ga. Highway 9 was carved through town, which spared Canton from potential destruction and heavy vehicle traffic. To this day, it retains a pedestrian intimacy that’s unique among metro Atlanta’s revived suburban downtowns and shinier, mixed-use megaprojects.

“You can be on one side of [Canton Street] and talk to somebody on the other. It’s a human scale,” says Wood. “The only place that had that same feel was Underground Atlanta [in its nightclub heyday].”

As with urban centers and small towns across America, Canton Street hit a commercial rough patch in the latter half of the last century, evidenced most visibly when the movie theater and grocery shuttered. Antique stores moved in, but Canton had lost its gloss as the town’s star attraction.

The human impulse to protect one’s surroundings for self-benefit—what psychologists call a “status quo bias”—might date back to the dawn of man. But around the time Canton Street was sputtering, the concept of formalized NIMBYism was born.

As Dartmouth College economics professor William A. Fischel found in 2016, local government regulations pertaining to housing have existed for a century, but the NIMBY acronym (and phrases such as “exclusionary zoning” and “growth management”) didn’t exist until about 40 years ago. Concerns over highway development, alongside the environmental movement—with its fights against landfills, power plants, and other sources of pollution—certainly fueled NIMBYism. Beyond that, however, Fischel found that a shift in homeowner thinking was afoot. “Up to about 1970, owning a house was not a good investment relative to stocks and bonds,” writes Fischel. “[Afterwards] it became a major portion of middle-class financial portfolios and thus subject to macroeconomic [and] local risks.”

Hankinson, the political scientist, points to NIMBY-influenced victories that stopped highway expansions through neighborhoods as an example of NIMBYism used for common good. (Not all places, of course, escaped highway decimation, including Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, once described as the “richest Negro street in the world”). Too often today, however, the politics of development present so many opportunities to “derail and obstruct,” and humans’ fundamental aversion to risk is so great, that building additional anything in high-demand areas is “challenging if not increasingly impossible,” he says.

“With homeowners, even if you show study after study saying, most likely, this is not going to have a negative effect, if there’s any possible downside risk, that causes this backlash,” says Hankinson.

As metro Atlanta exploded in the decade after 1980, Roswell’s population more than doubled, per U.S. Census data. Still, little in the way of pedestrian improvements was being implemented in the historic core. Few were calling for preservation. Entertainment options were basically limited to a couple of restaurants. And “walkability” was not yet a buzzword.

When Wood first successfully campaigned for mayor in the late 1990s—on a “stop the sprawl” platform that seems prescient in retrospect—Canton Street was still in its “mothball” phase, he says.

But that would soon change.

In 1996, as Atlanta prepared to host the Centennial Olympic Games, a sidewalk beautification initiative launched in Roswell that set the stage for its walkable appeal today. Wood describes the ensuing era as a “revival,” when smaller downtowns across the country were in vogue again, and the city’s restaurant culture took off. Roswell had long been considered a C-level bedroom community—that is, a nest for CEOs, COOs, CFOs, etc.—with its plentiful cul-de-sacs, top schools, and easy interstate access. The rebirth of Canton Street began to infuse individuality, a hipper identity.

A site near downtown Roswell that had been fallow for years has seen more recent construction activity—and condo prices that echo many of Atlanta’s most sought-after neighborhoods.
Josh Green, Curbed Atlanta

Nearly a decade ago, Palermo, the city councilmember, was living in an apartment in nearby Alpharetta, tired of uninspiring strip malls in Atlanta’s moneyed north arc. “Someone took me to downtown Roswell,” he recalls, “and I was just blown away: a historic, walkable area that’s really just the envy of neighboring towns.” He decided to raise a family in Roswell and moved in 2011.

Today, the statistics impress: The 44 square miles of incorporated Roswell, having swollen to about 95,000 people (Georgia’s eighth biggest city), count more than 200 chef-driven or family owned, independent restaurants—the largest collection in suburban Atlanta. More than 75 percent of Canton Street’s weekend business comes from out-of-town visitors. Hundreds of townhomes and single-family houses have risen since the Great Recession. In the past couple of years alone, the city has packed on several thousand jobs “with virtually every type of industry growing,” says Steve Stroud, executive director of Roswell Inc., an economic development promoter. “People are really proud of this city.”

Canton Street storefronts on a recent weekday morning.
Josh Green
Josh Green

With pride and growth has come friction—and one civic kerfuffle after the next.

Hadden’s writings suggest the origins of the Roswell Red Shirts can be traced to a misleading petition four years ago. A few months before the Vickers project was unveiled before the city council in 2015, another developer had proposed building an office project just beyond the Historic District, where homes traditionally stood. Images atop the petition meant to stop that project showed glassy office buildings from somewhere else, unrelated to the proposal. It gained 629 signatures. The Roswell Planning Commission unanimously rejected the rezoning. The developer walked away.

In June that year, Lowry and company brought Vickers—then called “Vickers Village”—before local government, seeking a couple of UDC variances to build the multifamily project taller (four stories) and closer to streets than guidelines typically allowed.

Lowry calls the project an example of the “opportunistic, urban infill” he’s always looking for, a means of building more housing in municipal gaps. Sally McKenzie thinks of Vickers as the glue that bonded local activists wary of new development together.

An example of a CRDR Facebook post from earlier this year.

Charmed by Canton Street, McKenzie had moved her family to the Historic District in 2013, and she quickly became the unofficial spearhead of development rebukes. Spotting several large projects on the HD horizon, the stay-at-home mom immersed herself in the wonky world of variances, allowable building heights, zoning classifications, and certificates of appropriateness; as an affront to Vickers, she helped found the CRDR, serving as president and encouraging neighbors to wear red shirts in hopes of showing “strength and influence in numbers,” she says. But her vocalness has cost her, on a personal level. She used to work for a home goods and design business until a customer who was also a developer (not Lowry, she says) worried aloud to McKenzie’s boss that her outspoken advocacy could hurt the business. McKenzie resigned in September last year.

“It’s not that we’re not for development,” McKenzie stresses. “For me, I could care less whether it’s apartments or condos or whatever, but in the HD, it’s about the look, the aesthetic, how it contributes to or takes away from the HD as a whole.”

Still, in some cases, news of killed Roswell development hangs on the CRDR’s public Facebook page like prized taxidermy.

Cancellations that McKenzie considers wins—but which Hadden has described as the “fierce anti-density campaign [of] ground troops” coming to bear—include: the “Southern Skillet Redevelopment” (250 apartments replacing a strip mall); a project often referred to as simply “Oak Street” (199 apartments on 1.4 acres); and “Sassafras” (about 130 homes on 13 acres).

As Vickers worked through 18 months of redesigns and multiple public hearings, McKenzie helped organize an initiative that saw 90 letters written to local government asking for the project to be denied or shrunk. Another rallying point was a lawsuit filed by McKenzie against Vickers, claiming it would destroy HD character by dwarfing existing structures. A judge ultimately sided with the city, whose Historic Preservation Committee approved Vickers in late 2015.

Meanwhile, political greenhorn Palermo—a Vickers detractor—ran for city council on a platform focused on historic protections. Not only did Palermo win in a landslide, but his victory also marked the first time a council incumbent had been unseated in more than 20 years, a testament to the power of Roswell development issues.

McKenzie and her CRDR brethren consider Palermo and Mayor Lori Henry, elected in 2017, as the “islands” of city government who are more critical of developers and their projects, McKenzie says. CRDR affiliates hit the streets and campaigned hard for Henry, but none of the four council hopefuls they supported won last year. “I think we had some influence,” says McKenzie of the election. “I don’t think we had enough.”

A call for a full-blown moratorium on development in Roswell may have quickly died last year, but the city continues to work with consultants to create a stronger Historic District Master Plan that emphasizes preservation. It’s an objective Palermo, McKenzie, and others applaud as a means of clearly stating to developers what’s permissible and isn’t.

Smith, the commercial real estate agent whose livelihood depends on development, says the process for obtaining building permits might still be frustratingly drawn-out, but the current council’s wealth of experience has translated to “smoother” dealings.

“It’s a growing city, but we don’t want to be Buckhead,” says Smith. “It’s a good problem to have, what we’re dealing with.”

Through jeers at the construction site, online rants, and what Lowry describes as “dirty politics” involving lies posted under fake names in chatrooms, Vickers eventually materialized as 79 apartments, wrapping construction in May. With its onsite valet, executive-friendly finishes, and rents that average $3,000—and climb to nearly $4,500 monthly—Canton Street’s only apartment complex is aimed squarely at well-to-do clientele.

Lowry is mum on the total cost, saying only it’s the biggest investment he’s undertaken, but he happily discusses expensive aspects of the project: the underground parking podium, metal-framed windows on Canton Street, various types of brick and complex mortar meant to echo old, prestigious buildings. It was built to look great, he says, for a half-century or longer.

“It’s not a small project by any means—it’s kind of big—but I think that’s the wave of the future,” says Lowry. “And it’s a shot in the arm for a community to have more residential in the area.”

Inside a Vickers model unit.

Surprisingly, McKenzie complimented the final product (or almost) during an interview, calling Vickers “lovely” enough to be a terrific addition “somewhere else.”

“To this day, at least once a week, someone stops me and says, ‘How did that happen? How is that there?’” says McKenzie. “It’s a square peg, round hole, for Canton Street. However, it is there, and I want nothing more than to see it successful.”

Wood, the longtime former mayor, is torn. He’s a proponent of walkable communities, but he also feels a sentimental tug—a resistance to change—for the old filling station, where he scored free Coca-Colas as a kid. Ultimately, though, Wood says any community’s most valuable asset is good people, which he expects Vickers to eventually bring.

“The people who are moving to Roswell love it. The people who are here are saying, ‘We don’t want anybody else moving to Roswell. We like it the way it is,’” says Wood. “I tell people I like it the way it is, too. I don’t want to get a day older. I’m 69. I wish it would stop right there.”

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