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Construction has started in Chamblee’s historic district on The Bristol, which will include townhomes priced up to $859,000.
Construction has started in Chamblee’s historic district on The Bristol, which will include townhomes priced up to $859,000.

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The uncertain future of north Atlanta’s most affordable cities

Chamblee and Doraville have long been bastions of affordability and inclusiveness. Amidst explosive development, can that continue? 

Jerry Margolis removed the drawers from a wooden desk, a scraping sound piercing the emptying room.

Margolis had just sold his work desk to a pair of customers. As they moved it through an open door in the back of the antique shop and into a pickup truck, a piano version of Killing Me Softly played.

February brought the final days of business at Way Back When Antiques, Margolis’s shop in downtown Chamblee. The property, housed in an olive-green building on Peachtree Road, has been sold to real estate developer Selig Enterprises.

As Margolis prepared to close at the end of the month, his shop had only a smattering of furniture, books, and knickknacks remaining. Selig reps tell Curbed Atlanta they’re “very bullish on the area,” and the property is part of a long-term strategy with no immediate plans to redevelop. They aren’t alone in their bullishness.

“I’m sure the rent will go up enough that I couldn’t afford to run my antique business,” Margolis says, adding that Chamblee has changed significantly in the 31 years he’s operated in the area. “It’s grown up, and it’s gotten expensive, so the properties that you used to be able to get for just about nothing have doubled and tripled.”

Price hikes in what’s traditionally been a bastion of relative ITP affordability stretch beyond downtown Chamblee’s Antique Row, a longstanding concentration of antique stores. Development of potentially regional impact has spread into neighboring Doraville, with the most visible example being Assembly Yards, a 165-acre mixed-use project on the site of the former General Motors plant.

Older buildings along Peachtree Road include Lenox Cupcakes and Southbound, a restaurant in a former factory that serves hip Southern fare.
Longstanding dessert proprietor the Frosty Caboose among antique shops.
Southbound’s interior.

More than a few neighbors are fretting over what the changes could ultimately mean.

Across the northern arc of intown Atlanta, Chamblee and Doraville are—or were—anomalies. Compared to high-rent neighboring cities Dunwoody, Brookhaven, and Sandy Springs, Chamblee and Doraville until recent years have both seemed downright reasonable. While Atlanta’s average rent is $1,379, Doraville’s is $1,053—23.6 percent lower. Chamblee, which has seen more development in recent years, now has average rents of $1,319, or 5 percent cheaper than Dunwoody and 8.5 percent cheaper than Brookhaven. Median home prices in Doraville and Chamblee are similarly lower than their neighbors. Doraville’s median list price per square foot is $176, compared to Dunwoody’s $201, and Brookhaven’s $242. Chamblee has crept up and is now $200.

Though communities as disparate as Hapeville, Scottdale, and Whittier Mill Village are also relatively affordable and ITP, Chamblee and Doraville have greater transit connectivity than most of metro Atlanta. Both lie on MARTA’s gold rail line, in addition to having MARTA bus transit. The Royal, a privately owned bus line, services Buford Highway, too. These amenities, as government officials stress, make the cities more attractive than ever.

SLX Atlanta is putting up new buildings along Peachtree Boulevard.
The beginnings of Attiva Peachtree by Terminus.

With desirability comes cost, and concerns abound over rising prices—an issue echoed around the country and indeed the world in recent, post-recession years. But in Chamblee and Doraville, the changes of today and tomorrow could be particularly drastic.

These DeKalb County cities have much in common. Both initially prospered as agricultural communities strategically located on major rail lines. In 1917, Chamblee’s dairy land was transformed into the now relocated Camp Gordon, a military installation home to 40,000 personnel that spurred a building and retail boom.

At the end of World War II, the cities looked to industry. Doraville’s GM plant opened in 1947, spawning population and housing growth in the city. This brought jobs to Chamblee as well, with corporations such as Frito-Lay, Kodak, and General Electric building plants. Chamblee and Doraville were places where industrial workers could afford to live and raise families.

In the 1980s, Chamblee’s plants downsized or closed. Doraville’s GM plant, the project that had sparked progress for both cities, shuttered in 2009.

Today, Chamblee and Doraville have higher percentages of Hispanic and Asian people than Atlanta’s average, and this manifests in the local stores, services, and restaurants. When you call many businesses in Doraville, they answer the phone in Spanish. Many residents call such diversity a plus.

Around Chamblee MARTA Station on a recent weekend.

As it did a century ago, large-scale development has come to Chamblee first. This time, instead of a military installation, it’s upscale housing and retail. In Doraville, officials say, Assembly Yards is the first in a slate of high-end projects that could bring an economic boom but indirectly displace low- and middle-income residents—and change the fabric of the cities.

In Downtown Chamblee, a charming historic area next to a MARTA station where freight trains frequently roll by, there isn’t a blending of old and new. It’s more like the new is poking through the old.

Though downtown has considerable open space, it goes for a premium. Land is cleared for The Bristol townhomes, advertised as starting at $600,000. Signs touting space for lease are ubiquitous, and on a recent weekday afternoon, people strolled sidewalks and indulged in ice cream at a business shaped like a red train caboose. On one end of Peachtree Road, the main thoroughfare, there’s an aged barbershop, with a classic barber’s pole and weatherworn shop sign. A five-minute walk down the street, three customers entered a newer, more polished version of the barbershop—same pole as the first—with gleaming barber chairs.

The flipside to all of that is the new Chamblee.

In recent years, Chamblee development has exploded. In addition to hundreds of high-end apartments, condos, townhomes, and office space that is finished or planned, there’s now a Whole Foods. The Peachtree Creek Greenway, a walk and bike path and another selling point, is planned to eventually connect Chamblee and Doraville to the Beltline.

“Within the built environment, you’re seeing a lot of changes that are taking shape based on plans that have been in the works for over 20 years,” says Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson, who has lived in the city since the mid-1990s.

Clarkson says planning began in the early 2000s to tie land use to transportation. Chamblee installed zoning codes to require more density and mixed-use development in order to encourage walkability.

“Chamblee is still relatively affordable,” he says. “But with all the development that’s coming and with folks wanting to be in a very walkable environment, the rents and the outright purchase of housing continually goes up at a pretty rapid pace.”

Over the past two years, average rents in Chamblee have jumped 16 percent, double the rate of Atlanta. Median home prices have climbed 8 percent in the past year.

Trackside Chamblee is a block from the MARTA station.
A few blocks away, The Oliver now stands.

“You’d rather have real estate appreciation than going down,” Clarkson says. “Heck, I lived through the Great Recession. I think most folks around here did. We don’t want our property values going down. You want them continually going up, but to this point, we’re still seeing certain pockets as relatively affordable.”

Amy Holmes, a Chamblee resident since 2002, enjoys living in a small city in a large metro. She’s impressed by the city’s planning—and how adding social activities such as summer concerts has helped Chamblee develop an identity. “We’re really kind of thinking as a city,” she says.

At the same time, Holmes says she and her neighbors can’t help but notice surging prices.

“We’re just all stunned by the sudden rise in housing prices, both cost of people’s houses but then the impact of that on rent,” she says.

Holmes is president-elect of the Peachtree Gateway Council on Schools, an organization of DeKalb public school parents. She says people at Huntley Hills Elementary School, where two-thirds of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, are shocked by rising rents.

“I feel a real panic around in the air about just what is our future in terms of affordability of housing,” she says. “I know that for people who are thinking, ‘I’m going to retire and sell my house and it’ll be worth a lot,’ that’s true that that’s a good thing for you. But if people are planning to stay here and really have this be their home and would like other people to be able to move into the area, especially families that are going to have kids, it feels like a real catch-22 that has no great solution.”

Losing proximity to Chamblee’s MARTA line has been particularly detrimental for middle- and working-class families, observes Mary Hall, who works in Chamblee and lives nearby.

“It’s pretty clear that there’s been a shift in the kinds of folks that can afford to live within walking distance of Chamblee MARTA Station,” Hall says.

Half a mile from Assembly Yards, Doraville’s Mozart Bakery is nestled between two chicken restaurants, one serving KFC (Korean fried chicken, that is) and the other Mexican grilled chicken. The Buford Highway bakery is a quiet place, where frosted cakes topped with fruit rest behind a glass counter, breads and cookies sit neatly packaged, and menus are in English and Korean.

Welcome to Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz’s de facto office.

“What really makes this area unique is that it’s kind of been preserved, and it hasn’t been gentrified yet,” says Koontz, a longtime Doraville resident. “We have the opportunity to set the tone of what the development here will look like.”

In addition to Assembly Yards and the Peachtree Creek Greenway, there are talks in city council to develop a city center around Doraville MARTA Station. The city owns a whole block there, so its leaders are considering moving civic services to make way for a dense town center. (Those plans are really a return to the past, as Doraville’s old downtown was leveled to make way for MARTA, which opened in 1992.)

This filming hub was created in the Assembly project’s first phase.

Following Chamblee’s lead, Doraville is trying to update its image by dropping the word “industrial” from Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, though most people still refer to the road by its original name.

It’s a symbol for how changes from Chamblee could spill north into Doraville.

“There’s people that would like to see this area get gentrified, the prices of everything go up and basically what happened in Decatur,” Koontz says. “When I talk to people that moved to Decatur 10 years ago, they moved there because there was a mix of ethnicity. There was a lot of quirky little shops like you see on Buford Highway now, a lot of interesting restaurants and places where you could buy different kinds of things, shops you didn’t see in other parts of Atlanta.”

Hundreds of new apartments have been built in the core of Decatur in the past few years, but Koontz says Doraville, as is, doesn’t have enough rental properties to accommodate everyone.

“We’re being affected by other parts of metro Atlanta destroying their affordable housing,” she says, before referencing Beltline areas in particular. “As old-stock apartments are torn down in metro Atlanta and replaced with $3,000-a-month luxury apartments, those people are being displaced, and they’re coming here.”

Sandy Chavarria has lived in Doraville since 1998, when she was a child. As a teenager, she worked in the cafeteria at the Buford Highway Farmers Market. The stores she frequents, the carnicerías she goes to for her meat, are all there. She says Doraville isn’t known for splashy city development like Dunwoody or Brookhaven, but she sees the city changing. “People don’t see it physically, but I know that we are growing. I see it. I see more people walking on the streets. I see a lot of people in the MARTA station.”

Hopstix, an Asian brewpub, joins Chamblee’s wave of new dining options.
Vintage Pizza in the heart of old Chamblee.

Nonetheless, Chavarria feels that development could benefit Doraville, in terms of making a physical and infrastructural statement. But having rented in Doraville since moving out of her parents’ house, she says finding somewhere affordable has become tougher.

“Being raised here in Doraville, I want to continue living in Doraville, but until I can afford to buy a house…it’s really hard to stay within the Buford Highway corridor,” she says.

Though some apartments are renovated and have improved living conditions, landlords sometimes charge higher prices without making needed repairs, says Rebekah Cohen Morris, an English literature teacher living in Doraville and housing equity director at Los Vecinos de Buford Highway advocacy organization.

Meanwhile, other housing is being redeveloped. A new elementary school will replace Shallowford Gardens apartment complex. Carver Hills, a black neighborhood created by GM, is slated to be redeveloped into single-family houses and townhomes. (Residents were in unanimous support of selling their properties and moving.)

Cohen Morris says displacement issues are both obvious and not.

“We’re seeing a lot more people just kind of open their homes and their apartments and allow [in] families that lost their homes due to it being torn down for a new condo or townhome,” she says. “We’ve seen other people start living together, like two or three families in a one, two, or three-bedroom unit. It kind of masks some of the displacement.”

Chamblee’s history as an industrial area has perhaps worked in affordable housing’s favor. So far, development has taken former industrial property, not touching any affordable or older housing, according to Mayor Clarkson.

“Now, unfortunately,” he says, “a lot of that affordability hasn’t aged well and more than likely will need to be replaced in the not-too-distant future.”

Clarkson is interested in exploring incentives for housing affordability through federal opportunity zones—economically distressed communities where new investments could be eligible for tax benefits. One of these opportunity zones is near Chamblee’s MARTA station.

“That area’s where we have a lot of aging multifamily [housing],” Clarkson says. “I think there’s going to be some real good opportunity, no pun intended, to look at what that opportunity zone means as a vehicle for helping us.”

So far, the area around Chamblee MARTA Station has seen the addition of affordable housing exclusively for seniors.

Developed by the nonprofit Mercy Housing Southeast, Senior Residences at Mercy Park, a 79-unit apartment complex, rents one-bedrooms for $550 to $681 monthly to people at least 62 years old.

Ronit Hoffer, project developer at Mercy Housing Southeast, notes the Walmart and Whole Foods nearby.

“If it’s a transportation-oriented development, if it’s right next to MARTA, then the idea is you don’t necessarily need a car, which is good for low-income folks,” says Hoffer. “Chamblee’s got a lot going, and we’re sort of getting in on it on the ground floor.”

Conversely, Clarkson is pleased that Chamblee has seen more executive move-up housing built, as most of the city’s housing has traditionally been affordable but smaller.

“It was a perpetual moving in, moving out. And so with the advent for infill housing, more infill subdivisions, some larger homes, you get a greater diversity,” says the mayor. “I don’t know why thinking about executives living in your neighborhood isn’t considered diversity. I think you need all walks of life, all socioeconomic levels, all ethnicities. I think it’s very healthy.”

But to make affordability work, Chamblee needs density, Clarkson says.

Councilmember Koontz also wants density for Doraville. She says the city should look at how to incentivize mixed-income housing that’s a combination of high-end larger units and more basic smaller units, with uniform exteriors.

Koontz says the city council is beginning to explore how to attract these housing options, discussing measures such as bonuses for developers and reduced parking requirements near the MARTA station.

“If we displace the current residents that live here and lose the diversity and the population that live in this area, not only is that going to change the whole housing market, it’s going to cause all the businesses up and down this corridor to fail,” Koontz says. “If we wait five years, it’s going to be too late.”

Chamblee resident Holmes says she worries about her neighbors being forced to move because of cost.

“Part of the reason that all of us have liked our neighborhoods in Doraville and Chamblee is because there’s a wide variety of people. When I moved into Huntley Hills, there’s plumbers and electricians and there’s also lawyers, etcetera,” she says. “That’s a normal cross-section of American society to live in, which is a cool thing.”

Hall feels that planners need to study and take things slowly in order to avoid unintended consequences.

“Growth is necessary and important,” she says. “But it shouldn’t come to the detriment of the cultural mix that makes this a really strong area and the families that have raised their kids.”

Cohen Morris, who is running for Doraville City Council in November, says the city needs to preserve affordable housing and develop mixed-income housing in high-density areas, especially near the MARTA station.

“We need to be really intentional so that we don’t overlook people and so that everyone gets to share in the new successes that the cities are experiencing,” she says.

At Way Back When Antiques, a faint smell of wood in the air, Margolis reflected on the changes he’s seen in Chamblee over the decades.

“If it goes like the city wants it to, I think it’ll be really neat. It’ll be a walkable city,” he says. “The properties that antique shops are sitting on become too valuable to the owners to just rent out to an antique shop, and if they need to raise the rent, antique dealers can’t do high-end retail. And that’s what Chamblee is becoming—high-end retail.”

Outside, a MARTA train pulled out of the Chamblee station and passed an increasing number of upscale stores and homes. Traveling on an elevated track behind Way Back When Antiques, the train bent into the distance and out of sight.

It hurtled toward Doraville.

Chamblee Dunwoody Road crosses under Peachtree Road, where a mural harkens the area’s history.

Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist who grew up in Atlanta and attended high school off Buford Highway in Doraville. Her work has appeared in national and local outlets including The Washington Post, Atlanta magazine, The Atlantic’s CityLab, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


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