June 17, 2004

Escape from Alpharetta

I tried to catch a movie after work with some friends this week, and was reminded why I moved out of Alpharetta. Although I left at 6:00 and I only needed to drive two exits down, I almost missed a 7:00 movie because of the traffic.

I'm sure the city planners never imagined Alpharetta like it is now. Tracing back the history of the place 15 or years, it was probably a small, one-stoplight town with no ambitions to become a major draw. It was too far north of the city to be important, and it was only accessible by State Road 400, which is whittled down to just two lanes either way as it reaches Alpharetta city limits.

Then something went wrong.

Maybe a few owners decided to sell out their chicken farms and move to Utah to become Mormons. Some developers cleared out the land and built "Splendor Acres at the Glen - Luxury homes from the mid 500's" in their place. It was probably a hard sell, since the nearest gas station and grocery store was Sue Dean's KWik Fill, a good 10 miles away. So the developers decided that in order to sell these homes, they needed a strip mall with a Publix grocery store and a name-brand gas station. A few years later, this scheme panned out, and Splendor Acres was full of high-end yuppies, longing for a quiet retreat away from their jobs in Marietta.

Seeing how this first batch of developers made money hand-over-fist, the idea of upscale suburbs in Alpharetta catches like wildfire. Then came the clincher: The North Point Mall. Once an upscale mall with a food court is built, office buildings come springing up around it like hangers-on to new rap artist. Soon, everyone who's anyone in the technology world has a prominent office park in Alpharetta, and it became known as "The Technology Corridor."

There's just one problem. While Office Park developers kept the Parking Spaces-to-Square Footage ratio within reasonable limits, Civil Engineers failed to take into consideration what would happen when the residents of all these parking spaces tried to leave at the same time. Let's say for argument's sake, 5:00 PM on a weekday.

Now remember that the GA 400 "choke point", where becomes two lanes each way, is still at the south end of Alpharetta. However, the office parks have spread up to McFarland Rd, five exits north of that. Figure in that 3/4 of workers that commute to Alpharetta go south to get home, usually far enough that GA 400 is the most direct route, and you start to get the point. Every afternoon is another lesson in Physics that two bodies can't occupy the same physical space at the same time. And every afternoon, without fail, a few jerks still try to test that theory. Their failures make things even worse.

The streets in Alpharetta near the exits, as well as running parallel to 400, are effectively gridlocked from 3:30 until 7 every afternoon. City engineers have done their best to add lanes and tweak light timings, but it's all in vain without an expansion to 400, which the DOT swears will never happen.

Here's where I came in. When I got my first job out of college, my new wife and I signed a lease on an apartment just south of the company's new campus on Windward Parkway. "It's only two miles to work," I thought, "How convenient!" Little did I know that it would take me roughly an hour to traverse both of those miles.

The lengthy commute was caused by two factors: First, the only way home was by North Point Parkway, which is "The Strip" in Alpharetta. Two lanes each way, connecting the North Point Mall and all the outlying office parks to all five exits to 400 in the city. Add to that the fact that my secondary street is also a traffic bottleneck. This is because some brilliant civil engineer decided to put a school on EACH END of the road, and place five sprawling subdivisions, an apartment complex and one group of townhomes in the middle, with no other way in or out. I spent that hour each day, each way, praying for his untimely, and hopefully painful, demise.

It was two years before we were able to get the money together to buy our first house. When that happy day arrived, we started from my workplace in Alpharetta and drove outwards in search of something we could afford. We did quite a lot of driving. We kept driving until we reached Flowery Branch, a small outlying town just short of Gainesville.

I have to add that last bit because everyone seems to squint thoughtfully when I say the name of my town. It's certainly an amusing name, second only to "Stump Sound, North Carolina" (bitrhplace of my mother-in-law) for sheer southern creativity. Short of being the birthplace of the "Porterhouse" Steak, nothing good has ever come out of Flowery Branch.

I say this in full knowledge that the Atlanta Falcons training camp is just down the road.

Co-workers often ask me about living so far out, how I can live with the commute. Yes, it's 30 miles to the office now instead of two, but it only takes me 45 minutes to drive to work now, instead of an hour. It actually takes me less time to drive 30 miles across neglected 2-lane roads and over the Buford Dam to Flowery Branch, than it did to drive two miles within the city of Alpharetta.

Nothing lasts forever, though. Last year, a Publix shopping center was built on the corner, with a Blockbuster opening shortly after. This year, they're replacing the 4-way stop with an expanded intersection. We already have the Mall of Georgia a few exits down. Billboards off 985 now advertise new luxury subdivisions with names like "Apple Pie Ridge" and "Sterling on the Lake".

Improbable as it may seem, Flowery Branch looks to be on it's way to becoming another Alpharetta. Sounds silly, but so did another inaccessible city that was too far north of the metro area. I've learned my lesson, though. I'll be long gone by the time people start commuting TO Flowery Branch for work, instead of from it.

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