The vision laid out in the city of Auburn's Renew Opelika Road Plan, adopted in 2013, continues to come to fruition as infrastructure work continues and new mixed-use developments come on line.
The state of affairs before the adoption of the plan was dire — Opelika Road primarily was an "auto-oriented commercial strip" in a "relative state of aesthetic and economic decline," as the plan describes prior conditions of the corridor.
The plan laid out a path toward redeveloping the corridor through making infrastructure improvements, introducing mixed-use opportunities and making it a destination.
Changes in the city's zoning ordinance that arose out of the Renew Opelika Road process have served as one of the critical drivers of the corridor's blossoming redevelopment.
When looking at zoning, the city identified two key factors that needed adjustment along the corridor, said Planning Director Forrest Cotten — the "very singular, very ineffective" Commercial Conservation District and the "counterintuitive" 40-foot setback along the roadway.
"You’ve already got a wide right-of-way, you’ve got a road network that is kind of suburban-sprawl conducive. And so now you’re making this cavern, this huge roadway, look even wider by having all these buildings set so far back off the property lines," he said. "We knew that it wasn’t attractive from a built-form perspective and we knew that it wasn’t desirable from a tenant perspective because they’re relying on traffic and they want their properties to be visible."
The city saw empty store fronts along the corridor, and officials were convinced that Opelika Road needed to be more than just commercial, Cotten said.
"We were really convinced that having an entirely strip commercial corridor with nothing but commercial allowances along that length of roadway was probably overkill," he said. "We probably had more commercial land use than what we could sustain and that was at least in part contributing to the sort of incremental decline of the corridor."
With the zoning changes, the city took a mixed-use approach, replacing the Commercial Conservation District with two new districts that followed the contours and characteristics of Opelika Road.
"We said just the road configuration itself creates two distinctly different environments," said Cotten, referring to the section from DeKalb to Gay streets and the wider road footprint to the east along Opelika Road. "We said the narrower section is a little more urban form. It’s obviously adjacent to downtown, so it’s reasonable to go with a nice transition or extension of the downtown."
The city rezoned that area of Opelika Road closer to downtown to Corridor Redevelopment District–Urban (CRD-U), which brought in some desirable attributes of urban form development from the downtown area.
Whereas Commercial Conservation District focused exclusively on commercial uses, CRD-U promotes mixed-use development — a number of residential uses are now conditional in the district, including multi-unit developments, cottage housing and town houses. Those uses are also conditional in Corridor Redevelopment District–Suburban, which covers the stretch of Opelika Road east of DeKalb Street. Private dormitories are prohibited in both districts.
The change allowing residential uses has started to make an impact, as the large Midtown development, which features a mix of multi-unit housing and retail uses, in CRD-S comes online this fall, while other developers are showing interest in developing mixed-use projects along the corridor, Cotten said.
"We’re starting to see some different development proposals. Obviously the big one, the game-changer is (Midtown), just in terms of the size and significance of it," he said. "Those regulations that we put into place with Renew Opelika Road that enabled that development to come to pass. If we had not done that, we would have had to say, ‘No. You can’t do this.’ And they wouldn’t have done the project, and the Plaza Motel would still be there in all likelihood. That was a good thing. That will be a good project. Obviously, we hope it’s successful. Hopefully, they will attract businesses."
The city is coordinating its next phase of infrastructure and streetscape improvements with the Midtown project, which will improve the area's aesthetics and increase pedestrian activity, one of the goals of the Renew Opelika Road plan.
"Getting some nice planted medians with lighting with newer, wider sidewalks I think can go a long way toward getting more pedestrian activity out there," said Cotten, who noted the impact phase one of the Renew Opelika Road Plan had on pedestrian activity from Ross to Gay streets and that it's likely to continue as the city completes more phases.
"I think when we actually put in the infrastructure that encourages the walking and the bikes, then I think you’ll start actually seeing a fair amount of pedestrian and bicycle traffic once we start getting all the connections and linkages made."
The plan has also shifted the city's zoning approach to the area, from performance to form-based zoning.
"It’s mainly drawing the setbacks down, giving people the opportunity to get better utilization of their property, get the structures out to the street, get parking back behind so it’s not visible and creates a totally different environment along the roadway for both pedestrians and motorists, introducing just the opportunity to have mixed-use development, whether it be horizontal mixed use or vertical mixed use. You can do both of those potentially. You could not do that during the old Commercial Conservation days, not only from a setback perspective but from a use perspective," said Cotten. "The fundamental tenet of a form-based code is the emphasis is entirely on the built environment not the use. When you’re doing form-based, you don’t really care about segregating uses as long as it looks and feels the way you want it to feel in whatever type of form-based code you’ve constructed."
Moving the setback closer to the road and pushing parking behind new structures has already made an impact with the Beeline gas station by Pitts Street, which recently closed but will reopen under new ownership on July 4.
Cotten said he has been pleased so far with the implementation of the Renew Opelika Road Plan.
"Public improvement often has to precede private improvement. Just by making those improvements you’re adding value to property, which then incentivizes somebody to do something different or enhance their product," he said. "And it also makes their property more valuable, and some folks who are not ready to make an investment, they can get out and sell it. That’s happening too."