“Avalon:” A legendary country covered by fruit trees and clean cut glades of grass, where King Arthur found Excalibur and later became his retreat in times of trouble. According to what little record was left, this place of wealth and wellbeing required a sea voyage to reach, leaving its true location up to speculation and debate down through the ages. While many claimed to discover where it lies, Avalon remains a land lost to legend. But an heir-apparent has risen in an unlikely place: off exit 10 of GA 400.
One sunny May afternoon, I took a journey of my own after work one evening to the rolling hills of Alpharetta where North American Properties’ Avalon development rises up unexpectedly amongst the ranch style homes, manicured cul-de-sacs, parking lots, and strip-shopping centers that dot North Fulton’s suburban landscape.
Promising “the luxury of the modern South,” it hosts an impressive list of features, including a 12-screen movie theatre, over a dozen different restaurants and bars, a whopping 750,000 square feet of office space, 800 residential units, a 300-room hotel (coming in Phase II), and more.
But it also promises something a little more interesting, almost foreign, to Alpharetta: A walkable, sustainably designed community where people can live, work, and walk to more shops, cool restaurants, and attractions than they know what to do with. It’s something seldom seen outside of a more urban area, much less a (somewhat) stereotypically suburban place like Alpharetta.
In the verdant hills of Atlanta’s neighbor to the North, Avalon illustrates a potential future for well-off suburbs and satellite cities. But does it really live up to the hype?
When I pulled into the parking lot at Avalon, I was a little surprised by the sheer size of the parking lot, “But then again it’s Alpharetta, everyone drives,” I thought. I was more surprised, however, that it is a single plane of tarmac instead of a parking deck. I shrugged it off and walked past a beautiful green wall, the development unfolding before me into a courtyard bordered by bustling restaurants.
My first impression walking into the development was that this Avalon certainly does reflect some of the aspects of its namesake; the manicured trees and bushes, the murmur of the fountain in the background give it a peaceful ambience. The apartment complex is even called “Haven,” a direct reference to the development’s namesake. Immediately it all felt a little too sterile, too artificial. I pushed it off as me just being hungry and a little worn out from the day. “Maybe I’ll have a better impression when I’m not hangry,” I thought to myself. We set out in search of something to eat.
Tapping through the menus of multiple restaurants on the touchscreen kiosks, we decided upon The El Felix, one of the famous Ford Fry’s new restaurants that opened earlier this year.
The El Felix
Once you get past the The El Felix sign and hostess (and wait), The El Felix is immediately identifiable as a Rocket Farms Restaurants restaurant, and that’s a good thing. The long, well stocked bar and exposed kitchen frame the restaurant’s open-floor seating, while smiling staff flutter about. The attention to detail and design are on par with the high quality of Fry’s other venues, and complete the atmosphere of that quintessential Tex-Mex spot, only bigger and better. It’s essentially the OTP version of Superica at Krog Street Market. When you think Alpharetta, you don’t necessarily think hip restaurants and killer cuisine (I know I didn’t); my mind usually turns to drive-thru’s and chains like Chili’s. With The El Felix, Ford Fry is shaking that perception up.
We only waited briefly before being seated on the small yet comfortable patio. The service seemed speedy enough, and in a few minutes I was sipping a margarita and eating queso, both good but neither great. When our entrées arrived, we barely had room to fit all the food: Tortillas here, beans there, leaving little room for error. You certainly get your money’s worth at The El Felix, and then some. I ordered a large plate of enchiladas, Parilla Mixta, filled with chicken, beef, and Fry’s “2x cooked heritage pork belly.” The food was flawless and the presentation perfect, and I ended up taking about half of it home with me when I was full. Hands down, this was some of the finest Tex-Mex I’ve had (or “Mex-Tex” as Fry prefers to call it). It’s no wonder then that the big restaurant was busy with generous offerings like that, even on a typical weeknight.
But bigger is not always better. According to some people at Rocket Farms, the restaurant was slightly struggling to service the huge demand. Generally that’s a good thing: ideally demand barely outmatches the restaurant’s ability to supply, but just barely. At The El Felix, apparently that demand has been growing quickly and the stretch marks were showing this night.
There’s a common joke among servers that if you make a mistake, just tell the customers it’s your first day and fix it. I heard that excuse a couple of times that night (albeit I honestly could believe it was at least one servers’ first day). The El Felix has only been open since the beginning of the year, so my visit in May was still in the “grace period” for new restaurants, that four to six-ish month period that makes or breaks a restaurant in the eyes of its customers and would-be patrons.
Fortunately, the menus of The El Felix and Superica are nearly identical, so don’t worry ITP people, you can get all that Tex Mex glory right here in town. That is a bit of a departure from Rocket Farms Restaurants’ formula though: Traditionally, the group’s new restaurants have each been their own beasts, distinctly designed to showcase specific styles perfectly. For example, The Optimist takes nautical to a new level, No. 246 epitomizes modernity and casual class, and the new Marcel exudes early 20th century European elegance. Superica and The El Felix however are almost mirror images.
I thought their similarities would cheapen the experience of The El Felix for me, but they didn’t. The two don’t feel like the same restaurant thanks to the subtle differences and the respective settings in which they sit. Superica fits into the sometimes eclectic nature of Krog Street Market while The El Felix feels at home in the tidy landscape at Avalon, each taking cues from the styles of their surroundings to adapt that formula for local success. With Ford Fry eyeing an additional Mex-Tex restaurant in Buckhead and an expansion to Houston, this formula is bound to evolve more.
Like all of Ford Fry’s other venues, I’m sure The El Felix will continue to be a huge, wild success.
Walking Down The Main Drag
After dinner we walk down the main drag of the development, from the Western edge where The El Felix lies toward where we parked.
All in all, Avalon has a lot of great design elements. The diverse facades of storefronts and multicolored apartment complexes break up the inherent monotony typically found in big developments like this. At Avalon, special attention has also been given to public spaces, something that is sometimes lacking in multi-use developments. We walked past swinging benches, bocce ball courts, fire rings, and courtyards with tables, benches, and a babbling fountain. The end of this strip from The El Felix toward the center of the complex culminated in a bar or restaurant, so we turned to cross to the other side of the street, when something surprising happened.
As we were crossing the crosswalk, a lady in an old Ford Mustang barely stopped for us. Inside her car, I could see her facial (and hand) expressions, shockingly angry. And for why? Simply because we were walking across the street.
Shaking off her glare, we continued walking past the shops and outlet stores, looking at all of the little touches here and there to give each shop front its own character, while Sinatra sang softly down the avenue. Before turning down the path back to the parking lot, we stopped by the enormous fountain and bustling bar patios to get a final look at this slice of walkers’ paradise.
We decide to leave by the other exit than the one we entered, hoping to get a look at what’s behind the buildings on the main drag, when we turn a corner and come upon the last thing I expected: more parking. A LOT more.
“Holy shit,” I said in surprise.
This enormous parking lot had been hidden by those very facades that make Avalon appealing to people walking on the avenue below. Having taken only a brief look at an aerial view of the development a week before this visit, I must have missed this huge parking lot. But how could I miss this huge parking lot?! It looked to be larger than the entirety of the area that we just walked, stretching past the lot where we parked to the other end of the development, terminating in a Whole Foods. After a second of silent disbelief, I scoop my jaw of the floorboard of the car and head south on 400.
Reflections In The Rear View Mirror
Driving back down 400, I couldn’t’ shake the surprise of that enormous parking lot and the look on the face of the lady in the dusty Mustang. They reminded me of experiences at stereotypical American malls more than the walkable, multi-use developments dotting up across Atlanta.
I was also reminded of when earlier during dinner the atmosphere of The El Felix was interrupted constantly by loud, fast motorists. Don’t get me wrong, I love sitting outside on street side patios when I go out, at TAP in Midtown or The Café at Cakes & Ale in Decatur for example. But at Avalon it was a little more jarring for some reason when a Jeep rolled by blasting music or motorcycles revved past. Unfortunately, these incidences combined with the underlying jazz of the complex pulled my attention from the table set by the fine folks at The El Felix over and over again.
My thoughts strayed to another walkable hotspot in the Atlanta Area, Atlantic Station (also managed by North American Properties); Atlantic Station gets many of those same challenges right, like condensing most parking to an underground parking deck, having dedicated bus and bike lanes, a free shuttle connecting the area to the Arts Center MARTA Station, and just generally creating a more walkable and welcoming environment.
Krog Street Market also came to mind, and not just because of Superica. At Southface’s monthly Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable back in April, a member from the development’s management discussed Krog Street Market’s EV charging stations and parking situation. Although it is not as large in scope or size as Avalon, its management has intentionally limited the amount of parking, emphasizing its proximity to MARTA stations (both King Memorial and Inman Park/Reynoldstown Station are about a 15 minute walk away) and the Atlanta BeltLine to promote other means of getting to Krog Street.
Perhaps a better comparison yet is Downtown Decatur, home to Fry’s No. 246. In the early ’90’s when MARTA was expanding in advance of the 1996 Olympics, The City of Decatur decided to make the new train station and accompanying bus bay not just a feature of the city, but an integral aspect of Decatur’s design and future. The result has been an organic-feeling urban environment with the station at its heart, and the return on that decision has been huge: Decatur continues to be recognized as one of the most walkable communities in Georgia. Similarly, No. 246 gives off an air of individuality and casual coolness, providing an experience like nothing else in Rocket Farms’ repertoire or in the rest of Atlanta for that matter.
Like other suburban areas of the Metro Region, Alpharetta has historically eschewed public transit, although it does have two bus routes that connect it to the City (the 140 and 185). However, Alpharetta and Avalon have an almost identical opportunity to Decatur’s in the 90’s with MARTA’s proposed plans to expand the Red Line north through Fulton County. If the plans go through, Alpharetta will gain access to two MARTA stations, with the Old Milton Parkway station almost adjacent to Avalon. The potential for Avalon to truly become the walkable haven it aims to be rides on MARTA’s expansion.
Conclusions: Changing Car Culture
To truly understand Avalon though, one first must understand the context in which it exists–not just in terms of its construction plans and zoning codes, those rules and regulations that require a specific number of parking spots or limit the height of buildings, but its cultural context.
It’s a culture driven by the necessity of car ownership. It’s the culture of suburban, exurban America, the ideology of cruising down the highway that translates into reality as traffic jams and aggressive drivers. It’s a culture in which the predominant, if not only option for getting anywhere is by car. It’s a culture inherently inhospitable to pedestrians, bikers, and public transit.
I’m no stranger to vehicular vitriol. Hell, I’ve been hit by cars in crosswalks and on sidewalks twice in just the past year and a half. Even though I found an alleged asylum for walkability in a sea of suburbia, the pervasive car culture still knocked me back a bit (thankfully not literally). Can Avalon make a convincing argument of walkability for suburbanites?
Avalon is indicative of not just the future of Alpharetta, but the changing face of America’s cities and suburbs. The ‘burbs have taken notice of the resurging popularity of city living and denser, walkable developments, and Avalon is one response to those trends. With new bike trails and wide brick sidewalks around the newly completed city center, it’s abundantly apparent that Alpharetta is talking the talk. If Alpharetta really wants to walk the walk though, it has to continue to build on these first few steps.
If you live or work in Alpharetta, or are just as curious as I was, go take a look for yourself. Compared to the surrounding suburban setting, Avalon is something totally different, new and refreshing among the strips of stores and seas of parking. Even compared to all the different developments in Atlanta it’s still worth checking out.
I want to like Avalon more, but I can’t because honestly, I think it lacks the ambition to be what it aspires to. Frankly, I wouldn’t say it really is walkable.
A few days after my visit, I downloaded the printable PDF map from Avalon’s website just to check my guess at the size of the parking lot, and I was right. Combined with the parking garage and the lot we parked in, these parking lots comprise about half of the development’s land area.
If at least fifty percent (if not more) of the land use of a development is designated to surface parking lots and lacks infrastructural amenities for alternative methods of transportation, such as a bay for buses or even covered bus stops, not to mention bike lanes, it’s not really walkable then, is it?
Like The El Felix, I’m sure Avalon will be a huge, wild success; but only time will tell if it becomes the walkable oasis in auto-centric Alpharetta it’s advertised as. MARTA coming to Alpharetta will be the best bet to achieve that, but until then, underneath the wide sidewalks and Sinatra, it still feels like more of the same suburban development. It’s aesthetically appealing, but as a walkable environment Avalon feels functionally defunct.
Avalon isn’t quite the oasis the legends tell of–it’s closer to a mirage in the wilderness. At least for now.