ULI Atlanta Blog

The Urbanization of Atlanta’s Suburbs: Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee

by Michael S. Rodgers

The Creative Development Council of the Urban Land Institute (Atlanta District) was formed in 2016 to bring together ULI members who are focused on entrepreneurial development so that they may share best practices and resources with the goal of elevating creative place-making and promoting high-quality infill development across the region.  

The Creative Development Council recognizes that the urbanization of the suburbs is a major national trend that is also being experienced in the Atlanta metropolitan area.  While the vast majority of development in the current real estate cycle has been concentrated in transit-oriented, urban core locations such as Buckhead, Midtown and Perimeter, for example, there is growing opportunity for development in walkable suburban environments.  Of course, the dynamics between urban and suburban “walkable environments” is different, each with their own built-in advantages and disadvantages. To better understand and appreciate these differences and, in particular, how best to bring about vibrant suburban downtowns, members of the Creative Development Council recently met with the mayors/city managers, planning staff and local developers of three Gwinnett County, Georgia “railroad towns” – Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee – to discuss and learn from their ongoing downtown urbanization efforts.

Norcross, Duluth and Suwanee all share a common history as each was founded as an in-land port for rail transportation of agricultural commodities during the latter part of the 1800’s.  Similarly, as Gwinnett County transitioned away from its historical agricultural land use and became more integrated with the growing Atlanta suburbs of the 20th Century, each town faced similar issues on how best to reinvigorate a vibrant downtown area and to bring together their respective communities in a walkable urban environment.  While each town has approached their urbanization efforts in fundamentally different ways – Norcross built upon its existing historic downtown, Duluth essentially bull dozed buildings and started over in the same spot, and Suwanee entirely relocated to a new “town center” development – they also share many of the same successful development attributes.  Highlighted below are the four key components of their past successful and ongoing urbanization plans and lessons learned.  Read more

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