City mulls revamping landscape

LAWRENCEVILLE - Located a few blocks from the Historic Courthouse Square, the industrial landscape is essentially a dead spot in the downtown district.

Long sheds house forklifts, dump trucks and other heavy machinery, while gas pumps protrude from the ground every so often.

In one corner far from the road, compost piles surround a giant mulching machine, and nearby, wooden utility poles are strewn across the ground like gigantic toothpicks.

Elsewhere, electric transformers stand silently, lined up in several rows.

The expanse of land is owned by the city and used as a base of operations for its utility departments, but some city officials want to breathe new life into it.

They want to replace the gritty industrial uses with shiny new development, which they say would help downtown revitalization efforts.

There's even been talk of putting a top-of-the-line amphitheater on the land between Clayton and Jackson streets.

A proposal presented by Councilman David Rodriguez would move the electric, water and sanitation departments to a part of town zoned for industrial uses and then let developers come in and bid for prime pieces of real estate.

As part of the deal, the city would specify what type of development it wants on the land and what it must look like.

The city of Suwanee is successfully using the same method to create a town center near the intersection of Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Buford Highway.

Rodriguez said heavy equipment storage isn't the best use for the Lawrenceville land. Because of its downtown location, it would make more sense to open it up to private development that would compliment revitalization efforts, he said.

The city could even make money off the proposal, the same way Suwanee did by selling its land to developers who are erecting mixed-use buildings around a town green, Rodriguez said.

The first-term councilman envisions mixed-use development with shops and offices on the lower levels and condos on the tops floors.

The land covers more than a block, and the city has plans to build a new police station on part of it within the next few years.

Stormwater detention ponds that will serve a large chunk of downtown are also slated for the land.

Rodriguez said a small park could be built around the ponds and they could

be dressed up to look like fountains.

Overall, the block would become a city center a few streets off the square, and pedestrians could walk between both, Rodriguez said.

"It would really be a great place where people can walk and have fountains to go to," Rodriguez said.

However, there is one wild card. Part of the land was used for a city dump in the '70s, and any contaminated soil would have to be trucked away and replaced with soil at an unknown cost.

The city is conducting environmental studies on the land now.

Marie Beiser, a member of the Downtown Development Authority, said that panel wants council members to consider using some of the land for an amphitheater, possibly in the same vein as Chastain Amphitheater in Atlanta.

Beiser said the number of sold-out shows at the Arena at Gwinnett Center indicate an amphitheater geared toward music events with paid admission can be successful in Lawrenceville.

"We can have anything that they have downtown," Beiser said, referring to Atlanta.

At a recent council meeting, Mayor Bobby Sikes was receptive to the idea.

"You have some good ideas, and I think they would work," Sikes said.

City Clerk Bob Baroni said there are several possibilities for the land, but none are close to being chosen.

"Everybody right now is interested in exploring all the options, but nobody is committed to doing one or the other," Baroni said.