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Company has big plans for Suwanee area

SUWANEE - Land beside Interstate 85 where the Atlanta Falcons once trained and Motorola almost put a technology campus has a new outlook on life.

A national company wants to turn the 150 acres on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road into a mixed-use project with mid-rise office buildings, townhomes, condos and a store-lined boulevard.

Mayor Nick Masino said the project dubbed "Opus Gateway" would help upgrade the Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road corridor, which officials envision as a high-end entryway into the city.

"It's huge," Masino said of the project's potential benefits.

The same property almost delivered an economic boon to Gwinnett County during the heady days of the technology boom, when stock prices soared and the economy roared.

In 2000 Motorola Corp. had most of the land rezoned - about 111 acres - so it could build a 1.3 million-square-foot campus with several five-story office buildings and a manufacturing and distribution center.

The company intended to consolidate its regional operations and move about 3,500 workers to the massive complex, but the telecommunications industry crashed shortly after it bought the land in January 2001.

Seeking to cut costs, Motorola put the project on hold one month later, and then nixed the plans altogether and put the undeveloped land up for sale in 2002.

In 2003 an Atlanta company proposed buying the land and erecting two apartment complexes and several buildings for industrial, office and retail use.

However, the City Council, which has high expectations for the land because of its prominent spot near the interstate, rejected the plans and the deal fell apart.

Now a national firm with an Alpharetta office has stepped forward, wanting to develop the land with a blend of office, shops, restaurants and residences.

The company, Opus Corp., is combining the "Motorola tract," with an adjacent parcel that fronts I-85 and was headquarters for the Atlanta Falcons football team from 1978 to 2000.

A vacant motel-like structure that housed players during preseason training is easily visible to motorists as they enter I-85 south from Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road.

Preliminary plans show Opus would fill the land with 235 townhomes, 465 apartments and condos, 495,000 square feet of store space, 580,000 square feet of offices and 25,000 square feet of restaurant space.

City leaders have a keen interest in what goes on the site.

They consider Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road to be the main gateway into the city because it provides the city's only direct access to I-85 and is heavily traveled.

It also provides a large chunk of the city's tax base because it is lined with most of the city's commercial businesses, including hotels, gas stations and shopping centers.

They conducted a study last year seeking ways to strengthen the corridor's economic vitality and make it more welcoming.

The Opus project seems to fit that goal, said Suwanee Mayor Nick Masino.

"This will redefine the area near I-85 that was referred to as Suwanee Gateway," Masino said. "Part of it is experiencing decline and this is going to be a catalyst to totally turn it around."

A Motorola official that handles real estate matters for the company has flown to metro Atlanta and met with Suwanee officials to discuss how they would like to see the land developed, Masino said.

The meetings were held because Motorola did not want to go through the trouble of negotiating the land's sale to a developer whose plans might be rejected by the city, Masino said.

An Opus official declined comment because the project has not been approved by the city.

The city land-use plan calls for mixed-use development on the property, but with a most of the building geared toward offices and commercial uses, Masino said.

Traffic from the development is a big concern since congestion already overwhelms Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road during peak hours, but planned road improvements would help unclog things before Opus Gateway would open, Masino said.

The county will extend McGinnis Ferry Road across Interstate 85 in coming years, with the route following the path taken by Burnette Road as it passes behind the Opus site.

That project will give drivers in Suwanee another way to cross over the interstate, and will take some vehicles off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road.

In addition, Opus would install a drive linking Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road to Burnette Road. Plans show the road being lined with stores, similar to an open-air mall, said Masino, citing the Forum on Peachtree Parkway in the white-collar Peachtree Corners community as an example.

Construction of Opus Gateway would finish by 2010. Traffic studies show it would result in 31,824 new vehicle trips each day. Of those, 1,796 would be during morning rush hour; 3,195 during evening rush hour, according to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Because of its size, the project is being reviewed by GRTA and the Atlanta Regional Commission. Both will recommend ways to minimize its burden on traffic congestion and air quality.

The Suwanee City Council will have the final say. July is the earliest it could hold a public hearing and vote on the project, city Suwanee Planning and Community Development Director Marty Allen.