Today, we look back on the challenges and trials of one bustling street to the next, when one new family moved in after the other and knotted rounds of road work to let the lumbering mass travel gave way to the beginnings of public rail and “walkability.” Gwinnett County is not so much a shadow of its former self now, in the year 2040, as it is an offspring — maybe a set of twins.
As predicted, it’s Georgia’s most populous county, with some 1.5 million people crammed into the same 437 square miles that held fewer than 900,000 in 2016. The buildings are taller, the scene more lively and the profile higher. Not too long ago this land was mostly wild forest, then it was quaint suburbia, then miles of sprawl — then this.
Before we go over exactly what this looks like it’s helpful to go back to when the predictions that preceded it came.
On Jan. 30, 2016, politicians, community leaders and others filed into the 1818 Club at the Gwinnett Chamber building in Duluth. They crowded at round tables and shared a meal as Atlanta Regional Commission board Chairman Kerry Armstrong gave his State of the Region address.
Armstrong, bespectacled, in a red and white tie, stood behind a podium washed in daylight from a window at the center, near the intersection of Sugarloaf Parkway and Satellite Boulevard. There, he let slip the projection that Gwinnett would surpass mighty Fulton for the state population title by 2040.
“The growth is exciting,” then-Gwinnett County Administrator Glenn Stephens remarked afterward.
Looking back now that 2040 has arrived, the location of Armstrong’s speech was interesting.
At the corner of Sugarloaf Parkway and Satellite Boulevard, now stands a busy entertainment district crowded with intentionally dense housing, shops, comedy clubs and restaurants. Concertgoers come to take in shows at the Infinite Energy Center and mill about before and after, maybe take a break for a what we’ve taken to calling a “virtual-reality adventure.”
Planners had foreseen a demand for such development and paved the way. They also thought to add new seats to the center’s arena and space for exhibits and meetings.
They dreamed to make a “town center” at the heart of Gwinnett, where folks could “come early and stay late.”
The visitors arrive to the district on steady streams of public buses, or by self-driving cars, or by bicycles, and they travel on foot through the district.
The county has, after decade upon decade of debate, the beginnings of rail transit into the Norcross area.
As University of Georgia professor Jack Crowley noted in 2016, Gwinnett faced a choice.
“Gwinnett will have some form of fixed” rail transportation “or it will congestion like it never believed,” said the urban planning and design professor, a former developer who had already been watching the situation for 20 years. “You can have one or the other.”
“I’m not a gambler,” Georgia State University professor Joseph Hacker said in 2016.
But he felt it a safe bet Gwinnett County would at least have rail coming up from Doraville, though he knew there could be challenges, primarily funding, and he knew such projects always take a very long time.
Charlotte Nash, who was the county commission chairwoman in 2016, focused on other things as she foretold the county’s future in her State of the County address that year.
Close your eyes, she said to the crowd, and many did.
”In your mind,” said Nash, speaking at the Infinite Energy Center, “move 24 years into the future. Gwinnett’s population will exceed 1.5 million people. Technology has advanced and business and society have adjusted. Today’s infant is a young professional.”
She sent the attendees down to Norcross, where the old OFS plant off Jimmy Carter Boulevard is the Atlanta Media Campus, the anchor to something of a new little “Hollywood.” They make movies there, and people come to visit the redeveloped area to catch a glimpse of stars in town.
She predicted the bustle of the revamped downtown Lilburn, the international business hub in the Gwinnett Place area and the “college town” around Lawrenceville’s Georgia Gwinnett College. She also expected the biomedical industry that’s grown along U.S. Highway 78 as firms seek cheaper land still near Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control.
Gwinnett County’s services, naturally, has expanded.
The school district has added new schools to bring extra students in the system, which had already for decades been Georgia’s largest. There also are new police and fire stations.
The expansions were planned years ago.
Many spoke of the needs and of how the county could be in trouble if it didn’t pay attention to the tide.
“The decisions we make today affect tomorrow’s Gwinnett,” Nash said back in that 2016 speech. “We have to continue dreaming dreams about tomorrow and what can be accomplished.”
Staff writers Curt Yeomans and Katie Morris contributed reporting.