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Midland Commons developers trying to avoid traffic 'nightmare' on J.R. Allen Parkway

A 1.5 mile stretch along Beaver Run Road, U.S. 80 and the route also known as Georgia 22 will look like no other corridor in Muscogee County.
A 1.5 mile stretch along Beaver Run Road, U.S. 80 and the route also known as Georgia 22 will look like no other corridor in Muscogee County. tadams@ledger-enquirer.com

Columbus resident Andrew Kloster insists he’s not an advocate or opponent of the Midland Commons mixed-use development that is now moving through the city’s approval pipeline.

But the resident of Wrenwood Drive, just off Warm Springs Road and a mile from the future 6801 Flat Rock Road development, expressed extreme concern last week about the project’s potential impact on the area.

The 89-acre Midland Commons would be off the heavily trafficked J.R. Allen Parkway and Beaver Run Road corridor – also known as U.S. Hwy. 80 – a stretch of multi-lane road that already is straining from heavy use by motorists and commercial vehicles.

The project’s developers on Wednesday, during a Columbus Planning Advisory Commission rezoning meeting, laid out a series of roadway improvements it has proposed for Midland Commons – including multiple new turning lanes – to keep motorists moving as unimpeded as possible to prevent bottlenecks that already create semi-gridlock conditions at times.

“Kitten Lake, everybody here knows it’s an absolute nightmare. If you add this traffic to it, what are we going to do with the Kitten Lake area. It just doesn’t make sense. I commend them for wanting to do the traffic (improvements), but it has to be done right,” Kloster said at the PAC meeting, referencing the relatively new Lakeside Village commercial and residential area off Kitten Lake Drive that generates significant traffic in the area.

A nearby Walmart Supercenter on Gateway Road, which has numerous retail stores and eateries fronting it, is a major contributor to congestion as well. U.S. Hwy. 80 also intersects with Manchester Expressway, another four-lane roadway feeding people to and from Columbus and its outer residential areas in Harris County.

It was just over a year that a group of Columbus developers paid $6.25 million for the 89 acres of land upon which a former textile mill once operated in northeast Columbus. Incorporated as JMC Flatrock Partners – the initials coming from the first names of Jack Wright, Marty Flournoy and Chris Wightman – the partners are now looking to turn the now-vacant property at 6801 Flat Rock Road into a high-end planned mixed use development. It would be a mix of retail, restaurants, assisted living and possibly a hotel.

The developers are now seeking to rezone the former Boland Plant site from a predominately light manufacturing and industrial designation to planned mixed use. During the rezoning meeting, George Mize, an attorney for JMC Flatrock Partners, acknowledged traffic is the major worry for all involved.

“There are concerns with the development, and that’s something the developer is willing to address. They accept all of the conditions that the (Columbus) Planning Department has proposed. But the overriding concern, as you all know, is going to be traffic,” Mize said.

The project would add significantly to the 22,000 to 23,000 vehicles per day that currently work their way through the thick traffic on J.R. between Flat Rock Road’s north intersection with J.R. Allen Parkway and its south intersection with Beaver Run Road and Kitten Lake Drive. The Manchester Expressway and Gateway Road intersections are in between those two points.

A Planning Department staff report on the property’s rezoning indicates the area already has a “below average level of service” during peak times in the mornings and late afternoons. Commercial traffic, including large tractor-trailer trucks leaving industrial developments in the area, also are fairly constant during the day.

“We’re trying to maintain a level of service C, which means traffic flows fairly well through the area. In some cases it may drop down to a level of service D, depending on the time of day and activities and things of that nature,” said Rick Jones, director of the city’s Planning Department.

The city has been meeting with JMC Flatrock Partners’ engineers for several months, he said, seeking as many traffic studies as possible to determine what it would take to alleviate the impact of the development on the area around it. The Georgia Department of Transportation, which will ultimately approve permits for any driveway cuts or road improvements, also have been in on the discussions.

“We’ve done everything possible at this point to help mitigate the problem in terms of trying to make sure we don’t have a complete standstill of traffic out there,” Jones said.

During the recent crackdowns on distracted driving, Columbus police were also citing drivers for ordinary traffic violations, such as running red lights. “It’s a problem,” Lt. Clyde Dent said last week as he directed the operation on Victory Drive

Road improvements would be paid for by the developer and completed before Midland Commons’ opening. Proposed enhancements from engineers hired by Midland Commons’ partners include locating the primary entrance to the development at J.R. Allen Parkway and Flat Rock Road north, adjacent to an existing McDonald’s restaurant. Most notably, there would be four exit lanes from the development onto the parkway at the intersection and two entering the property.

Three other secondary entrances from the parkway would be right-in and right-out turns with acceleration and deceleration lanes. Talokas Lane, which now runs into the Walmart Supercenter property off Gateway Road, would be extended into and through Midland Commons to J.R. Allen Parkway to align with Flat Rock Road. The overall design also would include a roundabout or two.

“The purpose of extending Talokas Lane is to allow drivers to avoid the intersection of Gateway Road and J.R. Allen Parkway,” said Nick Sawka, principal executive with Acworth, Ga.-based MASS Engineering and Consultants, which is working on the project. If traffic were to back up on the parkway, he said, motorists could use it to cut across to Walmart and then back to Gateway Road.

“Everybody knows the traffic situation (now). It is heavy. I believe we’ve thrown everything that we could possibly throw at it,” said Abdul Amer, president of Marietta, Ga.-based A&R Engineering, which has studied the area to include 15 intersections to get an understanding of the current traffic flow and what can be done to manage it as Midland Commons is developed in two phases. The first phase is to be a maximum 400,000 square feet and the second a maximum of 300,000 square feet. Those phase limits and capping the overall development at no more than 1.1 million square feet are conditions placed on the rezoning by the city.

The Planning Advisory Commission approved JMC Flatrock Partners’ application for rezoning on Wednesday, but that is non-binding, with Columbus Council having the final say on the matter. Laying out a possible timeline, Jones said a first reading of the application could go before council members in late July, with a second reading and decision by council perhaps by August.

“I would give them 60 days or so after that to go out there and start doing site prep. I would think after that … maybe by this time next year they might have something coming out of the ground,” he said.

The developers have not said how much it will cost for construction on the 89 acres of property and how long it might take to complete the project. It is expected to have a major impact on jobs, property taxes and sales taxes in a city that is now pinching every dollar it can in light of sluggish job growth and declining commercial activity amid closures within the last year of several large retailers.

Project site plans given to the city show a big-box retailer closest to the existing Walmart Supercenter, with a neighborhood retail center and at least a dozen tenants in the middle of Midland Commons. Fronting J.R. Allen Parkway would be another plaza or shopping center structure anchored by a grocery store. There are several outparcels for future restaurants, a drug store and gas station.

A small strip center is to the back of the development, as is a senior living complex close to the paved walking and bicycling trail used by the public. A dog park also is being considered. Plans are to connect the recreation element in some way to the existing trail network that passes through Flat Rock Park, which is adjacent to the proposed development.

“Certainly, the success or failure of any endeavor like that is going to be based on providing people in that area what they really want,” Marty Flournoy, one of the partners in the venture, said shortly after the property purchase from Swift Textiles LLC. “We’re definitely targeting stores and retailers that people in Midland — and all the way to Harris County and Talbot County — places that they’re going to want to shop and eat.”

Mize, the group’s attorney, said numerous conversations have taken place with local, regional and national retail and restaurant prospects to include a sports goods operator and service businesses. Names that residents have long sought for the city include warehouse club Costco, Bass Pro Shops, Cheesecake Factory, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Dave & Buster’s, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Joe’s Crab Shack and supermarket chain Kroger.

“The development is going to be a very attractive development, certainly much improved over what’s out there right now,” Mize said. “We’re talking now about an overgrown parking lot and a concrete pad that’s left from the removal of a 550,000-square-foot textile building.”

Also laying out the economic benefits that Midland Commons would bring, Mize said it is expected to create hundreds of construction jobs during the build-out to include use of contractors, electricians, suppliers and others. Once finished, he said, early estimates show it could generate around 750 permanent jobs as the businesses inside the property make new hires.

He also said the city should see a substantial increase in ad valorem, or property taxes, from the development, while millions of dollars of sales tax receipts should materialize from spending at the businesses operating there.

“We believe these benefits far outweigh any negative implications this development might have,” Mize said. “Keep in mind, this is an old brownfield site. My clients have the foresight, the fortitude and the financial resources to redevelop this property and turn it into something we can all be proud of.”

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