Atlanta Suburbs Craft Small-Town Identities

The city of Lilburn ─ in Gwinnett County ─ is getting ready to build a brand new city hall. The mood it’s going for? Nostalgic.

It’s one of a growing list of suburban cities that are trying to reinvent themselves as competitive, small towns. 

Rose Scott and Denis O'Hayer speak with Tasnim Shamma about this trend.

The centerpiece of Lilburn’s revitalization plan is a new city hall. But it won’t really look new ─ it’s trying to look old. There will be a watchtower with an analog ─ not a digital clock. 

“We’ve had suburban sprawl for so long that people are looking for a small-town atmosphere where they know their neighbors and can walk into a city park or to a greenway,” Doug Stacks, the city’s planning director, says. 

Downtown Revitalization Projects

Other suburban Atlanta cities like Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Brookhaven and Milton are also joining the bandwagon in building new city headquarters. 

Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones teaches urban design at Georgia Tech. She’s also the co-author of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia.” She says it’s a national trend. 

“You see the same strip malls with the same chain stores everywhere,” Dunham-Jones says. “And the suburbs are competing by really trying to develop a much more unique identity and distinctive sense of place.”

Public Investment

She says private capital investment is still tied up in the City of Atlanta, where the “market is much more proven,” but this is a way for the suburbs to catch up. 

“Right now you’re really seeing more the public investment in the city hall, in the town green and the hope that then mixed-use urban buildings built by the private sector will follow,” she says. 

Duluth, Decatur and Smyrna have had their own downtown revitalization and city hall projects in the last few decades. City officials there say they’ve led to more economic development. The City of Smyrna completed its own city hall project in 1996, after it felt it was beginning to “lose its identity and heart to growing suburban sprawl in Cobb County,” according to its website

“It gave citizens a central place to come and do citizen business, which included recreation, the library and public safety,” says Smyrna’s Community Relations Director Jennifer Bennett. “From there we were able to work with public-private partnerships to bring retail and residential back in the downtown.” 

Construction of the new city hall in Lilburn is expected to be complete by the fall of 2016.