For making urbanism cool—in the burbs
Photograph by So Fly Pictures

On a drab weekday morning, the Stroller Brigade circle the grassy plaza, hustle through wind sprints, unfurl yoga mats, and chant so loudly they nearly drown out the piped-in Sinatra. From the other side of the square, Mark Toro laughs. “It’s quite a turnout,” he says. Sitting by the outdoor fireplace, in thick-rimmed spectacles, a dark blue blazer, and Ferragamo driving mocs, Toro explains that the sweaty pram-pushers are regulars at Avalon, the most buzzed-about development outside I-285 in decades.

Those fitness fanatics are taking part in the Avalon experience—an intentional layering of ambience and service masterminded by Toro, a partner at North American Properties, the company behind this new suburban enclave. From the outdoor fireplaces, to the Rat Pack pumped in through the hidden speakers, to the valets at the concierge station, there’s one objective: make card-carrying Club Avalon residents and their guests feel like they’ve arrived at a five-star hotel.

The $600 million project, which will eventually consume 86 acres off Georgia 400 in Alpharetta, has been flashy from the start (the grand-opening gala last October lasted four days). And Toro’s mission—to break the mold of traditional suburban cul-de-sacs and strip malls in favor of a dense, walkable “urbanburb”—has clearly struck a chord.

NAP made a splash in 2011 by taking over Atlantic Station and reenergizing it with new, local tenants. A few months later, the company bought a stalled retail project in Alpharetta called Prospect Park and brought a “resort-inspired” vision—Avalon—to the property. In other words, rather than starting with big-box tenants, they determined what the experience would be and built the boxes around it. Toro and his team lured intown restaurateurs Ford Fry, Shaun Doty, and Giovanni Di Palma a dozen miles outside I-285. To foster community, NAP created the “Living Room,” a glorified median outfitted with bocce courts and swings.

“People are paying up to be here,” says Toro. Indeed. The first of two phases at Avalon includes 50 storefronts and 15 restaurants (together encompassing 385,000 square feet); offices that lease at roughly 30 percent above market rate; 101 single-family homes, ranging from modern townhouses that start at $600,000 to 4,000-square-foot, $2.5 million detached homes on small lots; and apartments that command some of the highest per-square-foot rents in metro Atlanta (several two-bedroom units fetch more than $5,000 monthly).

Toro calls the most engaged residents “Avaloniacs.” Kevin Myers, an empty nester who traded his East Cobb house for an Avalon apartment, certainly qualifies. He considers the majority of Avalon bartenders his friends. “We have [an online] portal just for the residents, and we post things like, ‘Let’s have a party, impromptu; bring your food up to the roof!’” says the financial adviser.

The project’s second phase, expected to be completed in spring 2017, will bring 276 more apartments, plus additional office space (including a tower), a conference center, and an Avalon-branded hotel. They’ll take advantage of Avalon’s much-touted fiber broadband, capable of Internet speeds 100 times faster than normal.

Retailers are happy. “When we compare [stores] company-wide, our Saturdays blow everybody else’s out of the water,” says Angelique Witcher, manager of the Avalon outpost of Fab’rik clothing boutique. Kevin Krapp, general manager at Oak Steakhouse and sister restaurant Colletta, branched out of Charleston to take a gamble on Avalon. Fellow restaurateurs seem more like family than competition. “When we need to borrow something, we go down and borrow it,” he says.

Toro, a vocal proponent of public transportation, concedes that one facet of Avalon is lacking: a practicable mass transit connection. Toro often takes MARTA from his Midtown condo to the system’s northernmost station and then calls Uber to finish the commute. Ideally he’d like to see a MARTA rail station built at Avalon, but in the interim he’d settle for a more frequent bus connection to the North Springs station.

To skeptics, a project like Avalon can seem too resorty, rather than a natural community that’s evolved over time. But to Christopher B. Leinberger—a George Washington University business professor and president of LOCUS, an advocacy group of developers affiliated with Smart Growth America—faux towns are better than suburbia’s status quo. “People do accuse this of being a Disney-ized version of urbanism, and I think it’s guilty as charged, but there are obviously a lot of people willing to pay $110 to get into Disney,” says Leinberger. “It’s not for everybody. But it will become a much more environmentally sustainable way of living in the suburbs.”

Toro insists that a manufactured town can have small-town spirit. Last winter the plaza was transformed into an ice rink, where five couples got engaged. But the most vivid proof, Toro says, came on Easter Sunday, when all the shops and restaurants were closed. “People came here just to be, to hang out,” he recalls. “It punctuated what we’ve done here, in creating something that’s desirable.”

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This article originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.