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Posted by on June 18, 2010.

‘Downtown’ Sandy Springs: What can bring the core together?

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Where, exactly, is Sandy Springs’ “downtown”? What should go there? What does it need to be a vibrant center for this young city?The Sandy Springs Reporter recently gathered a group of people with interest in the community and a history of working in the area. We asked them to consider those questions and others related to the future of the heart of Sandy Springs. We recorded their wide-ranging discussion and edited the transcript to two parts. We present the first part in this issue and plan to present the second in our next issue.
Here’s how our panel sees things.

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John Schaffner: I know that there is an official definition of what would be “downtown” Sandy Springs. I’d like to invite some discussion over that. How do you want to view this whole thing? What do you each see as the definition of this geography?

Jan Saperstein

Jan Saperstein: It’s not an issue of the physical size, it’s an issue of the center core. Sandy Springs doesn’t have an epicenter—it has a physical center, but not an epicenter. And that’s really what’s missing. Roswell — that Thursday night, was it that, “Alive After Five” [downtown promotion], Lonnie? — that’s unbelievable. They have an epicenter. They have an anchor—the anchor being the square—and then it takes off from there. Sandy Springs doesn’t have that.

That’s what the former Target should be. Whether it’s City Hall or not City Hall, it needs to create a downtown. Not physically the land mass, but a real core epicenter town. And from that, you know, then you can have the pedestrian access and then you can have the quality-of-life things that are needed. Until that happens, Sandy Springs will just be sort of an area, as opposed to a real core.

Nancy Leathers

Nancy Leathers

Nancy Leathers: I agree. I think there does need to be a focus for the town center area of Sandy Springs. I assume that it will probably be a City Hall and other municipal uses which ties into the commercial areas around it. But if we don’t focus our efforts into an area, then we will continue to have what we have had traditionally in Sandy Springs, which is a suburban area with our commercial areas stretched out on Roswell Road and with no real focus. So, from the city’s point of view, the effort to begin finding a central location and make that the town center and have the city’s commitment to that — I think is really important.

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Trisha Thompson

Trisha Thompson

Trisha Thompson: I think that Jan hit the nail on the head and I think that hopefully the city will go along with Nancy’s thoughts that we need a focus. And I think that that’s the spirit of the whole thing. If the city could acquire additional property around there that might be lovely. It would pull pedestrians, traffic. But you need some place for them to go. You need shops. If I could walk down the sidewalk, I would be wonderfully happy.

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Lonnie Mimms

Lonnie Mimms

Lonnie Mimms: With “big boxes,” it’s very hard to have that continuity of interest just because of the sheer size, you know, walking from one front door to the next. I honestly don’t think there’s going to be a lot more new boxes in this section of the city. I think Perimeter Mall and that region is clearly the big-box haven. And the ones that we have are almost more of an anomaly than they are what the future trend is going to be. If anything, I could see that going into, you know, some kind of a higher-density development with more shops. I do agree that we need to have some kind of a start, some type of a starting point, to be able to get the smaller shops going.

I don’t think it’s something that you can just go in here and do a master plan and say, “We’re going to have 1,000 small boutique shops and this thing is going to be this wonderful cutesy vacation-type city.” I think it’s going to be something that will happen organically. And I think the city is in a prime position to be the beginning of that. And, if we start out right here in what is really the geographic center of the region and come up with a good plan, it will only expand from there. But, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you can force because the economics right now work for what’s there, for the most part.

Saperstein: Think about the evolution of Sandy Springs. It started as neighborhood, right? It evolved to [a regional center]. The regionality, as Lonnie said, was taken by the mall. So Sandy Springs sort of floundered until it got back on its feet. So here come other great retailers. The demographics are excellent. They’re excellent. Okay. So, you got all the pieces. It’s very rare in your lifetime that you have somewhat of a blank slate that you can create a city.

You need day population and night population. Day pop, night pop. The area doesn’t need fixing. You got demographics. You know, it’s wonderful. You need something in the core. And it’s not that traditional 1950s-era City Hall. It needs to be something where that becomes the epicenter and from there you can walk. That’s what needed. Then you can tie it all together. But you’ve got to have that center. Then it’ll happen. The big boxes, they’re not coming here because the big boxes need regionality and it’s not here. Retailers need that female customer who doesn’t have security issues.  So, if you can create that core, then the other things will follow. Build it, and they will follow.

Thompson: I thought about female day shopping, female customers. And I thought, well, I won’t say anything, because that sounds so ..

Saperstein: Sexist?

Thompson: It does, it sounds so sexist. I got to think about stay-at-home dads, they’re out too, and guys go out for the hammers and they go to Restoration Hardware.

Saperstein: I actually spoke on this at a real estate convention two years ago. I think 80 cents of every dollar is spent by women.

Thompson: My husband thinks that, too.

City of Sandy springs For zoning, Sandy Springs city planners consider this yellow area the city’s commercial core. The green areas line major roads given “suburban” zoning and the pink is part of the Perimeter Community Improvement District.

Saperstein: I’ll let you in on a conversation with a friend of mine who was a former director of real estate for Home Depot. And I said to him: What’s the male/female split? He said about 50/50 to the Home Depot. However, the 50 percent male that’s driven in is purchasing because the female pushed him in. And I said that one time to this woman and she got wicked mad at me.

Thompson: Women want good looking. They want cute, they want style. And they want safe.

Saperstein: You know women want — this sounds so sexist — but they want the experience of shopping. Look guys, we’ll go into a store, our average sale time at the mall, visit to the mall, is I think 30 minutes, 31 minutes.

Mimms: That’s because it takes so long to even walk there.

Saperstein: Say you’ve got to go buy that tie — buy the tie, and then you’re done. Women want the experience and the whole bam bam bam. We just want to go in there and get the tie and get out. Black, white. Black, white. Women want very shades of gray.

Leathers: I think, you know, there’s another piece to that, and that is, that right now in order to do any shopping in downtown Sandy Springs, you have to get in your car and go there. I happen to live in downtown Sandy Springs and I have to get in my  car to do the necessities.

Saperstein: Let me ask you a question. You brought this up — and I thought it was a really great idea — about trying to get Highway 9 [Roswell Road] away from [control of] the state.

Mimms: I did meet with some higher ups in the [Georgia] DOT. They don’t want you to move the designation [of Ga. 9 from Roswell Road], do a bunch of things that are not to DOT standards and then try to hand it back to them. And the catch is that whenever you move a designation, you’re taking on that financial responsibility.

The big thing is can you make a practical difference? In other words, if you move a designation, can you truly get Roswell Road to become a calmer, quieter street that is more oriented to the population that lives here, rather than the speed bump [in the road] taking people to Pill Hill.

And it’s acknowledged that you have an incredible mass of population that has no employment base in East Cobb, there’s two or three ways to cross the river within a 10- mile span, and the No. 1 employment base in the whole area is the medical pocket and the surrounding areas. There are thousands upon thousands of jobs there and those people do not live in the immediate area. So that’s the dilemma.

What’s interesting with that whole idea is that there are a lot of things that the state would not allow that you possibly could do, and some of it’s really radical, but they use it in other countries successfully. One of the ideas I threw up was roundabouts. And that’s exactly what the DOT did, was throw up.

There are several pockets that would be natural for putting in some type of a roundabout.  I know that traffic volume here is pretty high but to take the extreme example, I don’t think our volumes are anywhere near what they have in Paris. Some of the roundabouts there must be 12 lanes wide. And as bizarre as it is when you’re looking at the thing on top of the Arc de Triomphe and you’re looking down and seeing cars that are literally perpendicular in the roundabout, somehow it works.

Saperstein: I actually spent three weeks in China. Roundabouts are how it moves. I own Emory Village, and Emory Village, right there at that little box of North Decatur and everything else, there’s going to be a roundabout. Right there at Emory. They have a density probably equal to what you got right here. DeKalb County’s doing it.

Schaffner: I don’t know how many of you remember back in the late  ‘80s and early ‘90s there was discussion of making Roswell Road one way north and making Sandy Springs Circle one way south. Now there’s talk about [diverting traffic onto] Boylston. Are there other things we need to be looking at in terms of all this, in terms of traffic and roads?

Leathers: Let me just set a context on this thing because it might be helpful. There are a couple of things that this city has already looked at that they’re working on. One of them, of course, is doing the parallel [street] system so that we take some of the traffic off Roswell Road.  We’ve talked about the possibility of going under I-285 and connecting to the south and that continues to be something we’re looking at.

But I think the most important thing — and I think that you’ve got two of the people here, so I want to raise this issue right now — is that the city is really looking to the Main Street Alliance to provide some of the leadership on the issue.

The city and the county have done a wholeseries of plans for this area and none of them has really been carried out in any significant way. Most of that is because the folks who control property were not part of that discussion. So now we have that opportunity. I suspect that a number of these initiatives really need to be coming independently from the alliance initially, then coming through the city. Really, these are community-based ideas.

Thompson: I have heard about the alliance and I’m excited that it’s forming.

The community — the neighborhoods — is actually thinking this meeting should have been held by the city. “What do you want to see in your city?” We’re about three years late. Because people have been wondering, you know. We voted [to create a city], now what? We’ve been sitting here for five years and we still look the same here in this center part of the town. And there doesn’t seem to be any formal guidance.

The second thing as far as appearance is concerned, Perimeter CID has got this streetscape which keeps the trees at the road. A city has trees at the road. New York has trees at the road. Paris has trees at the road. It provides a safer walking atmosphere.

Mimms: You’re speaking actually right now [about] a DOT issue.

Leathers: It’s a separate issue from the question of how that area’s going to look. We can improve the pedestrian safety and the pedestrian comfort in the area, prior to doing something with DOT [about planting trees at the road]. That’s a whole separate battle and that’s a statewide battle. And so the question becomes do you want to spend your time doing that or do you want to try to do the other things?

One of the things I wanted to raise is that Roswell Road becomes the divide for the town center area and not the thing that ties it together. It’s very difficult to get across. I think it’s going to be important to think about, and that’s the reason I’m working with the business group and the property owners in the area because I think it’s going to be important to figure out exactly how we want to get people back and forth — where we’re going to be making those connections; how we’re going to do those things; how we’re going to pull things together so we don’t have a driveway every 100 feet.

Thompson: Exactly. Because then people don’t want to go across!

Mimms: One opportunity that we did have that we have not missed — and it’s good that no one made an easy decision and built another palace here for City Hall — is that I think Gen Y’s don’t have quite the feeling about the significance of the history of an area as maybe some of the older folks do. They don’t care. If you create a look and it feels good and it has something that they want, they don’t care if it’s been there for 100 years or five years. I think that we’ve got this whole group that grew up with Disney World, and if the city even did something completely wild and created a city square in the block between Mt. Vernon and Johnson Ferry and Roswell Road and Sandy Springs Circle, that could be the kind of the core.

Saperstein: Sandy Springs — it doesn’t have a brand, per se. You know, Roswell is a great cycling  community  …

Mimms: It’s got a real history.

Saperstein: It’s got a history. So does Sandy Springs. But Roswell is a brand. Meaning, the first thing you say about Sandy Springs, what do they think about it? Do you think it’s traffic? In Roswell, you know, you envision the antebellum. Sandy Springs needs to put their arms around a lifestyle, I think. And from that lifestyle, look at all the river frontage. That’s great. You need something that allows people to understand that the quality of life here is really wonderful and move the emphasis away from “the traffic in Sandy Springs is worse than anywhere else.” I don’t think it is. Traffic is bad all over! But the first thing I think they think is about the traffic. And that’s a bad perception.

Mimms: That’s the No. 1 answer for every municipality in Atlanta. What is the problem? Traffic.

Saperstein: Yeah, but let me ask you, When you think of Roswell, do you think of traffic?

Leathers: No, you think of the town square.

Thompson: Well, no actually I think of Highway 9 and traffic.

Schaffner: I lived there for a lot of years and I never really thought about the traffic as being that bad.

Saperstein: Right, it’s more about the great quality of life. Traffic is bad all over the place. If Sandy Springs could amplify its advantages — its lifestyle, its great housing, its income for the businesses, its ability to move around. It has everything. It just needs to be …. I’m going to use the word: “Branded.”

Schaffner: All right, we’ve talked about a lot of things. We’ve talked about the need for an epicenter. We’ve talked about maybe doing some things to Roswell Road, maybe creating some roundabouts, and I guess we all have sort of said that the epicenter needs to be centered somewhere around the City Hall. What does it take to create this epicenter?

Saperstein: You’ve got to have a traffic generator. Not a retailer. I mean traffic generator. Hypothetically, a university. Something that’s going to bring in as close to a 24-hour population as possible. And that type of use is what the focus should be on. When’s the last time a university went out of business? That type of engine, that’s what needed. That’s what I’d like to focus on. Then the retail, the office, the medical, everything will simply duck into place. But you’ve got to find a generator. The government, the government employees — that’s not it.

Leathers: No, it needs to be people who are going to live in the area.

Thompson: The problem is that people are finding financial opportunities in the stretches off this core area. They’re picking the dying property outside [the town center area] for what we would hope would be focused in the core.

Mimms: I-285 is an enormous psychological and physical pedestrian barrier. I really don’t see people walking across this enormous road, so by the very nature of it you have a disjointed area. And I do agree that the focus should be between I-285 and Abernathy.  That is probably the center of Sandy Springs. That is the corridor.

Saperstein: Has anybody from the city standpoint  maybe looked into talking to the higher education? Has anybody sat down  with Georgia State or Georgia Tech? Anybody asked, “Can we do a campus?”

Leathers: Well, we’ve actually begun some conversations with a school that I cannot name.

Thompson: Good for you!

Saperstein: My two daughters, one went to Georgia State, one went to Texas and now the University of Georgia. The enrollment at these schools is huuuuge. The largest it’s been. I think Colorado, which she transferred from, last year had the largest freshman class they’d ever had. My gosh, that’s such a great customer for retail, for the apartments,  for the businesses, for the medical.

Thompson: Living in place, aging in place — there’s another concept that I like a lot. I would love it if my mother could live, work and walk to Trader Joe’s. Seniors are a great source of spending.

Saperstein: And a great source of the arts. I know we did our little theater in the back {of our shopping center] and the first thing they did was they went and talked to Hammond Glen—disposable income, great volunteers, sell the place out in the daytime.

Thompson: And I’m not leaving Sandy Springs. I am aging. I want access to the best doctors possible. I don’t want to be some place in a rural hospital and be sick.

Leathers: Keep in mind that the city [of Sandy Springs] is only five years old, and think about where we were when we started, which was about 20 years behind. So a lot of what the city has been doing has been just basic stuff that had to be done in order to get caught up.  For example, when you talked about the access to the river, most of the city’s recreation money is being pulled into the Morgan Fall’s Park, which is exactly at the access to the river. I suspect that we will continue to try to move those types of things forward.

Click here for part 2

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