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Posted by on April 5, 2012.

Opinions changing on City Hall project

The Target property, located at 235 Johnson Ferry Road, was purchased by the city for $8 million.

Sandy Springs City Council will soon decide the course of its downtown and establish the city’s identity for decades to come.

But before the council casts its final vote, it must first resolve an identity crisis of its own. And it’s not just that some council members aren’t certain whether city-owned property on Johnson Ferry Road should be a City Hall. Now members of the business community are revoking their earlier support of the city’s plan.

Caught in the middle is a Boston-based design firm, Goody Clancy, the company the city has hired to draw up the master plan for its downtown.

Council members met with the firm at the council’s retreat on March 27. Councilman Chip Collins told David Dixon, the firm’s principal in charge of planning and urban design, that the question of where to put a City Hall is not settled among council members. The firm’s final recommendations are expected in November.

Dixon told the Sandy Springs Reporter he would listen to all opinions.

“What we would do is start with an open mind,” he said. “We’d get as much data as we can and share it with everybody.”

Goody Clancy will host its first community meeting about the city’s downtown plans on May 8.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos wants the City Hall to go at the city-owned site at 235 Johnson Ferry, formerly the site of a Target store and usually called the “Target property.”

Other members of the council have asked for alternatives, prompting the city to issue a formal “request for information” to see whether anyone has a better idea. The city got two responses, and staff rejected them both on technical grounds. One was late and the other didn’t meet the city’s criteria.

Until recently, Galambos’ plan had the backing of a coalition of city property owners, the Main Street Alliance. Its membership is made up of the owners of more than 50 parcels of commercial property in the downtown area, totaling 1.5 million square feet on 125 acres.

But a representative of that group, Jan Saperstein, told the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods on March 22 that the property owners now think the Target property should be a park. The property owners say a park will raise property values.

“Parks lift everybody’s boat higher,” Saperstein told the audience. “We’re all partners. When your values go up on your home, our values go up.”

The Main Street Alliance sent a letter to Galambos and the City Council on March 5, explaining why they are pulling their support for building a City Hall on the property. “The era of a massive City Hall surrounded by a sea of parking, with no evening or weekend business, is a concept whose time has long past,” the letter says.

There’s also another reason the property owners don’t support the Target site. In order to build the city’s center there, it could require the use of eminent domain to buy up existing properties around the Target site. If the city does this it would mean the properties will be available only for public use for 20 years under Georgia law. The site could not be mixed-used development that would involve private investors, something the Main Street Alliance does not support.

Galambos dismissed the idea that parks would be a better catalyst to redevelopment. She said there are a number of cities where a new meeting space has sparked a redevelopment, including Duluth, Smyrna, Snellville and Riverdale.

“All of these cities have recently had wonderful development that was a result of their new City Halls,” Galambos said. “If a park was such a wonderful stimulus to development, our 5-acre Heritage Park smack in the middle of downtown Sandy Springs should have made a huge success of CityWalk, which is in bankruptcy.”

One thing is for certain: This summer’s hot topic will be whether the council votes to support the mayor’s vision or instead travels in its own direction on downtown redevelopment.

Goody Clancy’s report will help shape the City Hall debate.

Dixon said a City Hall is a planning project in its own right, and said he’d need to know more about the council’s feelings before the firm can make a final recommendation. “We have to understand where they’re coming from,” Dixon said.

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