Editor’s note: Cheri Morris of Sandy Springs is nationally recognized for her work in revitalizing downtown districts, both as a developer and as an advisor to city governments. The Sandy Springs Reporter asked her to contribute a guest column on the city’s downtown redevelopment plans.
By Cheri Morris
Although Sandy Springs is the seventh wealthiest city in America, our unattractive, dysfunctional downtown is in conflict with the needs of the high-quality retailers and restaurants that could serve the Sandy Springs demographic. Upscale businesses that come into downtown too often suffer and eventually close their doors, while Sandy Springs residents are forced to leave the city for the majority of their shopping and dining.
Much hangs on the outcome of the city center plan currently under way. We have this one and only opportunity to create a downtown that properly serves our populace.
My hope is that the plan will remove public infrastructure obstacles that prevent downtown from being a vibrant marketplace and will create for us a civic heart where the community can gather.
What components can make this happen?
Roswell Road is the single biggest obstacle to a thriving downtown. Notorious for traffic congestion, Roswell Road is also an unpleasant and unsafe pedestrian environment. Until wholesale improvements are achieved in the character and function of Roswell Road, redevelopment of private properties brings unreasonable risk.
It is not at all hopeless. It can be fixed.
The Main Street Alliance, the association of downtown property owners, has recommended that the city’s number one focus is getting Roswell Road vehicular and pedestrian traffic flowing efficiently so that it can function properly as our downtown marketplace, leading to businesses becoming successful.
The first task should be to improve the dysfunctional intersection of Roswell, Johnson Ferry and Mount Vernon Highway, which currently brings traffic to a standstill in the heart of the retail district.
Also, the installation of sidewalks and streetscape throughout downtown should be completed as soon as possible to improve the pedestrian realm. Unsightly overhead power lines should be buried or moved to the rear of the commercial properties. These improvements will enable property owners to redevelop their shopping centers with confidence. The improvements can be seen and will result in increased consumer patronage.
The alliance also recommended that the two outside lanes of Sandy Springs Circle south of Mount Vernon be converted to angled parking to serve the crowds visiting Heritage Green and future civic, cultural, recreational and commercial attractions that will grow up in this area.
This narrowing of the road also will slow and manage traffic on this street, which can become our village-scale retail and restaurant district, a complement and counterpoint to the larger shopping centers that need the high vehicular counts on Roswell Road.
We have a large supply, maybe an oversupply, of retail properties along Roswell Road and Sandy Springs Circle. These properties exist; they will not go away. They will either be full, healthy and attractive or empty, unhealthy and unattractive. The city’s downtown revitalization efforts should work toward setting the existing inventory of commercial properties up for redevelopment success.
I was surprised, therefore, to see the city center plan focus on a new retail corridor created along an expanded Bluestone Road.
I own property on Bluestone, which this plan will make more valuable, so I am speaking against my own financial interest, but as a citizen who wants the best outcome for all, I think we should ask ourselves: What is the purpose of this new retail road?
It is good to create a pedestrian connection from the new city green to Heritage. Neither of these parks is large, but if well connected, they can enjoy expanded impact. But why are we adding a great deal of new retail inventory to compete with what already exists? Why are we spending money to build a new road when those dollars are needed to correct the dysfunction of Roswell Road?
Why is Sandy Springs Circle shown on the plans as only residential when it is healthy retail now? A city plan can’t remove retail that already exists. And why would we remove retail from our healthiest retail corridor? And why are new buildings drawn along the Sandy Spring Circle edge of the Hitson Center, isolating it from Heritage, rather than connecting our downtown green assets as we asked?
Also, how feasible is this new retail road? Roswell Road and Sandy Springs Circle are real streets that carry vehicles to real destinations, and this vehicular traffic is needed to support retail on those roads. By contrast, the new Bluestone Road does not move cars from any real origin to a destination. It will be a slow and difficult traverse, as it has several steep grade changes and will run along the front door of Kroger at 2 to 5 miles an hour.
Putting this new road through the city-center property cuts that large land parcel into five small pieces, negating the ability to have the large city park the residents have asked for.
Great cities have a heart. And the new city center can become the heart of our community. But as it now is drawn on proposed city plans, the green space varies from about ¾ acre to 2 acres.
The core mantra of our community, spoken loudly, clearly and with great repetition at all public and stakeholder meetings, was that our citizens want a large downtown park in which we can gather, see friends, stroll, play games, sit under trees, watch our children’s groups perform, and enjoy the many activities that bring a city together as a community.
The property the city is assembling should become in large part a major green town center that is the iconic heart of Sandy Springs and includes the civic, cultural and recreational uses we so badly need.
This land is the nexus of the city’s comprehensive and growing network of sidewalks and parks that connect our downtown to many residential neighborhoods with thousands of homes, and could bring those families to our green town center on foot or by bike.
Sandy Springs Conservancy has crafted a construct of the different uses that would be in the city green, from the farmer’s market to walking trails and shaded benches. These uses conservatively add up to just over 6 acres, more than three times what the plan shows.
Research has illustrated that quality of life, property values and resultant taxes increase when parks are built. Several other local cities have built significant new parks as cornerstones of their downtown revitalizations and met with great success. These cities average less than half the size of Sandy Springs and none has built a park less than four acres. Some are 10 acres, and the average is more than seven.
These cities have enjoyed an influx of new shops, restaurants and housing. Property values and the tax bases have increased. I was with the senior city leadership of Duluth the other day. Duluth built a town green of just over five acres and has data showing that adjacent property values increased tenfold.
A park is the least expensive tool our city can deploy to revive downtown. Grass, trees, benches and fountains are cheap, especially compared to building a new road.
I hope that the city of Sandy Springs will urge its planners to listen to the intelligent local voices of the business leaders, civic groups and interested citizens that have invested their time and resources for years to study downtown and be ready for this planning process with knowledgeable, well-researched, well-founded input.
What we need to do is simple: fix Roswell Road so our major retail district can be successful; encourage Sandy Springs Circle to become our village-scale mixed-use walking district; and give our citizens a green town center that can be the heart of our community.
Cheri Morris’ projects have been awarded the “Development of Excellence” by the Urban Land Institute, named “America’s Neighborhood” by Better Homes and Gardens magazine and cited as “Development of the Year” by the Atlanta Regional Commission.