This illustration from Arris Realty Trust's city filing shows the proposed three-building Plaza at City Springs South retail project in front and the Cliftwood apartments rising behind it.

This illustration from Arris Realty Trust’s city filing shows the proposed three-building Plaza at City Springs South retail project in front and the Cliftwood apartments rising behind it.

A retail and restaurant project planned for Roswell Road just north of I-285 is called the Plaza at City Springs South, a nod to its place as an entryway to Sandy Springs’ new mixed-use downtown area. But the city Planning Commission on March 17 said the design—low buildings around a surface parking lot—looks more like a “suburban shopping center” and recommended it go back to the drawing board.

The Plaza is the retail companion to the Cliftwood luxury apartments under construction off Cliftwood Drive. The 26,350-square-foot project, consisting of three buildings around 158 parking spaces, would replace old bars and other businesses along Roswell Road between Cliftwood and Allen Road. The Shell gas station and McCullough Auto Care that flank the strip of businesses would remain.

The debate over the Plaza reflects the growing tension in Roswell Road redevelopment between what one commissioner called “aesthetically correct” designs and what developer Arris Realty Partners called financial feasibility.

“I sincerely hope that everybody can get together and work something out,” said commissioner Dave Nichols. “We need a project that can make money, but is aesthetically correct and meeting the standards of the city and the code that we have.”

Steven Cadranel, president of Sandy Springs-based Arris, said he has the ability to build a huge mixed-use building like others under construction nearby. “Would it have been functionally successful, from my 35 years of retail experience? No,” he said.

That experience includes such high-profile retail developments as St. Johns Town Center in Jacksonville, Fla., which commissioner Andy Porter called “the best mixed-use development in the South.”

Arris is seeking six design-related variances, all relating to lack of compliance with the city’s Main Street Overlay District, which codifies a pedestrian-friendly, denser vision created by the community in the 2012 City Center Master Plan. The variances are essentially for being more strip-mall like, with fewer windows or streetfront entrances.

“We worked on the master plan for, like, two years, and this is going to be the entryway to the city center,” said new commission chair Lane Frostbaum, who was among those saying the design is too suburban-style and car-oriented.

Trisha Thompson, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, spoke in strong opposition, saying the project should be more like Mill Creek Residential’s large mixed-use project underway at the former Hilderbrand Court shopping center.

“I don’t think we should go with ‘better than what’s there now,’” Thompson said. “We should go with what’s good. We should go with what we want to see.”

But Cadranel said that the Mill Creek project is exactly what he doesn’t want to build, fearing it is not viable and that his project—which includes a patio and reduces four driveways to one—is actually more pedestrian-friendly. “You will not see us putting forward 300 apartment units with retail…which I don’t want and I don’t think the city wants,” Cadranel said, calling his plan a “pedestrian-scale project, not a Mill Creek scale project.”

Instead, he compared his plan to another Roswell Road project—the Chase Bank on the corner with Mount Vernon Highway, which consists of a low building with surface parking. That type of project is the one more retailers want to lease space in, he said.

Planning Commission vice chair Steve Tart, who recused himself from the vote because he is Cadranel’s partner on some other projects, previously voiced similar concerns about the viability of mixed-use developments in certain areas.

Porter said the plan reminds him of two other large, inward-facing shopping centers in the area: City Walk and Prado. He suggested a better streetfront connection, but Cadranel and city transportation director Brad Edwards said a state right of way for a possible future turn lane for I-285 is a possible challenge.

Nichols noted that the city’s current codes struggle to deal with the new mixed-use ideas and cited a recent case where the commission pushed a developer to change the mix of uses. Nichols added that the developer later pulled out of the project. Cadranel smiled while shaking his head and said, “As will I.”

The city is the midst of rewriting its zoning code. “We happen to be coming along at a time when we’re stuck in the murk,” Cadranel said, adding that he needs the variances because there are “so many conflicts within the [City Center] master plan. If you can address one issue, then you violate another.”

But some commissioners noted that Cadranel’s plan in part is based on turning a back alley into a new public street called Cliftwood Way, but then seeks variances for treating it like a driveway. Porter said such conflicts will be a growing issue downtown as more new connecting streets are built under the City Center grid vision.

Thompson also criticized Arris for not informing the Council of Neighborhoods about the plan, which Cadranel acknowledged. The commission voted to recommend denial to the city’s Board of Appeals, but with language saying they really want a deferral so Arris can work on the plan with residents and city staff.

The meeting was the first for new commissioners Reed Haggard and Craig Johns. Frostbaum was elected chair, replacing Lee Duncan, and Tart was re-elected as vice chair.

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