The city’s plan to redesign part of Sandy Springs Circle between Hammond Drive and Mount Vernon Highway with fewer lanes, on-street parking and multi-use paths, revealed in March, seems to have confused just about everyone.
It surprised the mayor. It drew criticism from bicyclists as out-of-date. It was blasted as “stupid” by a city planning commissioner as the commission demanded more review.
Many other people said the design was news to them. Yet city transportation officials have said the design was publicly vetted and approved long ago.
It turns out that both things are true, as two Sandy Springs city officials—Bryant Poole, assistant city manager for infrastructure, and Andrew Thompson, capital programs manager—explained in a recent interview.
The Sandy Springs Circle design was approved as part of the city’s City Center Master Plan process in 2012, but only as a general concept. The March meeting unveiled the first, full, detailed design—and was the first public update in more than three years. That also will be last public meeting before the project heads to construction as soon as next year, Poole said.
“There is no need for the city to do another [meeting],” Poole said. “It’s been a process that’s been publicly vetted.”
Dave Nickels, the Planning Commission member who once called the on-street parking design “stupid,” disagrees. In April, the commission voted to demand a presentation of the plan at its next public meeting so commissioners could weigh in. Instead, Nickels said, city staff gave only a brief presentation at a little-publicized commission “retreat” held last month at a city park on a weekday morning.
“I never saw that,” Nickels said of the supposed previously vetted plans. “Part of my point is, if this is such a great idea and [there is] such value to the design, then have another, better announced public meeting about it.”
Sandy Springs Circle is just one of many roadway projects approved conceptually in the City Center Master Plan and now slowly working their way toward reality. They could make for more surprises. The city is working on a plan to improve communication on road projects and major real estate developments “so we can give the community a heads-up” more effectively, said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
The public meeting about the design in March did not include a clear explanation of the project’s history, the significance that it was the first full design being unveiled, or that it would be the only public input meeting. There was no presentation at all; instead, it was an “open house” with two officials standing at easels with design illustrations and answering questions. One of the officials did not know such basic information as the project’s $7 million budget.
The design dates to a 2010 plan for sidewalks and paths on a longer stretch of Sandy Springs Circle between Hammond and Johnson Ferry Road. “It began its life as a streetscape project doing overlay improvements on the shoulders,” said Thompson.
The city approved that plan in 2012. That was the same year consultants put together the City Center Master Plan, a massive design for a new downtown that includes the City Springs redevelopment underway today as well as a new grid of walkable streets.
The Sandy Springs Circle streetscape plan was folded into the City Center plan and underwent two big changes. First, the consultants expanded it into a full redesign of the entire roadway, not just sidewalks.
Second, the city divided the project into two pieces, “Phases I and II.” Phase I is the piece from Mount Vernon to Johnson Ferry, adjacent to City Springs, and is under construction now.
The piece between Hammond and Mount Vernon became “Phase II.” The 2012 Master Plan, developed with public meetings and traffic studies, calls for Phase II to include not only paths and sidewalks, but also a two-lane street with on-street parking.
But that was approved only as an abstract “typical section”—a cross-section of an ideal, hypothetical piece of road—and one of many in the plan. The Master Plan also included an artist’s sketch of the Hammond Drive intersection, titled “Sandy Springs Circle: Transformed into a neighborhood street,” showing the paths and on-street parking.
That’s the last the public saw for three years as the project underwent a long design and federal review to turn the “typical section” into a real-world plan for the entire roadway. That required some changes, and more tweaks might happen as the design, now about 70 percent complete, enters the right of way acquisition phase, Thompson said.
High retaining walls on the hilly street, including along Heritage Sandy Springs’ property, was a new element. Poole said that is because planners couldn’t know whether walls would be needed until the actual design.
The multi-use path and possible conflict between bikes and cars parked on-street have been questioned by bike advocates as not meeting modern design standards. Thompson said there is no single national bike-infrastructure standard and the plan meets minimum federal requirements.