A plan to replace a church with a senior housing complex got a thumbs-down from the Sandy Springs Planning Commission for the second time on June 16, as a downsized plan failed to appease neighbors. The City Council will make the deciding vote next month.

A rendering of Parc Communities' redesigned senior housing plan for the Apostles Church site at Glenridge and Hammond drives in Sandy Springs, from a city filing.

A rendering of Parc Communities’ redesigned senior housing plan for the Apostles Church site at Glenridge and Hammond drives in Sandy Springs, from a city filing.

Parc Communities’ plan for luxury senior housing at the Apostles Church property at Glenridge and Hammond drives has become a flashpoint in debates about the city’s rapid redevelopment, from Facebook groups to the City Council District 3 race. The site is within a “protected neighborhood”—an old-school ranch-house suburb—in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a kind of land-use bible whose interpretation is in dispute. Even the Planning Commission was split, 4-1, on its denial recommendation.

When the project was first proposed in January at 201 units and up to 75 feet tall, neighbors objected that such density and scale violated the “protected neighborhood” concept. After gaining a City Council deferral last month, Parc shrank the plan to 171 units and 48 feet tall. That made no difference to residents, who still oppose rezoning and permitting the project.

“This is not suitable at this density in this location—not at all,” Trisha Thompson, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, told the commission.

“If this was next door to me, I would be having a cow,” said commission member Susan Maziar. “I think we need to stick to the [land-use] plan.”

But Parc attorney Chip Collins, a former City Council member, noted the Comprehensive Plan also calls for more senior housing in the city, and that Hammond Drive already has dense uses nearby, including the landmark Concourse Center skyscrapers and an office park abutting one side of the church.

Collins pointed out that the Comp Plan is non-binding, is undergoing a major rewrite, and has been overridden before. As a “great example,” Collins cited last year’s intensely controversial approval of the Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters and adjacent Ashton Woods housing development farther up Glenridge along Abernathy Road.

“The land use plan is not the Constitution. It’s a guide,” Collins said. “Like [the] Mercedes [project], the land-use plan for this [church site] is not realistic,” he added, drawing some laughter and grumbling from the crowd of opponents.

A majority of commissioners were concerned the project is essentially a giant apartment building like those in Perimeter Center or the Roswell Road corridor, as the rezoning would be for apartments, but deed-restricted to senior housing. If Parc failed financially, the building’s only use would be as apartments, some commissioners said.

“Very appropriate for a church [site], this is debating angels dancing on the head of a pin” as to whether it’s apartments or senior housing, said commission member Dave Nickels. Fellow commission member Reed Haggard said, “I think ultimately, when this comes down to it…we’re either approving or not approving a 171-unit apartment building.”

But it was not an easy decision for some commissioners, who said they liked the project’s concept and noted that the church, which is selling due to financial problems, will be redeveloped into something. Commission member Steve Tart was Parc’s lone supporter in the 4-1 denial vote.

“I do believe change is inevitable,” said Tart, noting the site is “one inch” away from the office park and agreeing the Comp Plan is flawed. “Sandy Springs is no longer a suburban community. It’s an urban environment growing into an urban neighborhood,” he said.

Haggard agreed that change happens, reeling off a list of hotels and towers he has seen replace his childhood hangouts. But, he added, the underlying question is, “Where do we draw the line of [urban] expansion down Hammond?”

The Planning Commission’s vote is a non-binding recommendation to the City Council, which will try to answer that question in its decision on the project.