So far, the first draft of Sandy Springs’ new zoning code is fulfilling its designer’s promise of simplifying and modernizing while adding some new ideas. The innovations include a bonus system allowing taller buildings in exchange for such benefits as middle-income housing.
About two dozen residents and officials attended a March 20 City Hall presentation about the new “Development Code,” the first of several such meetings around town this month. Among those attending were City Councilmember Andy Bauman; Trisha Thompson, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods; and prominent local zoning attorney Woody Galloway.
Lee Einsweiler of Austin, Texas-based Code Studio is the lead consultant writing the new code. As he said in a preview presentation nearly a year ago, his primary goals are customizing the code to Sandy Springs’ needs and making it easier to understand. When Sandy Springs was incorporated in 2005, it quickly adopted Fulton County’s 1970s-era code as its own, causing seemingly endless controversies and problems in the rapidly redeveloping city.
“The fact of the matter is, the existing regulations are outdated,” Einsweiler said. “You borrowed Fulton County’s mess…and it’s past time that gets shuffled into a filing cabinet somewhere” and updated.
The new code is scheduled to be in place sometime this fall. For its full text and more details, see thenext10.org.
The draft code uses more plain-English language in its categories and includes simple graphics to illustrate how buildings might match its restrictions. Einsweiler said he aims to establish clear, predictable zoning rules, “so we can survive a little longer with a few less lawyers.”
Einsweiler made a few such comments about making zoning easier for residents to understand and harder for developers to alter. The code he’s writing is based on the city’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan, recently approved after an 18-month public process.
The update alone should make rezoning requests less common. But the new code also proposes a two-step process to make them much harder to obtain. First, a developer would need to request a change to the property’s character-map, or land-use, designation in the Comp Plan. There would only be two times a year such changes could be requested. Only if that map change is approved could a rezoning request for a specific development plan be submitted.
One of the Comp Plan’s main features is designating roughly 67 percent of the city as “Protected Neighborhoods”—low-density, single-family housing.
“The number one issue I got hammered into my head the most…was that the neighborhoods need protection,” Einsweiler said, explaining how his code will help do that and create transitions in border areas.
But preserving traditional suburbs also conflicts with other city redevelopment goals, such as avoiding overdevelopment in the remaining high-density parts of the city, or adding middle-income “workforce” housing as real estate prices skyrocket. To incentivize such “public benefits,” Einsweiler proposes various bonus systems allowing taller buildings in exchange for them.
Bonus systems and affordability
Einsweiler sketched out possible bonus systems for Perimeter Center, the “Pill Hill” Medical Center and the apartments-heavy stretch of northern Roswell Road.
In Perimeter Center, he noted, some old Fulton County zoning allows buildings up to 50 stories tall. “Leaving that on the books is not in the best interest of the city at this point,” he said.
Instead, he proposed allowing up to 15 stories, with extra height permitted in exchange for such benefits as affordable housing; “mobility enhancement” like new cut-through streets or MARTA connections; “neighborhood services” like day cares or spaces for small retail businesses; energy-efficient and environmentally friendly “green building” techniques; public open space; or public art.
For older apartment complexes, Einsweiler also proposes a bonus system, in part to resolve varying, sometimes conflicting city incentives about their future. City officials have indicated they view such apartments as crime-ridden and outdated, as well as opportunities to build new affordable housing. However, the city also demands higher-quality construction and wants to mix for-sale and rental housing, which pushes construction costs higher. In particular, a recent code change requiring new, large apartment buildings to be built of steel and masonry “pretty much guarantees” the older complexes won’t be redeveloped, Einsweiler said.
The draft code would allow apartment buildings in residential areas to be up to three stories tall. Developers could gain two additional stories in exchange for two big trade-offs: 1) 25 percent of the project’s land area is made for-sale, single-family housing, either attached or detached; and 2) half of the bonus floor area must be units priced as “affordable” to middle-income households.
That affordable section in turn is split into two different levels of affordability: half of the section must be affordable to people making up to 80 percent of the area median income, and half to people making up to 120 percent of the AMI.
The area the median income calculation would be based on was not defined; Sandy Springs’ and metro Atlanta’s median household income is in the range of $64,000 to $68,000, according to U.S. Census data. “This is not the lowest-value affordable housing,” Einsweiler said, adding those would be left to federal and state subsidy programs to provide. However, Fulton County has a years-long wait list for such housing.
Unlike some similar affordable housing set-aside programs in other cities, the Sandy Springs proposal does not specify a particular percentage of affordable units.
Asked after the meeting whether he has seen this type of an incentive program be successful elsewhere, Einsweiler said no, because no one else has tried it.
“This is new…This is unique,” he said, describing it as a “cobbled-together” version of City Council priorities.
Gas stations capped
At 160 pages and counting, with two sections yet to be written, the draft Development Code has plenty of other points of interest. One idea that drew audience attention was a citywide cap on additional gas stations. The city is currently under a 120-day moratorium on gas station filings put in place in December, when QuikTrip was reportedly seeking another Sandy Springs location. The new code, Einweiler said, proposes allowing new gas stations only if an existing one closes, and only in tightly restricted areas, mostly near the multifamily housing along northern Roswell Road.