As the city drafts its new zoning code, housing affordability is emerging as a top goal and a new bonus system allowing bigger buildings in exchange for community benefits.

Dozens of residents attended meetings at City Hall and in council districts over the past couple of weeks to review the draft “Development Code.” 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.

Residents listen to a presentation about the new city zoning code March 22 at Church of the Atonement. (John Ruch)

“The fact of the matter is, the existing regulations are outdated,” Einsweiler said at a March 20 meeting. “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 Public comments are accepted on the site through April 10.

The code is based on the city’s new Comprehensive Land Use Plan, recently approved after an 18-month public process. 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.

Einsweiler sketched out possible bonus systems for Perimeter Center, the “Pill Hill” Medical Center and the apartments-heavy stretch of northern Roswell Road.

For older apartment complexes, Einsweiler also proposes a bonus system, in part to resolve varying, sometimes conflicting city incentives and attitudes about their future. City officials have indicated they view such apartments as outdated and crime-ridden, with Councilmember Tibby DeJulio at one of the zoning meetings describing some local complexes as hubs of “murder, rape, kidnapping.” But Mayor Rusty Paul has spoken of a moral and civic duty to provide income-diverse housing, as have some residents at recent meetings and on social media.

Likewise, the city sees older apartment complexes as opportunities to redevelop into 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.

Under his bonus system proposal, the 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. Fulton County has a years-long, frozen wait list for such programs.

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 succeed 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.

At a March 22 community meeting in the High Point area, one resident was not impressed. “That’s nothing,” she said of the affordability percentage, adding about the formula used to calculate it, “That’s really confusing.”