Ken Dishman stood in the parking lot of a recently renovated strip mall on a recent afternoon and pointed over the cars zooming by on Roswell Road. The city councilmember noted a tidy green space with flowering trees that had replaced a long-vacant gas station, and a new Wendy’s going into a burned-out restaurant space. And he said it’s not nearly enough.
“Those are incremental changes that certainly help overall, but they’re not going to change the game,” he said.
Voters elected Dishman four years ago to help spur massive redevelopment of the apartments and shopping centers on this northern stretch of Roswell Road, and it hasn’t happened — yet.
Instead, city government is powering up a massive effort to make that change. This week, the City Council approved a new zoning code as the last piece of its “Next Ten” urban planning vision, which calls for transforming the city’s northern sprawl into a new mixed-use, mixed-income community with a pedestrian- and transit-friendly Roswell Road.
And that plan isn’t supposed to sit on a shelf. Mayor Rusty Paul says that he will soon form an “advisory board” on ways to make the redevelopment happen.
“It will look at implementation of the Next Ten plan in the north end of the city and how we can revitalize that area with a healthier mix of residential types as well as retail/commercial,” Paul said.
Many local homeowners and businesses express enthusiasm for the vision of what they often call “higher-end” redevelopment. But there are also some concerns about gentrification displacing hundreds of residents and disrupting existing businesses.
There’s also the question of whether such large-scale redevelopment will happen at all. It hasn’t so far, as skyrocketing rents keep older properties profitable. Some developers say the new zoning code has too many restrictions that will get in the way.
Dishman is among the officials who believe the higher-end redevelopment can happen and that it can include housing for people of all income levels.
But, he acknowledges, it might take a public-private partnership like City Springs, the new downtown civic center where the city is pitching in $220 million through bonds.
The corridor’s future may have to come “in a similar manner where the city put its full weight behind the redevelopment of City Springs and the city center,” Dishman said.
Opportunities and challenges
From Dalymple Road to the Roswell border at the Chattachoochee River, Roswell Road is a classic suburban highway. Five lanes of asphalt are flanked by car-oriented strip malls and apartment complexes, many dating back to the 1960s through 1980s.
The housing ranges from apartments that accept federally subsidized rents to the upscale Huntcliff neighborhood, which has its own horse stable and circles the Cherokee Country Club, a favorite haunt of the city’s power brokers.
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area’s Island Ford park is a major feature of the area, but the river is virtually invisible and unreachable from the main drag. MARTA’s long-discussed extension of the Red Line to a possible Northridge Road station is another development opportunity the city anticipates.
“Imagine activating the river up here so it becomes an amenity you don’t just drive over,” Dishman said.
About 18 months ago, Dishman gathered an informal committee of residents and real estate professionals to brainstorm ways to leverage redevelopment. Among the members was Steve Soteres, a Huntcliff resident and construction executive who now is seeking to succeed Dishman on the City Council. Dishman chose not to run again.
Soteres said that strategies were hard to come by, but the benefits were clear: “enhancement of property value”; more dining and shopping options for his neighborhood; and improvement of the schools by reducing the number of “transient” tenant families.
“It improves everything for everybody,” he said.
The community has been frustrated by near-misses on some recent strip-mall sites.
A “European store” proposed at the North River shopping center turned out to be the grocery chain Lidl, and that development was driven out due to concerns about traffic and the store’s discount market. Redevelopment of the former Big Lots-anchored North Springs center near Dalrymple has been stalled by pollution cleanup from a former dry cleaning business that, according to Dishman and real estate sources, will limit the property’s reuse to renovation, though that may include an upscale grocer.
“For our property taxpayers, there’s not enough for them” in terms of retail and restaurants, Dishman says.
Pontoon Brewing Company, on the other hand, is a recent win in attracting hip business. The beer-maker is expected to open on Dunwoody Place this fall and to offer sit-down drinks and such events as a river-rafting tour in conjunction with Roswell’s Shoot the Hooch.
Pontoon CEO Sean O’Keefe said the company chose the area over about 40 other locations for its high traffic and because “the redevelopment potential for that area is really untapped.”
“We see it as the start of turning that area into something really fun,” O’Keefe said. “I think the direction Sandy Springs wants to [go], they want to bring that entertainment, that almost tourism aspect, to it.”
But the old strip malls still nurture new businesses. Empyrean Tattoo & Art Studio, located in a shopping center near Hightower Trail, is about to celebrate its third anniversary in September. On a recent weekday afternoon, Tiffin Greer, who runs the front of the shop, was busy signing in clients for custom body art.
Greer said that, aside from terrible rush-hour traffic, it’s a “great location” with good visibility and plentiful parking.
The Empyrean staff also patronizes other nearby businesses, from lunch at the Japanese restaurant Enzo to drinks at the neighborhood bar the Rusty Nail.
The Rusty Nail has been a Roswell Road fixture for more than 40 years. On a recent visit, everyone in the bar greeted a regular by shouting his name in unison, and the bartender handed him his favored beer without the need for an order.
Jason Sheetz, who opened the Hammocks Trading Company restaurant near Dalrymple in 2012, says it’s not a big deal if such old-school places are lost to redevelopment. He said the corridor needs “newness and variety and choices for entertainment.”
“The neighbors want restaurants and shops and everything and up-and-coming city has … and of course, they want it without traffic,” he said with a laugh, adding that he feels the same way. The corridor also needs a better sense of place, he said, describing how directions to Hammocks often amount to “make a right, kind of past an abandoned strip mall.”
Another excited business is Empyrean’s neighbor, the Sherwood Event Hall, where many of the Next Ten planning meetings were held.
“I would love to see more family-friendly businesses, especially businesses that engage more with our surrounding community,” said Sherwood owner Gia Azhar. “We are particularly interested in renewal of this area. Our business would benefit greatly from higher-scale surrounding establishments. It would be great that Sherwood is remembered for other reasons than being located in a ‘strip mall.’”
Boyd Simpson isn’t so sure the city will get that redevelopment anytime soon. Simpson literally owns City Hall — his Simpson Organization is the city’s landlord at the Morgan Falls office park — and he’s not a fan of many redevelopment restrictions in the new zoning code.
“I just think it’s inevitable the amount of new development in Sandy Springs, independent of location, will diminish,” he said.
Simpson said there’s “no question” that most of Roswell Road has low vacancy rates, and he has no plans to redevelop Morgan Falls after City Hall moves into its new City Springs facility next year. The property is renting well, he said.
The zoning code isn’t the only tool, however. The city recently improved new tax- and fee-waiving incentives for small businesses that locate to such areas.
Clearing out older apartments
While upgrading commercial areas is the goal, city officials view the many apartment complexes as the factor that must change first. That means getting developers to tear them down and replace them with denser housing projects that contain a high percentage of ownership units.
City officials often describe the apartments as a hot spot for crime and fire safety hazards and as an economic drag on the area. City statistics also show they make the north end one of the few areas of racial diversity and housing affordability.
Dishman and other officials are convinced they can create a new community that will be affordable to people of all income levels. But their specific policies have been criticized as contradictory and confusing, and have changed significantly several times during Next Ten planning.
Newly updated economic development policies and the zoning code include various incentives to replace apartments with mostly ownership housing and to make a certain amount of the units affordable at various income levels. But in a last-minute change, the City Council scrapped an affordable housing mandate in the zoning code — though it could return — with Dishman in particular noting it could hinder redevelopment.
The Atlanta Apartment Association, an industry advocacy group that happens to be headquartered on Dunwoody Place, was among those objecting to the mandate.
“Our members have expressed concern with the city’s mixed message about affordable housing,” said Jim Fowler, the association’s president, in comments prior to the mandate’s elimination. “… Further, we are concerned with the potential of these policies to displace apartment community residents and increase the cost of housing for all.”
The city says it will form an affordable housing task force to come up with a new policy. It will be separate from the northern Roswell Road advisory board, but in practice, that area is likely to be where policy will play out first.
Schools and ‘transients’
A side benefit of replacing apartments with more ownership housing, Dishman and Soteres say, is reducing the number of “transient” students in local schools, which they presented as a challenge while saying the schools are good. However, there are differing views on that issue.
Betty Klein, a parent of two North Springs Charter High School students and an advocate for rebuilding the school facility, agreed that redevelopment would bring better “balance” and “equality” to schools and the community.
“By removing the older apartments with new development of affordable houses and apartments, we not only stabilize our community but we are improving the living conditions of all of that area,” she said.
Bo Lefkoff, a former Sandy Springs Charter Middle School PTA president and current parent-teacher organization member at North Springs, said the bigger “transient” issue is with school leadership — such as the six principals in eight years at the middle school — and parents sending kids to private schools.
She said it’s true that parents from renter families often don’t have as much volunteer involvement or the resources to get students to pre- or after-school activities. But, she said, the middle school PTA never had a problem filling its board or signing up volunteers. She said she doubts that “having [more] homeowners north of Dalrymple would really affect the schools that much … I think it would affect the perception.”
Lefkoff said she knows that “perception” well, as she was “scared to death of all the rumors” when her son first attended the middle school. “The perception was, there’s gangs. There’s drugs. There’s violence,” she said, while in fact, the school turned out to offer a great education.