The Sandy Springs Tennis Center could lose parking spaces to a new private preschool in a deal that is drawing questions from city councilmembers and residents.

A Primrose Schools franchise aims to buy the Junior Achievement of Georgia building at 460 Abernathy Road and turn much of its rear parking lot into a state-required playground, city officials said at a Feb. 6 City Council meeting. Junior Achievement and the adjacent city-owned Tennis Center share parking under a 17-year-old easement agreement.

The shared parking lots of the Junior Achievement of Georgia building, at left, and the Sandy Springs Tennis Center, at right and top, as shown in a Fulton County property records aerial photo. Most of the rear parking lot, at the top of the image, would be redeveloped into a playground in the Primrose Schools plan.

City staff recommended changing the agreement to give up the parking spaces and add others elsewhere, for a net loss of 11 spaces, which city Parks & Recreation Director Michael Perry said is roughly 10 percent of the total. But some councilmembers noted that Tennis Center parking today can be overfilled at peak times and that a new school could be traffic-heavy, and they questioned giving up a legal right to use of property without direct compensation.

Other concerns related to the effect on some bigger-picture issues. The proposal comes as the Tennis Center is in the midst of a controversial contract rebidding that could mean a change in operator. There are also budding talks of better public access to a city-owned wild area behind the Tennis Center. And there were questions raised as to whether the original easement agreement – which was not immediately available for review – prohibits such language changes or property sales.

“I just don’t want to make a mistake here,” said City Councilmember Chris Burnett, who was joined by Councilmember Andy Bauman in asking for more information before making a decision.

They will have the time, as the deal was presented in a non-voting “work session.”  The deal could return for a council vote as soon as Feb. 19.

No one from Primrose, Junior Achievement or Tennis Center operator Groslimond Tennis Services spoke at the council meeting. But Perry and Mayor Rusty Paul said they all support the parking change, which also includes allowing Primrose the use of shared spaces an hour earlier on weekdays, at 6 a.m.

“Without the playground area, their deal won’t work,” said Perry.

The main benefit to the city, he said, is Primrose’s projected $41,000 a year in new property taxes. Junior Achievement is a nonprofit that doesn’t pay those taxes. Primrose is an Acworth-based national company with more than 370 schools in 29 states, according to its website. One franchise already operates in Sandy Springs, at 5188 Roswell Road, and others operate in such nearby cities and neighborhoods as Buckhead, Brookhaven and Dunwoody. Primrose is owned by the Atlanta-based private equity firm Roark Capital Group, whose other holdings include the Sandy Springs-headquartered major food corporations Arby’s and FOCUS Brands.

Paul said councilmembers have a right to any information they request, but noted the support from Groslimond and that Junior Achievement has been trying to sell the property for a long time. He called it a “closely worked agreement” that the other key parties support. City records indicate the deal has been worked on by city staff for several months and was nearly placed on the council agenda last September.

Bauman and Burnett had unanswered questions about current and projected traffic and parking capacity if the new school came in. Questioned by Bauman, Perry acknowledged that most of the “new” replacement parking spaces the city proposes around the Tennis Center site are already informally used by visitors during peak times.

Burnett noted the pending rebid of the Tennis Center contract, which came after Groslimond was awarded a renewal in an admittedly flawed process objected to by rival firm Universal Tennis Management. If a different firm wins the contract, it might have a different opinion about the parking situation or do something to draw more visitors.

Bauman also questioned the waiving of the city’s right to use the current rear parking lot.

A Google Earth map shows the Tennis Center with the wooded, wild area at the top. The Junior Achievement building is in the lower left corner.

“We should have an understanding of our value in the easement of that property” and whether giving it up could be considered giving a “gratuity” without compensation in violation of the state constitution, he said.

Improvement of the wild area behind the Tennis Center, where a Marsh Creek tributary flows, is a concept recently raised by Bill Cleveland, president of the Sandy Springs Environmental Project, and Sandy Springs Conservancy Executive Director Melody Harclerode. They held a meeting on the site in early January with Bauman and some other councilmembers to open discussions about clearing invasive species and possible further green space enhancements.

At the Feb. 6 City Council meeting, Cleveland suggested that, in return for giving up the parking spaces, the city should request better public access rights to that wild area. He said that “it would make sense, if you’re going to give away something, you should get something.”

The easement agreement predates the city itself, which was formed in 2005 and obtained the Tennis Center property in 2006 from Fulton County for a nominal amount of about $2,500, according to property records. Tochie Blad, a member of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, told the council that she was on a Fulton County committee that reviewed the original easement agreement, which dates to 2001. She recalled that the property originally was owned by the now defunct company Western Electric, which transferred to the county on the condition it not be sold. She also said the full agreement says its terms cannot be changed. City officials did not respond to her comments.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Councilmember Andy Bauman’s concern about a “gratuity” relates to the state constitution’s provisions, not to the city receiving a payment from the property owner.

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