A task force that will study ways to spur redevelopment and propose affordable housing policy in Sandy Springs’ north end is now formally in place following a March 20 City Council vote.
The chair is City Councilmember Steve Soteres. And the “co-chairs” are the couple advocating a previously secret mixed-income housing proposal, recently revealed by the Reporter, that has strongly influenced north end and affordable housing policy behind the scenes. As in all previous public discussions about north end planning, Mayor Rusty Paul and councilmembers again said nothing at all about that concept during the task force vote.
The North End Revitalization Task Force will work for the rest of the year “to develop a vision and plan for redevelopment that are shared by the residents and private interests in the area – and will benefit the city as a whole,” according to a city staff memo. “It is likely that the plan will suggest a role for city government, which would be framed as a set of recommendations for the City Council to consider.”
The memo nowhere uses the term “affordable,” but does say, “Any vision must include a wide range of options for housing and rents to foster change, but also to provide that families can continue to work and live in Sandy Springs.”
The group name used in the memo is the “North Springs” task force, but Paul said that was his typo and that it actually is called the “North End” task force.
Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said the goal is to have a report from the task force ready for discussion at the City Council’s annual retreat in January 2019, where the year’s policy goals are laid out. The task force will work within a process, including community input meetings, proposed be run by Atlanta-based consulting firm Civic Strategies at an estimated cost of $9,000; contract negotiations will now begin, according to city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
The task force’s membership is heavy on development industry executives, as well as including current and former City Council members and the head of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods. None of the members were identified fully in the City Council discussion; for a previous Reporter story with the full list, click here.
“This is a blue-ribbon group of people,” said Paul, who privately selected the members. He said most have direct experience in development and housing and will serve the city well.
The task force is chaired by Councilmember Soteres, whose District 2 include a large part of the north end. He resides in its exclusive Huntcliff community, and is also an executive at Sandy Springs-based Choate Construction Company.
The “co-chairs,” Paul said, will be David Couchman and Melanie Noble-Couchman, the philanthropic couple behind the secret mixed-income plan for a specific sub-area of the north end, known in internal city emails as the “River Springs Initiative.”
Internal city emails show that over the past two years, the Couchmans have had strong and direct influence on city policy behind the scenes: vetting a councilmember’s response to media questions about affordable housing; working with a top city planning official on a multi-year program of policy and public persuasion on affordable housing; and reviewing and commenting on a draft policy document written by Paul called “Realizing the Dream,” which has yet to be publicly discussed.
But during the vote to establish the task force, Paul’s only description of the Couchmans was that “more than anything else, their role has been to bring people to me” with expertise on redevelopment issues.
Another task force member is also involved in the Couchmans’ concept: Meaghan Shannon-Vlkovic, an executive in the Southeast office of Enterprise Community Partners, which provides technical assistance on affordable housing creation and preservation. Internal city emails show that the Couchmans proposed her to Paul as a member, and that he was hesitant because she is not a resident of the city, while saying she might serve as a consultant. However, she ended up on the final list. During the vote, Paul, a former official in the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, referred to Shannon-Vlkovic only by saying her organization is one he “worked on and off with since my days in HUD.”
City officials have proposed redevelopment of the north end’s older shopping centers and apartments along northern Roswell Road for years. Goals have shifted over the years, from early talk of essentially gentrifying the area to more recent concepts of mixed-income, mixed-use redevelopment that made its way into the new land-use plan and zoning code. Middle-income and possible deeper affordability in housing have been part of the discussion. More recently, Paul has spoken of redevelopment goals in metaphors of rescue or disaster prevention.
“I don’t think the north end is failing … but there are warning signs we need to get on top of,” he said during the task force discussion.