The city of Sandy Springs’ North End Revitalization Task Force kicked off its brainstorming for redevelopment of northern Roswell Road on May 16 at Pontoon Brewing — the sort of hip, trendy business leaders want to see proliferate in the area of today’s aging shopping centers and apartment complexes.
A city-hired facilitator sketched out a tentative schedule of public meetings for the task force, starting July 11 and running to year’s end, when a report is expected. And Mayor Rusty Paul, who convened the task force, spoke in detail about its challenging concept — attempting to boost higher-end retail, which hinges on a wealthier customer base, without displacing the working-class residents of the city’s perhaps most diverse area. In his most nuanced and strongest public statements so far, Paul specifically said “gentrification” must be avoided and “upward mobility” increased, and cited Atlanta’s BeltLine as a cautionary tale.
“Retail is the canary in the coal mine for the health of an area,” said Paul, setting its improvement as the ultimate goal. But, he added, “While there’s too much rental housing in the area, we’re not interested in gentrification. I want to make that real clear.”
How to practically resolve such contradictory goals is something Paul is leaving to the task force, along with promises that the city will be flexible on laws and property purchases to help. “Think big and let’s see what we can find out. … And think innovation,” he said.
Twelve of the 13 members of the task force — which is calling itself by the inaccurate but catchy acronym “NERD” — were in attendance. In a note-taking session at the end, many of them requested basic real estate and demographic stats about the target area of Roswell Road north of Dalrymple Road. Other requests ranged from crime statistics to strategies for preserving existing affordable apartments.
City Councilmember Steve Soteres, the task force chair, lives nearby and said he has a simple interest: “I want to be able to walk from my house to dinner and to have an enjoyable experience.”
Another member, Carolyn Axt, said the task force faces a complex task. “If it was simple, it would have happened already,” she said.
Race, class and representation
Intended to be focused on practical solutions, the task force is heavy with developers and financiers, along with some advocates for affordable housing and community-oriented development. However, it lacks direct representation from apartment landlords or tenants, and its public meetings are tentatively slated to be held at City Hall, miles outside the north end. And while the task force is focused on one of the city’s most racially diverse areas, its membership appears to be entirely white.
The word “race” was not spoken during the kickoff meeting, with Paul only referring to it in passing as he called for “not only ethnic diversity [but] also … economic diversity, generational diversity,” rather than diversity “as often defined in popular culture today.”
Economic class, however, was an open topic. Paul said he understands it personally, having grown up in poverty in Alabama. “I mean, we were poor,” he said, and today “we have sawed off the bottom rung of the ladder” for people to work out of poverty. But, he added, “we won’t do that by keeping them perpetually poor, perpetually in rental housing.”
He also noted how class affects school districts, saying, “In Sandy Springs, rich kids go to private schools, poor kids go to public schools, and middle-class kids go to Cobb County.”
Part of the goal Paul suggests is mixed-income redevelopment to create middle-income ownership opportunities. “We have a monoculture here” of rental housing, Paul said of the north end.
“The goal is not to force working-class people to leave. … They’re an essential part of the economy of this city,” Paul said, but to successfully “make them upwardly mobile.” The task force almost must recognize “that change is disruptive” to communities, he said.
Single-family residential areas — notably including Huntcliff, the exclusive neighborhood where several task force members live — are not up for such diversity-oriented remaking in the task force’s loosely defined area. In city planning, they’re “protected neighborhoods,” which is local jargon for exclusionary zoning, where density is kept low and property prices high.
Paul said the city is willing to provide a wide variety of resources in public-private partnership for the right redevelopment strategy, such as permitting smaller or denser housing, waiving impact fees charged to large projects or changing land uses.
“If they’re reasonable, we’re willing to be flexible,” he said. “The council meets every two weeks. We can change the law that quick.”
There is also the possibility of the city buying or developing land itself. The city already owns a parcel at 8475 Roswell Road, a long-vacant gas station it land-banked a few years ago. Another related possibility is city financing, such as through bonds. City officials have previously said major redevelopment in the north end is probably infeasible without government subsidy.
“I think if we had a good plan, the city is willing to put skin in the game,” Paul said.
City Springs, the city’s new, $229 million civic center, is an example of the scale of redevelopment the city is willing to undertake. Paul said City Springs was a “big rock in the pond to create ripples,” but that when it comes to the north end, “maybe that’s not we need in this area.” Instead, the city might create smaller “catalyst” projects to prove the potential of the area to developers. The city may acquire more property or consider “preapproved plans” for certain sites, he said.
Paul also addressed transparency issues with north end planning and general city affordable housing policy. In January, the Reporter revealed that David Couchman and Melanie Noble-Couchman, a local philanthropic couple, had worked closely with city officials behind the scenes on affordability and zoning policy for at least two years, including a secret specific redevelopment concept for part of the north end. The Couchmans are now co-chairs of the task force, and an affordable housing consultant who worked on their concept is a task force member. But the Couchmans and City Councilmember Steve Soteres, who chairs the task force, say it is starting with a clean slate, not that particular concept.
At the task force kickoff, Paul dismissed the Reporter’s coverage as “flights of fancy” and spoke strongly of openness, saying, “There is no secret formula. There is no secret document. There is no secret policy.”
In fact, there was a secret policy document, called “Realizing the Dream,” a blueprint for the task force, which the Reporter recently obtained after months of claims from Paul and city staff that it did not exist or was private. Internal city emails show that Paul had the Couchmans privately review “Realizing the Dream” last summer and shared it with City Manager John McDonough and Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert. When the Reporter requested those officials’ copies, noting the Open Records Act would require their preservation, city Communications Director Sharon Kraun said they had “trashed it” and that Paul agreed to provide a hard copy instead.
The undated version Paul provided is an outline of challenges and goals for a north end task force for the “dream” of redevelopment. Paul said it is the final draft, but his emails with the Couchmans describe content not found in it, including the ideas of upward mobility and impacts on schools that he later discussed at the task force kickoff. Whatever the timing, it is clear that Paul’s thoughts about redevelopment have expanded in recent months, partly with the Couchmans’ influence.