It’s showtime at City Springs.
After years of dreaming and planning for a new downtown, the curtain is rising on the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. Debuting Aug. 11 with a “City Springs Day” of free short performances followed by a concert by jazz great Branford Marsalis, the PAC is the key attraction to the city’s new mixed-use civic center — what Mayor Rusty Paul calls “everybody’s neighborhood.”
The project is also a large-scale experiment in “place-making” — efforts to create vibrant public spaces. Other area examples include Brookhaven’s Peachtree Creek Greenway, Dunwoody’s Project Renaissance and Buckhead’s potential park capping Ga. 400. But Sandy Springs’ version is especially ambitious, a public-private investment of well over $230 million that includes a new City Hall, a large park, hundreds of apartments, shops and restaurants, and arts spaces to not only entertain, but also to establish an arts education program.
It’s an experiment that in some ways has already begun, as privately developed mixed-use projects inspired by the civic center plan began going up nearby two years ago, and new streets like Denmark Drive have opened as part of the downtown “grid.”
Opening in phases throughout this year after a relatively fast four-year construction, City Springs has already successfully staged major events like the Heritage Sandy Springs Farmers Market and Food That Rocks restaurant tasting, and the new City Hall has been in business since May. Hundreds of people — including some of the owners of City Springs businesses — are living within the complex and enjoying its new downtown lifestyle. The PAC has drawn a new musical theater company whose tickets are selling like hotcakes and next year will host the likes of the Atlanta Opera and the Atlanta Symphony. And more may be coming, as city officials say hotel developers are interested in the area immediately around the civic center.
It remains to be seen how all of those pieces work together in the long term, and there is a lot of experimenting left to do. After construction delays, City Springs has been opening in stages, and the retail and restaurant part is still a month or more away from a debut. A foundation intended to subsidize smaller shows, shape the still undefined arts education element and spur community donations is also not yet fully up to speed.
For now, the stage is set, the curtain is rising, and the public — based on comments at public events and ticket sales — is eager to see the show for themselves. For a full schedule, tickets and other details, see citysprings.com.
A season begins
The PAC will host its grand opening and season kick-off events Aug. 11-19. The mixed-use civic center sits on a 14-acre site bounded by Sandy Springs Circle, Mount Vernon Highway and Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads.
The City Hall, which opened in May is a gleaming, glass-walled tower five stories high, fronting on a park and flanked by fountains, while the Performing Arts Center, which boasts the 1,100-seat Byers Theatre, fronts Roswell Road with a towering glass facade and a bank of lighted fountains. The city still needs to add the final touches to the development, including adding outdoor signage and the City Hall sign.
Tibby DeJulio, who has sat on the City Council since the city incorporated in 2005, has been involved with the plans from the beginning.
“I’m very proud of the facility,” said DeJulio. “I think it’s turned out even better than we anticipated. It’s a beautiful place.”
The civic center was originally conceived with the desire to create a downtown in Sandy Springs. Creating a “unique, vibrant, walkable City Center rich in amenities” was originally envisioned in a 2012 “City Center Master Plan” created by consultants with public input. Following that plan, the city has not only built the civic center, but also encouraged denser development in a City Springs “district” roughly running along Roswell Road between Allen and Johnson Ferry roads.
“There’s no question that that’s been accomplished by doing this,” DeJulio said of the place-making goal. “You can see that by all the outgrowth coming away from City Springs. We expect there to be more of that over the years.”
Watching a vision unfold
Eight years ago, the Reporter held a panel discussion with citizens involved in the early discussions for what became the City Center Master Plan and, now, City Springs. Among them were Trisha Thompson, the former president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, and Kirk Demetrops, president and founder of Sandy Springs-based MidCity Real Estate Partners. Both are now watching those early visions unfold.
Demetrops is a former owner of the lot where the Adley at City Springs mixed-use project is being built within the City Springs district. He’s also now the developer of Alpharetta’s City Center, a similar downtown place-making project.
He said City Springs should be a “tremendous asset for the city for years.”
“With our … experience [and] involvement in town centers, we find that there is a desire to create an identity, or personality, for the town center. The Performing Arts Center and distinctive architecture of the entire project, in my opinion, are the unique features,” he said.
Although Thompson agrees City Springs is an improvement over the vacant Target building and parking lot it partly replaced, she said she’s not completely on board with some of the other development.
“Am I thrilled at some of the build-outs? No,” she said. “I think we needed stricter design standards. A few of the new properties look like the stick-built [wood construction] we tried so hard to do away with. In those, the quality just isn’t there.
“Do I think that what’s there now is 1,000 percent better than the old Target and the huge asphalt parking lot? Yes,” she added. “And I do like the new street configurations with the intersection improvements.”
Thompson said she’ll have to wait until the theater is open to give an opinion on the development’s success.
“That’s what the PAC was geared to do — provide foot traffic and evening street action. The interior shops and food sites aren’t open, either. Both of those parts of the whole are still missing,” she said.
Much of the redevelopment so far has come in the form of dense multi-use apartment complexes along Roswell Road. Demand is reportedly solid for the apartments, but they have been controversial — both among the community and sometimes on the City Council — for creating traffic and perceptions that renters are less involved in the community than homeowners. The scale and price tag of the civic center also has its skeptics, who privately refer to the complex as a “Taj Mahal” or similar joking names.
The City Springs civic center plan received some criticism when first introduced — including from the city’s founding mayor and city center visionary, the late Eva Galambos. In letters to the Reporter at the time, she questioned whether the Performing Arts Center would be successful and whether meeting spaces risked becoming a convention center that might fail to compete with the private market.
DeJulio, who worked closely with Galambos while she was mayor, said he continued briefing her on the project after she left office. As the project developed, she became more supportive of it, he said.
DeJulio said he, too, was initially concerned the city could not afford the project, but after he was assured through studies it could be done, he was on board.
“The Performing Arts Center evolved because, obviously, the main purpose of being a city is to serve the people,” he said.
Developers are thinking of constructing a hotel in the area, DeJulio said, and the city would consider if it fits there if something formal is brought to them. City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said no official plans have been filed yet.
City Springs life
Some people who are already living in the adjacent complexes say the city has accomplished its goal of place-making. In fact, some of the entrepreneurs who are opening businesses in the civic center’s retail spaces have moved into its apartments, embodying the live-work-play, pedestrian-friendly lifestyle the city is aiming for.
One of them is Dave Green, who is opening a restaurant in City Springs called The Select. He says the city has “definitely” achieved the vision of giving residents somewhere they could live, work and be entertained.
“More than anything else, it’s great to walk to work,” he said.
–Evelyn Andrews and John Ruch