Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul used his “State of the City” address May 14 to provide an update on three big topics in the city: transportation, water system control and north end redevelopment.
He defended the city’s priority to spur redevelopment in Sandy Springs’ north end against criticisms it could lead to displacement.
“We are not trying to run people out of our community,” Paul said. “I don’t know what else I can do to be more clear.”
He said the Georgia Department of Transportation’s plan to build toll lanes along Ga. 400 and I-285, requiring the demolition of some houses, will be painful for the city, but said it is an opportunity finally provide transit in unserved area.
Paul also gave a review of what Sandy Springs has been doing recently to gain control of the city’s water system, which is run by Atlanta.
Spurring redevelopment in the city’s north end, which runs from Dalrymple Road to the Chattahoochee River, has been a priority since founding Mayor Eva Galambos’ tenure, Paul said.
The city last year created the North End Revitalization Task Force, which drafted a report on how to accomplish that goal, with ideas ranging a new multiuse trail similar to the BeltLine to a massive city-supported “catalyst” project that could inspire other developers to build the north end.
The report has drawn criticism from some residents, including the task force’s co-chairs, who say it could lead to displacement and gentrification. Those co-chairs, David and Melanie Couchman, have started a new organization called Sandy Springs Together to draw opposition to the report. The couple also worked with the city on a secret concept for affordable housing on the north end. The Couchmans attended the “State of the City” event and declined to provide immediate comment.
Another group, called the North End Sandy Springs Improvement Coalition, has formed to build support for the report and for redeveloping the area.
Paul said the criticisms are not valid and that people saying the city plans to displace residents are “distorting the facts” to “fear-monger.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “They’re an essential part of our community. They cut our grass…they serve us in the restaurants.”
The city has not released what parts of the report it plans to move forward with, but has said city staff are further researching it. The task force also was intended to produce an affordable housing policy that has not materialized. In his speech, Paul repeated his initial instruction to the task force, to find a way to reconcile the conflicting goals of spurring redevelopment without causing displacement.
The city has a choice, Paul said. It could borrow money to tear down the apartments and wait for the market to come back to redevelop, which would be expensive and not the kind of route the city wants to take, he said. Or it could let the area continue to “deteriorate,” he said. The city has chosen a third option of doing something that “strengthens an area and preserves what we’ve got,” he said.
“Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t step up and do something,” he said.
The mayors of cities along the top end of I-285 have been studying how to add transit to the GDOT’s toll lanes and have chosen bus rapid transit, or BRT, as the best option. That idea was added to the Fulton Transit Master Plan this month, a move that Paul celebrated.
“Funding is the challenge,” he said. “But getting the other Fulton County mayors to agree to put that segment in the plan is a huge step forward.”
Adding the project to master plan allows the county to seek a sales tax that could fund it.
The toll lanes, which are planned to run along Ga. 400 and I-285, would be “painful,” especially for the people who would lose a home, he said.
“Eighty-eight buildings, many of them houses are going to disappear to try to retrofit the managed lanes,” Paul said. He said in brief interview after the speech he did not know exactly what area of the toll lanes that number of buildings refers to, but the city heard it from GDOT. “It’s a moving target because we’re trying to reduce that number,” he said.
The toll lanes won’t be enough to solve the congestion the area experiences, he said in his speech.
“With the population growth we’re seeing, we cannot build our way with roads out of this,” he said. “And this will be about the last expansion we’re going to be able to do. We’re running out of space to widen roads.”
This means the area needs to seriously invest into different ways to move people, he said. If it doesn’t, companies will “leave just as quickly as they came,” he said.
One of the city’s longstanding goals has been to gain control of the water system, which is owned and operated by the city of Atlanta. Sandy Springs complains that the system is not well run or maintained, and Atlanta is charging residents too high of rates with no justification.
Sandy Springs last year sued Atlanta for not complying with the Open Records Act in requests for documents related to water system operations. Atlanta has disputed all of Sandy Springs’ claims.
Paul said the city conducted the first depositions for the lawsuit this week.
“We’re going to continue to fight to get some control and to be sure the water system is being maintained,” he said. “It’s something we think is crucial to the long-term health and viability of the city.”