Two years after setting North End redevelopment as a priority, Sandy Springs’ city government is heading into 2020 with a $300,000 order for conceptual designs and talk of a “Revitalization Zone” whose purpose is unclear.
It remains to be seen whether 2020 will be the year that the brainstorming plays out as a redevelopment plan – and whether the city will play a financial role, as officials have long said it likely will. Meanwhile, an advocacy group is keeping the pressure on for any redevelopment to preserve affordable housing.
At a Dec. 3 meeting, the City Council awarded a $307,260 contract to architect firm TSW for the designs of four shopping centers in the North End to push for the redevelopment of the area.
At the meeting, Mayor Rusty Paul made it a point to clarify that the designs will not be set in stone and the four projected sites are not necessarily the ones to be developed.
“These are illustrations,” Paul said at the meeting. “We are not designing specifically what we want to see on these specific sites.”
A work session was scheduled at the meeting for city staff to present a “North End Revitalization Zone,” but the session was removed from the agenda on the city’s website before the meeting with no discussion and no explanation of what the term meant.
City spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the work session was removed because the presentation was not ready and that the zone will be explained in the presentation when it is ready.
“When it’s ready, it will go before council,” Kraun said.
Kraun did not clarify what the nature of the zone is.
The idea of redeveloping the shopping centers follows a lengthy process and report from the city-formed North End Revitalization Task Force, which sought ways to spur redevelopment as well as retain and create affordable housing.
“There is a lot of opportunities up there,” District 2 City Councilmember Steve Soteres, who chaired the task force, said at the Dec. 3 meeting. “It seems like a lot of excitement starting to percolate.”
The task force worked for several months in 2018 to draft a plan to bring new development to the north end, ultimately deciding on six key proposals: build a multiuse trail; incentivize new mixed-use and mixed-income developments; make Roswell Road improvements; build new streets and pedestrian connections; create new access to the Chattahoochee River; and build a community center and swimming complex.
The North End is the area of Sandy Springs stretching from Dalrymple Road in the south to the Chattahoochee River in the north, and from the Dunwoody border on the east to the west side of Roswell Road.
The design includes plans for four shopping centers in the North End: the former Loehmann’s Plaza (8610 Roswell Road); the Northridge Shopping Center (8331-8371 Roswell Road); the North River Shopping Center (8765-8897 Roswell Road) and the Big Lots Center (7300 Roswell Road).
At the meeting, the mayor said the designs are to be used for brainstorming purposes. Paul also said the four sites are being used as examples and the city cannot dictate what will go on them because they are privately owned.
“We are not designing what we want to see on specific sites. We are just using that as an example of what could be done,” Paul said. “We are not designing what is going to be done on that private piece of property.”
Every January, the mayor and City Council hold a “retreat” – a lengthy meeting where they establish policy priorities for the year. At the 2018 retreat, where North End redevelopment was put on the priority list, then-City Manager John McDonough said that any type of plan to redevelop the area will likely involve significant public investment.
It remains to be unseen what role the city will play in the redevelopment, if any. When asked if the city has generated any further details on funding, subsidies or purchasing any of the shopping centers, Kraun said the city is not assuming anything without a public input process.
“We are not pre-supposing anything,” Kraun said in an email. “We are going through a deliberate, community involved planning process, with the expectation of recommendations on viable alternatives for moving forward.”
At the 2019 retreat, the council reviewed the plan and Paul had said he’s asked city staff to bring back cost estimates and recommendations for what could move forward.
Kraun said the 2020 retreat agenda is still in the works and will be finalized with input from the new city manager, Andrea Surratt, who will assume the position on Jan. 6, 2020.
Paul emphasized at the Dec. 3 meeting that if and when the North End is redeveloped, it will still have affordable housing due to the proposals in the North End Revitalization Task Force’s final report.
“Not only the creation of new affordable housing for middle-class families,” Paul said at the Dec. 3 meeting. “But also, the preservation of workforce housing in that area is one of the requirements.”
The task force report is a list of priorities and concepts that are not legally enforceable. At the beginning of the task force process, the city said part of its work would be to propose a citywide affordable housing policy. But that did not happen and such a policy has yet to emerge from any other city process.
Kraun did not specifically answer questions about Paul’s comments about requiring affordable housing in the North End and the status of a citywide policy.
“It is a significant issue throughout the metro area,” Kraun said in an email. “There is not a simple answer, and it will take creative solution ideation and ongoing discussion to further any initiatives.”
Longtime residents and philanthropist David and Melanie Couchman were co-chairs of the task force but launched the affordable housing advocacy group Sandy Springs Together in January in opposition to the final report.
They opposed the plan because they believe it would drive gentrification and displacement and have said the report does not do enough for housing affordability and preservation.
The Couchmans sent out an email under SST urging residents to encourage council members to face the challenge of welcoming redevelopment while preserving housing affordability.
“The city wants to send a message to developers that the ‘North End is open for business,’” Melanie Couchman said in an email. “By taking this action, the city has sent the first signal.”
Melanie Couchman said she welcomes revitalization if it allows the people currently living in the area to still comfortably live there.
“These families are our workforce and our neighbors and many of them have already been priced out of the city due to rising rents and redevelopment,” Melanie Couchman said.
Before serving on the North End task force, the Couchmans worked with the city for years behind the scenes for years on affordable housing policy, particularly in the North End.
TSW is required to design a total of 12 plans, three for each shopping center. One design will conform to the city’s Development Code, one will potentially require variances, and the third will be “unique” and would not be bound by any code requirements, according to a city procurement document.
The city is requiring that TSW hold at least two public meetings: one at the beginning of the plan to take public input; and the second at the end to display the preferred conceptual plans.
At least one meeting must also be held at each of the properties. The designs will also include the estimated cost.
Kraun said the sites are being used to identify what changes may be needed in the zoning of the areas to help generate change.
“These sites are being used as pro forma,” Kraun said. “It is a process, not a quick-fix project. It will take time and further discussion.”