In the wake of the nationwide George Floyd protests, which came to Sandy Springs City Hall several times last month, Mayor Rusty Paul made an unprecedented call for a citywide dialogue on race and racism.

But getting true diversity in those conversations will be challenging. And it has already been an issue in city plans to redevelop the majority-minority North End, a concept that experts say in part reflects the pattern of systemic racism in Atlanta with its risks of displacement and gentrification.

Protesters on Mount Vernon Highway hold up signs to Sandy Springs City Hall and passing motorists June 8. (File)

“We have to begin the process of trying to eradicate racism from our community. We can’t do anything about the world, the country or the state of Georgia, but we can do something about our community,” Paul said. “Even though it’s not nearly as overt as it was when I was a kid growing up, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t any less of a factor… in our society.”

Tamara Carrera, CEO and executive director of the Community Assistance Center, said getting residents in the North End apartment complexes to participate will be difficult because many may feel they don’t have power to affect government decisions.

“I think that also people feel that, ‘My opinion is not going to make a difference, so why do I have to [spend] even more of my time?’” she said. “They have not always been happy with the decisions that have been made in the area of development.”

Paul proposed opening a dialog on racism on June 2 by asking every club, civic and business group, religious organization and community in the city to get together in small groups to hold roundtable discussions on racism and social injustice.

Every participant would answer every question and share experiences, with group leaders keeping track of what was said and suggested. From this information the mayor, City Council and staff would learn what the city needs to do to reduce rasicm’s hold on Sandy Springs.

City staff already set up a web page at about.civicdinners.com/sandysprings to organize the small groups. Residents can start signing up to be group leaders or to join a group that will be formed.

The virtual meetings will begin this month, said Sharon Kraun, city spokesperson. Staff members are working to coordinate the formation of groups and to create a standard set of questions that all groups will use. The global pandemic is keeping the discussions virtual, but Paul said he hoped in-person town hall meetings and panels could be held in the future.

Paul said his family helped him understand the importance of these discussions. Leadership Sandy Springs Executive Director Jan Paul — who is also married to the mayor — is working on the dialogue as well. The nonprofit leadership development organization sent out a newsletter entitled, “What Can I Do?” to share its plans and a request for volunteers.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

“We are always trying to have conversations that inspire leaders to be catalysts for societal change,” she said. The newsletter asked for volunteers on a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, and she said 50 former participants and alumni of LSS responded. The group also offered support to the city’s Civic Dinners program and plans a speaker series on diversity, equity and inclusion, looking at challenges and successes in meeting those goals.

“I don’t think we can back away from an important conversation. To me that’s what leadership is all about,” she said.

North End input

Sandy Springs has spent several years discussing and planning redevelopment in the North End, with concepts looking at aging apartment complexes and shopping centers. Originally promoted by residents of the neighboring, affluent Huntcliff community, the redevelopment ideas now focus on creating mixed-income communities. But the tensions on input, representation and potential gentrification remain unresolved.

The city is in the middle of a project that intends to create redesigns for the four shopping centers to encourage redevelopment by property owners. The former Loehmann’s Plaza has access to Roswell Road, but no frontage. It sits in front of a single-family neighborhood. The Northridge Shopping Center used to be anchored by a Kroger store before it closed. North River Village Shopping Center is the farthest north. North Springs Shopping Center once was anchored by a Big Lots store, but it sits 90% vacant. Residents have been asked to participate in an online survey that’s intended to gather opinions on how the shopping center property should be redeveloped. The instructional video on how to participate takes more than 11 minutes even before the first question is asked.

City leaders have proposed mixed-use development at those sites. The city’s Next Ten Comprehensive Plan proposes more extensive areas of redevelopment, with property now occupied by apartment buildings designated for mixed-use or commercial mixed-use. The Next Ten plan suggests making the revitalization happen by “incentivizing mixed-used redevelopment of commercial centers and aging apartment complexes” in the North River, City Springs and Northwood/Prado areas.”

Ronald Bayor, former Georgia Tech professor of history and sociology and author of “Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta,” said that displacement of minority communities to suit affluent White communities is part of the metro area’s pattern of systemic racism, and that Sandy Springs has seen it before.

“A lot of those developments are filled with Black tenants,” Bayor said of the North End. “Removing that to build what? Big houses for wealthier Whites? Sandy Springs has a problem regarding that, plus integrating the Hispanic population into the city, which has not been done very well.”

Carrera, whose Community Assistance Center serves many of the low-income residents who live in the North End, said she had been told a housing needs study that is part of the planning would encompass all income levels.

“What I’m hoping that will happen is that they compare that with actual demographics of the city, map out needs for people currently there, they live and they work there,” she said.

Tamara Carrera

Tamara Carrera, executive director of the Community Assistance Center. (File)

She wants the city to come up with a reasonable plan for redevelopment that works for many people and suggested a model other cities have used for mixeduse housing that creates housing for multiple income levels, instead of setting aside a percentage of units as affordable housing.

Melanie and David Couchman worked on one of the city’s task forces on North End redevelopment, but they disagreed with some of its conclusions. They formed Sandy Springs Together to advocate for more affordable housing and community input.

“What we want to avoid is families being displaced. And if they have to be displaced, that they are treated with respect. And that there is some kind of consideration given to them for the displacement,” Melanie Couchman said.

A campaign to get that predominantly Latino part of the community involved can’t be done by the city, as it is seen as an opposing partner.

David and Melanie Couchman of Sandy Springs Together.

“But it has to be done by grassroots, by the community itself,” Carrera said. “Black Lives Matters has a lot of potential, particularly in the black community,” Carrera said. “I think with the Latino community it will take longer because a lot of the immigrants don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing it. Also, they feel if they put themselves in a public position, that their immigrant status may be compromised, even though they are here legally.”

Many will not get involved because they don’t feel safe doing so, Carrera said. She called it a real conundrum because the community must address civic and political issues to make a difference.

“But anytime that you have a community that is not politically involved, it is hard,” Carrera said. “The Black community in Atlanta, they are very well-organized. Even though that is the case, it has taken years to move the needle,” she said. “With the other minority communities, it is going to take a while.”

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