Massive, gleaming new downtown marks Sandy Springs’ evolution as a city

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Every few months, Rusty Paul visits the Arlington Memorial Park cemetery. He places a stone on the grave of Eva Galambos, the founding mother of Sandy Springs. And he tells her about the progress of its new downtown.

In the 1970s, when Galambos first dreamed of a city of Sandy Springs, she could not have imagined what it is today. Now 13 years old, the North Fulton municipality of 105,000 people is on the verge of opening a $229 million arts-and-government complex that will solidify its position as a modern city.

That evolution is even more striking when the genesis of Sandy Springs is taken into account: it was built by small-government evangelists who won a hard-fought battle for incorporation in 2005, after decades of trying. Their success spawned a slew of new cities, and attempts at new cities, across metro Atlanta.

For Paul, the mayor, the City Springs project is a chance to create an identity. It’s a chance to form a gathering place for a community that has always had a name, and a desire to preserve its neighborhoods, but never knew quite what it wanted to be — except, perhaps, independent.

“If you’re going to have a larger sense of community, you’ve got to have a place to do it,” Paul said. “It’s the city’s front porch. I think we’ll be a better, stronger, more engaged community, as a result.”

The complex includes a new city hall and a performing arts center, along with shops, apartments and a town green. The brick-and-glass structure will hold city council meetings and the new City Springs Theatre Company, along with other performances. But it’s intended to do so much more.

The complex was designed to bring people in. Cubbyholes in the lobby of City Hall invite small groups, and meeting rooms throughout the complex are meant to attract larger ones.

A wide balcony can be used as an event space or a place to gaze out over the park below, where interactive fountains will fill with playing children. The performing arts center even has a city-owned bar, which will be open during the day and into the evening, whether or not there are shows. Drinks will be allowed outside.

“It’s meant to be light, bright, inviting,” said Sharon Kraun, a spokesperson for the city.

+ The new downtown city center, City Springs, is shown in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Wednesday, March 28, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Linda Bain, the curator for the inaugural City Springs sculpture competition, said for the 24 years she’s lived in the area, Sandy Springs has largely been seen as a bedroom community, as a pass-through. Creating a downtown area “really firms our identity,” she said.

“I think this is a great start,” Bain said. “I think they really tried to think through what would make people linger and stay.”

The creation of City Springs answers residents’ long-standing need to have arts, culture, a night life without having to leave the city, Bain said. But how does it jibe with Sandy Springs’ famously bare-bones operations?

The city is paying for construction with $150 million in bonds, Paul said, but had saved the remaining $79 million cost of the project in the years since its founding. And the city — whose workforce is primarily made up of contractors, outside of public safety jobs — isn’t hiring any more full-time employees to run the center, Kraun said.

‘It’s a risk’

That’s not quite good enough for Josh Tant, an American Eagle manager who moved to Sandy Springs from Lawrenceville about a year and a half ago in part because the city’s philosophy was in line with his Libertarian beliefs.The high-windowed structure is beautiful, he said, but he didn’t know if it — or any downtown area — was necessary.

“It does always come back to cost for me,” he said. “It’s a risk.”

Still, Tant said he thinks Sandy Springs is lacking in night life, and if there are concerts or other events there, then yes, he’d probably go to them. And if the project increases economic activity, well, that’s good, too. Helen Benkel, a grandmother and retiree, said she, too, is excited for the cultural options. But she wishes they had come sooner, and with less traffic.

Joel Carver, the CEO of a privately held hotel corporation, said the project could help define downtown Sandy Springs. But does the city need to do that? He said he’s not sure.

However, Paul is sure. Sandy Springs formed to deal with technical issues residents found fault with in Fulton County, he said, and it’s done that well. But now, the city has a chance to do more, and to be known for more than strip malls and its form of outsourced government.

“There’s a lot of our future aspirations that are hung on that facility,” he said.

With City Springs, Paul said, companies like Mercedes-Benz USA and UPS, which are already in the city, will grow roots there. They will hold their shareholder meetings at the 1,075-seat Byers Theatre, or sponsor a dance performance at the 350-seat Studio Theatre next door. (It doubles as city council chambers.) Their leaders and workers will attend events and performances, and will see the value of being in this specific community.

“We’re going to build the connective tissue brick by brick,” Paul said. “It’s going to bring people together in new and different ways. It will allow us to know people outside our neighborhood.”

The brickwork and water features near the green echo the Chattahoochee River. The roads have been configured to allow more connectivity. Lawn chairs will invite people to sit, to stay. Some of the 294 apartments and townhouses already have residents.

This week, the retailers will be announced. The city expects to make $120,000 a year for the first five years from retail rents; the rents will increase every five years, with an expected revenue of $283,000 annually by year 46. That money will go toward paying off the cost of the development.

Additionally, Sandy Springs made $12.5 million selling the residential property for development.

The names of the first performers for the arts center will come soon. City Hall will move from a low-slung office building off Roswell Road to the new facility at Johnson Ferry Road and Mount Vernon Highway in early May, with the rest of the complex opening over the summer. Paul said there’s a hunger in Sandy Springs for what the new downtown will bring. Allison Toller sees it, too.

Toller, the head of external affairs for Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, said as far as the city has come, residents like her want it to continue to evolve.

Toller just moved closer to City Springs, and said she hopes the complex will become a regional destination, like Decatur’s downtown.

“You get the sense that the city is transforming itself,” she said. “It’s really happening.”

Galambos, at first, resisted the scope of the downtown project, Paul said. She thought it was too big, too much. But Tibby DeJulio, the Sandy Springs mayor pro tem, said he had spoken to Galambos right before her 2015 death. And, he said, she was OK with the direction the city was taking.

“Our aspirations grew as we heard more from the community,” Paul said of the project, which received the support of 85 percent of residents in a city-sponsored poll. “This is Sandy Springs’ gift to itself. The city council is just in charge of the wrapping paper.”

BY THE NUMBERS:

$229 million total cost of the project

20,000 square feet of retail space

21,254 square feet of green space

1,075 seats in the Byers Theatre

350 seats in the Studio Theatre

294 apartments and townhouses

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