Sandy Springs prepares to map a north end redevelopment strategy

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Redevelopment of the north end’s aging shopping centers and apartment complexes became an official city priority on Feb. 6. Now the city just has to figure out exactly what that means.

Mass displacement and gentrification to lure chef-driven restaurants and shopping boutiques? Mixed-income housing? Apartments or condos? A magical mix of all the above and more?

A discussion at the Jan. 23 City Council retreat clarified little. Ultimately, officials will wait for a report from Mayor Rusty Paul’s long-discussed redevelopment “task force,” whose members he said he will announce by early March. But there is one bottom-line answer: Any type of plan likely will involve significant public investment.

“The numbers don’t work without some type of subsidy,” said City Manager John McDonough in discussing apartment complex redevelopment costs.

The general area eyed by the Couchmans in their concept for a large-scaled, mixed-income, mixed-use redevelopment to ensure affordable housing in the city’s north end. (Google Earth)

Notably not mentioned at all was the recently revealed behind-the-scenes concept for a large-scale mixed-income redevelopment proposed by a local philanthropic couple, David Couchman and Melanie Noble-Couchman, even though they were in attendance.

Paul spoke in terms of rescuing the north end from imminent “collapse” and said the task force nominees will be people with practical development experience.

One resident of the target area, Valeria Palmer, said in an interview that she’d rather see the city “support what’s already here instead of remake it in a landscaped, bland image.” She’s owned a condo on River Run Drive for over 25 years, since before there was a city of Sandy Springs, and now fears its leaders aim to “super-gentrify” the area.

“I think they’d like to redevelop all multifamily [housing] under $300,000 out of existence,” she said.

Visions and funding
At the council retreat, officials generally rehashed ideas and information gathered over the past several years by two largely dormant groups: an Economic Development Advisory Committee, comprised of many developers, and an informal group formed by former City Councilmember Ken Dishman, which included developers and some residents. Some of their ideas were codified last year in the city’s updated land-use plan.

As presented by city Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy, the concepts maintain the perspective of higher-income property owners in the area who want higher-end retail closer to home. That essentially means changing the area’s demographics to higher-income, she said.

The concepts have some interest in housing affordability, largely couched in such coded terms as “missing middle” and “workforce” housing, meaning moderate- or middle-income affordability. The issue was raised with some sense of caution, as when Worthy said, “I like to tell people, apartments in and of themselves are not a negative thing,” but the current stock is aging.

Conflicting goals of gentrification and affordability are tensions in the concepts. Another tension is that redevelopment might gain middle-income housing by displacing today’s lower-income housing, and in one of the city’s most racially and ethnically diverse areas, too. Complicating any resolution are already high property values. Worthy said acquiring and redeveloping a single apartment complex could cost well over $40 million.

Officials discussed a wide range of financing and funding options, such as city-issued bonds, a self-taxing business district and public-private partnerships with nonprofits, schools and private developers. One example discussed at length was Marietta’s controversial $68 million bond-fund buyout of the Franklin Gateway area, where apartments were gentrified and have been partly replaced by an IKEA store and a training facility for Atlanta’s new pro soccer team.

Worthy said city staff have asked for a review of all possible methods, but especially “housing funds.” Those include impact fees charged to developers of large projects. They also include funds that could be raised under an “inclusionary zoning” program, which would require multifamily housing developers to make a certain percentage of units affordable or pay a fee in lieu of such units. Inclusionary zoning was briefly in a draft of the city’s new zoning code, and it remains unclear where it came from or why it went away, though Paul said in internal emails he unilaterally killed it as ineffective.

Paul said he fears the north end is threatened with “collapse,” noting the recent closure of a Kroger store.

“I think, morally and ethically, you have to try and figure out how you prevent the collapse, and you try to figure out what is doable and what’s affordable and what our community’s willing to support,” he said, adding that “this is a tough, difficult challenge, but I think we owe the community the best effort we got to figure it out.”

The Couchmans’ concept
Last year, internal city emails show, the Couchmans and three high-profile affordable housing development organizations privately presented the mayor and City Council members with a redevelopment concept for some of the north end’s older apartment complexes, a large-scale idea featuring mixed-income housing and a community center. The emails show that the Couchmans’ concept, while still in an early stage and not totally embraced by officials, has strongly influenced north end and affordable housing policy for at least two years.

Yet it went unmentioned at the retreat, as did some sort of affordability and redevelopment policy called “Realizing the Dream” that Paul is drafting. It remains unclear who else may have been aware of the Couchmans’ concept. The owners of several properties in the targeted area, including apartment complexes and Fulton County Schools, did not respond to questions. Stream Realty Partners, which owns the North River shopping center within the area, declined to comment on the record.

The YMCA of Metro Atlanta, which Paul said has interest in opening a center in the area, also did not respond to questions.

The Atlanta Apartment Association, a trade organization headquartered in the area, would not say whether it was aware of the concept, but spoke favorably about working on any city-backed plan. “We look forward to working with Sandy Springs on this concept if it moves forward,” said association spokesperson Russ Webb.

New Councilmember Steve Soteres is a construction executive who was a member of Dishman’s advisory group and has now replaced him on the council. He said he was aware of the Couchmans’ concept, but has not seen a formal presentation, and added that redevelopment is complicated.

“The city’s involvement will be key to the success of the north end redevelopment,” he said.

A resident’s view
Palmer, the River Run resident, isn’t so sure the neighborhood needs government intervention.

“Frankly, we’re not near-slums,” she said. “Most of the apartment complexes are pretty well-kept, and condos, the same.” The housing is diverse, from Huntcliff’s mansions to affordable units, she said.

An IT worker, Palmer bought her condo in 1991, 14 years before the city incorporated. She said Sandy Springs leaders never seemed to want the area to begin with, but that in recent years gentrification seemed like a goal. First came MARTA’s plan to one day extend the Red Line, with local agitation getting that routed through hundreds of apartments rather than a few dozen single-family homes. Then came the talk of redeveloping for higher-end retail, she said.

Palmer said the city’s “Next Ten” land-use and zoning input meetings were held too early in the evening for her and many of her neighbors to attend after work, and she questioned why the Couchmans’ concept had not been publicly discussed. She said she believes the city’s intent is to displace lower-income and minority residents to gentrify the area, adding, “I think their agenda is racist.”

Palmer said she’s open to change by “market forces,” such as improvements that came to Dunwoody Place with the recent opening of Pontoon Brewing. She’s not happy that the city ended up opposing a new store from Lidl, a discount grocer, in North River. With Kroger gone, many residents who don’t own cars now lack a nearby grocery store, she said.

“Why does Sandy Springs want to be a paved-over little suburb with no diversity?” Palmer said. “There’s a difference when the market does it and when the city says, ‘We want to get rid of those people and have one demographic instead of another.’

“Maybe I’m just not what Sandy Springs wants for its demographic, but I’ve been here for 20 years [and] I’m not going without kicking and screaming.”

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