Sandy Springs narrows focus of new City Center project

Residents now have a clearer picture of Sandy Springs’ drive to carve a downtown out of the commercial chaos on Roswell Road.

After nearly six months of public input, consultants for the project unveiled a rough sketch this month of how they picture the multi-million-dollar development to take shape.

And, while some say it scrimps on green space, most people who attended a recent open house were pleased with the pedestrian-friendly theme of the proposed master plan covering a mile-long stretch of Roswell Road beginning just north of I-285.

“I’m all for the redevelopment of downtown Sandy Springs; it’s sorely needed,” said Eric Bern, who operates a photography studio in the heart of the proposed project. “I’m glad to be part of the whole plan.”

The City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to adopt the master plan next month.

The City Center Project is an effort to establish a downtown footprint for the city of 94,000 which incorporated from Fulton County in 2005.

Unlike most other new cities formed in metro Atlanta over the past decade, Sandy Springs is almost completely built out, and it has no traditional “downtown site” that can be renovated.

City leaders decided to start from scratch and selected a stretch of Roswell Road just north of I-285, a commercial and traffic maelstrom. The area is a major commuter artery with a mix of large shopping centers, small shops, condominiums and apartments.

“We wanted to revitalize what is an old suburban corridor that was developed for car traffic,” Mayor Eva Galambos said. “We want to change that, so we have a real downtown.”

And when she says a ‘real downtown,’ Galambos does not mean a few park benches next to a quaint city hall.

Sandy Springs pays $1.4 million a year to lease its current City Hall in a one-story office park on north Roswell Road.

Plans for a new city hall date back four years to when the city paid $8 million for a 7-acre site near the corner of Roswell and Johnson Ferry roads.

The master plan, developed by Boston-based consultants Goody Clancy, calls for a government complex on a 16-acre triangle, with Johnson Ferry Road to the north, Mount Vernon Highway to the south and Sandy Springs Circle on the west. Roswell Road runs through the eastern tip.

A large civic center would sit at one corner, with parking, town green, a plaza, mixed-use housing and small shops filling in the remainder. The civic center — its size and scope still undetermined — could house government offices and double as a performing arts hall.

More than $20 million has either been spent or committed to the project so far. There is no time-line for completion, but city leaders say they will consider more property purchases in 2013.

Surrounding the triangle, the master plan calls for opening streets to pedestrian traffic, with parking nearby. More parks — some active, some passive — would also dot the landscape.

Margaret Brown has been part of a campaign to get more green space included in the downtown plan. The current proposal of a one-acre town green, she said, does not address the larger green park space that residents, organizations and business leaders have repeatedly requested.

“My goal is to make the public aware of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Sandy Springs has to incorporate a large public green space as part of a revitalized downtown,” she said. “The current proposal does not seize that opportunity.”

Local businessman Eric de Groot said he likes what he sees in the drawings. He is concerned, though, about heavy commuter traffic on Roswell Road. Each day, roughly 40,000 Cobb County commuters cross the Chattahoochee River on Johnson Ferry Road, then turn south on Roswell Road toward Atlanta.

He recommends the city set up signage to allow these commuters, who have no plans to stop, to bypass the city center and all its pedestrian traffic.

Retired resident Herb Daws said it will take time to see the city center take shape, but it’s good to get it off the ground.

“I think it will be done in phases, but the parts that I’m sure will be a reality are now down on paper,” he said.