By John Schaffner

Developer Joel Griffin has a good idea in his mind as to how the town center of Sandy Springs should be transformed — especially along Roswell Road.

In about 18 to 24 months, he expects to let everyone else experience his vision when he begins revitalizing a five-acre tract fronting Roswell Road into a mixed-use development that just might include space for a new city hall, or a performing arts center, or maybe both.

“We think it is going to be key to all of Sandy Springs because we see it as having the potential of setting the pace and tone for what we are going to see in Sandy Springs over the next 10 years,” Griffin told the Sandy Springs Reporter. “So we are taking our time. We are deliberately putting the time and energy into the planning process that will hopefully result in a very well executed development.”

The site Griffin owns and plans to redevelop is just north of the Pine State Mortgage building on Roswell Road and stretches to Hilderbrand Court Shopping Center and back to Boylston Road. It presently includes the Bank of America building, former Checkers site, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the former post office and all the parking decks in the back.

“It takes a lot of planning to do a complex mixed-use development,” Griffin explained. “A good site deserves some time and consideration, because you only get one chance to do something like this.”

Griffin said, “The main thing that we are going to do there is we are going to create a place. We are going to give it a sense of place. That is what Sandy Springs lacks.”

Griffin thinks of Sandy Springs as being its own distinct market.

He said the way to get the 50 percent of Sandy Springs residents who do not shop in Sandy Springs to shop in the city is to create a place that is “inviting” and “a nice experience for them to go to.”

“That is all you have to do,” he said. “They want to spend their money here. Nobody in Sandy Springs wants to drive to Buckhead for dinner. It is just that they have not been given a lot of quality choices over the years.”

Griffin says everything in Sandy Springs is a surface parking shopping center. “Some of them are in pretty bad shape and some of them have just had a facelift. At the end of the day, it is not a real enjoyable experience to go to a strip shopping center,” he stated.

Griffin, who founded his company in1975 and recently participated in two community panel discussions about the development of Sandy Springs, said mixed-use development is the answer.

“If we can put a true mixed-use development on the site, not only will we have a congregation of some significant retail — where you could visit four or five or 10 different locations by parking your car once —we are also going to have a residential element there,” Griffin explained.

Referring to one of Sandy Springs’ most recent developments, CityWalk, Griffin said, “Clearly it was not conceived or executed in such a way to promote pedestrian activity. The number one thing we better do, and do it quick, is create pedestrian environments,” he said.

The man who envisions a walkable Roswell Road in Sandy Springs said, “There is walkable and there is walkable in two different contexts. When you live in Charleston, S.C., or you live in Naples, Fla., you literally can live there and sort of walk places. You can walk to dinner. You can walk to the grocery store, and you can do that. When we talk about walkability, we talk about a company that maybe is located in that development and its employees can walk to lunch and do a little shopping”.

“I think we need to be careful not to think small and just try to go fix a few little places,” Griffin warned. “We really need to do it right. We will just have this one chance.”

Continuing to look toward the future, Griffin said, “We read that in 25 years when we look back, half of the buildings that will be in existence would have been built during that 25-year period. As much as is already built, we have to redo that much more in the next 25 years. You have to take some of those places (strip centers) down and reconfigure them and perhaps densify them more.”

He said there is no land left to do single-family detatched. “Our focus over the past five years has been on assembling these mixed-use projects, because we really believe the old model is broken. The citizens, the elected officials, the development community have all got to find a better way to be stewards of our land. We need to stop all of this insane one-story commercial buildings on major arteries.”

Griffin added, “We need to think bold. I think we need to look at every tool that could be available to us to create this wonderful reinvented Sandy Springs. If that means using a tax allocation district (TAD) or some sort of tax incentives, then I think all options should remain open and we should look at them and what the long term effect is. It is all about moving forward, not standing still.”

Griffin said they are looking at putting a performing arts facility as part of the overall plan for the development on Roswell Road. “It has to have an organization to support it. You could have ballet schools for the children there, art classes, etc. There is an opportunity to do something on a grander scale,” he added. “It is so different than tire stores and muffler shops. You have to think differently.”