By John Schaffner

More than 40 representatives of Sandy Springs civic groups and non-profits, along with a few politicians, participated in the inaugural meeting of the Sandy Springs Civic Round Table (SSCRT) Jan. 14 to hear urban planner Bob Begle discuss creating a new downtown and the important “postcard shot” for the city.

SSCRT President and program facilitator Gail Cohn, who is president of LeaderShape, explained that the purpose of the Civic Round Table is to foster communication and recognition among the various civic and non-profit organizations in the city. It helps members become more connected to help them “operate in a more systemic way rather than in our individual silos.”

Following a structured group networking activity, SSCRT steering committee member Charles Hoag, senior vice president of Signature Bank, introduced Begle, principal and co-founder of Urban Collage, Inc., who presented the program “A New Downtown for Sandy Springs: Creating the Postcard Shot.”

Begle said there is a group of people who have been working on a new downtown for Sandy Springs for at least 10 years and those efforts may now have greater potential since Sandy Springs has become a city.

Begle pointed out that other communities that have created such city centers have done so by generating catalytic public investment, through zoning/regulatory reforms, using creative financing tools while the private sector did the “heavy lifting.”

“Where is our postcard shot?” Begle asked. He answered by saying at present our postcard shot is pavement, traffic and strip centers all prevalent along Roswell Road.

He said the challenges for creating the new downtown include the requirement for redevelopment, the high cost and value of land in Sandy Springs, the numerous small parcels that need to be consolidated, traffic issues, emerging regulatory framework, resident concerns and developer hesitancy.

He suggested a new downtown should be limited in size and pedestrian-friendly. It should be more than one block wide — should be a district — and should include good traffic access. He said there is limited opportunity for new office space, but great opportunity for an increase in quality housing. He envisions limited retail but opportunity for new community uses, such as a new city hall and performance space.

In terms of traffic and circulation, Begle feels Sandy Springs Circle is under-utilized and Boylston offers great opportunities for becoming a relief artery. He envisions parking decks, sidewalk cafes, bike routes, pocket parks and public art all as part of a new downtown district.

After the 40-some participants broke into small groups to discuss the downtown concept, Joey Mason told one of the groups you “have to have a government that is going to design a plan and stick with it over the long range.” He pointed out that Decatur started its plan 25 years ago.

Roger Blickfeld, speaking for another of the groups, said a downtown is scary to some. He said there was support in his group for a community complex. But some felt there is a threat to mom and pop stores.

Steven Walker of Leadership Sandy Springs said with no master plan in effect, developers have no place to start. He added that the city officials have to take lead in spearheading this.

In wrapping up the discussion, Begle said there are a lot of diverse opinions in Sandy Springs, where many other cities are more homogenous.

The next SSCRT meeting will be on Monday Feb. 25.