By Gerhard Schneibel

Sandy Springs is poised to purchase the 8-acre former Target site on the corner of Johnson Ferry Road and Sandy Springs Circle after the City Council voted 5-1 Nov. 18 to approve the $8 million acquisition.

Some council members and city residents say the purchase is a financially responsible way to jump-start a true city center. Others say it marks a turning point in the city’s nearly three-year history of spending cautiously and focusing on vital services. Sandy Springs was incorporated Dec. 1, 2005.

The purchase does not include the adjacent Goodwill store or property, which is connected to the Target building. The sale is due to close Dec. 16.

“This will not take any funds from any of our programs that provide local services to the community. … They will move forward,” Mayor Eva Galambos said at the council meeting.

Dist. 1 Councilman Doug MacGinnitie, who cast the lone no vote, said the city may have $8 million on hand, but in the long term “I don’t think we can afford it.”

“We’re going to be spending $8 million on property that at best, in my opinion, would sit empty for years if not longer, and at worst could be the first step in a $45 million municipal complex,” he said.

The city pays $1.1 million annually for the space it occupies in the Morgan Falls Office Park, some of which comes back in the form of property and business taxes.

MacGinnitie said the current City Hall is “not the most elegant building, but it works.”

He also said the City Council’s process was flawed because it made its decision after a single formal public hearing advertised only four days in advance, didn’t do a market search of other available sites and didn’t provide the public “with a financial analysis of the true costs and trade-offs necessary to build a City Hall, despite repeat requests.”

MacGinnitie said projects that should take priority over a new City Hall include rebuilding Hammond Park, repaving streets, building sidewalks, making intersection and traffic improvements, improving parks and neighborhoods, and fixing the city’s stormwater system.

“Until we take care of those needs in our city, we should not be spending any money on a City Hall,” he said. “This path we’re starting down is a serious waste of money.”

During the public hearing, resident Michael Dunn said the city could financially overextend itself. He said that basing pride for Sandy Springs on an impressive City Hall is “government of the past.”

“The pride that I have in the city is that we’re striving to build the best police department, the best fire department, the most wonderful streets, investing in parks, investing in quality of life for citizenry … a thing that we’re all going to remember,” he said.

Galambos, Dist. 4 Councilwoman Ashley Jenkins and Dist. 6 Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny all said citizen feedback they gathered online was overwhelmingly in support of the purchase.

Jenkins said it is “not like we just sprung this on the public. … It’s been out there in the public domain since July.”

She added: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this city. The economy is down, and we’re getting this land cheap. I want to revitalize that area. … I think this is an awesome opportunity to create some synergy in that downtown area.”

Developer Steve Massell said at $8 million the property is “probably a steal.”

“I would suggest you buy it now even if you don’t develop it. … That property will appreciate. You’ll get your money back with interest,” he said. “Speaking from a commercial real estate standpoint, there’s no retail being done. There’s no apartment, no multifamily. … Nobody’s chomping at the bit for this site. As we work our way out of this economic malaise, you’ll be positioned with a great piece of property.”

Dist. 5 Councilman Tibby DeJulio said the land purchase had to be acted on quickly, but the city doesn’t necessarily have fixed plans for the property, which could become the site of a new police headquarters.

“A piece of property that is 8 acres in the center of Sandy Springs is just not going to be available every day,” he said, “not unless we want to go ahead and buy some buildings that are going to be much, much more expensive and tear them down.”

Some people urged the city to seek a public-private partnership to reduce the cost of developing the property. That would likely bring about a mixed-use development.

Sandy Springs Plaza owner Jan Saperstein supported the purchase but said, “We don’t want to compete with the city.”

Robin Beechey of the Willow Glen Condo Association said, “We applaud your foresight.”

He added: “We believe it’s the right thing to do. We hope it goes through … and we take a step towards building a greater heart for the city of Sandy Springs.”