By John Schaffner
An informal group of a dozen or more Roswell Road property owners have been meeting for about six months seeking to discover “the heart” of Sandy Springs and develop a vision for the city’s downtown or “main street.”
The group calls itself the Main Street Alliance and has had as many as 14 commercial property owners attending its meetings.
“The purpose for the formation was to have a voice within Sandy Springs,” said Lonnie Mimms Jr., CEO of Mimms Enterprises, which owns at least four strip shopping centers along Roswell Road. “We want to help craft the vision of bringing downtown Sandy Springs back to life.”
Mimms, who others say is heading up the group, explained, “We have a very large mass of employees located mainly in East Cobb. We have an enormous employment base in the Perimeter area and also Pill Hill. So, how do you get the employees to work without literally destroying the whole culture, the whole feel, the whole place of a region?” he asked.
“That is what we have here,” said Mimms. “We have an older area that basically has become a speed bump. What we want to do is figure out how we can help make the area more vibrant. How we can make this a place that you will want to go to?”
Mimms said the group “wanted to take the 30,000-foot view of things and not be tainted by the political pressures one way or another. Obviously the city wants it one way for certain reasons, the people want it another way for certain reasons.
“How do you make an area more livable?” Mimms asked. “How do you take it back from the commuter traffic? Those are some of the questions that we are exploring. There obviously is no easy answer or it would have been done.
“Sandy Springs has the basic services, but we are looking for that next step up—some place you take your brother who comes in from out of town, the sense of community, the social interaction,” said Kirk Demetrops, principal of MidCity Real Estate Partners. “That is really the next step. It is not just retail. It is the office above it, the residential next to it, the walkability.”
All of those components were incorporated in a plan for mixed-use redevelopment of the Bank of America site in the 6000 block of Roswell Road that he and the late Joel Griffin unveiled in 2008 when Demetrops was president of The Griffin Company. He still maintains and interest in the proposed project.
Demetrops explained, “I think we want to end up with some definable goals that we think will serve as a catalyst to create an organic redevelopment of the area. Sometimes we start to get real specific but then we back up and say lets create a few simple attainable goals that we think are important. If we can do that it will feed down to the bottom to correctly identify the few things that will help jumpstart this,” he added. .
“We need to be honest with ourselves about the difficulties,” Demetrops continued. “Because it is already developed, certain streets are already out of control. Some properties have a lot of value on them that seem to be a good part of the mix.
We are not re-creating the wheel here,” Demetrops stated. “Either here locally or within a two-hour flight there are probably plenty of examples of how this can be successful. So it is not a big risk.”
Mimms said one thing that was brought up at the last meeting, on June 11, “was the idea to have a core project to kind of get things moving in the right direction.”
“The feeling is that the city has a wonderful opportunity right now, owning the former Target shopping center on Johnsons Ferry [Road], to really create a central seed starting point for determining what the direction is going to be for this type of development—to create that sense of place,” he said.
Mimms said 20 to 30 invitations were initially sent out to owners of property on Roswell Road. “We have tried to get everyone we know of who is a commercial property owner on Roswell Road. If anyone hasn’t been contacted, we would invite them to contact us,” he said.
The northern and southern boundaries of the portion of Roswell Road they are looking at essentially are Abernathy Road and I-285. “We would go a property or two on either side of that,” Mimms said.
And they would consider property owners within a couple of blocks south of I-285, Demetrops said.
During its early meetings, the group worked “to get ourselves educated,” Mimms said.
“We had the expert on Community Improvement Districts come and speak to the group. We had the expert on Tax Advantaged Districts speak to the group,” he said.
“We wanted to find out what the reality was for each of these mechanisms,” he said. “What that allows us to do,” he added.
“I think one component of it is that some financial tool will be required,” said Demetrops. “The CIDs and TADs are at the top of the list of those being used across the country” to fund community improvement projects. “So, we are thinking through what are the financial tools that this community could use to redevelop and improve its downtown,” he added.
“Individual developers are not going to do it on their own because of the math,” Demetrops said. “Some of the things that can be helped are traffic, aesthetics, etc.”
They see as one of the major challenges to be educating the public about the redevelopment process, including topics such as CIDs and TADs and how they can be beneficial to accomplishing needed changes and improvements without costing the typical taxpayer money.
Demetrops said the group also is “looking for an improved tenant mix.”
“A lot of retailers, when they came to the area, thought of Perimeter Mall,” he said. “As we look at the issues affecting Roswell Road, some of the areas are deteriorating. The quality is going down.”
Mimms and Demetrops agreed that the type of shops in central Roswell now are similar to the kind that were in place 20 to 30 years ago. Some store names may have changed – Kmart became Lowes — but the landscape is essentially the same.
“There has been a very, very slow change and it hasn’t necessarily been for the better,” Mimms said.
“Retail development needs to be at a community level, not a regional level,” Demetrops said. “People like that. If we are going to do that, we need to change the traffic, change the aesthetics, change the connection of the buildings to bring those local restaurants and retailers that we think would love to come here because of the demographics and the employment center.
“We think it is real important to recognize who to market to. It is mostly those upscale, smaller retailers that are missing and we think should be the future, if the footprint is correct for them to come here.
“I think the group as a whole agrees that we do not see Roswell Road as being one big-box center after another,” Mimms said. “That has been essentially taken by the Perimeter market. Lowes may be the last big box. That is not to say there’s no chance somebody else will come in. To create a whole strip based on that is not realistic. We think it is going to be more of the mom and pops, more of the unique interesting stores.”