The Sandy Springs Reporter recently invited a panel of people with an interest in the community and its future to contemplate what has happened and what might yet occur in the heart of our young city.
In a wide-ranging discussion, panel members considered past failures and the future promise of Sandy Springs’ business district. They debated what should and could be done to stimulate the commercial heart of Sandy Springs. They considered what was needed to make Sandy Springs into a more vibrant city.
Our panel included a city development official and several developers who have owned or managed properties in Sandy Springs’s business district. The newspaper recorded their discussion and edited the transcript to two parts for publication. The first installment was published in our June 18-July 1 issue.
Here’s the second installment. (PART ONE)
During their discussion, panel members suggested Sandy Springs should try to establish some sort of “epicenter,” such as a college campus, in order to bring residents and visitors to the city’s downtown.
John Schaffner: You’ve identified that one thing we need to do is build an “epicenter” in Sandy Springs. How do we do that?
Lonnie Mimms: If you’re talking about the city’s property, that is completely within the city’s control. The beauty of that is that the city has complete control and you don’t have to have any carrots, any sticks. They can do what they want to do. I don’t think we can sit here today and say, “Here is exactly what we need to do,” but there are certainly a lot of models around the country and maybe even within the Atlanta area where they can see to varying degrees what “downtown areas” have done to revitalize.
Schaffner: Kirk [Demetrops] was working with Joel Griffin and they presented a concept [for a mixed-used development anchored by a Sandy Springs City Hall]. Unfortunately, Joel died and the economy changed, but that was, “We’re going to start something brand new here and build something that’s almost a community within a community.”
Kirk Demetrops: I’m just going to step back and talk a little bit about the City Hall property. We can make our own plans, we can have pretty pictures, but I think we have to ask ourselves what we want it to be. Do we want it to just be a City Hall or do we want it to be a mixed-use property? I’ve heard a lot of different opinions. But we have to ask ourselves, “What should it be that will make it a catalyst?” That’s the real question. Because if we decide that it should just be a City Hall, but that it won’t be a catalyst for what we want the whole downtown to be, then will we have achieved our goal?
Schaffner: Jan suggested that we give the property to an educational institution, like a college.
Demetrops: Relating back to our project — with Joel’s death, [it] changed to a different company, but the different company is still alive and the company that I run now is involved in that project on that land. And the economic fall certainly stalled [things], but I’ve been talking to people for two or three months about downtown Sandy Springs and how to make that come together. I’ve given this a lot of thought and it all seems to be on Roswell Road — whether we’re in downtown Sandy Springs or the whole stretch of Sandy Springs. The old strip centers, the old automobile dealerships, what do we want them to become? And if we want them to become something different than they are, how do we make that happen?
It’s just like a house. You can not maintain it, you can do a simple renovation, you can gut it or you can tear it down. All these properties that are 30 to 50 years old are at that point right now where the owners have to make some decisions. Some of them have a lot of economic value for what they are, but they may not be what we want as a community.
Mimms: At the Main Street Alliance meeting last week, we had Steve Labovitz, who has basically been involved with most, if not every, TAD [tax allocation district] in the whole state that’s been formed, including the TAD that originally existed on Roswell Road. In talking to Steve, I learned that a TAD is one of the very few tools that a government, a municipality, can put in place for promoting economic development and accomplishing things. And, in his opinion, it’s absolutely ludicrous not to use that tool—at least to have that bullet in your gun and go ahead and put it into play. Depending on where you want to use it, to not have it in play is just silly.
The whole idea that you have to be in an impoverished area to do that is also silly. We’ve got to get over that. We’ve got to look at the positive side of these things. And when you have a TAD, the municipality is not standing behind those bonds. There’s no risk from the city’s point of view. It does not change their credit rating.
There are a lot of misconceptions out there. I think, to a huge degree, if the population of Sandy Springs was educated before the fear factor came up — all too often they’re notified of something happening very late in the game and there’s an immediate panic. You know, “How are we getting screwed now?” The reaction is always negative. I’ve never seen a positive reaction coming from the community that’s reacting from something at the last minute. So it’s really hard for anything good to come out of that.
If we had an education program and we taught a lot of these things [we could show] “density” is not automatically an evil word. We’ve got other areas, other municipalities, where, honestly, bring in the neighborhood crew, and their answer is “I’d rather see that space empty because if somebody goes in there, that’s going to be more traffic I’m going to have to fight on my way to work.” That’s insane. That’s ludicrous. You can’t function that way.
The city government has to suck it up to a great degree and go against the residents in some cases because also what you’re seeing is a very small group that shows up at these meetings. I think if you really had a true whole of the population that you find out—you know, this is an incredibly well-educated population, a very, very smart population –but if you actually took a poll of the overall population, I think you’d probably get the right answer.
The idea that it takes money away from schools is completely wrong. They just don’t understand the facts.
Demetrops: A very important point about the schools – the big issue—is that schools get what they were getting before the TAD started.
Mimms: The legitimate concern the Board of Education would have is, if the TAD is going toward increasing the residential density in an area, they have every right to be concerned that you’re going to overwhelm a school and we’re not going to have any money to pay for it. Those kinds of things can be addressed on the front end, with the formation of a TAD.
If you’re talking about more of a commercial district, if you’re talking about, well, for example, the TAD the SSRI [Sandy Springs Revitalization Inc.] had, all the projects that were listed there were all oriented toward community improvement. They were not focused on increasing residential density and things like that.
You can see it in place. A lot of the streetscape that you see came about from the TAD. Some of the intersection improvement came about from the TAD. Ironically, after the city was formed, some of the projects that the residents saw happening had nothing to do with the city being formed. That was the momentum that was being carried over from the TAD. There’s still money in that fund today that is finishing up projects. I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t go back into place.
Schaffner: It’s interesting to me [how long] this whole discussion of beautifying or changing Roswell Road has been around … I remember we were talking about this when you [Saperstein] and I met. I remember when John Cheek first got involved with the Sandy Springs Revitalization and I guess what led to the TAD, or actually produced the evidence for the TAD, was a project across from your shopping center. So it’s been around for an awfully long time, but nothing seems to percolate.
Nancy Leathers: The one that was in Fulton County had the funds for it and so those funds were then allocated and they were split between road improvements and park improvements for the city. And they were specific projects. And those funds were allocated.
Mimms: It didn’t really have a fair chance.
Jan Saperstein: You’re seeing results that are in the concrete out here.
Schaffner: What do we see as the time frame? When do you think something’s going to be starting to happen out here? Nancy said to me the other day when we were talking that she thinks three to five years we’re going to see some real change start to percolate.
Demetrops: From an economic standpoint, that’s a great prediction. But if we don’t have the tools in the toolbox, when we get to the next [bad] economic times, then we won’t be ready. That’s why I think it’s so critical right now, when there’s not a lot going on economically, to begin redeveloping and taking advantage of it.
We’re what, the ninth most affluent [city in the U.S.]? We’re in the middle of the city of Atlanta economically – the central Perimeter, office markets right adjacent to us – I mean we have all the things, the demographics, the things we keep talking about. Let’s create the tools and identify why it hasn’t happened in the last 20 years. I think we can do it. … If we can’t put land together now in this environment and make some investments, then we’ll never be able to do it.
Saperstein: It’s a great time to buy! It’s exactly no different here. But the issue is—who’s the quarterback here? Is it the city or is it private enterprise? Who steps up and says, “OK, here’s the game plan and this is when it’s going to start.”
Mimms: Right now the opportunity is truly in the city’s arena.
Leathers: There are lots of plans for downtown Sandy Springs, none of which have been successful over time. And, admittedly, when there was not a city government, you didn’t have the knowledge that there was some level of support for the area, so I understand why investment did not necessarily occur in a positive way.
But now we’re at the point where I think the city is saying, “We need to be talking about this together.” This is not something that the city is going to just lead on. This needs to be something where the business community comes forward and says to us, “We agree or we want to work on something different.” And pull that together so that we have some shared vision of what it needs to be. If it’s not shared, I suspect none of us are going to be successful. It’s very important that we are.
Mimms: A like group of people need to come together and to put trust in that group for various reasons—for their interests, for their expertise.
Schaffner: I sense that’s what the [Main Street] Alliance is.
Mimms: It is, you know, a stakeholder. It’s a commercial owner on Roswell Road in the section that we’re talking about. We are not diametrically opposed to the neighborhoods.
Saperstein: Do you think it’s the other way around? Do you think that the neighborhoods are opposed to the developers?
Mimms: I think that there’s a fear, and the fear is because of a lack of education. I think that there’s an innate reaction that when anything is done, it’s negative. We’ve got to have a government that will stand behind a positive development. And we’ve got to determine what we want to do and what we want to be. The choices that I’ve seen made over and over again are not, to me, in the right direction. And you can go way back to before the city was formed, Sandy Springs has consistently made bad choices in the direction that it’s going to go—all the way back to some of the apartment projects that were going to be torn down to create a large commercial center inside of I-285. That’s ancient history at this point, but the mentality needs to change. And it needs to change starting at the top.
Saperstein: It’s “not in my backyard.” And I think you are absolutely correct.
Leathers: I’m not sure I agree with you. And I just need to say this because I think that it’s not true that you just get negative reactions from neighbors. What you said before about things coming forward and getting dumped on people and people reacting negatively is probably exactly right. And most of the rezoning that brought about that reaction would see it that way. But, on the other hand, others have gone through and not had any particular difficulties at all.
The reason that the city is so interested in the Main Street Alliance is that this is the first time you all have come together as a group and given us something to work with so that we do have some sense of where you want to be. In the past — and I’ve worked in the downtown area of Sandy Springs for many years — everybody stuck to themselves and nobody stuck together. Now, I think that you are talking together and I think you are thinking those things through. Now is the time to begin to hold those conversations with the city leaders and different neighborhoods on where you want to go. That is an approach that works. But I don’t think it’s going to work if we just say, “We want this.”
Mimms: I think we could participate. Definitely, if the city wants more involvement from us. I don’t know if they have the confidence of the people in the city. I think other people should be [involved] as well , so it’s well-represented.
Leathers: I’m not suggesting only you all, but in the past what we’ve had is a very disjointed response from the owners in the business community in terms of what they want. Frankly, it was difficult to figure out. Now you’ve come together in this area and get some level of consistency of where you want to go. I think the city wants to develop some level of confidence that we’re moving together.
Saperstein: At Emory Village there’s something called the Alliance to Improve Emory Village. It’s made up of business owners, the landowners, and it’s been around, I guess, 10 years, and basically they’ve laid down a concept and Emory Village is actually coming together. The roundabouts, the trees, you know, it really is.
Schaffner: I don’t think anybody looks to government to be the visionaries.
Leathers: No, no, no. And I don’t think the government ought to be. These are the people who control property in the area and the neighbors are going to be the people that use the facilities. And the city is looking—if we could have done with plans prepared by folks from outside, we could have had this thing redeveloped years ago. And we don’t. So it’s obvious to the city and to everyone else that it’s got to be something where we all come together to agree on what we’re going to do.
If the city is going to be a participant in the process and is going to fund certain things, then that’s what the city is going to do — and everybody will agree on it. If these businesses and these owners are going to invest in these properties, then they’ve got to be a partner in the process. And if the neighbors are going to use the facilities that are here, they’re going to have to be a partner in the process as well.
This is expensive land. These people have invested a lot of money and, frankly, I wouldn’t step out and spend a huge amount of money without seeking some level of comfort on where we are headed.
Mimms: Even with the Main Street Alliance, we have, at the micro level, when it comes to a project basis, we have quite different views of what specific properties should ultimately be—and everything evolves. I couldn’t tell you right now what tenants are going to be going into a given shopping center tomorrow. You just don’t have that kind of control. It’d be nice if we did. We could design some wonderful places by putting together tenants that we know would work well together because we know they work well in other locations. Tenants don’t work that way.
So what I’m seeing still is going to be a macro vision where you’re looking at bringing the street back to the community, somehow taking it away from the commuter. Having a project that sets the trend and starts it out — and if it’s not Joel’s property, it just seems like it’s natural that it could be a city property — maybe it is a dual venture with the development side to create the right mix. But when the direction gets set and things get started, it’s going to be an evolution. It’s going to be organic. You’re not going to flip a switch and have all the developers immediately create this wonderful vision.
People have to understand this is going to take some time. Real cities are not just built a certain way, they evolve. We have to have the buy-in of the residents. If the residents don’t go there, shop, live there, etc., it’s completely a waste. You know the government is absolutely right there with them. If the people support it, the government will support it. I mean that’s natural. [But] if you have a small group that doesn’t necessarily represent the overall, educated population that will come up with comments like, “I’d rather see the space vacant because the traffic’s going to increase if it gets occupied,” you have to throw that out. You can’t deal with that.
Saperstein: [Sandy Springs] is not dealing from strength. We could all talk about areas that do deal from strength. The guts are here—the demographics. Northside Hospital, UPS, it’s all here, but it doesn’t seem to deal with strength.
Mimms: There’s not a better place in the entire country.
Saperstein: It’s crazy we’re having this discussion. It’s so dysfunctional. It doesn’t need to be. Who takes the ball and puts their arms around it, you know?
Demetrops: We’ve been complacent because it’s been so strong. You see other communities reaching out when they get really bad. So we’ve been so strong in so many ways that we’ve been complacent and we haven’t made this what we want [it] to be. There’s incredible desire here.
And it is a great time right now for the economic situation to take care of it, to get the toolbox ready. Because it needs all [of] the toolbox to get it from one story to five.
Saperstein: You need a generator. In a traditional strip center, it’s whoever’s at the anchor. This needs a generator. Who’s the generator?
People with an interest in community development sometimes seem to speak a different language. Here, to help navigate the transcript of our panel discussion are definitions of two terms used by participants.