By John Schaffner
and Amy Wenk
Representatives of 30 Sandy Springs commercial and retail property owners, organized as the Main Street Alliance, presented a vision for developing a downtown heart for the city to Sandy Springs City Council on Sept. 7.
Mayor Eva Galambos declared it to be “the beginning of a new world.”
Representatives of the six-month-old alliance of developers and owners of some 50 parcels and 125 acres of land, with close to 1.5 million square feet commercial and retail space in the city’s “Downtown District,” presented council with a preliminary blueprint for revitalizing the core of Sandy Springs.
“Sandy Springs needs a nexus, a heart,” said alliance member Cheri Morris of Morris & Fellows Inc.
The specific area targeted by the Main Street Alliance as the “Downtown District” is along the Roswell Road corridor from Glenridge Drive south of I-285 to Abernathy Road. It includes the commercial property along Sandy Springs Circle and the east/west connector streets between Sandy Springs Circle on the west and Boylston Drive on the east.
“The geographic area generally mirrors the city Main Street overlay district,” Wanda Morganstern, president and CEO of Sandy Springs-based Agora Brokerage Co., said about the alliance’s definition of the city’s “downtown district.”
Along with Morganstern, who is former chair of the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber, the Alliance members presenting to the mayor and council were: Alliance chairman Lonnie Mimms, whose company owns 485,243 square feet of retail space in four shopping centers on 40.65 acres in the city; Patti Pearlberg, vice president of Coro Realty Advisors, which owns two shopping centers in the designated area with a total of 160,324 square feet on 18,5 acres; Jan Saperstein, general partner of Sandy Springs Plaza shopping center, who controls 126,000 square feet of retail space on 8.72 acres in the heart of the city; and Kirk Demetrops, partner in Mid City Partners and former president of The Griffin Company, who controls 85,556 square feet of space on 5.24 acres on Roswell Road where the Bank of America building is located.
Mimms kicked off this first interaction with the city after six months of study by the alliance members outlining some of the challenges “to creating a place people want to go.”
“We have such an opportunity here,” Mimms said, referring to the education and wealth of the city’s residents.”We don’t really have a downtown district that reflects that.”
Alliance representatives presented their views of the existing conditions influencing development, the city’s Comprehensive Plan, supporting policies and previous planning efforts, current city initiatives and investments and outlining potential catalyst projects or investments to encourage redevelopment, which led to a forecast of what may come next.
Mimms said the group is “still looking at big pictures and creating lots of ideas. They are all tools in the tool chest.” He said the group would like to continue to have conversations with city officials on the subject.
Galambos responded, “This has been an extra valuable session to us. We’re talking together now and I think that is the beginning of a new world. This is the beginning, I think, of us all trying to focus in” on this issue.
During the work session discussion each of the alliance representatives added their thoughts and several members of the council also weighed in on the topics.
Saperstein said he is not sure what defines downtown Sandy Springs. “Where does it start and where does it stop? Where is the real core?” he asked. “It does have a core, but lacks pedestrian access.”
“Sandy Springs was an automobile society,” he said. “The future is a pedestrian society.”
He added, “It is hard to retrofit property that is 50 years old.”
He described the redevelopment of Sandy Springs Plaza as “a drop of water in the desert. We have a great opportunity to create a legacy for the next 100-plus years.”
Pearlberg said, “On paper our demographics are stronger than Buckhead’s—a higher percentage of married, more settled and higher income level. There is a true disconnect. What can we do in Sandy Springs to help attract tenants to this area? Tenants aren’t going to be pioneers.”
Pearlberg’s company, Coro Realty, owns the Sandy Springs Crossing shopping center on the northwest corner of Abernathy and Roswell roads, which the Alliance includes in its definition of the downtown district.
Pearlberg told the mayor and council, “You are going to have to do something dynamic. They don’t know Sandy Springs.” She suggested plans need to center on mixed-use development and shared parking.
“That is totally our philosophy, mixed-use,” the mayor responded. “I don’t want to walk up and down Roswell Road unless I see something in the windows,” she added.
Mimms, the Roswell-based co-owner of four Sandy Springs shopping centers, discussed the relationship between the infrastructure—the roads as they exist now—and how drivers navigate through the resulting traffic. “This is probably the biggest hot button for the general public,” he said.
Mimms referred to the downtown area of Sandy Springs today as just “a speed bump” to traffic on its way through. “We need to find ways to direct traffic here,” he said.
City Councilman John Paulson, referred to the recent farmers markets at the former Target store at the corner of Johnson Ferry Road and Sandy Springs Circle — the site where a Sandy Springs City Hall likely will someday be built. He said, “25 tents in a parking lot draws 500 to 1,000 people, who then go home because there is nothing else to do.”
Mimms applauded the streetscapes the city has started, saying they make the city “more friendly for pedestrians.”
“We would very much like to be part of this process,” he added.
Demetrops thinks the former Target store site needs to be built a certain way, including a parking deck.
“Parking is everything in Atlanta” Galambos responded, “You are talking to an audience willing to listen.”
Stating that wholesale redevelopment of the core is highly unlikely, Demetrops said, “We need to motivate current owners” because he said the property is too expensive for new owners to purchase and redevelop it.
“Sandy Springs has very steady ownership. There is no reason to sell at the bottom” of the market, he said.
“I can’t think of a better time to put plans in place,” he added, projecting the economic cycle to turn.
Councilman Tibby DeJulio asked, “What do you need from the mayor and city council?”
Demetrops answered, “A public/private tool box,” indicating a partnership for the future.
Galambos added, “When you look at our capital budget, we are putting substantial amounts into capital spending to shore up our infrastructure.”