The city will soon move forward on a plan to build its downtown almost from scratch, a project expected to cost taxpayers $84 million over the next decade.
During its regular meeting Feb. 5, City Council voted to approve the first phase of the city center plan after receiving assurances that members will be informed of the progress and costs as it unfolds. The price does not include the cost of building a City Hall. The vote was unanimous.
“Go for it,” Mayor Eva Galambos told City Manager John McDonough after the vote.
“It’s going to be fun,” Councilman John Paulson said.
The resolution gives McDonough permission to move ahead, but the council will have to approve all costs over $250,000.
The city already has $25.6 million budgeted and would need an additional $58 million. The costs, which will be spread out over the next decade, will require the council to set aside $7.5 million a year for the next seven years. There’s a possibility a city hall could be constructed with bonds or in partnership with a private investor.
The costs are for building Phase 1 of the city center plan, which will cover the area north of Hammond Drive and west of Roswell Road.
City Council approved a broader redevelopment plan in December. When all phases are completed, future development will move the center of city life to what has traditionally been considered the heart of the community along Roswell Road near I-285.
The plan seeks to make the city more walkable and provides for a mix of uses, expands green space and seeks revisions to the city’s zoning code to achieve the desired downtown aesthetic.
What would taxpayers receive for the $84 million?
The big ticket items include:
– $25.5 million to buy land
– $4 million for professional services
– $9.6 million to build a segment of Mount Vernon Highway west of Sandy Springs Circle to Roswell Road and extending Bluestone Road from Heritage to Mount Vernon Highway
– $11.3 million for infrastructure costs
– $5.5 million to relocate utilities
– $12.5 million to provide parking
– $4.4 million to build a playground next to Heritage Green.
When McDonough first revealed the numbers to council members during a Jan. 30 retreat, there was some initial sticker shock.
“Wow. And this doesn’t include the building,” Councilwoman Dianne Fries said.
But the city has more flexibility than other municipalities. It doesn’t hold any significant long-term debt because most of its services are outsourced and it recently posted budget surpluses, meaning the city received more in tax revenue than it spent.
The audit for Fiscal Year 2012 shows the city’s reserves, called a general fund balance, increased to $35 million from $21.5 million in Fiscal 2011. Most of the balance – 95 percent – is unassigned, meaning it hasn’t been designated for any purpose. The last time the reserves reached that level was in 2008, the audit shows.
During the Feb. 5 meeting, council passed a budget amendment to allocate $3.5 million in additional surplus money revealed during the audit. The council set aside $500,000 of that to settle a lawsuit with Fulton County for fire department services provided by the county before Sandy Springs established its own fire department. The rest of the money will go toward capital projects.
The city in 2012 hired Boston-based consultant Goody Clancy to develop the master plan. The firm held multiple meetings and hundreds of residents attended, providing input on various scenarios.
After the Jan. 30 retreat, council members said they felt comfortable moving ahead. Councilman Chip Collins said it’s something that’s a priority for both the council and the city’s residents.
“I think we definitely have a lot of public buy-in,” Collins said. “I’ve talked all over town about this and been to all of these meetings and I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘We do not want a great downtown in Sandy Springs.’ This is something that’s a noncontroversial deal and because of the way we run this city we can afford it.”