As suburban cities such as Brookhaven and Sandy Springs look to become more urban, with more “walkable” areas and mixed-use developments, city officials are taking a closer look at how to appropriately handle rezoning requests.
Members of the Sandy Springs Planning Commission recently criticized a potential mixed-use development on Roswell Road as offering too few businesses and offices, compared to the number of apartments.
“Having a retail office and then a massive apartment complex, it’s not mixed use,” Commissioner Dave Nickles told the developer.
But efforts to steer developers toward more urban styles can stir residents to push back. In Brookhaven, a proposed mixed-use development at the old Hastings Nursery site has drawn complaints from residents of nearby Historic Brookhaven who worried that the building would tower above them.
Bill Roberts, a member of the board of the Brookhaven-Peachtree Community Alliance, which supports “smart growth” developments, said such projects are challenging to residents because Brookhaven is in a transition period and is grappling with whether it’s suburban or urban. “Anybody can see that traffic and residents are increasing,” he said.
City officials are grappling with how best to manage their community’s developments because they see a new wave of post-recession development. During Sandy Springs City Council’s recent annual retreat, Angela Parker, the city’s development director, said growth is “coming at us fast and furious.”
City Manager John McDonough said the city has heard 30 rezoning cases in 2014, compared to 19 in 2013. In 2014, the city issued more than 1,600 building permits and 1,600 multifamily units were in the works.
Faced with the rising number of projects, Sandy Springs officials have decided to rework the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides land-use planning. McDonough said constantly handling rezoning requests on a case-by-case basis is not a good way to develop a city, nor are the moratoriums the city put in place in 2014, including stops on apartment and convenience store permits.
Apartment developments have been a particular problem in Sandy Springs. City officials say to qualify as “mixed use” rezoning, projects have to incorporate enough retail to be true mixed-use properties. That stance is what led to the city’s moratorium on apartments.
Two proposed mixed-use developments on Roswell Road would redevelop a significant portion of the land east of Roswell Road and south of Hildebrand Drive, near the site of Sandy Springs’ planned City Center.
“It’s an exciting time to be on this planning commission as we look at projects like this that are going to rejuvenate our downtown,” Jim Squire said.
MCRT Investments Inc. proposes building about 450 apartments, a parking deck and 40,000 square feet of restaurants and shops on 5 acres at 6125 Roswell Road. Camden USA proposes to build 316 apartments, a parking deck and 3,300 square feet of retail and office space on 4 acres at 6075 and 6077 Roswell Road.
Several commissioners criticized the Camden projects as containing too little commercial development and too large a percentage of apartments to fit the city’s plans for the city center.
“You don’t meet mixed-use [requirements]. It’s not there,” Nickles said.
In Brookhaven, the Peachtree Road development by JLB Partners calls for an apartment building on top of shops and offices. The zoning request, which had the support of city staff, would have made way for 273 multifamily units, 17,695 square feet of retail and commercial, 2,500 square feet for a leasing office and 6,691 square feet for an enclosed amenity area. Plans call for the building to stand 87 feet tall at the front.
Matt Hallman with JLB said that after hearing residents’ complaints, the company was planning to ask for a deferral at the March 4 planning commission meeting to have a chance to meet with the Historic Brookhaven Neighborhood Association. He said that the company has taken building plans out of the buffer between the commercial property and the neighborhood, and moved it about 160 feet away from the neighbors’ property lines, and lowered the building height along the back of the property, and closest to Historic Brookhaven, to about 65 feet.
City staff recommended JLB’s plan, saying it fell into the requirements of the Brookhaven-Peachtree Overlay District. Roberts said he was encouraged by the fact that the developer has eliminated a proposed right-in, right-out curb cut along Peachtree Road. “That’s significant because the overlay tries to encourage a pedestrian-friendly environment, and eliminating curb cuts helps accomplish that,” he said.
Roberts added that the development could be a “bellwether” project for Brookhaven in that it will potentially be the first to meet every requirement of the overlay district.
“When you have mixed uses in a project, some retail and office space in addition to residential, you get a better flow of uses,” he said. “It’s part of the smart growth initiative — people that live in that building will be people that patronize the stores.”
– Joe Earle contributed to this story.