The Ashton Woods housing portion of the Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters project—whose plan now includes a new 14-acre public park—won approval from Sandy Springs City Council on Aug. 18 in a 5-1 vote.
“It’s an imperfect project…but it’s a good project,” said City Councilman Andy Bauman, who, like his peers, said he wrestled with the pros and cons.
But many opposing neighbors—including dozens wearing red shirts to the meeting to symbolize their opposition—may sue the city over the approval, an attorney and a neighborhood association leader said afterward.
Matt LaMarsh of the Mount Vernon Woods Homeowners Association, a leader of local opposition, said residents are considering taking the city to court, as several threatened to do in public comments. They allege the city improperly considered the plan as one parcel instead of two, making density calculations incorrect, among other issues. Hakim Hilliard, an attorney hired by unhappy neighbors, attended the meeting.
“We’ll consult with [residents] and see if that’s still the case,” LaMarsh said. “We think that’s still the case. We’ll see if anyone else wants to join the fight.”
The hotly controversial plan covers 75 acres along Glenridge Drive, straddling Abernathy Road. It combines the new Mercedes-Benz USA headquarters and Ashton Woods’ variety of single-family, condo and apartment homes. Some commercial space is in the mix as well.
Mercedes is generally liked, while the housing—especially the 399 apartment units—have been debated, largely for traffic impacts. The council’s approval came with the condition of cutting the apartments to a maximum of 355—a nod to the neighborhood that drew some snorts and laughter from opponents.
The project includes many traffic mitigations, including new turn lanes on Abernathy and other streets, along with bike lanes and new sidewalks. In addition, Mercedes agreed to delay building its “Phase II” main building—a nine-story tower—until larger road improvements are completed in 2021. The council, in its approval vote, pushed that back further to 2022.
The property is currently owned by Caroline Glenn Mayson, who demolished her family’s historic mansion on the northern part of the site earlier this year amid local protests. In a major change to the plan, 14 acres of that site will now be preserved as a public park, complete with hiking trails and an existing pond, to be donated to the city.
The park drew strong support from officials of the Sandy Springs Conservancy, a green space nonprofit advocacy group that plans many local parks.
“Putting this in perspective, this is about half the size of Big Trees, which is our biggest park,” said Conservancy Executive Director Linda Bain.
At least 100 residents and local leaders attended the meeting. Words of support came largely from business people and residents from around the city, while opposition speakers were largely from abutting neighborhoods.
Besides traffic concerns, opponents also complain that Ashton Woods never engaged in a real input process, instead presenting an unchangeable plan. Various neighborhood suggestions, such as devoting the apartments to seniors and residents in need of assisted living, were rejected by Ashton Woods or city staff.
“Shame on somebody for that [lack of input],” said City Councilman Ken Dishman, adding that he hopes an improved public input process will be one outcome of the Ashton Woods debate.
The version of the plan approved by the council, with 355 maximum apartments, was apparently still too much for City Councilman Graham McDonald, who voiced density concerns and was the only no vote.
Most councilmen described the vote as a difficult one, but said they were swayed by the plan to include various housing types built around a corporate headquarters, which could allow company employees to walk to work. The large new park was welcomed as well.
They also indicated that the lawsuit they fear more is one from Mayson or the developers, because that could wipe out the site’s zoning and let them build whatever they want.
“It may not be the best plan, but it is the best plan compared to all the others I saw,” said Mayor Rusty Paul, weighing in despite not getting a vote under the city’s form of government. “I wish there was another answer…but there’s not.”