“We need to be much more innovative…This is a city ready to take leadership on some
of those issues.” – Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander, the new community development director for the city of Sandy Springs, comes aboard at a crucial time. The city is embarking on a new Comprehensive Plan and a major reform of its planning and public input processes.

In an interview at her City Hall office, Alexander said that kind of forward thinking is exciting.

Sandy Springs is tackling the challenge of “creating urban activity in a suburban setting,” she said. “I see the city is working to reinvent [the way of achieving] that.”

Alexander, who was hired last month, oversees the city’s planning, zoning, code enforcement and environmental review functions. She previously served as development director at the city of Chamblee, and has extensive experience consulting on master plans for many local communities, such as Dunwoody and Norcross.

Sandy Springs is in the midst of that kind of planning. Its Comprehensive Plan is getting a thorough update. And the proposed planning reforms include a full rewriting of the zoning code, something Alexander has done before.

While community development has many complex aspects and methods, Alexander said, it comes down to something pretty simple. “Change is going to happen,” she said. “Either you get to manage it, or it happens to you.”

Sandy Springs is literally a textbook example of urban change—what used to be called “edge cities” sprouting in metro suburbs. “The Perimeter was a case study” in planning school, she said.

By essentially reverse-engineering a city out of a suburb, Sandy Springs has given itself some big challenges. That includes the current effort to create a downtown—the City Center area—along Roswell Road’s strip malls.

“The land development pattern designed for all of us to be in our cars hasn’t helped create a sense of place,” Alexander said in approval of that effort. People need places to “meet each other and see each other and have celebrations.”

In facing that challenge, Sandy Springs benefits from many assets, including thriving commercial areas and the “lush tree canopy in the interior of those neighborhoods,” she said. “Now sew it together and [discover] what’s our sense of place.”

City government has good internal planning mechanisms, too, she said—especially with regular, direct communication between various city departments so that redevelopment efforts are unified.

A self-described “data geek,” Alexander said the city can improve its comprehensive analyses of such classic community planning issues as traffic impacts.

“The region cannot build its way out of congestion,” she said. “We need to be much more innovative…This is a city ready to take leadership on some of those issues.”

She emphasized that the Comprehensive Plan revision will include a wide range of public input and, besides the large overview, will give a few “sub-areas” some intensive planning.

Those sub-area plans are “so critical and dynamic…especially when you’re trying to create a sense of place, which is hard sometimes from cookie-cutter suburban design,” she said.

As cities go, Alexander said, “this is a baby” just starting to grow up in planning terms. “We aren’t the same people we were 10 years ago,” and overseeing the new vision of the city’s future is a “beautiful opportunity.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.