Sandy Springs aims to encourage—and better define—dense, mixed-use projects in new “Interim Development Guidelines,” which are nearing completion.

The guidelines would apply to Perimeter Center, the City Springs downtown area and parts of Roswell Road. They’re “interim” because they would expire when the new Comprehensive Plan, a land-use vision document now under revision, goes into effect in 2017. They are also intended to plug some holes in the current Comp Plan that led City Council to declare a six-month rezoning moratorium in July.

“The biggest bone of contention…[is] what does ‘mixed’ mean” in mixed-use development, said Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert, presenting a draft of the guidelines at the Nov. 19 city Planning Commission meeting. The guidelines would color in that “gray area” in zoning, while generally promoting human-scale, walkable, urban redevelopment.

The guidelines are brief, amounting to six pages of goals in list format, with only a few specific numbers regarding density. The idea is to give developers an easy-to-understand guide to the city’s goals.

Of course, developers are well aware that the city wants mixed-use projects replacing strip-malls in places like the City Springs district. The problem is what Tolbert called “very nebulous” standards that lead to clashing visions.

“Right now, the way it works at council is, it’s almost like, ‘Let’s make a deal at the table,’” said Tolbert about the rezoning process for mixed-use projects.

A classic example is a mixed-use redevelopment at 6075-6077 Roswell Road, which the council approved at the same July meeting it instituted the rezoning moratorium.

Developer Camden USA intended to build 324 apartments in that project. But councilmen, with no solid guide in zoning or land-use documents, essentially guessed that 291 units was a figure closer to the area’s density, and approved the project at that number. Camden expressed concerns about the financial feasibility at the time and recently pulled out of the project.

The new guidelines provide basic density numbers for that City Springs area: 60 units per acre for a project with a parking deck, 40 units per acre for one without.

Higher densities could be allowed in exchange for certain public benefits such as sidewalk improvements or including middle-income or “workforce” housing units. The city is “trying to get some affordability in projects,” Tolbert said.

Developments within a quarter-mile of a MARTA station could be far denser and on a skyscraper scale: 75 or more units per acre and a height of 8 to 40 stories.

Another frequent complaint about mixed-use projects is how mixed they really are, or what commercial use mixes with the residential. Tolbert said some developers have claimed their apartments’ rental office or fitness center as the “mixed” use.

The guidelines would define “mixed-use” as devoting a minimum of 5 percent of floor space to retail or 20 percent to office space. And either way, that space must “not be associated with leasing of the residential property.”

Parking is addressed in the guidelines, which generally would allow lower required parking spaces in exchange for programs providing such mitigations as discounted MARTA passes or shuttle service.

More generally, the guidelines include some standards for public art, wayfinding, public safety considerations and buildings that don’t “turn their back on the public street,” Tolbert said.

Members of the Planning Commission generally reacted positively to the guidelines. They mostly suggested additions, such as water-permeable parking surfaces, specific bedrooms-per-unit counts, and ensuring sidewalks actually connect residents with MARTA stations in transit-oriented projects.

Member Steve Tart said “retail” should be better defined. He also warned against “forcing” a particular percentage of retail space that the market might not support.

Tolbert said that some cities allow mixed-use projects to use commercial space as residential until the market improves, and that could be a possible option for Sandy Springs. But Tart warned that could result in more projects where officials “get promised the moon and get a moon pie.”

The guidelines would need City Council approval to take effect.

John Ruch

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