The Northpark site, a wooded area bounded by Ga. 400, Mount Vernon Highway and Abernathy and Peachtree-Dunwoody Roads, in an image from city of Sandy Springs zoning documents.
The Northpark site, a wooded area bounded by Ga. 400, Mount Vernon Highway and Abernathy and Peachtree-Dunwoody Roads, in an image from city of Sandy Springs zoning documents.

Developer Hines’s latest plan for the massive Northpark site at Ga. 400 and Abernathy Road—this time focused on a hotel—may be heading to court after the Sandy Springs Board of Appeals upheld a construction permit rejection Dec. 10.

“Our recommendation to the client is to file suit in the Superior Court of Fulton County,” said Doug Dillard, Hines’ attorney, in an interview after the board’s unanimous vote. “I think their decision was arbitrary in basis, in law and fact.”

But city attorney Wendell Willard and city development staff said a 1987 zoning plan the project application hinges on is no longer valid and rezoning is required. That plan famously includes a possible 50-story office tower—taller than many Atlanta skyscrapers—though Dillard indicated that building likely is not on Hines’ current development agenda.

Instead, Hines is focusing on another piece of that plan: a 600-room hotel up to 8 stories tall. Another element, a 25-story office tower, may be on Hines’ longer-term drawing board, Dillard said. Dillard referred plan-related questions to a Hines employee in attendance, who declined to comment or identify himself.

The now 14-acre, wooded Northpark site at the southeast corner of the 400/Abernathy interchange has gone through various planning and physical changes over the decades. In 1987, Fulton County rezoned the parcel—then about 19 acres—for the two office towers, the hotel and a large section of commercial space. The rezoning was conditioned on that site plan, city officials said.

Changes since then include Peachtree-Dunwoody Road cutting through it in the 1990s and the sale of a corner near MARTA’s Sandy Springs Station to a hotel developer. That hotel project, the Grand Bohemian Atlanta, remains unbuilt. Meanwhile, in 2013, Hines sought a rezoning to add mixed-use residential development to its project, but withdrew that plan last year after community opposition.

Hines is now back to what it considers the 1987 plan, an earlier this year, applied for a city land disturbance permit for its own hotel at an address it calls 6500 Peachtree-Dunwoody. But in an internal administrative decision, city staff rejected the permit and said the site must be rezoned again. The city essentially says that Hines is trying to get two hotels out of a 1987 rezoning that only allows one.

“The issue here is whether the hotel is still allowed on the remaining 14 acres,” Dillard said, boiling down the technical zoning arguments.

The new hotel would change the site’s approved density, among other issues, city officials say. Rezonings in 2000 and 2006 related to the Grand Bohemian plan also changed the 1987 site plan, rendering it invalid, Willard said.

“This is a smoking gun,” Willard said, referring to 2000 county zoning meeting minutes. He said the minutes document a Hines attorney saying the planned hotel, on what had become a separate parcel on the other side of Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, “represents a vast reduction” in the main project’s scale.

But Dillard said that such comments are irrelevant and that only the wording of board votes matters. No county or city zoning decision ever explicitly said the entire 1987 master plan was changing, he said.

“The hotel was a big deal. There was a lot of debate,” Dillard said, adding that redoing the entire site plan was “never advertised or part of the debate.”

While the Board of Appeals’ Dec. 10 decision was unanimous in supporting the city’s rejection of a land disturbance permit, board members disagreed on whether the 1987 site plan was invalid, or how much that mattered.

“My issue isn’t one hotel versus two hotels,” said board chair Ted Sandler. “It’s the fact that the site plan…is significantly different than the 1987 site plan that was approved by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.”

But board member Alvin Johnson said the plans still had the same number of buildings, “so there’s been no change, in my opinion, of the original plan.”

After the vote, Dillard complained that the board’s vote did not include an explanation of its reasons, and that several different ones had been discussed. But Willard replied that the vote was to approve the city staff decision and the stated reasons for it.

Mayor Rusty Paul sat through the entire Board of Appeals meeting, but did not speak during the Northpark debate and left shortly after the vote.

John Ruch

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