The massive master plan for the new Riverwood International Charter high school in Sandy Springs was reviewed by Fulton County Schools officials at a May 23 community meeting. The meeting doubled as a preview of what marvels the county education sales tax could finish building if voters re-approve it May 24—and also of community issues with trees, lighting, noise and traffic that still need to be resolved.

An illustration of the full, conceptual Riverwood International Charter School master plan presented at the May 23 meeting. (Photo John Ruch)

“I’m excited with where we’re headed,” said Dr. Robert Shaw, Riverwood’s principal, after the meeting, held inside Riverwood. He said the planning has been “responsible” to both the community and to students who deserve a better facility.

Riverwood, located at Heards Ferry Road and Raider Drive, is in the midst of the first phase of a complex project, budgeted at over $30 million, to build a new school without shutting down any current classrooms or programs.

The first phase began with demolishing and relocating Riverwood’s former neighbor, Heards Ferry Elementary School, and replacing it with a baseball field that should be done by January 2017. Now the steel beams for part of the future new Riverwood are going up and classrooms within its 117,000 square feet are slated to be ready for the 2017 school year, officials said.

Still on the drawing board is the rest of the Riverwood master plan, featuring a huge, mansion-like new high school on the center of the property sprouting various wings for such uses as visual arts and an “information center” (known in old-school lingo as the library). A huge new gym and theater facility would occupy much of the footprint of the existing school.

An early conceptual illustration of a pedestrian bridge at the future new Riverwood school displayed at the May 23 meeting. Architect Bob Sussenbach noted it lacks many real-life details, such as trees. (Photo John Ruch)

Riverwood’s student capacity would be boosted from 1,500 to 1,800, Shaw said. Virtually everything would be bigger and better, officials said, from parking (up to 626 spaces from 450) to the football field’s grandstands. Project architect Bob Sussenbach previewed some of the master plan design, including a pedestrian bridge over the driveway and an overall “traditional, classical” design with a red peaked roof and buff brick meant to echo the surrounding residential area.

But all that future work takes more money, officials said. They did not directly campaign for the approximately 35 residents in attendance to vote to renew the 1 percent education special local option sales tax, or E-SPLOST, on May 24. But they repeatedly wished for its success.

“If there’s good news tomorrow,” said David Knotts, the school district’s executive director of capital programs, the full Riverwood project could go forward, though exactly when would depend on how the Board of Education prioritizes projects. The earliest completion date, he said, would be sometime in 2019, though parts of the school would open sooner.

One reason for holding the meeting, Shaw said, was because the general community had not been given a project update in a while. That had become clear earlier this year, when abutting residents were surprised to learn that construction plans involved blasting and feared it could damage their multi-million-dollar homes.

“You could feel the tremors” during the now-completed blasting, but they did not appear to cause damage, said Don Hart, one of those abutting residents, in an interview at the meeting, adding that a final report is still pending.

But residents had other concerns that officials are only beginning to cope with. A big one is the Heards Ferry Road driveway, once heavily used by the elementary school and, neighbors say, the site of frequent back-ups. The drive is currently used only for construction vehicles and the current main driveway is now on Raider Drive. But the Heards Ferry driveway’s ultimate use is still under discussion with city of Sandy Springs officials, Knotts said.

Phase one classroom space construction underway at the Riverwood school property on May 23. (Photo John Ruch)

Knotts said the Heards Ferry driveway will be at least a right-turn-only entrance, and that the district wants it to be at least a right-turn-only exit as well, if not a full-access driveway. “The final entrance [and] exit [for the completed school] has not been determined,” he said.

Methods to reduce ballfield lighting and loudspeakers from impacting residents is another issue the district is “working on,” Knotts said.

Tree loss is a big local concern. Many trees came down for the school project. In addition, Georgia Power has cut trees on Raider Drive for utility work related both to Riverwood and to city intersection work at Powers Ferry Road, Knotts said.

Sussenbach said the school district, per city policy, will replace all the trees it removed on-site. Lance Painter, the project manager with Turner Construction Company, said those trees will be focused on screening abutting properties, and temporary vegetation will be planted in the meantime. As for Georgia Power’s work, “I’m a little disappointed” in the amount of tree loss, Knotts said, pledging the district will work with the utility company to replace as many trees in that area as possible, including in areas related to the city roadwork.

John Ruch

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