A plan to replace a Wendy’s restaurant on Roswell Road with a SunTrust bank was slammed by the city Planning Commission Nov. 17 as out of character with the pedestrian-oriented City Springs project across the street.
In a 5-1 vote recommending denial of the project’s variances, the commission agreed with a city staff finding that called the bank and its drive-through a “detriment [to] the public good via perpetuating a pedestrian-hostile environment.” SunTrust next goes to the City Council for a final decision.
The Wendy’s restaurant has operated for about 30 years at 6240 Roswell Road at the intersection with Johnson Ferry Road. SunTrust aims to demolish the restaurant and replace it with a branch bank relocating from 5898 Roswell Road at the Cliftwood Drive intersection. Bank officials declined to say what would happen with its current location.
SunTrust spokesperson Katie Lopez said the proposed relocation is “a natural part of ensuring that SunTrust is able to maximize its market opportunities and meet the needs of clients in an efficient and effective manner. The 6240 Roswell Road location provides the convenience our clients want, while also allowing us the space that better fits our needs.”
City Springs, under construction on the other side of Johnson Ferry, is the city’s massive mixed-use development. It will include a theater, a new City Hall, shops and apartments, all tied into a larger master plan for a walkable, denser downtown.
SunTrust’s project requires variances, according to city planning staff members, for the property’s two driveways—which lose any grandfathered status due to the new project—and for a proposed drive-through ATM structure separate from the main bank building.
SunTrust attorney Den Webb claimed that “we don’t think we need variances at all,” triggering some confusion as to whether he was challenging the commission’s ability to hear the case. Webb then argued that SunTrust deserves the variances from the “hardship” of designing the separate drive-through because it is safer for walk-in customers than putting drive-through lanes closer to the building.
Webb also pointed to a recently built Chase bank at Roswell and Mount Vernon Highway, on the other side of City Springs, which has a similar drive-through and driveways. The city’s approval of that project, he said, is a precedent that shows the SunTrust bank also should be approved.
City planning staff challenged Webb’s claim that no variances are needed. They said the project plainly contradicts the pedestrian-oriented demands in three major governing documents: the Main Street Overlay District, the City Center Master Plan and the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
Webb and city staff also debated what advice city officials have given about the project. Webb said he met with city Public Works officials and “they don’t object to what we’re doing.” But Ginger Sottile, the city’s planning and zoning manager, said staff consulted their traffic engineer and “he concurs with our determination.”
Rhonda Smith of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods testified that her group agrees with city staff that the bank project is “unsafe.” “Bank business models should not impede higher city goals,” such as the City Springs project, she said.
The significance of the nearby Chase bank as a precedent was debated. It appears none of the current planning staff were involved in its review and approval several years ago.
Craig Johns, the only commissioner to support the bank, said, “I look at this and I say, ‘I’m not sure how the Chase thing got through, but it’s pretty much a mirror image” of SunTrust’s plan. If two businesses are going act as bookends for City Springs, he asked, why not banks?
Commissioner Dave Nickels noted that while the Chase bank has a similar design, its property appears to be larger, so the zoning variance situation likely was not identical.
Shaking his head after hearing SunTrust’s presentation, Nickels said, “It looks like they found a piece of property and they’re trying to make a bank fit there.” He said the needed variances indicate that SunTrust has no hardship in using the site and that “a bank doesn’t work there.”