The major campus expansion plan by Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School across the Buckhead border into Sandy Springs is drawing concern from residents about such effects as traffic increases, tree loss and the demolition of a 150-year-old house. And several neighbors said the plan – which includes relocating the Lower School there from elsewhere in Sandy Springs – may violate an enrollment cap in a 15-year-old zoning agreement.
At least 80 people crammed into the Holy Spirit Upper School library at the corner of Northside Drive and Mount Paran Road Oct. 30 for the first of two community input meetings about the 20-year campus master plan. Holy Spirit representatives said they share some of the public concerns and are willing to create a new agreement on such issues as enrollment.
Kyle Pietrantonio, Holy Spirit’s head of school, told the crowd that “traffic is top of mind for all of us … We want to try to come up with a plan that actually helps traffic on Mount Paran.”
He tried to reassure the crowd by saying a traffic study had been underway for months. But neighbors only recently found out about the plan. Several attendees said with the expansion possibly headed to the Sandy Springs Planning Commission as soon as January, they want more time to mull over the major neighborhood change. The ability of Buckhead residents to influence a Sandy Springs project was also a concern.
Skeptical residents successfully resisted Holy Spirit’s plan to divide them into “breakout groups” in different rooms, saying they wanted everyone to hear all questions and answers.
Carl Westmoreland, a zoning attorney representing Holy Spirit, said he believes Sandy Springs will welcome input from anyone. And Holy Spirit is willing to slow down the process if it means gaining a neighborhood agreement, he said. The plans require a conditional use permit, which ultimately must be approved by a vote of the City Council, possibly in February.
Holy Spirit is collecting public comments about the plan at firstname.lastname@example.org and maintaining a question-and-answer page on its website here. The city of Sandy Springs is also collecting public comments at its website here.
Holy Spirit Prep was founded in 1996 at what is still its Lower School campus on Sandy Springs’ Long Island Drive. The Upper School campus at Northside Drive and Mount Paran Road in Buckhead, alongside the church, opened in 2003.
The church and Upper School sit right against the Atlanta-Sandy Springs border. On the Sandy Springs side is a roughly 13-acre, largely wooded property owned by the archdiocese, where the new construction would go. Holy Spirit wants to sell its Long Island campus and build a new Lower School complex there. Several facilities to serve the church, including a rectory, are also planned. No changes are proposed to the existing Buckhead campus.
The following is the proposed new construction by type of use, according to Holy Spirit officials and plans filed with the city:
- A parking deck, three stories tall with 250 spaces
- A roughly 15-space surface parking area with a roundabout, as well as a new driveway opening onto Mount Paran
Lower School use
- A private school classroom building, two stories and 50,000 square feet
- A school recreation center, two stories and 50,000 square feet
- A sports field
- Two church school classroom buildings, each two stories tall and 20,000 square feet; these would be used for “youth ministry” or other programs to be determined
- A new rectory, two stories tall and 12,000 square feet in size; would serve as a home for retired priests
While presented as a “20-year” plan, the construction phasing remains unclear and dependent on fundraising. However, officials said that the parking garage is the most pressing need for the church and they would like to see it built in one or two years. The Lower School relocation is also high on the list, dependent on a successful sale of the Long Island campus.
Consolidating the Lower and Upper Schools means bringing more than 400 more students to the Northside Drive campus, for what Holy Spirit says is an expected maximum enrollment of “under 750.” For residents, that raised concerns about traffic and about an enrollment cap in a previous agreement.
For the Upper School’s approval in 2003, Holy Spirit signed an agreement with local residents that included a campus enrollment cap of 320. Whether that agreement has any legal teeth that could bite into Holy Spirits’ plan remains unclear. But it definitely is creating a major trust issue with residents as they are asked to make a new campus expansion agreement.
Mount Paran resident Larry Lord said he worked on the 2003 agreement and said it caps the enrollment at the current site “or any adjacent property. That’s a real critical piece in this whole situation.” He could not immediately provide a copy of the agreement. Ronda Smith, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, backed his claim and said the agreement was made a condition of the zoning at the time.
Holy Spirit officials variously said they had never heard of the agreement or did not remember that part of it, and that it sounded irrelevant either way because an Atlanta zoning has no authority in Sandy Springs. Westmoreland, the attorney, said he would find and read the agreement.
“We need to find out exactly what was in [the agreement] … I don’t remember the contiguous property piece,” said Monsignor Edward Dillon, the church’s pastor, who was the only Holy Spirit official present who was involved in the 2003 deal.
Asked by another resident whether the current plan at least violates the spirit of the old agreement, Lord replied, “Yes, it does go against what was said in the agreement.”
The enrollment cap question highlights another overall concern: a single campus plan that is not overseen by a single local government. Atlanta traffic and stormwater officials are reviewing their pieces of the conceptual plan, officials said, but there is no approval required from that city’s government. Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system will not review it, and the prominent Chastain Park Civic Association’s members were not given a heads-up. Pietrantonio said early notice about the conceptual plan was given several months ago to Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, Sandy Springs City Councilmember Andy Bauman and Smith, the Council of Neighborhoods president.
Westmoreland said that Buckhead residents can attend Sandy Springs government meetings and likely will be listened to like anyone else. “There’s no wall or curtain to keep you out of the process…,” he said.
Traffic management is a major discussion point. Holy Spirit officials claim the new driveway would have more than enough capacity for the relocated Lower School’s carpool traffic of about 110 vehicles a day. But larger questions about traffic flow could not be answered as the traffic study is still underway, with results expected in early November, in advance of the next community meeting.
In the current concept, residents questioned placing the new driveway on Mount Paran and the lack of sidewalks or crosswalks, among other factors.
Natural and historic resources
Tree loss was strongly opposed by a couple of residents. Holy Spirit said in a fact sheet that it would save and replant as many trees as possible, and keep a 60-foot-wide buffer of woodland between the street and the new buildings. A plan to purchase parts of backyards along Jett Road appears related to maintaining buffer land.
One resident asked why the Lower School was not added to the Upper School in the form of additions to existing buildings instead of developing the woodland. Pietrantonio said that height limits in Atlanta’s zoning code prevented that.
Another loss would be a historic house at 844 Mount Paran. According to Fulton County property records, it dates to 1869, which would make it one of the oldest buildings left in Sandy Springs. Dillon suggested the house is about to fall down by itself, or at least has an interior in disrepair.
The scale of construction was another concern for some residents. The Holy Spirit site is a former quarry, and residents say that previous construction has required blasting of rock for long periods.