The Sandy Springs North End Revitalization Task Force’s report is headed to the City Council, calling for a new multiuse trail, a community center and one large “catalyst” project that would spur retail and residential redevelopment in the area.
The plan includes some affordable housing concepts, though there is tension within the group on how successful they would be. A citywide affordable housing policy, one goal of the task force’s work, was not clearly laid out as expected. Also missing is a clear plan for paying for all the redevelopment concepts other than a broad reference to government subsidies.
The task force’s chair said the report is a successful, practical guide for the city. The task force’s co-chairs, however, expressed concern that it does not do enough to protect existing residents from displacement.
“This task force put in well over 500 hours of volunteer time to produce these comprehensive, realistic and actionable recommendations to revitalize the North End,” said Councilmember Steve Soteres, who represents the north end and chaired the task force, in a written statement.
“The plan is essentially replacing our essential workers for a more affluent worker and disrupting both the socioeconomic and racial diversity of the area,” affordable housing advocates David and Melanie Couchman said in a written statement. The philanthropic couple served as co-chairs on the task force.
The report was finalized at the task force’s final meeting Dec. 5, where it was voted for by everyone on the group except for three affordable housing advocates who were not able to get all of their recommendations into the plan. The report will next be reviewed by the City Council at its January retreat.
The city-created task force has been working since the summer to draft a plan to bring new development to the north end, ultimately deciding on six key proposals: build a multiuse trail; incentivize new mixed-use and mixed-income developments; make Roswell Road improvements; build new streets and pedestrian connections; create new access to the Chattahoochee River; and build a community center and swimming complex.
At the beginning of the process, Mayor Rusty Paul challenged the group to find a way to accomplish two contradictory goals: attempting to boost higher-end retail, which hinges on a wealthier customer base, without displacing the working-class residents of the city’s perhaps most diverse area.
He said “gentrification” must be avoided, citing the Atlanta BeltLine as a cautionary tale.
The housing piece of the proposal is centered on bringing new mixed-income developments and increasing homeownership in the north end. That would kick off with one “catalyst” project led by the city that creates a “sense of place,” is walkable and mixed-income.
“We are fortunate to have City Springs which is doing that in the middle part of the city, but we need something like that in the north end,” said Richard Munger, who authored the housing and development piece of the proposal. Munger is a developer with North American Properties, which owns the giant mixed-use projects Avalon in Alpharetta and Atlantic Station in Midtown Atlanta and recently joined Dunwoody’s proposed High Street.
The North River area is the best candidate for the project, the report said. The city’s new land-use plan already called for the redevelopment of the apartment complexes in shopping centers in that area.
“We suggest starting with a catalyst project that can show others how walkable projects can work in the North End and serve as a template for future developments,” the report said.
The report was expected by the city to include actionable items with clear funding solutions, the lack of which stalled similar previous reports.
Funding sources are more clearly mapped out for some of the task force’s proposal, but the housing and development section is vague. The city would likely have to partially fund the catalyst project, along with “other innovative funding sources,” the report said.
The proposal suggests the city contract with a developer to create a master plan for the north end. The city should use fee waivers and regulations exemptions to incentivize developers to participate in the catalyst project and offer mixed-income housing, the report said.
Although the advocates opposed the overall plan after their alternative housing proposal was voted down by the task force, they were able to get several of their key ideas into the main plan. Those ideas include studying the current housing stock, schools, transportation and businesses; creating an affordable housing impact statement; and providing financial assistance to property owners to renovate apartments while keeping them affordable. The city should look to nonprofits for help funding affordable housing preservation, the report said.
“With a group this large having such diverse experience and backgrounds, you will inevitably have some disagreement,” Soteres said. “I think the discussions were healthy and helped shape a great plan.”
The advocates’ plan that was voted down included those proposals, in addition to creating an anti-displacement and relocation policy; hiring a staff member to oversee affordable housing initiatives; and stronger encouragement of preservation of existing affordable housing.
No specifics were given for how to create the anti-displacement policy. During meetings Meaghan Shannon-Vikovic, an affordable housing advisor, cited other cities that have successfully assisted with relocating residents and allowing some to return after a redevelopment project is finished.
The lack of these ideas concerns the Couchmans, who said in an email that the plan as it was approved doesn’t do enough to address concerns about displacement, gentrification and rising rents residents expressed at the public meetings held by the task force. The Couchmans also noted several times during the meetings they had issues with the task force’s membership, which did not include any north end apartment or business owners and was mostly developers. It also appeared to be all white.
“We are disappointed in the vote, but it wasn’t a surprise,” the Couchmans said in a written statement. “The make-up of the task force was a clear indication, from the beginning, where this process was headed.”
Some of the key parts of the task force’s proposal show similarities to a previously secret concept the Couchmans advocated to city staff for years, which the Reporter revealed earlier this year. That concept included building a mixed-income development in the North River area and the idea to build a community center.
The task force unanimously supported the other proposals and all other members supported the entire plan. Developer Jack Arnold, whose company owns the North River shopping center, was not present and did not vote yet, however.
Funding for the other proposed projects varies. To build a swimming complex and community center and create more pedestrian access to the Chattahoochee River, the report suggests the city consider a parks bond, citing Brookhaven’s $40 million bond it passed in November as an example.
For the Greenline trail, which does not yet have a proposed route, the report simply says the city needs to “identify alternative funding sources,” in addition to relying on TSPLOST funding, the city’s general fund and right-of-way donations.
Right-of-way donations are also suggested for the idea to remake Roswell Road, which calls for pedestrian and cyclist improvements, including protected bike lanes. The concept, which is encouraged in the report to be flexible for new technology like autonomous cars and electric scooters, could also be considered for federal dollars, the report said.