A traffic mitigation plan for Holy Spirit Church and Preparatory School’s proposed Buckhead campus expansion into Sandy Springs was expected the week of Jan. 14 in a key attempt to sway neighbors who say the project would violate a 15-year-old zoning agreement.

Meanwhile, there may be another wrinkle to the traffic talk. Holy Spirit College, another affiliate institution on the campus at Northside Drive and Mount Paran Road, reportedly has growth plans of its own and is enrolling a new class of 10 to 20 students this fall.

A map of Holy Spirit church and school’s proposed expansion as filed with the city of Sandy Springs. The map is oriented with north to the left; the line down the middle is the Sandy Springs-Atlanta border. The property on the right is the existing church and Holy Spirit Prep campus; to the left are the proposed buildings and facilities of the expansion.

Holy Spirit officials and residents with the Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association met on Dec. 3 to discuss the controversial campus project. Holy Spirit Prep, through a public relations agency, declined to comment, pending the release of the traffic plan.

However, association member Stephen Phillips provided a copy of Head of School Kyle Pietrantonio’s written answers to a bevy of questions residents submitted at that meeting.

The answers make it clear that Holy Spirit officials believe the old agreement does not restrict the expansion plan and that they might “ultimately pursue this all the way through legal channels.” But the officials also respect the neighborhood and would like to “strike a new agreement.” Their Plan B is to have the church expansion go first in phasing for what is intended to be a 20-year campus master plan.

Holy Spirit’s plan would build out its Buckhead campus — consisting of the church and Upper School — onto an adjacent, 13-acre wooded property in Sandy Springs. The biggest element of the plan is building a new home for the Lower School, currently located elsewhere in Sandy Springs.

At an October community meeting about the plan, residents raised the issue of an agreement from 2003. The agreement is a list of conditions that the city of Atlanta attached to its approval of a special use permit that allowed the Upper School, then called the Donnellan School, to be built.

Among its provisions is an enrollment cap of 320 students — the expansion would bring nearly 750 students — and an agreement “to prohibit any future expansion of the student body, ever, on this site, or any contiguous property.”

Holy Spirit officials said they either never heard of the agreement or did not remember that part of it. Question number one from the Neighborhood Preservation Association at the December meeting was whether Holy Spirit will honor the agreement now that it is fully aware.

Holy Spirit’s purely legal answer was that Atlanta planning officials assured them that the agreement would not be a hurdle to expanding into the different city of Sandy Springs and would not affect the existing special use permit that allows the school to operate. A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning did not respond to questions about that discussion.

Kyle Pietrantonio, head of school at Holy Spirit Prep, presents the plan during a community meeting in October 2018. (File/John Ruch)

On the diplomatic side, Pietrantonio wrote about looking ahead to a possible new agreement.

“We are evaluating the path forward and certainly are neither minimizing nor disrespectful of the previous agreement from 2003,” he wrote in his answers to the association. “At the same time, we have a significant family and alumni group who is passionate about the opportunity that [Upper and Lower schools] consolidation will bring. So, the next step is for us to gauge everyone’s interests based on where we are today.”
Pietrantonio wrote that Holy Spirit thinks its plan could make traffic flow even better than it is today — a main neighborhood concern, but that he understands some people do not want neighborhood change regardless.

“We are appreciative of the candor, and we intend to be equally forthright when we’ve made a final determination on whether we would ultimately pursue this all the way through legal channels,” he wrote. “Of course, we would very much like to strike a new agreement based on our heritage as a very solid church and school asset to the area.”

One item the neighbors specifically asked about was the current and projected future student and staff numbers for Holy Spirit College, a small institution that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. The college’s chancellor, Monsignor Edward Dillon, is also pastor of the church and rector of Holy Spirit Prep.

The written answer to neighbors said only that the college is a “separate legal entity” not involved in the campus expansion and that it would have to answer its own development plan questions. But reports on the college’s website and from the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit that publishes a guide to Catholic colleges, indicate a plan to grow and to revive a dormant undergrad program this fall with enrollment of a new, small class.

College president Gareth Genner did not respond to questions.

Press releases on the college website said that, besides enrolling the new undergrad class, the school “plans to grow its graduate programs,” and last June hired a new provost and vice-provost. A December report from the Cardinal Newman Society announced the undergrad relaunch will involve 10 to 20 students and said that “on-campus housing is not yet available.”

Traffic is not the only neighborhood concern about the campus expansion plan. Separate reports on tree loss and water runoff impacts are expected to be available in February, according to Holy Spirit’s answers to the neighbors.

John Ruch

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