Suzanne Durbin, a member of Sandy Springs Together, standing on the right, leads a discussion on the north end plan at the initiative’s launch on Feb. 28 at North Springs United Methodist Church. (Evelyn Andrews)

Affordable housing advocates who co-chaired Sandy Springs’ north end task force are building opposition to the group’s final proposal. An initiative was launched with a Feb. 28 community meeting where several north end residents said they feared the plan would lead to displacement.

David Couchman and Melanie Noble-Couchman, who have long been involved in affordable housing advocacy and served as task force co-chairs, have launched a new initiative, called “Sandy Springs Together,” out of their philanthropic Couchman-Noble Foundation. They both opposed the North End Revitalization Task Force’s final plan because they believe it would drive gentrification and displacement.

Sandy Springs Together was created to “raise awareness” about social and community issues, said Richard Merritt, who is part of the initiative. The group first focus will be on housing and the north end plan, but programs will be “ongoing” and include other topics, he said. Merritt said Sandy Springs Together is working to put “social pressure” on the city, but is also looking into other “legal options.”

Mayor Rusty Paul defended the north end plan in a written statement and said his instructions were “to avoid gentrification that displaces long-term working-class families.”

“The city’s goal is to create a healthy, vibrant retail environment that serves, first of all, existing citizens,” Paul said. “Second, the city has no plans to purchase apartments and displace residents, as has been alleged.  Third, the city’s focus is on transforming failing retail sites to include affordable middle-class homeownership opportunities for young families, teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, hospital workers and others who today can’t afford a home in Sandy Springs, because homeownership remains the greatest source of family wealth creation in our country.”

Sandy Springs Together launched with a community meeting held Feb. 28 at North Springs United Methodist Church, which the Couchmans said occurred earlier than expected after word got out on social media. The meeting was attended by around 100 people, including north end apartment renters, residents of the upscale Huntcliff neighborhood and other parts of the north end.

Most at the meeting, particularly residents of the apartments, spoke out against the plan as being drafted by an unrepresentative task force and as a tool for displacement.

The city-created task force worked for several months in 2018 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.

The redevelopment would kick off with one “catalyst” project led by the city that creates a “sense of place,” is walkable and mixed-income. The Couchmans fear this catalyst project could lead to displacement since the plan does not include an anti-displacement and relocation policy.

Intended to be focused on practical solutions, the task force included several developers and people in the construction industry. Membership also included a professional affordable housing consultant, City Councilmember Steve Soteres, the former director of Leadership Sandy Springs and the president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, along with the Couchmans.

David Couchman criticized the diversity of the task force’s membership, saying there were no people of color, small business owners or apartment owners or residents, among other groups.

One apartment resident agreed, and said the lack of representation was “crazy.”

“How would you be able to make a decision without having someone that lives here?” she said, referring to north end apartments.

Paul said in the statement that members were mostly Sandy Springs residents and chosen because they “understand how to revitalize areas with failing retail.”

Now, Sandy Springs Together is trying to build a coalition to oppose the task force plan. Discussions at the meeting included presenting the plan and what the Couchmans believe to be its flaws; getting residents’ feedback on the plan; and asking what residents would need to help oppose it.

Several residents said they want information about what city meetings they should attend and what officials to contact. Some argued Sandy Springs Together should push for the entire plan to be redone, including Will Lance, who lives in a north end apartment, who said he believes the city should “scrap” the plan and seek more community input.

“It shouldn’t be someone cramming it down our throat,” Lance said.

Melanie Noble-Couchman derided the official public meeting in October that unveiled some of the task force’s “big ideas” as having no public discussion. Participation mostly included attendees voting on the ideas using stickers.

“We’re having more discussion now than the city ever had,” David Couchman said.

Paul defended the public input process, saying the city had public meetings, including one attended by more than 200 residents.

“The task force reported its recommendations to council in a public meeting, and the meetings were widely reported in the local news media,” Paul said. “So, there was no secret process.”

The city also held a public meeting in July to get input from the community for the task force to base the plan on.

Many people had parts of the plan they agreed with, including more access to greenspace, the idea to build a community center and improving pedestrian and bicycle facilities on Roswell Road.

There were two people who spoke out saying that they liked the entire plan and thought it would be beneficial for the area.

Another said he liked the stated mission of the plan, which includes improving the area while maintaining its “mix of ages, incomes and backgrounds,” but said it “does not deliver that.”

A resident of a townhome on Dalrymple Road, who asked that her name not be used, said that although she is not worried about being directly affected by the plan, she has “general concern for the community” and fears it could displace the city’s workforce.

North Springs UMC Pastor Sarah Webb Phillips said the church is not officially a part of a Sandy Springs Together, but the group’s mission meets the church’s “purpose” of educating the community and “promoting equity in housing.” There are several members of the congregation who live in the apartments and could be impacted by the plans, she said.

The city has already been challenged by a north end group who claims the city is trying to push them out. Mary Hall Freedom House, a north end nonprofit, sued the city in December, claiming discrimination and saying it’s trying to push out minorities and disabled people.

Melanie Noble-Couchman introduces the first Sandy Springs Together meeting on Feb. 28 at North Springs United Methodist Church. (Evelyn Andrews)

The Couchmans’ background

The Couchmans were behind a secret concept for a new mixed-income community that had been a strong influence on the city’s affordable housing and north end redevelopment policy discussions for at least two years by the time it was revealed by the Reporter in early 2018. The couple privately presented to the city a redevelopment concept for some of the north end’s older apartment complexes, a large-scale idea featuring mixed-income housing and a community center.

The Couchmans argued several times at the meeting that they are not secretive, but were presenting the plans privately before they were ready to be revealed.

“The truth is, we never had a secret,” Melanie Noble-Couchman said. “There were no secret plans, only high ambitions for what we can all do together.”

The final north end plan included some similar concepts, including having mixed-income housing and building a community center, but they fear the task force’s version of the catalyst project could lead to thousands being displaced.

Earlier this year, the Couchmans commissioned a survey about the north end plan that they say found most respondents, 75 percent, agreed with them and wanted to “go back to the drawing board.”

Update: This article has been updated with comments from Mayor Rusty Paul and additional information.