Two groups with opposing views on redevelopment concepts for the north end of Sandy Springs have organized to voice their opinions as city officials determine which concepts should move forward.

Affordable housing advocates who co-chaired the city’s North End Revitalization Task Force launched an initiative opposing the task force’s final report with a community meeting on Feb. 28. At that meeting, several north end residents said they feared the recommendations would lead to displacement of apartment residents.

Other residents, saying they were frustrated by the Feb. 28 meeting, started a new group shortly afterwards to support the report.

Suzanne Durbin, standing on the right, leads a discussion about the north end plan at a Feb. 28 meeting that launched Sandy Springs Together. (Evelyn Andrews)

“This plan is going to impact Sandy Springs, and it is going to alter people’s lives, we truly hope mostly for the best, but we also understand this is a delicate situation,” said Richard Merritt, who is part of Sandy Springs Together, the initiative opposing the report.

“To us, the worst thing that could happen is the City Council turn their backs on us and say, ‘It’s too hard,’” said Suzanne Miell, a Huntcliff resident who helped start the North End Sandy Springs Improvement Coalition, the group that supports the report.

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

Now, city staff members are presenting summaries of the report to various city boards as it looks into the feasibility of the recommendations. The report is low on concrete funding options and costs, factors that can determine how redevelopment might change the area, which is what the two groups hope to sway.

Gentrification and displacement

David Couchman and Melanie Noble-Couchman, who have long been involved in affordable housing advocacy and served as task force co-chairs, launched Sandy Springs Together out of their philanthropic Couchman-Noble Foundation. They both opposed the task force’s final report because they believe it would drive gentrification and displacement.

Sandy Springs Together was created to “raise awareness” about social and community issues, Merritt said. The group first focus will be on housing and the north end report, 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.”

Miell and Josh Conklin, residents who said they felt the Sandy Springs Together event was one-sided, helped launch the North End Sandy Springs Improvement Coalition.

“The coalition wants to promote investment opportunities that will attract businesses and build employment opportunities for all,” Miell said. “We feel that the City Council is on the right track with a catalyst project outlined in the Task Force Strategic Initiatives that will provide a variety of housing options for people of all incomes as well as addressing other environmental and quality of life issues in the area.”

Mayor Rusty Paul defended the north end report in a written statement and said his instructions to the task force 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.”

Opposition group

Sandy Springs Together launched with a community meeting held Feb. 28 at North Springs United Methodist Church that was attended by about 100 people, including apartment renters and homeowners.

Sandy Springs Together is trying to build a coalition to oppose the task force’s recommendations on housing. Discussions at the meeting included presenting the report and what the Couchmans believe to be its flaws; getting residents’ feedback on the concepts; 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 report to be redone.

Will Lance, who lives in a north end apartment, who said he believes the city should “scrap” the report and seek more community input. “It shouldn’t be someone cramming it down our throat,” Lance said.

Many people had some concepts they agreed with, including providing more access to greenspace, building a community center and improving pedestrian and bicycle facilities on Roswell Road.

One resident said he liked the stated mission of the report, 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 recommendations, she has “general concern for the community” and fears it could displace the city’s workforce.

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. In March, around 30 supporters of the nonprofit protested at a City Council meeting. The group wore orange T-shirts that said “We Are ‘You People’,” referencing a statement a top city official is alleged to have said.

The nonprofit has been embroiled in legal challenges brought by the city for more than a year, alleging it is violating zoning rules by operating a drug treatment facility.

Supporting group

The people behind the improvement coalition quickly started another new group to show fity officials there is support for the task force report in the north end.

Many of the members are residents of the upscale Huntcliff neighborhood, but membership is becoming more diverse and the group is open to everyone, Conklin said.

Huntcliff’s residents were the early drivers of conversations about how to improve the north end. Former City Councilmember Ken Dishman was elected to represent the area on a promise that would be one of his main focuses.

Miell, who has lived in the area for 10 years, said she supports the concepts because she has seen the area only get worse. “If we don’t move forward, this area is just going to continue to decline, and make no mistake, this area is in decline,” Miell said.

Miell said the improvement coalition believes there is enough language in the report to ensure residents will not be pushed out and the catalyst project will have housing for all incomes.

“Everyone will benefit from it,” she said.

But Miell did acknowledge that some apartments likely will be removed or significantly changed to make a successful project.

“We want a mix of incomes, but to say we’re not going to touch a single apartment is not realistic,” she said.

Joe Burton, another resident who has joined the improvement coalition, said he is looking forward to improvements the concepts could bring, such as a restaurant on the river, but said the city needs to try to prevent displacements, especially for the elderly.

“I think businesses making their properties nicer is a good thing,” he said, “but I hate to see people displaced.”