The Sandy Springs City Council has approved a $1.8 million purchase of an auto repair business with the intention of building a cultural center that may include a state Holocaust memorial and offices for various organizations. The approval was made at an April 7 teleconference council meeting, with one council member voting against the purchase because of the price.

“Everybody in town has seen the city with deep pockets and has been trying to get better prices out of us,” City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said. “And our taxpayers are paying the bill.”

The city has previously said the cultural center would serve as a new home for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust’s “Anne Frank in the World” exhibit (which is currently housed in a Roswell Road shopping center); the commission’s office and possibly a new Holocaust memorial mandated by state legislation. It has also been said the center would lease office space to the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce and Visit Sandy Springs, the city’s tourism promotion agency, which would run a visitors center.

The property approved for purchase at the April 7 meeting at 151 Hilderbrand Drive is currently a BMW auto repair business called Buckhead Motor Works, owned by Lawrence Burdett, who could not be reached for comment. The property consists of approximately half an acre at the corner of Blue Stone Road and Hilderbrand Drive and is near the city’s City Springs civic center.

A map included in Sandy Springs’ bid document for cultural center design services shows a potential specific location on Hilderbrand Drive, currently occupied by Buckhead Auto Works and Heritage Sandy Springs. (Special)

The council did not specifically speak to the purpose of the purchase. City spokesperson Sharon Kraun confirmed the purchase is for a cultural center.

“If you look back to the City Center Master Plan adopted in 2012, and the city’s Next Ten [comprehensive land use] plan, you’ll see that it has been a long-term goal to create places of community attracting more arts, cultural and civic events within the City Springs district,” Kraun said in an email.

DeJulio voted against the purchase, citing concerns with the cost.

“We don’t want the business. He can move the business,” DeJulio said. “We only want the property.”

City attorney Dan Lee said the price is high because the city is buying both the property and the business interest, which each had an appraised value of $1 million, and that the purchase will put Burdett out of business.

“It’s a thriving, ongoing business,” Lee said. “He doesn’t want to close it, and part of the problem in trying to find substitute property is the zoning in Sandy Springs has very, very, very, limited areas to where automobile mechanic businesses can locate.”

DeJulio said he had heard someone was interested in buying the business and moving it elsewhere. But Lee said that city staff understood that Burdett was unable to find another buyer.

Councilmember Chris Burnett said the city had little option about the price.

“Tibby, I understand where you’re coming from, nobody hates to overpay for real estate more than I do,” Burnett said. “The way I look at this is that…whether we like it or not, we do have to buy his business if we want this piece of property. Otherwise, he could continue to operate his business there for as long as he wants to.”

Burnett also said that because of its proximity to City Springs, the property is worth more. 

“We have inflated the value of real estate because of the investment we’ve made and the way we have turned around the downtown corridor,” Burnett said. “So that’s the unfortunate reality is those prices are climbing now because the desirability of being near City Springs is climbing quickly as well.”

The property was previously pegged as a “preferred location” for the city’s cultural center in a June 2018 request for proposals. The RFP also included a house owned by the city that is a part of Heritage Sandy Springs, a history and culture nonprofit. In a 2016 master plan, Heritage identified its part of that site as a possible location for a new museum for its own exhibits. That property was not discussed by the council during the repair shop purchase approval.

In November 2018, the city privately approved an architecture firm’s contract of $153,900 to create designs for a cultural center, which the city has said would house several local groups and, potentially, a new state Holocaust memorial. City officials said in November 2018 that no specific location had been determined and a presentation showed a general area of several blocks surrounding City Springs.

Later in November 2018, the city held a community input meeting, where residents met with the design team and provided ideas for the cultural center.