A Marist School plan to build a new campus technology center has prompted the Brookhaven City Council to ease the zoning approvals for such projects by allowing a city official to make the decision internally.

The new process allows the director of the Community Development department, rather than the council, to approve “technical” changes to zoning conditions that do not “involve significant public interest,” in the city’s legal language.

The new administrative approval process will spare Marist about three months of Planning Commission and City Council review of an addition that is part of turning the first floor of its Wooldridge Center into a new “Center for Immersive Experience and Design.” The school intends to open the center for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Marist’s plan

Marist is a Catholic school at 3790 Ashford-Dunwoody Road. It is working on a strategy called “STEAM 2.0” that combines its Global and Humane Studies program with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). Marist has a $2 million grant from the Goizeuta Foundation for STEAM 2.0.

As part of STEAM 2.0, Marist is building the 8,000-square-foot Center for Immersive Experience and Design.

An illustration of Marist School’s Wooldridge Center after the renovation for the Center for Immersive Experience and Design. (Special)

According to Marist’s website, it will be a “cooperative, open space” that combines parts of various STEAM programs, including robotics; engineering; 3D design and printing; virtual and augmented reality; immersive media and media studies; podcasting; broadcasting; documentary filmmaking; and music technology.

Besides renovating the Wooldridge Center’s ground floor, the plan includes a 5,700-square-foot, two-story addition to the building. According to the website, the addition will house a new admissions office, classrooms, collaborative spaces and a student exhibit gallery.

Construction of the addition is roughly scheduled for this spring, with the renovations following in the summer.

“Construction is on schedule” and not affected by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Marist Communications Director Cristina Herrera.

The zoning change process

Marist’s addition requires city review because its current zoning was conditioned on a site plan of building footprints that will be changed. The new adminstrative review process, approved as a zoning code text amendment by the City Council March 24, was prompted by Marist’s request, according to City Attorney Chris Balch.

The “full zoning process” would have taken three months, said city spokesperson Burke Brennan. “The amendment now allows Marist to go through the administrative process for an improvement that will have no impact to the surrounding community,” he said.

The city code originally allowed modifications of conditions of zoning or special use permits only by a vote of the City Council.

The new process allows certain modifications to be approved or rejected by the community development director under certain restrictions that are largely defined in open-ended terms.

In the new code language, there are two key provisions in vetting whether a modification can be reviewed internally by the community development director. One is that the modification is “only a technical change,” with such examples as the reorientation of a building or reconfiguration of a parking lot. The other provision is that the modification “does not involve significant public interest” — such as public safety or quality-of-life concerns — and does not “alter the impact of the development on nearby properties.”

The modification also cannot be a “significant change” in the design concept, such as changing the land use or increasing building density or height. And the applicant must show “clear and compelling reasons, which are not purely financial,” for why it cannot mean current zoning conditions. In addition, the modification must be consistent with the intent of the original zoning.

While the decision in such cases would be made internally without a public meeting, there is a public notice and comment requirement in the code language. A sign about the modification request must be posted on the proeprty at least 10 days before applying. Members of the public can submit written comments up to 15 days after the notice is posted. Like other zoning decisions by the city, the community development director’s approval could be appealed in DeKalb County Superior Court.

The community development director will notify the Planning Commission and the City Council about approved modifications “at the end of each year,” according to the code.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Wooldridge Center.

John Ruch

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