2021 may be the year that the city finally kicks off redevelopment of North End shopping centers into vast new mixed-use communities and finds out whether it can cut local water rates.

At its annual retreat Jan. 26, where the coming year’s policies are set, the City Council directed consultants to turn North End redevelopment concepts into a formal zoning. And the council learned that the Georgia Supreme Court is about to rule on a lawsuit in the city’s long-running

The North End rezoning plans will target four North End shopping centers chosen as linchpins in revitalization plans. The council also wants a plan for incentives for developers that might include tax breaks.

The sites include North River Village Shopping Center, 8765-8897 Roswell Road; the former Loehmann’s Plaza Shopping Center, 8610 Roswell Road; and North Springs Center, 7300 Roswell Road. Concept plans for each site were delivered last year after work by a city North End Revitalization Advisory Committee.

While the council and Mayor Rusty Paul asked consultants to come up with fiscal and zoning incentives to encourage redevelopment that included affordable or workforce housing, they never asked for an affordable housing policy. Affordability has been a controversial issue in North End discussions, with the advocacy group Sandy Springs Together saying more needs to be done.

This neighborhood center option for redeveloping the River Springs (former Loehman’s) shopping center in one conceptual illustration created by consults to the city.

The concepts propose mixed-use redevelopments with homes and stores. Demand for retail has dropped even faster during the pandemic, said Sarah McColley of TSW, a consultant for the North End planning. A high demand exists for a variety of housing options, and city residents want a mix of housing types. And support exists for public funding of infrastructure and parks to gain high quality development, “attainable” housing and more green space.

The city can realize anywhere from $1 million to $9 million revenue over 5 years with redevelopment of the sites through property and sales taxes, Geoff Koski, president of KB Advisory Group said.

“The biggest driver of increased revenue in all scenarios is property value driven by residential unit density,” he said.

But to attain workforce and affordable housing options that the city and its residents set as goals for redevelopment, it has to address an affordability gap between how much it costs to build new residential units and what a family can pay. Households making $50,000 to $60,000, people KB Advisory Group’s Jonathan Gelber called the “people doing the backbone of work in the city” such as teachers, firefighters and police officers, might be able to afford up to $180,000 for a home. But the cost to build a typical new apartment in the city’s North End is $225,000 to $260,000.

The city can step in to cover the gap, he said, through options such as tax credits, opportunity zones and allowing greater density. Other options include tax allocation districts and tax abatements, and assistance through the city Development Authority for low-cost financing and bonds to reduce property taxes temporarily. Parking bonds to support parking deck construction is another method to assist with the $40,000 to $50,000 cost per space.

For affordable housing, Councilmember Jody Reichel asked to hear more about the ability to purchase properties on these sites and not just apartments.

Gelber said the sites depend on multifamily housing economically, but if the city allows considerable density, townhomes are an option.

Councilmember Tibby DeJulio said he does not want the city to speculate and buy any of the properties to foster redevelopment.

“I’m not comfortable putting a lot of the city’s funds for property now we have to sell,” he said.

Councilmember John Paulson said there has to be an end where the city gets the taxpayer’s money back in relation to any incentives. He was open to additional density or building a park on a site, but was not interested in the city becoming a long-term owner. He was only interested in helping with early funding if a provision existed to get the taxpayers’ money back.

Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio, who helped craft the city’s current zoning code, will draft regulations that will be specific to those four shopping centers to allow greater density in what have been proposed as mixed-use developments adding residential units and green space to each site.

Consultants with KB Advisory Group were asked to bring back more details on methods to give developers incentives to redevelop the sites, but without the city necessarily spending money. Those include tax allocation districts, which fund infrastructure within the specified area using a portion of the taxes generated directly by those properties. Tax abatements also were suggested, which may use development authorities to enable a reduction of taxes through a lease-bond agreement.

Councilmember John Paulson said the city may later want to adopt zoning changes made for these four sites to other parts of the city, but not for now.

“My take, this is a one-step-at-a-time deal,” he said. “Let’s address the North End, see how viable it is. If a good idea does surface, then we can try it elsewhere.”

Water dispute and the courts

Sandy Springs alleges its residents pay an unnecessary 25% surcharge for water services provided by Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management in an arrangement dating back long before the 2005 cityhood. Sandy Springs has variously sought to renegotiate the rate or to take over control of the water system.

Sandy Springs has two pending legal challenges in the dispute. A 2009 lawsuit questioning the lack of a written intergovernmental agreement about the water service has spent years before a court-appointed special master. In 2018, Sandy Springs filed another lawsuit directly challenging the rate and alleging that Atlanta violated the state Open Records Act by not disclosing documents.

Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee.

Last year, Sandy Springs sought to take the 2009 lawsuit back to court. Atlanta has challenged the move, according to Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee, and now the Georgia Supreme Court is expected to rule on the question by early March. A return to court could be a powerful lever to negotiations.

Lee said no justification has been offered for the surcharge. Water system experts hired by Sandy Springs say it should cost less to deliver water to city customers from a Johns Creek treatment facility than it costs for Atlanta customers to receive water from its Hemphill facility, Lee said. That negates any reason for a surcharge.

“The issue that we have for them in court is our citizens don’t get to vote for the people who set the price,” Lee said.

Lee also alleges Atlanta has been slow to make repairs and fails to invest in the upkeep of the water delivery system in the city, he said.

“As I said, when we launched this particular ship, this was going to take at least a decade,” Paul said. “Because I anticipated the city of Atlanta would throw every obstacle and use every delaying tactic possible. And that is proven to be the case.”

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.