A longtime supporter of an existing Jewish heritage museum is joining several Sandy Springs City Council members among skeptics who don’t think the city paying to construct a “cultural center” focused on Holocaust education is the best use of taxpayers’ dollars.

At an April 6 City Council work session, city staff presented the latest plan to build an 8,300-square-foot, two-story building at a cost between $2.9 million and $3.3 million at Mount Vernon Highway and Roswell Road at the City Springs civic center. The center would house an art gallery and the offices of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust and its exhibit “Anne Frank in the World,” which is now on display in a Roswell Road shopping center. It may include a rooftop deck for small events. And it might or might not house a new state Holocaust memorial, a still undecided effort that was a major impetus for the center. 

A grassy area of the City Springs campus at Roswell Road and Mount Vernon Highway is where the city proposes to build the cultural center. (File)

The plan is just the latest version of a concept that, since its surprise announcement in 2018, has changed location, partners and mission. The city has already spent nearly $2 million on the concept, including an architectural design and the purchase of a property for a site that is no longer under consideration.

Public comments are being taken on the plan at the April 20 council meeting. The public can comment in-person at at 6 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at Sandy Springs City Hall at 1 Galambos Way. Written comments must be submitted by noon on the meeting day. People wanting to comment via Zoom also must register by noon.

Rising skepticism

Jarvis Levison is an attorney who chaired a Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta committee that produced Atlanta’s William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and now chairs the Breman Foundation, which is among the museum’s funders. In a recent letter to City Councilmember Andy Bauman that was circulated to other councilmembers, Levison expressed concerns that the GHC is duplicating the museum’s programs and that the Sandy Springs cultural center could compete for audience and money to the detriment of both.

“We should be striving to unify, not to compete for the same dollars,” Levison wrote. 

Levison also noted the the state Holocaust memorial — which the GHC is required to create and raise money for under a 2018 state law — is intended to serve all of Georgia. He expressed concern that the Sandy Springs location does not do that and that most of the commission’s members appear to be Jewish, Republican and residents of northside metro neighborhoods rather than reflecting a statewide constituency. 

“Any memorial the state is creating should be located either at the State Capitol or somewhere nearby where numerous people from all over the state and visitors are more likely to see it and know that the state has taken a position,” wrote Levison. “The state of Georgia should not be paying for a memorial to the Holocaust victims and have it located in Sandy Springs or any other similar community.”

Councilmembers Jody Reichel and Tibby DeJulio are also skeptics.

“Although I support the mission of the Georgia Holocaust commission, and I am, of course, in favor of education related to justice for all people, I cannot support the use of taxpayer dollars on a Cultural Arts Center in Sandy Springs as it is currently presented,” Reichel said.

Reichel said the commission can improve upon existing Anne Frank exhibits at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and Kennesaw State University by using donated private money. That would not require government funding.

“In my four years in office and my many years being an active member of our community, I have not heard my neighbors and constituents say they want taxpayer dollars to fund a cultural arts center,” she said. “Rather, I regularly hear comments that they are interested in trails, parks, athletic space such as pickleball courts, sidewalks, and help with stormwater issues and smart development in the North End. If, however, I hear from the majority of Sandy Springs residents that they do indeed support the articulated vision for the cultural arts center, I will reconsider.”

DeJulio said he is hearing criticisms from the public and expressed concern that the “cultural center” program favors the Jewish culture alone in a city with a diverse population.

“We are starting to hear from residents,” DeJulio said. “So far, I have received emails and telephone calls from numerous residents in the city opposed to this. I have only received one email in favor of it.” 

Bauman — who until recently served on the GCH — said in an email he has heard from a handful of people about the proposed new building to house the Anne Frank exhibit and other gallery space.

“Generally, people are very supportive of the city partnering with the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust for the project, and most support including additional gallery space for exhibits (cultural or otherwise),” Bauman wrote. He said he has heard a mix of positive and negative responses from the public.

Bauman said many people are just learning about the cultural center for the first time, and are asking good and appropriate questions including location and cost. These residents want the community to have the opportunity to weigh in through an open process, he said.

“I think the mayor, council and the public should have a good understanding of all the costs (initial and ongoing) before making any final decisions on the direction of the project,” he said.

Changing plans

City officials say they have been considering a Cultural Center since 2016, when there were quiet discussions about a standalone building to house the Anne Frank exhibit and Visit Sandy Springs, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, which at the time was housed in a connected office. 

In 2018, shortly after the General Assembly authorized the state Holocaust memorial, the city made the surprise announcement of the cultural center concept, with Visit Sandy Springs and the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce as tenants and funding partners. Mayor Rusty Paul claimed the concept essentially had been approved by the public as a concept in the 2012 City Center Master Plan that resulted in City Springs, but nothing so specific was in that plan. A community meeting was held after the concept and an architect’s design were announced.

Another surprise was the tentatively proposed location: the Buckhead Motor Works auto shop at 145 Hilderbrand Drive and an adjacent city-owned building used by Heritage Sandy Springs, a now-defunct history and culture nonprofit that ran a neighboring museum. The city bought the auto shop for $1.8 million last year with dissent from DeJulio, who was concerned that all of the uses except for Visit Sandy Springs were not the job of taxpayers to support.

But just a few months later, Visit Sandy Springs and the Chamber dropped out of the plan, and the new site at City Springs was revealed. A city spokesperson said at the time that the facility might no longer be called a “cultural center” as its mission shifted to focus on history and education. Meanwhile, the former auto shop property has become a temporary parking lot for police department vehicles. Visit Sandy Springs may yet find space in the adjacent former Heritage building, which the city had considered for a smaller version of the cultural center as well.

A conceptual illustration of the Sandy Springs Cultural Center as shown in a city presentation when it was still planned for a Hilderbrand Drive location. (Special)

Funding from the GCH is now proposed as an annual lease payment. In September 2020, the council approved a resolution supporting the GCH and naming the City Springs site as the cultural center location.

But, DeJulio said, the city has no binding agreement with the GCH for any space. He said the organization came to the city for help in seeking a grant given out to Holocaust memorial venues.

“It was not on the agenda [at the September 2020 meeting], and we put it in as a separate item at the last second, because that’s when we were notified that they needed this to apply for this grant, or this funding source,” DeJulio said.

“Personally, I’m in favor of leaving it the way it is because I think it’s beautiful. It’s an open space in front of the City Hall,” DeJulio said of the proposed cultural center site.

In a presentation to City Council on April 6, that site was called option one and would cost $2.5 million to $3.3 million. Option two would use a renovated Heritage building at 6110 Blue Stone Road at a cost of $3.8 million to $4.4 million. Option three would use the former auto shop property at 145 Hilderbrand Drive and construct a new building for $6.6 million to $7.6 million.

DeJulio said option three was eliminated by the city about a year-and-a-half ago because it was so expensive.

“Option number two includes Visit Sandy Springs, which option number one does not. Option number two includes interior fit-out, which option one does not. Option number two includes an addition and roof deck, which we don’t understand why that’s needed because nobody’s explained that to us,” DeJulio said.

The old Heritage building is over 15,000 square feet. Visit Sandy Springs needs 2,000 square feet of that space.

The GCH gets 7,000 square feet of space in the City Springs option, leaving 500 square feet of common space for a single-story building.

Terms of the agreement with the GCH have changed several times, DeJulio said. He said originally the GCH was going to raise $6 million, but the commission came back and said it could raise $3 million to give the city to construct a building. Now it has offered to pay $150,000 a year for rent in a 20-year agreement, with extensions for another 20 years.

If the city agrees to this latest proposal, it will have to spend millions of dollars to construct the building up front, getting paid back through the lease with no interest over 20 years. The draft lease requires the city to pay for utilities and maintain the building.

“If I owned a building and somebody wanted to rent a building for me for 40 years, there’s no way I would go ahead and lock in myself to maintain their building for 40 years,” DeJulio said.

–John Ruch contributed