When scores of Sandy Springs residents gathered recently to discuss the future of their young city’s downtown, some said they wanted more than just a new city hall.
“Developing the downtown area includes the city hall,” resident David Evans said. “City hall is just some meeting rooms. They should make it something more.”
Other residents agreed. Some envisioned parks. Others talked of pedestrian-friendly areas connected by sidewalks. Still others talked of night life developing on or around the site of the former Target store on Johnson Ferry Road that city officials purchased for $8 million in 2008 as a place to build a city hall.
“Anything’s better than an abandoned Target,” said Molly Welch, a Sandy Springs small business owner who lives three blocks away from the site. “I think the Target should be torn down and seeded with lawn for now.”
Several residents backed the idea of developing some sort of civic center in the area around the Target site. “I’ve lived in Sandy Springs since I was 11 years old,” said Susan Richards, “and we don’t have a center for the community.”
Welch and Richards were among about 160 residents attending a pair of meetings city officials held on May 8 to consider plans for Sandy Springs’ downtown. More than 80 residents attended each meeting at the Hitson Center on Mount Vernon Highway.
David Dixon, principal in charge of planning and urban design for Goody Clancy, the city’s consultants on the downtown development plan, told residents “this is probably the best time to create a downtown since before the Great Depression.”
“Sandy Springs is a very high-income community,” Dixon said. “It is that disposable income that makes it possible. You’ve picked the right income demographic if you want to do something like this.”
Dixon said homebuyers’ tastes are changing across the country. People now say they want a community where they can walk to work and to shop rather than commute from the suburbs to distant offices and shopping centers. “The market wants to create a downtown for you,” he said.
“This is not about creating an island in the middle of wonderful suburban neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s about creating the two that blend together …. Over the next 20 years… there will be a good opportunity to create a large and walkable heart to Sandy Springs.”
He said his interviews in Sandy Springs reveal that many residents share similar goals. They want a downtown where people can walk to a restaurant or get a modest meal, a space where people can gather for events or just to hang out. People want something with a mixed use that has multiple purposes. That may or may not include a city hall, and Dixon said a city hall could take many forms.
In small discussion groups, residents expressed a variety of opinions on what direction the city should take.
“I think we need a city hall, but I personally believe that we don’t need to build a humongous edifice,” said business owner Bill Huff.
Some people who attended the meeting said they would like the city to integrate the city hall plan into a larger redevelopment effort.
“We need to attract good businesses. How do we do it?” Susan Richards asked. “I wish I had money to buy all the houses behind Target because I can envision all the restaurants and cute little businesses there. We have such potential. We don’t need to screw it up.”
Jason Toole, an accountant with a local CPA firm, saw common ground between the people in attendance. He said people he spoke with want a downtown that will draw in businesses and make Sandy Springs a destination point. His question is whether the Target site would better accomplish that goal as green space, as the business owners who are members of the Main Street Alliance have suggested, or as a city hall, which is Mayor Eva Galambos’ preference.
“I came here because of Target, where they want to put the city hall,” Toole said. “I think that’s a divisive issue.”
Dixon said Goody Clancy planners will meet with property owners around the city center area and with representatives of neighborhood organizations.
He said he was struck by the similarities between people’s views, not their differences.
“People don’t talk about, ‘Should we do something?’ but ‘What should we do?’ Dixon said.