Sandy Springs held its first “visioning” meeting for the general public’s input on a revised Comprehensive Plan June 24. The results echoed Mayor Rusty Paul’s favorite one-liner that he dusted off that evening: “We’re a city of 100,000 people with 120,000 opinions.”
Of course, the input still boiled down to some familiar topics: traffic, housing and greenspace. But Paul gave some significant opinions of his own hinting strongly at where the city will head in the 15-month process. Paul agrees with residents who complain that the zoning code is a mess—and, perhaps more controversially, he thinks more rental apartments are one solution to traffic and affordability issues.
As about 60 residents gathered around tables in the Hitson Activites Center at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church, Paul said their input will be key in “getting the right ingredients, and how much of each ingredient we need to bake the cake.”
The Comprehensive Plan is a guiding vision document. The current plan was finalized in 2007 and now must be updated by 2017. It addresses land use, transportation and general development policies. The current process will revise the entire zoning code, too.
The $950,000 planning process, led by the firm Rhodeside & Harwell, won’t formally begin until a series of meetings in the fall. That will include focus groups, an online survey and more. But the city decided to hold some earlier meetings on its own to jumpstart the input.
That pump-priming process began June 22 with Paul meeting with local homeowners associations. A public panel discussion with local nonprofit and civic organization leaders followed on June 23.
The June 24 meeting’s format involved small groups of residents sitting at tables, each dedicated to a particular topic: quality of life; natural and cultural environment; the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts area; the Powers Ferry area; the Roswell Road corridor; and a catch-all “other” category. Residents were randomly assigned to a table, and each group rotated to every table in 15-minute intervals throughout the night.
Paul and several city councilmen sat in on the sessions. City planners took notes on giant pads of paper and began compiling the comments on the spot. They’ll be packaged for Rhodeside & Harwell to get a head-start on the formal planning process later.
Among the bigger themes: traffic and multi-modal transit options; housing affordability and apartments versus single-family homes; and greenspace and tree protection. But another theme was a big-picture complaint about the planning rules that affect all of those concerns.
“It seems like developers run amok,” one resident said. “Developers get their free pass…[and] the zoning doesn’t matter.”
Paul said city zoning needs far more detail and a holistic view of a development’s wider impacts. “Right now, there is no certainty,” Paul said. “There is absolute confusion and dismay.”
While housing affordability was a common concern, there was a wide array of opinion on what form such housing should take and who it should be aimed at. The current Comprehensive Plan targets rental apartments as something the city doesn’t like, and the percentage of such housing in the city has fallen from 65 percent to roughly 50 percent since its adoption, Paul said.
“In the DNA of this community, there’s a visceral concern about rental housing,” Paul said. “And it’s legitimate because we have way too much—we’re overrun with—old, dilapidated [rental] housing.”
But he also made it clear that in changing times, he sees new rental housing as necessary to retain and attract millennials, empty-nesters and middle-class civil servants like teachers and police officers. And having such housing in live-work nodes could cut traffic in a city where, Paul said, 80 percent of residents work in a different town.
Meanwhile, Sandy Springs residents have a lot to talk about. Some not-so-common themes arose at the meeting as well, drawing the attention of planners.
Better connections to the Chattahoochee River was one. Another was attracting more independent businesses, especially restaurants, and “not just one long stretch of national, generic commercial [businesses],” as one resident described Roswell Road.
Sandy Springs is also plainly worried about the traffic impact of the forthcoming Atlanta Braves baseball stadium in nearby Cobb County, with talk of transit solutions as grand as a new MARTA line with a Sandy Springs stop.
— John Ruch