The controversial Sandy Springs Circle roadway design—especially a plan to turn two travel lanes into on-street parking—may get a second look after a noisy, three-hour meeting drew about 125 residents to Sandy Springs City Hall Aug. 17.
“We’re not interested in building a project that the city doesn’t want,” Mayor Rusty Paul told the crowd about the design for Sandy Springs Circle between Hammond Drive and Mount Vernon Highway, which includes sidewalks and a multiuse path. The project could be built next year and is in the right-of-way acquisition phase, which city Capital Programs Manager Andrew Thompson estimated could cost $2.8 million to $3 million.
“How do we kill this thing?” one resident shouted in a meeting filled with much laughter and applause. Most of the complaints aimed at the parallel-parking spaces and reduced lanes, which city engineers say would slow traffic while more than handling needed capacity on what is now a four-lane road. The engineers explained that traffic on such a road is not about lanes, but about how intersections function, and that the project would actually somewhat improve the flow of an average 8,000 vehicle trips per day in the corridor in 2018.
Many people said they generally liked the idea of making Sandy Springs Circle a “boulevard” lined with trees and sidewalks, while the multi-use path had friends and foes.
A large contingent from Sandy Springs United Methodist Church attended, voicing concerns about how the right-of-way acquisition for the trail could affect the church’s property values. Rev. Thomas Martin, the church’s senior pastor, declined to comment on the record. Paul asked church members whether they have a specific plan for their property in mind, but got no response.
In an email sent to church members before the meeting, Martin said the main concerns are that the plan takes about 42 feet of property and realigns the driveway to a spot with a worse view of oncoming traffic and that might encourage traffic to cut through the parking lot. The email also complained about the city process, saying the church only saw a detailed design in May and was told in August that none of its suggested modifications can be made.
“Our main concern as a church is that the acquisition of land on our South Campus, proposed by the city, puts at risk the ministries and activities both presently taking place and any future ministries that may occur at the church,” Martin wrote in the email.
“I think there was an ask for reevaluation of some aspects of the project,” but also support for walkability features and a “more efficient and safer” street, said City Manager John McDonough after the meeting. He said the City Council has the authority to make just about any project change if it chooses.
Not building the project at all seems unlikely, as Thompson said it would leave much of the street without sidewalks and could force the refunding of federal money. But it also appears that tweaks are possible.
The $7 million Sandy Springs Circle project dates back to a 2010 sidewalk and path plan that grew into a larger roadway plan approved as a general concept in the City Center Master Plan public process in 2012. However, nothing more was heard about the specific, full design for the roadway and streetscape until this March, when the city unveiled it in an open house with less context and no formal presentation. The design sparked confusion and criticism—including expressions of surprise from the mayor himself. That was partly because of the length of time that had passed, partly because of increased citywide concerns about traffic, and partly because of new elements in the full design.
City staff previously said that March open house would be the only public meeting about the full design, and declined a city Planning Commission demand for a presentation at one of its regular meetings. But recently elected District 3 City Councilmember Chris Burnett, who made traffic a top campaign issue and who manages a bank on Sandy Springs Circle, requested another public meeting. The Aug. 17 presentation was the same one the City Council previously saw privately, officials said.
Dave Nickels, the Planning Commission member who once blasted the design as “stupid” and pushed for another public meeting, attended the Aug. 17 presentation. He said he remains unconvinced the project is worth the cost and joked, “Traffic calming’s going to be when someone tries to parallel park. The wreck is going to stop a lot of cars.”
Asked why the city didn’t just give the presentation to the public from the start, McDonough variously denied the process was different from other projects; responded with lengthy silence; and said the project was widely known while blaming traditional and social media for stirring controversy. But McDonough also said that “we adapt” and improve city processes from time to time to remain responsive to the public.
“The mayor and the new councilman [Burnett] heard concerns and that’s why we had the meeting tonight,” McDonough said.
“Consensus was, poeple like the idea of a boulevard…People like walkability,” McDonough said, adding that he also heard, “People are concerned about parallel parking.”
Mayor Paul emphasized the design’s origins in the publicly approved City Center Master Plan with its goal of a walkable community. “So be careful what you tell us, because we take it seriously,” he said of how the city’s planning is responsive to public input.