Sandy Springs and a parks advocacy group are proposing a creekside trail off Abernathy Road, connecting the city Tennis Center and a forthcoming new park at the Aria housing development, that could be a “prototype” for a citywide path network. A partly city-funded study for the “Marsh Creek Trail” is underway and construction could start as soon as 2020.

The Sandy Springs Conservancy is also reviving a long-stalled idea of building a pedestrian bridge across the Chattahoochee River at Morgan Falls dam.

A map of the proposed Marsh Creek Trail, shown in red, as displayed Oct. 17 at the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s “Thought Leaders” dinner at City Springs. (John Ruch)

Trails and multiuse paths have long been a city policy goal, but no major ones have yet been built. “We think it’s time to get serious about building those types of connections,” said Jack Misiura, the Conservancy’s new board chair, making the surprise announcement at the advocacy group’s annual “Thought Leaders” dinner Oct. 17 at City Springs.

The dinner featured a panel discussion of trail and transit experts, including MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker, who praised Sandy Springs’ leadership.

“Clearly, we share a vision with the city of Sandy Springs and others to make our transit stations more accessible to pedestrians,” said Parker.

The city is nearing the completion of an updated parks master plan. Ken Dishman, a former city councilmember who is heading an advisory group for that process, said the group was aware of the Conservancy’s trail proposal.

Marsh Creek Trail

A citywide trail network is proposed in the city’s latest land-use plan, adopted last year, and some pieces are in the planning stage, including an extension of Buckhead’s PATH400 through the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange. But the Conservancy wants to build a trail sooner.

The proposed trail would run for less than a mile east-west along a wooded, swampy section of Marsh Creek in the area behind the Tennis Center and the 550 Abernathy Apartments. The eastern end would connect with a new 10- to 12-acre park that Aria developer Ashton Woods is donating to the city. Steve Levetan, the Conservancy’s outgoing board chair, said in an interview that he expects that park to be turned over to the city in two phases, with the first likely coming in the spring.

The trail is show as a partial loop, circling an area behind the Tennis Center that parks advocates earlier this year said could be improved as a green space, which Levetan says is indeed a related possibility. Along with existing sidewalks, the trail could broadly provide access between Roswell Road and the UPS headquarters area on Glenlake Parkway, and possibly to the North Springs MARTA Station.

A wider view of the Marsh Creek Trail map, showing its context with Roswell Road to the west and Glenlake Parkway to the east. (John Ruch)

Misiura said the idea is for a relatively short, easy-to-build project that could be a “prototype for a citywide trail network.”

Conservancy Executive Director Melody Harclerode said another benefit of the chosen prototype is the diversity of the area, which includes high-end condos, apartments, the sports facility and the Weber School area.

“I think the power of this trail… [is] it’s something where we’re really reaching a large group, a large demographic,” Harclerode said in an interview.

A feasibility study is already underway at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000, with the city and the Conservancy each paying half, according to Levetan. The study is expected to wrap up in the first quarter of 2019, with construction possible in early 2020, Misiura said.

Last year, the Conservancy revived another older idea: building trails along the Georgia Power Co. electric-line corridor across the city. Levetan said at the time that the group hoped to build a prototype trail there within five years. That project did not happen, and Levetan now says the Marsh Creek Trail project may inform the power-line trail concept.

Chattahoochee Bridge

Pedestrian and bicycle bridges across the Chattahoochee are another element in the new land-use plan, and also a longstanding idea that is nearing revival. In 2010, after public meetings, the Conservancy put forth a particular plan for a bridge in the Morgan Falls area, but it went nowhere.

Misiura said the Conservancy is dusting off that old plan because “we feel that now is the right time to reopen that conversation.”

An artist’s conception of a pedestrian bridge across the Chattahoochee River near Morgan Falls dam, dating to 2003, displayed at the Sandy Springs Conservancy’s dinner. (John Ruch)

“I’m poking the bear a little bit” by bringing up the old plan, Levetan said in an interview.

Unlike the Marsh Creek Trail plan, there is no new study or timeline. Levetan said he just wants to float the idea again in modern times, when trails are more familiar to the public. He also noted that during the bridge planning more than eight years ago, the city’s Morgan Falls Overlook Park did not yet exist in that area. “So people didn’t have a vision of what this could be,” he said.

The bridge would connect Sandy Springs with Cobb County and give access to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which has trails of its own.

Expert panel

The expert panel discussion included MARTA’s Parker; Pete Pellegrini, co-founder of the PATH Foundation, which funds multiuse trails in metro Atlanta; and Dr. Catherine Ross, a Georgia Tech planning professor and former executive director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. Donna Lowry, a former 11Alive reporter and Fulton County Schools spokesperson, served as moderator.

The experts spoke of growing acceptance of trails and multi-modal transit. One example they discussed was the State Farm regional office hub in Dunwoody’s part of Perimeter Center, where an office tower was built to directly connect to a MARTA rail platform. Building such projects takes partnerships among diverse organizations and governments, they said.

They also discussed the challenge of retrofitting paths and transit into built-out cities after years of car-focused development. But, they said, small improvements can have large local effects.

Sandy Springs Conservancy Executive Director Melody Harclerode, standing, introduces “Thought Leader” dinner panelists, from left, MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker; PATH Foundation co-founder Pete Pellegrini; and Dr. Catherine Ross of Georgia Tech. (John Ruch)

They all praised the city of Sandy Springs for its efforts. “The Sandy Springs community should be very grateful they had some visionaries at the government level,” said Pellegrini, referring to the successful effort to get the state to include the PATH400 extension into its I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction project.

“I think what you’re doing and the way you’re doing it is to be commended” and taken as an example for others, said Ross.

Parker spoke specifically of improving pedestrian access to the local North Springs MARTA Station.

One audience member asked about dealing with “not in my back yard,” or “NIMBY,” opposition to trails and transit, especially the often cited concern that they will attract crime to the suburbs.

Telling stories of impossible-to-satisfy trail opponents, Pellegrini said, “I don’t want to be a bully,” but that such people are typically a small minority. He suggested “good neighbor” efforts, such as making minor improvements to their private property as part of a public trail project.

Ross said that in her experience with NIMBYs, “you can buy ’em. It just takes money.” The remark drew audience laughter.

Parker said that the way to cope with opposition is “good government.”

“We need to be transparent. We don’t always communicate well,” he said.  He cited the example of “More MARTA,” the agency’s plan to expand transit within the city of Atlanta, which is funded by a new, voter-approved sales tax. He said “More MARTA” was successful because the agency laid out its rationale for projects, listened to criticism, and adjusted the project priorities.

Update: This story has been updated with information about the city’s parks master plan process.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.