An eight-unit townhomes building on Persimmon Point is the property targeted for demolition by a Ga. 400 toll lanes interchange plan Sandy Springs has privately negotiated with the state for at least eight months, documents obtained by the Reporter reveal.

It appears the city did not tell the homeowners it was privately discussing the fate of their property as part of a proposal to place the toll lanes interchange on Crestline Parkway rather than Mount Vernon Highway, which the Georgia Department of Transportation says could happen only if Sandy Springs agrees to cover an additional cost of around $23 million.

And other property takings could come down the road. While the city previously said it had discarded an alternative interchange option that would have plugged into Barfield Road, an internal study included in the documents recommends retaining flexibility in the design to add that Barfield access point later if needed. That apparently would require taking a large office building, homes and other structures.

A plan for a proposed Ga. 400 toll lanes interchange on Crestline Parkway as it appears in a draft study performed for the city of Sandy Springs and obtained by the Reporter.

GDOT is ramping up its planning for new, separate toll lanes along Ga. 400 and I-285, which would be built over the next decade, starting on Ga. 400 in 2021. The Crestline interchange proposal is an example of three of the project’s growing points of controversy: where new toll lanes access points will be built, and government secrecy and property-taking.

Residents and a property management company in the Crestline area declined to comment on the record or could not be reached for comment, but one resident indicated they first learned of the interchange plan from a Reporter story. Documents obtained by the Reporter through an open records request show the Crestline proposal was privately discussed by the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts and city officials in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs for at least six months before the idea was made public in January at the Sandy Springs City Council retreat. The documents include detailed modeling of the toll lanes that GDOT previously claimed do not exist as it refused to fulfill other Reporter open records requests.

Sandy Springs spokesperson Sharon Kraun did not respond to a question about whether the city had contacted the Crestline-area residents. She said the city is awaiting further traffic studies before deciding whether to return to GDOT with a commitment to fund the Crestline interchange.

“The option is still under review,” Kraun said. “It will be a few months until we have traffic studies complete. It will be late spring [or] early summer before we can make a full assessment.”

While GDOT is in the midst of controversy over its recently revealed plan to take more than 40 homes and other buildings for another section of Ga. 400 toll lanes, the agency says the Crestline townhomes building is one displacement it doesn’t want to do.

Agency spokesperson Natalie Dale said that “GDOT prefers Mount Vernon as the baseline access [point] to further study because of no ROW [right of way] and environmental impacts, in addition to lower cost.” She said GDOT is awaiting the city’s response regarding funding a Crestline alternative as it continues to develop concepts for toll lanes access points.

Private talks

GDOT says the new toll lanes must have their own separate entrance and exit ramps, which means building new or expanded interchanges that plug into local streets, likely increasing traffic on them. That has alarmed city officials in Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, and led to various private discussions over their placement.

The Mount Vernon interchange idea has long been a concern for officials in Sandy Springs, where the interchange would be, and in Dunwoody, where the street crosses the border about a half-mile away as Mount Vernon Road. Last year, Sandy Springs city planners said the toll lanes interchange could mean adding 20,000 vehicles a day to the residential street and could mean widening the Ga. 400 overpass bridge to six lanes by 2041. That also complicates the city’s plans for other parts of Mount Vernon, including adding “multimodal” lanes and reconfiguring the Johnson Ferry Road intersection.

It is unclear how long Sandy Springs has been aware of the Mount Vernon interchange concept and negotiating with GDOT about it. City Councilmember Chris Burnett first publicly mentioned the concept in the fall of 2017 during meetings about the multimodal lanes; the details were unclear and a city spokesperson at the time said there was no such plan. The first public discussion followed at the Sandy Springs City Council’s annual retreat in January 2018, where city officials opposed the Mount Vernon interchange and suggested building it on Hammond Drive instead.

The Crestline Parkway area as it appears on Google Maps. Ga. 400 is the highway running north-south. Crestline is the L-shaped road in the center, connecting Mount Vernon Highway and Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. GDOT is considering a toll lanes access point at the Mount Vernon overpass bridge.

According to GDOT, officials in June 2018 began privately meeting about an alternative interchange on Crestline, an L-shaped street that connects Mount Vernon Highway and Peachtree-Dunwoody Road. Crestline sits just to the east of Ga. 400 and runs behind a Home Depot and Costco store, and is lined with hotels and townhomes.

In response to a Reporter open records request for various documents about toll lanes discussions, the city revealed a draft study of the Crestline concept dated Oct. 10, 2018, which in turn referenced an Aug. 14, 2018 private presentation about the concept by GDOT to officials from Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and the PCIDs, the latter of which is a self-taxing district of major Perimeter Center companies.

When the Crestline interchange concept was revealed to the public at this year’s Sandy Springs City Council retreat in January, it was presented by GDOT, even though it was the city’s idea. The presentation included only abstract line drawings of the streets, not maps or plans, and referred to “8 residential displacements” without specifying addresses. At that time, the city claimed it had no records showing the exact addresses.

Property details

The draft study recently obtained by the Reporter includes detailed plans of two Crestline interchange concepts clearly showing properties that would be affected. Those plans were not included in the January council retreat presentation.

The interchange alternative recommended by the study places the toll lanes in the center of Ga. 400 and connects Crestline to them with a new bridge spanning the highway’s eastern, northbound lanes. The bridge would run about 800 feet south of Mount Vernon. The bridge would connect to Crestline by plowing through the townhomes building on Persimmon Point, a private driveway. It’s the northern-most building in a townhomes complex along Crestline, adjacent to a Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel. According to county property records, the townhomes building appears to be numbered 905-933 Persimmon Point.

The plan also would bring the roadway closer to Costco, plowing through a currently wooded area, and rearrange some driveways. It appears the interchange access might be elevated over part of Crestline.

The study includes a similarly detailed plan for a second, larger alternative interchange that was rejected as too expensive, at least for now. That plan uses both Crestline and Barfield as access points, with the new toll lanes running on the outside of Ga. 400, and a new bridge spanning the entire highway.

The plan for an alternative toll lanes interchange on both Crestline Parkway and Barfield Road as it appears in the study. The study rejected this concept as too expensive for now, but says flexibility should be maintained to create a Barfield connection in the future.

GDOT’s presentation at January’s council retreat also referred to this alternative abstractly, saying it would displace 15 homes and 10 businesses. The plan in the study shows details of those property impacts.

To the east, that alternative would create a more radical street change, reconfiguring Crestline Parkway and the nearby Dunwoody Springs Drive into a large, X-shaped intersection. Dunwoody Springs Drive would serve as the main access point. Several duplexes on that street, a townhomes building on Crestline, and a hotel on Peachtree-Dunwoody Road appear to be within the right of way.

On Barfield, which runs to the west of Ga. 400, access would come through a new roadway between the headquarters of Byers Engineering Company – whose founder, Ken Byers, has his name on the city’s new Performing Arts Center theater —  and an office building that is home to GT Software, among other businesses. Right of way lines indicates that the Byers parking garage and the GT Software office building could be demolished for such a plan.

While that larger Crestline/Barfield interchange is currently too expensive, the study says, “It may be necessary in the future, thus do not construct an alternative that would not leave the extension option open.”

The study was conducted by the engineering firm AECOM, which also runs Sandy Springs’ public works and facilities departments under its outsourcing method of government operations. The detailed plans of the interchange alternatives were in materials presented by GDOT and are credited to the engineering firm Michael Baker International and the PCIDs.

For a full copy of the draft study, click its cover image below.

John Ruch

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