The Sandy Springs North End Revitalization Committee and residents have wrapped up a review of four shopping centers targeted by the city for redevelopment. Mixed-use remakes were a general point of agreement, though consultants say there’s little demand for new stores, and many residents called for single-family homes rather than multifamily buildings.

The affordability of housing in such redevelopments has been part of the conversation, too.

This concept for the North River shopping center, a slight favorite of North End Revitalization Committee members, is high-density, but keeps buildings to six stories or shorter. A hotel on Roswell Road was proposed for each concept. The concept encourages some redevelopment of the Winding River condo community to the east of the property. (City of Sandy Springs)

“We support the city looking to redesign the underutilized shopping centers,” said Melanie Noble-Couchman, who with her husband, David, successfully persuaded the city to take up affordable housing issues. “And adding more housing is greatly needed.. we hope that some of it will be affordable for young families and first time homebuyers with incomes from $45,000 to $65,000.”

The couple and three affordable housing development organizations in 2017 privately presented the mayor and City Council members with a redevelopment concept for some of the north end’s older apartment complexes,

Over a period of four weeks starting Aug. 13 and ending Sept. 14, the committee heard plans that included mixed-use residential and a limited amount of commercial space in the form of retail and office space. Residents were given a week for each shopping center to complete an online survey about the concepts presented.

North River (8765-8897 Roswell Road), River Springs ((8610 Roswell Road, former Loehman’s), Northridge (8331-8371 Roswell Road) and North Springs (7300 Roswell Road, former Big Lots) shopping centers were identified by the city as in need of revitalization.

A market study by the city’s consultant, TSW, showed that the city has an annual demand for 311 to 484 owner-occupied housing units and 360 to 560 renter-occupied housing units.

The concepts with the highest density would create more than 2,200 additional residential units, mostly in multi-unit buildings. However, committee members generally rejected the 10-story buildings necessary for those plans, instead favoring a limit of five- or six-story buildings.

In previous meetings held in person in March and virtually in June, participants helped the city identify goals for the redevelopment, which included:

  •       Mix of housing options that are attainable at many price points.
  •       Desire for parks, plazas, green space, and connected parks and trails.
  •       Desire for mixed-use with residential and retail.
  •       New buildings should not be taller than 5-6 stories.

Consultants and the city recognized revitalizing the shopping centers requires changing North Roswell Road to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly, with a landscaped median, crosswalks and bike lanes.

Tamara Carrera, a member of the committee and CEO of Community Assistance Center, agreed that making Roswell Road a more pedestrian-friendly space and more attractive is a prerequisite to any redevelopment concept. She wants to see a median where people can stand instead of being caught in the “suicide lane” trying to cross. Bike lanes also are needed.

“We are talking about creating a walking path to the river, but if you have problems walking and biking you aren’t going to make it to the river,” Carrera said.

She acknowledged it would be less attractive for commuters using Roswell Road to avoid using GA 400.

Ronda Smith, another committee member and president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, suggested continued monitoring of the public meeting process and the public presentation developed from the meetings and surveys to be made for City Council later this year.

“As a sitting member of this active committee I am bound by the directive set forth at the outset of this study to forward all media inquiries to the City’s Communications or Economic Development Department,” she replied when asked questions about the concepts and the city’s process.

Retail demand and housing

The demand for retail is low and changing faster due to the pandemic, according to the market report prepared by TSW.

“We need the spaces that bring experiences rather than the commercial space,” Carrera said. “But with that we need affordable housing and we need housing, period.”

Millenials and other people in the market aren’t necessarily looking at big houses, she said. They are more into minimalist living space. They prioritize being close enough to everything. Their number one priority in housing is affordability and second is a home more easily managed that a huge mansion.

“Both of those I think can be accommodated in those designs,” Carrera said.

She is concerned that the city builds enough incentives for developers to be able to provide a sliding scale of housing. Just using market rates will price many people out of the market.

Couchman wants the city to be proactive in limiting negative consequences of development, an approach she said is good for business and the community.

“We hope the city has learned from our past experience, where in the southern portion of the city at Gateway development led to displacement of many families impacting our schools and traffic,” she said.

Located at Roswell Road and Windsor Parkway, Gateway is a mixed-use center that about five years ago replaced an apartment complex. Local opinion varies as to whether it was a success for the community.

Carrera said that around the country, most successful redevelopments are where housing has income and age diversity.

Though she has questions about the proposal to bring the Winding River condominium development into the North River shopping center concepts, she also sees it as an opportunity.

“This could be an opportunity for them to really improve their property by making some kind of deal with the development of this shopping center,” Carrera said. “It all depends on what the appetite for the community is for change,” she said. “If we don’t make the changes, you won’t be able to make it affordable for the development for mixed housing.”

But in her mind, mixed housing doesn’t mean mixed-use with residential, commercial and office. She means mixing in terms of income.

Density is needed for a development to be successful enough for a developer’s investment. At the same time, she said any redevelopment has to make the center appealing for residents and people visiting. That will require zoning changes.

Survey favors single-family homes

While the goal set for the concepts in advance was more mixed-use housing, many of the people who completed the online survey didn’t agree with the concepts.

The North River concepts focused on redeveloping the entire site ranged from 401 to 737 residential units, with multi-unit buildings taking up the majority of the residential development, from 299 units to 688 units. Townhome and live-work units make up the remainder of the residential space, with no single-family detached homes proposed in any of the concepts. To fit 737 residential units on the property, two nine-story buildings were envisioned.

However, residents making comments on the North River redevelopment plans in the city’s online survey showed they want to see single-family homes instead of apartments, condos or even townhomes built on the sites.

Comments were displayed anonymously on the city’s survey pages for the four shopping center redevelopment proposals.

“More apartments, there are more than enough in Sandy Springs let alone on the North End. For those of us who are homeowners, we are very concerned with our property value as well as the extremely low ratings of the public schools. Adding more apartments will only decrease our property values and not help to improve our schools,” a respondent said.

Another person who completed the online survey for the North River concepts was not sure who advocated for the number of mixed-use residential units across the four shopping centers.

“Wanting to underscore that one of the goals is to offer a range of different housing options, there is a huge imbalance. An overabundance of mixed-use units and townhomes and not enough emphasis on single-family homes,” that person commented.

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Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.