Redevelopment of four North End shopping centers in Sandy Springs would require the city to loosen code restrictions and offer financial incentives — and maybe even a direct purchase of property, consultants say.

That was the word the City Council heard on Dec. 15 in the wake of conceptual redesigns for North River Village Shopping Center, 8765-8897 Roswell Road; the former Loehmann’s Plaza Shopping Center, 8610 Roswell Road; and North Springs Center, 7300 Roswell Road. The concepts arrived this year after work by a city North End Revitalization Advisory Committee.

One of the concepts for redeveloping North River Village shopping center proposes taller mixed-use buildings whose density helps make creating green space plaza areas possible.

“I view us as stakeholders, not developers, and I’m open to all of these things that we can do,” Councilmember Andy Bauman said. “But yeah, we’re not in the business of handouts. But we need to try to examine what’s possible and move the discussion from what you can’t do into what you can.”

Consultants were directed to create mixed-use redevelopment concepts with residential and retail uses. Community surveys supported these uses along with a desire for green space.

The city’s efforts to spur redevelopment in the northern Roswell Road corridor date back many years, originally as an explicit push to replace apartment complexes and shopping centers, and their residents and businesses, with ownership housing and higher-end restaurants and stores. With changes in the political climate and a demand for more affordable housing, the latest effort involves an attempt to establish higher-end retail but avoid gentrification and displacement of residents. A split in the task force formed in 2019 when its members couldn’t agree on what to do about displacement of lower-income families, leading to the formation of a separate advocacy group called Sandy Springs Together.

Whatever the council decides to do, it should not expect to have applications for redevelopment coming soon after, said city Economic Development Director Andrea Worthy. This will be a long-term plan.

The first step is defining what “affordable” or “workforce” housing means, Jonathan Gelber, vice president of Atlanta-based Bleakly Advisory Group, told the council. A housing study that follows an assessment study submitted to City Council in October will set targets and timelines for the number or percentage of units wanted for the different sites. The housing needs assessment revealed that the average household earning less than $50,000 annually pays more than 30% of its income in housing.

The city staff was directed by Mayor Rusty Paul to take the consultants’ recommendations into consideration and return with proposals.

Gelber said the city can use existing programs like the federal Opportunity Zones, where developers can get tax incentives for projects in “economically distressed” areas. Those incentives might include job credits or tax credits.

Tax allocation districts (TADs) and tax abatements also were proposed as ways to provide financial support. A TAD lets developers keep money they otherwise would have paid in property taxes and spend it for on-site infrastructure work. TADs and tax abatement have been intensely controversial in Fulton County and the city of Atlanta in recent years for impacts on school budgets, the use on projects that likely did not need incentives, and TADs that failed to complete on schedule.

Gelber also said the city could buy the properties, improve the infrastructure and sell them to developers below cost to initiate redevelopment.

The city needs to improve the North Roswell Road streetscape to make it safer for all users, walkers, pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and drivers, said Sarah McColley of TSW. This will help attract developers’ interest

Councilmember Steve Soteres said the city can make it easier to move around the North End area with streetscape improvements.

Changes the city needs to make include code changes, Gelber said. What the city and community want is not compatible with zoning and building codes.

If a development proposal gets tied up in the permitting and approval process, it adds a lot of money to the redevelopment costs, he said.

Wide streets with big buffers and big setbacks don’t work for these smaller mixed-use development sites, he said. Flexibility for lot sizes and footprints for townhomes makes it easier for redevelopment also.

The current code also requires that the ground floor of a mixed-use building be commercial space, and that won’t work in a market that already has too much retail, Gelber said. Gelber said online retailers and the lingering effects of the pandemic mean not enough demand exists to fill ground-floor retail in every commercial building.

The city needs to support public infrastructure costs and site preparation, he said.

The work the city has done already has drawn interest from developers, said Worthy.

Councilmember Tibby DeJulio asked for examples of what other cities in similar situations have done, at what costs, and with what results. Gelber said they can provide those to City Council.

Councilmember Jody Reichel asked if the owners of the four shopping centers had been consulted on the planning. Worthy said they have been contacted about the redevelopment ideas.

Gelber said the shopping centers consist of approximately 45 acres of relatively high-end market that is not producing economic impact, property taxes and sales taxes.

“So the question is not necessarily what are the costs of developing this, but what is the cost of not?” Gelber said.

DeJulio asked if property owners would just take advantage of city incentives to sell their property at higher prices.

Paul said the city doesn’t have a goal of making anyone rich.

“The goal is to take an area that’s not very healthy today and getting sicker and trying to reverse it so that it becomes more healthy,” he said.

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