by Rusty Paul, Mayor, City of Sandy Springs
“Transformative” is a term I use to describe what is happening in Sandy Springs. During our first ten years as a city, we focused on investing in infrastructure. We have paved 200 plus miles of road, installed more than 35 miles of sidewalk, invested heavily in traffic fiber and signal technology to better manage our roads, created three new parks, and added pocket park green space where we could. If we want to attract business to Sandy Springs – and keep it here – a strong infrastructure and focus on quality of life features matter.
We spent 2012 creating a master plan for redevelopment in the city. It was a community process and vision for the crown jewel “City Springs,” an 8-acre heartbeat for the city, featuring a performing arts center, studio theater, park, retail and residential facilities, and government offices. Our hope was that the project would be a catalyst for change. We were a little surprised that it turned out to be a cataclysmic tsunami. Drive up and down Roswell Road today, and the cranes cresting the landscape almost number our treetops.
The redevelopment along Roswell Road is a mixture of retail and multi-family. The Gateway project on the south end replaced 436 antiquated units with new units, as well as the addition of retail. A short drive northward, another 300 aged apartments are being replaced with a combination of apartments and townhomes. Mill Creek, almost directly across from City Springs, is replacing an outdated strip center with residential and retail. The landscape is changing at a pace more rapid than anyone could have imagined.
Growth and change have not come without pain points. We needed a vision and plan, which went beyond zoning and land use plans, that were truly strategic in incorporating the aspirations of the community and the economic return that the private sector currently needs to redevelop. Over the last 18 months, we’ve worked hard on that plan with dozens of community meetings, stakeholders’ meetings, visioning sessions, and roll-up-your-sleeve planning. The City Council has issued three moratoria over that timeframe, including a 150-day moratorium on new zoning and use permits issued last month, which purposely slows growth to allow us to get the plan right the first time. On February 21st, the City Council formally adopted the Next Ten Comprehensive Land Use Plan. A comprehensive plan provides guidance and development regulations, and provides the legal code to support the vision of the plan. Over the next several months, our staff will work with the community as that code is crafted. If you live or work in Sandy Springs, I encourage you to attend the meetings, view the maps and give us your input.
As a vibrant commercial real estate market, Sandy Springs leads the metro area in economic growth. Our vacancy rate for office space continues to shrink. In 2014, vacancies were at 15 percent; the vacancy rate last year was 11 percent, which bests the Atlanta Metro Area. Among the companies making Sandy Springs home for their headquarters are: Veritiv, Drax Biomass, Focus Brands, CSM Bakery Solutions, eVestment, Kauffman Tire Corporate, and Mercedes Benz USA. Most recently, we announced that WestRock is bringing its headquarters and 800 jobs to Sandy Springs.
In addition to the above, relocations and expansions play an important role in our overall economic health. Since 2015, we’ve had the privilege to welcome Amtrak’s IT Service Delivery Center, Lincoln Financials’ regional service center, United Healthcare’s regional offices, and were very happy to see Global Payments and AIG expand existing office space in Sandy Springs.
These businesses play an important role in our city’s eco-system. Our retailers, restaurants and service industries are dependent upon a strong customer base, and a healthy business environment fosters growth elsewhere.
There is, however, a tale of caution in growth. The dreaded seven-letter word –TRAFFIC – is an issue faced throughout the metro area. Vehicular congestion threatens to choke our growth if we don’t plan and implement solutions today. Twenty years ago, Metro Atlanta was the transportation hub of the South. Atlanta had the region’s first urban limited-access freeway, the nation’s busiest airport and the South’s first subway. Atlanta had great plans for handling growth, and you need look no further than Dallas to see the outcome. The City of Dallas implemented the plans we developed, but never executed. Churchill called the time between World War I and World War II as “the years the locusts ate,” referring to the victorious Allies’ failure to maintain military readiness. That phrase is applicable to Georgia’s infrastructure investment over the past two decades. Enormous population growth, unaccompanied by new transportation solutions to absorb the added weight, equates to the sludge you see every morning as you try to get to work.
We are fortunate to have three MARTA rail stations located within Sandy Springs’ borders, with a fourth a stone’s throw in the City of Dunwoody. Mass transit is a tool in our transit toolbox that we need to maximize if we want to add breathing room on our streets and highways. Last fall, voters in Fulton County made a commitment to address congestion, approving the T-SPLOST referendum. The ¾ of a penny sales tax is expected to generate an estimated $103.7 million over five years for transportation improvements in Sandy Springs. The funds will allow us to expedite signal and roadway efficiency improvements. It will allow us to create pedestrian and bicycle paths and develop a Last Mile Connectivity program, which links that last mile between transit and places where people work and play. We’ve also challenged the staff to think broad-and-wide when it comes to alternative transit modes.
There is no magic bullet to eradicate congestion, but mobility can be improved. It will take creativity, elbow grease and a change in mindset to break old habits and think and act differently. That includes our business community. For example, Northside Hospital has implemented flex hours and telecommute options for some of their employees. Innovative solutions like these can help us reduce the volume of cars traveling during peak hours. A five percent reduction can provide a real impact. Sandy Springs, the Metro Atlanta Region and the State of Georgia are all great places to live and work. We are enjoying a prosperous time and need to continue to look forward to ensure that we remain locations where people want to live, work and do business.
Rusty Paul was elected Mayor of Sandy Springs in November 2013, bringing more than 35 years of experience in federal, state and local public-policy and public-administration to the position. Mr. Paul was elected to the founding city council for Sandy Springs in November 2005 and chaired the city’s charter review commission and the Sandy Springs Development Authority.
Mr. Paul was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations in the first Bush Administration, where he was the recipient of the Secretary’s Golden Eagle Award, the highest honor a cabinet officer can bestow. Paul’s many governmental roles have included: Intergovernmental Relations Officer and Deputy Assistant Secretary for grant programs, former Georgia State Senator, Councilman on the Stone Mountain City Council, and positions on the Stone Mountain’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Georgia Municipal Association Board of Directors.
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