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Ellen Dunham Jones’ ‘Retrofitting Suburbia,’ pandemic, Sandy Springs revitalization

By David Pendered

When it comes to Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones’ latest book, Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia, Sandy Springs is in a unique position because of the major redevelopment initiative it has underway plus its ties to Jones.

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Dunham-Jones delivered the keynote speech at the 2019 annual dinner of the Sandy Springs Conservancy. In her remarks, Jones placed the city in the vortex of North American suburban cities that are retrofitting in hopes of surviving by attracting Gen Zers.

Now, Sandy Spring is facing a new challenge – the COVID-19 pandemic may mark the demise of the mixed use concept that has served as the No. 1 principle of Smart Growth initiatives for more than two decades.

The potential downsizing of the role of retail in Smart Growth projects presents a new reality to Sandy Springs. The city intends to financially support the mixed use redevelopment of four zombie shopping centers in the north end of town. Retail always was subordinate to housing, including affordable housing. But retail was viewed as an essential component in the city’s vision for the four nearly empty malls. Now, amid the pandemic recession, retail is a question mark.

Dunham-Jones’ book, the third in the Retrofitting Suburbia series and available Feb. 1 in hard cover from Amazon, acknowledges the speed at which the pandemic has affected the built environment. Despite the crushing deadlines of the academic publishing world, Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson were able to fit in this paragraph:

Metro Atlanta provides three of the 32 case studies in the latest book by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, ‘Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia.’ This map shows the eastern examples showcased in the book. Credit: ‘Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia’

  • “Will retrofitting maintain the same pace? In early 2020 the US entered another recession and numerous retail chains declared bankruptcy at the same time as a viral pandemic spread across the globe, leading to a great many deaths and unprecedented job losses. We believe these crises have increased the need and opportunities for retrofitting, although the long-term effects are unknown.”

On Tuesday, some of those unknown effects played out in Sandy Springs.

At the Sandy Springs City Council’s virtual retreat on Tuesday, elected officials discussed the North End Redevelopment project. This conversation occurred as the remarks of a consultant echoed from the council’s Dec. 15 work session. Sarah McCoilley, TSW’s project manager, was recorded in the minutes of that meeting as observing:

  • “It was found there is not much demand for retail. Retail is changing, the pace of which has been accelerated because of the pandemic. The highest demand is for housing.”
North River Shopping Center

North River Shopping Center is one of four zombie malls identified as ripe for mixed use redevelopment by Sandy Springs. The place was dormant long before the pandemic recession of 2020. Credit: David Pendered (2019)

To address housing, the council on Dec. 15 voted to approve a $132,500 contract with HR&A Advisors to conduct a Strategic Housing Action Plan. One goal is to target different policy recommendations for different levels of household income. Household income is a major determinant in housing policies.

For all of this about Sandy Springs, the city is not cited in Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia. The authors did highlight three projects in metro Atlanta that they found to be game changers:

  • Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Atlanta BeltLine;
  • Technology Park, in Peachtree Corners;
  • Walker’s Bend, in Covington.

Note to readers: ‘Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges.’ June Williamson, City College of New York; chair of Architecture at the Spitzer School of Architecture. Ellen Dunham Jones, Georgia Tech; professor, director of the Urban Design Program, School of Architecture, College of Design.

Available Feb. 1 in hard cover from Amazon at this site.

A car circles the empty parking lot of North Springs Center, once a vibrant retail district that served a car-oriented culture in Sandy Springs. File/Credit: David Pendered (2019)



David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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