Remaking Atlanta’s suburbs: Sandy Springs’ milestone in region’s redevelopment
By David Pendered
A milestone in the region’s growth was passed last week in Sandy Springs. It marks a trajectory in the effort to retool suburbs from places built for Baby Boomers into ones suited for Gen Zers, and beyond.
That this milestone is located in Sandy Springs is of note. Sandy Springs represented the quintessential Atlanta suburb through its incorporation in 2005 – home to those who wanted the benefits of proximity to a big city, but not its taxes, social challenges and governance, according to Princeton University Professor Kevin Kruse, writing in his 2007 book, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.
Sandy Spring’s progress on its journey of redevelopment was evident at a gala hosted Oct. 3 by the Sandy Springs Conservancy. The milestone was established by the confluence of three things:
- The event – The 6th annual dinner sponsored by the city’s greenspace advocate, Sandy Springs Conservancy, which is working with the city and PATH Foundation to build a citywide trail system that is to connect the city’s diverse neighborhoods;
- The venue – City Springs, a year-old mixed use development for government services and cultural gatherings, which was built on the site of what had become a barren strip shopping center;
- The speaker – Georgia Tech Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, an expert on retooling suburbs who emphasizes the adaptive reuse of barren strip shopping centers. Dunham-Jones serves as director of Tech’s Urban Design Program and co-authored the 2008 book, Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.
Dunham-Jones placed Sandy Springs squarely in the national movement of suburbs that are experiencing transformation into the 21st century. A series of suburban projects around the country showed strip shopping centers replaced by mixed use developments, road sprawl curbed by sidewalks and trails, and greenspace being established to replace private backyards as neighborhood gathering spots.
Dunham-Jones referenced a research project that included Sandy Springs as one of metro Atlanta’s six Walkable Urban Places. The 2013 report, The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Atlanta, was released by Chris Leinberger, a metropolitan land use strategist who currently chairs George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate & Urban Analysis.
Leinberger also identified emerging and potential WalkUPs. All nine emerging WalkUPs are suburban. Seven of eight potential WalkUPs are suburban, and the eighth is Fort McPherson.
These nodes are shifting the traditional notion of the center of the region, according to Dunham-Jones.
“Suburbs are now the geographic center of Atlanta,” she said.
These communities share emerging demands for new types of lifestyles, Dunham-Jones said. Boomers want a slightly more active lifestyle and the amenities that enable it. Comparatively few Gen Xers, with their earning power and taste for urban amenities, reside in suburbs. Gen Zers may not have the income for a residence in Midtown, and they reside in suburbs that are close to the job centers where many are employed.
Of the last point, Dunham-Jones said suburbs resolve this question for millennials: “Provide me an urban lifestyle at a price point I can afford.”
After the event, Dunham-Jones provided five national trends in suburban redevelopment that she sees as relevant in Sandy Springs:
- “Redevelopment of auto-oriented properties to be more walkable, compact and supportive of a more urban lifestyle. City Springs is an example – and there are plenty more sites along Roswell Road that might be similarly redeveloped or re-greened
- “Further reducing auto-dependency through greater bike and pedestrian connectivity: trails, sidewalks, new street networks to allow for more direct routes.
- “Build pedestrian-friendly buildings on top of parking lots. Existing parking can be better managed as parking districts, shared, and or established in parking garages.
- “Consider road diets and lowered speed limits on streets that they want to be more walkable
- “Establish policy measures to preserve existing affordable housing and create new affordable housing that also reduces transportation costs.”
Dunham-Jones also offered two blue-sky thoughts as to areas Sandy Springs and, by extension, other suburbs could consider in planning their next steps:
- “Reducing stormwater runoff to protect water quality;
- “Building social capital with the construction of small parks that are heavilty programmed with activities.”