MARIETTA — Before a packed house Tuesday, the Cobb Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the long-awaited redevelopment of the Sprayberry Crossing shopping center.
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who represents the area, made the motion to approve the development. Commissioner Keli Gambrill was the lone vote in opposition.
The vote will — perhaps — bring an end to a long-running real estate headache in Cobb County. Commissioners, community members, and developers have been searching for years for a solution to clean up the blighted shopping center at East Piedmont and Sandy Plains Roads in northeast Cobb.
Developer Atlantic Realty has sought to use the county’s redevelopment ordinance to raze the strip mall and bowling alley on the site, and build a mixed-use complex featuring over 200 residential units and stores including a Lidl grocery. The proposal has also been among the county’s most controversial in recent memory.
Under the proposal approved Tuesday, Atlantic now has the green light to build 132 age-restricted senior apartments, 102 for-sale townhomes, and 34,000 square feet of retail space.
“Anvil around the neck”
Atlantic was represented Tuesday by local attorney Kevin Moore, who gave what would be his last of many pitches for the development.
Calling the shopping center an “anvil around the neck of this community,” Moore pointed to months of negotiations between his client and the community as evidence of Atlantic’s work to improve the proposal. He cited among their concessions a 10% rental cap on the townhomes, major downsizing of the overall number of residential units, and a promise from Atlantic to rehabilitate a family cemetery in the center of the property.
Moore also presented the board with an argument he’s deployed before—while the plan may not be ideal, it was “the best possible, most realistic option for redevelopment of this site.”
“To reject it is to condemn this site and this property owner to decades more of what you have today,” Moore said, closing his well-rehearsed pitch at the moment his allotted 10 minutes expired.
Thirty-six people showed up to the hearing to oppose Atlantic’s proposal, many of them wearing fire-engine-red shirts emblazoned with “ROD MOB,” a reference to Moore’s past characterizations of the opposition as having a “mob mentality.” The crowd was restless throughout the hearing, groaning, hissing, and occasionally jeering at the board.
As Birrell prepared to make her motion, one attendee began heckling the commissioner and was promptly escorted out of the room by a Cobb Police officer.
“To listen to her prattle on — she’s worthless,” the heckler shouted, the officer following close behind.
Backlash to Atlantic’s proposal began last year over the inclusion of multi-family apartments. Neighbors decried the apartments as harbingers of crime and blight, and last month, the apartments were removed altogether by Atlantic.
In recent months, traffic has shifted into the spotlight as the primary sticking point for the community. That both Sandy Plains and East Piedmont Roads are already congested areas is not disputed by any party. But some area residents said Atlantic’s proposed access points into the property would turn a heavily traveled area into a cesspool of gridlock.
Tony Raffa, owner-operator of a nearby McDonald’s, told the board he was concerned about proposed changes to Post Oak Tritt Road, particularly with the development bringing “thousands of additional cars a week.” Post Oak Tritt Road runs on the northern side of the property, opposite East Piedmont; the latest design proposes to limit left turns to and from the road.
One opposition member, Tim Carini, said the Board of Commissioners’ decision in February to scrap the county’s redevelopment ordinance — Sprayberry Crossing was the only proposal in 16 years to apply for rezoning under it — should be evidence enough the proposal was wrong for the area.
“Everyone was in agreement in February — this is a bad code,” Carini said, after producing a petition he said had 1,791 signatures against the development.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Carini introduced into the record an email from Planning Commission Chairman Fred Beloin, dated June 2. Carini said he was forwarded the email from a fellow resident of the area who wished to remain anonymous.
“I agree with each of your criticisms of the plan. It went up without our approval,” Beloin’s note read in part, referring to the Planning Commission’s decision to advance the development without a recommendation. “I told everyone that applicant’s failure to fix any traffic issues was blatant and meant that I could not support. I think he will get people killed with this plan.”
“There is no perfect plan”
Prior to her motion, Birrell spent over half an hour addressing the numerous criticisms and concerns over the proposal. Reminding the crowd she had been looking to solve the Sprayberry question since she first came into office ten years ago, Birrell defended both herself and the county.
“I was the first to say no apartments at Sprayberry Crossing,” she said. Birrell noted the buildings’ proposed height had been reduced from five to three stories. A requirement under the redevelopment ordinance that a number of units be set aside for low-income residents was also waived. After years of work, she argued, the county, the community, and the developer had arrived at a design which, despite its flaws, would decisively improve the area.
“All in all, this plan … is what was asked for,” Birrell said. “The plan that you see before you today is not a perfect plan by any means … there is no perfect plan.”
Further changes to the design, Birrell noted, would be subject to review either by herself, the board, or a committee of community members, depending on their scope and nature.
The commissioner also pushed back against what she saw as “a lot of discussion of the county not doing their jobs.”
Cobb, she said, had done everything in its power to clean up the decay and crime on the property. The county implemented a blight tax, which multiplied the property owner’s property taxes by 700% in 2019 and 2020. Code enforcement took 391 complaints on the property since 2004. Police, meanwhile, responded to 127 calls from the property in the last five years. Birrell, determined to meticulously make her case, submitted documentation of all these facts into the record.
Those arguments failed to placate the opposition. After the vote, opposition members shouted, “Thank you Keli!” to Commissioner Gambrill, who received applause when she announced her ‘no’ vote.
Shane Spink, an area resident, has been heavily involved in the talks between neighbors and Atlantic as a voluntary go-between. For most of the last year, he chose to remain neutral on the proposal. On Tuesday, however, when those supporting the development were asked to stand, Spink was among them.
“I just think we’re ready for change,” Spink said. “I’m worried about this property. I’m worried about all the problems that exist with it. I’m worried about it continuing — it’s been this way for 20-plus years … I think we should be able to figure it out with what we have.”
Moore said while it was too early to project a timeline for construction on the project, he anticipates the developer will move quickly to begin the permitting process.