New school garden is the start of a plan for safer, greener North Buckhead streets

The area outside the Sarah Smith Elementary School campus on Old Ivy Road is planned to gain a native plant garden as part of the North Buckhead Civic Association's "Signature Streets" program. Credit: Rob Knight

A garden of native plants at Sarah Smith Elementary School sounds like a nice little project, something kids and passers-by can enjoy. But it may also be the start of something much bigger for North Buckhead.

The garden project, which could start construction as soon as this summer, is intended as the catalyst for a much bigger plan in the works for pedestrian-friendly and greenspace improvements along Old Ivy, Peachtree-Dunwoody and Wieuca roads. The North Buckhead Civic Association (NBCA) calls it “Signature Streets,” and is already lining up some strong community partners.

An NBCA map of the “Signature Streets” slated for improvements.

The trio of “Signature Streets” share such major issues as a lack of sidewalks and safe crossings, and all carry a speedy river of cut-through commuter traffic.

NBCA board member Matt Oja, who lives on Old Ivy, says the effort aims to answer one big but simple question: “How do we connect the neighborhoods together, how do we connect the streets together, in such a way that people want to walk on the streets?”

The NBCA started working on that question back in 2015 with a neighborhood master plan that laid out some concepts. Some money and planning power recently became available through a Buckhead Community Improvement District (BCID) plan to turn the intersection of Wieuca and Phipps Boulevard into a roundabout. The intersection includes a small green space, the NBCA-supervised North Buckhead Park. Discussions about that turned into talk of the larger opportunities for Wieuca and other streets.

The BCID, a group of commercial property owners in the central business who tax themselves to fund various improvements, offered $40,000 for a study by Pond & Company. The recently completed initial phase looked at Old Ivy and Wiecua, but an addendum about Peachtree-Dunwoody is in the works.

Most of that area is outside the BCID’s area, but Executive Director Jim Durrett said there are still ways for it to have a role like the study funding. “We are considering whether and how to partner with NBCA going forward, with details [to be determined],” Durrett says. “We cannot spend capital dollars for construction outside of our geographical boundaries, but we can spend planning and design dollars.”

Some of the possible improvements suggested in a draft status report of the “Signature Streets” program.

So far, the studying has produced a bevy of ideas for Old Ivy and Wieuca. They range from a multiuse trail to painted and lighted crosswalks, from road humps to separated bicycle lanes.

The existing PATH400 multiuse trail crosses Old Ivy and Wieuca at Ga. 400, so some better connections are in the plan, too. And the roundabout will contain a handful of green spaces that could double as a “gateway” to North Buckhead featuring some type of sign or public art element.

A conceptual sketch of a native plant garden outside Sarah Smith Elementary School’s Old Ivy campus as shown in the “Signature Streets” status update.

Then there are the green space ideas, like the Sarah Smith native plant garden — or gardens, really — up to four of them are on the table. The project aims to use areas around the driveway of the school’s Primary Campus at 370 Old Ivy for plantings that can also serve as outdoor classrooms and wild bird habitats. Sidney Baker, the school’s interim principal, says he’s “thrilled” to participate.

“The thought of improving some areas on our campuses with plants native to Georgia is exciting,” said Baker. “The native plants will be beautiful to the birds and butterflies that will find nectar, seeds and pollen there. Students will learn the importance of the environment and can become involved in caring for the area. I salute the work of the North Buckhead Civic Association and am proud they have included Sarah Smith Elementary in the street beautification project.”

A map of suggested Old Ivy Road improvements as shown in the “Signature Streets” status update.

Oja and NBCA President Robert Patterson says there’s more to be done in coordinating with Atlanta Public Schools and securing funding, with an application for up to $6,500 from the City’s Community Impact Grant program in the works. Neighborhood Planning Unit B (NPU-B) on March 1 agreed to endorse the grant application at Patterson’s request. NBCA expects to hear about the grant in April or May, but Patterson says there’s already enough in the bank to get started.

“We expect to do the project whether we get the grant or not,” he said, adding that design will start soon, with Phase 1 construction as early as the summer. Next year, the NBCA would aim to raise more money for another phase.

If all goes well, Patterson says, the school’s Intermediate Campus at 4141 Wieuca could get the same sort of garden treatment.

But that’s just the start. As Patterson told NPU-B, the school garden is intended as “the catalyst for a much bigger project” — the whole “Signature Streets” program.

A map of suggested Wieuca Road improvements as shown in the “Signature Streets” status update.

Of course, most of the items in the plan would cost a lot more than a few thousand dollars and require serious engineering. The “Signature Streets” plan itself isn’t done yet, with that Peachtree-Dunwoody addendum expected to wrap up around late April.

But, Oja says, initial response from City officials and potential private funders is “very, very good” — including some statement that if the NBCA can pull off some of these improvements, it could be a model for other neighborhoods. Among the many funding possibilities are latching onto an infrastructure bond and a transportation special local option sales tax that the City is putting on the May primary election ballot.

As the school pilot project shows, the NBCA doesn’t intend to wait around for all of the pieces to come together. Oja says that “we don’t know how long it will take to implement any of this… but we want to do it sooner rather than later. The last thing we want to do is have a plan and put it on a shelf.”

To learn more, see the NBCA website.

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