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If a training facility lands in a forest, does the Atlanta City Design matter anymore?

City leaders are scuttling plans for a park that was outlined in Atlanta City Design (which is part of the city charter) in favor of a public safety training facility. It begs the question: does the Atlanta City Design have the power and respect that it should have in the eyes of leaders? Obviously not, when it can be so carelessly ignored. That should change.

With the recent news that the Old Prison Farm and 150 acres of the South River Forest will be destroyed for a new public safety training facility, it seems that the City of Atlanta is ignoring its own charter as well as its call to protect the integrity of our people and places.

As described in the Atlanta City Design, an envisioned South River Forest Park would be one of several “big generational investments in new parks”:

“Tapping our last chance for a massive urban park in the city, we’re going to invest in a 1200+ acre southeastern reserve organized around the tributaries of the South River. Its full extent will require additional design, but core tracts of land include the city-owned, 300+ former Atlanta Prison Farm, the 200+are scenic wetlands of Constitution Lakes, the 200+ Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, the 200+ Southside Park and the nearly 200-acre Live Oak Landfill.”

Quote from Atlanta City Design

The Prison Farm property was meant to be a key feature of the park. The bold plan for this public space has been weakened, significantly.

The City Design is more than a pretty brochure! It needs to be treated as such.

When the Atlanta City Design was released in 2017, it was called the first planning initiative of its kind for Atlanta and crucial for the city’s smart growth. The 410-page book was touted as a guide that would chart the city’s future development and set a historic precedent for the city. Soon after it was released, City Council amended the City’s Charter to incorporate the Atlanta City Design.

At the time, Commissioner Tim Keane said, “The goal of Atlanta City Design is to ensure Atlanta grows in a way that protects the integrity of our people and places.”

So why is that precedent being so easily ignored? Was all of the research, data analysis, needs assessment, and community engagement conducted over a year and a half done just to culminate in a pretty brochure? That’s what it seems to be treated as by city leaders in this situation, which is very concerning.

No warning and no public engagement for the training facility proposal.

In April of this year, Mayor Bottoms announced the creation of a new public safety training center in partnership with the Atlanta Police Foundation right in the middle of the potential South River Park – specifically the old Atlanta Prison Farm. There was no information about why this particular site was chosen, what the evaluation process was for the proposed site, and how communities impacted could voice their own thoughts and concerns about the location.

Too conveniently, it appears there is no required process for community engagement. While the property is owned by the City of Atlanta, which would typically require presentations before neighborhoods and impacted NPUs, this particular piece of land is located in unincorporated DeKalb County.

Lake at the Old Prison Farm, the property that is now slated to become a training facility. Source: Atlanta City Design

“These neighborhoods aren’t in an NPU, they don’t get to vote for Mayor, the community has no input on the site,” said Ryan Gravel, creator of the Atlanta City Design and passionate supporter of the South River Park. “They haven’t had a single public meeting. The neighborhoods impacted found out about it in the newspaper when the Mayor announced it.”

The Atlanta Police Foundation has pressed the point that these updated facilities are badly needed for public safety, and while they have recently agreed to a community engagement process, APF has said they don’t want that process to put the project on hold.

Opposition is growing.

In the last several weeks, opposition to the South River site has grown. At a City Council Finance Committee meeting earlier this week, the vote was tabled after the committee members heard public comment asking for more time for community engagement and review of additional sites.  [ThreadATL reached out to executive director Dave Wilkinson of the Atlanta Police Foundation for information about the site evaluation process without a reply.]

“Other parts of towns have malls and business districts,” says Gravel. “The forest is the focus of this part of town. It’s bigger than just the park, it creates economic opportunity with green jobs. The Police Foundation is going down this course that is counter to that aspiration.”

Former Chief Resiliency Officer of the City of Atlanta Stephanie Stuckey agrees. “Once you lose this, you lose it,” says Stuckey. “There are any number of places you can put an industrialized shooting range type site. But this is an old growth forest and river, and there’s a historic value to the site.”

A significant reason this site was meant to be preserved was to create economic opportunity for the nearby low-income communities. One of the concepts was to develop a working farm specifically for the communities’ involvement with a focus on urban agriculture.

“The goal has been to reclaim this as greenspace in a largely industrial area in a low-income community,” says Stuckey.

Crime is being used as a rationale for pushing the project through.

Recently there seems to be an effort to paint opposition as “defund the police” protestors without an interest in investing in public safety efforts. Last week City Councilmember and Public Safety Committee Chair Joyce Sheperd held a press conference speaking specifically about the current conditions of both the police and fire training facilities and the need for the new consolidated training academy. Currently these are two separate facilities in Sheperd’s district.

In talking about the present facilities Sheperd said, “They’re old, dilapidated schools, mold, mildew, sewage backup, can’t drink water out of the fountains, can’t use the water in the buildings, leaking roof, you name it.” Sheperd went on to say, “No employee in the city of Atlanta should work in a place like where the police academy and fire academy is. It’s deplorable.”

There has been little communication about why these facilities have gotten into such disarray nor any accountability about their “deplorable” state.

“Joyce is encouraging the argument that this is defund the police and it’s not,” says Adair Park Neighborhood President Lawrence Miller, PhD. “This is not about that. The police need training, we have no issue with that. We want them to do what they’re supposed to do, which is keep the peace in the best possible way they can.”

While the proposed new training facility is not within Sheperd’s current district, she has claimed significant support from her constituents and has joined the ranks of other Councilmembers and candidates using crime as a rationale for pushing the project through. Of course, the development of this new facility will take years, so the claim that the training academy will somehow combat current challenges with crime is disingenuous.

“My outrage is about how Joyce went about this,” says Miller. “She claimed she has support from her constituents. I’m a neighborhood president, and I’ve talked to six neighborhood presidents and none of them have heard from her about this.”

Miller shared that Sheperd hadn’t announced the proposed facility at NPU-V or NPU-T meetings, and that none of the other nearby neighborhood presidents knew anything about the new training academy: “She [Sheperd] couldn’t explain why she hijacked the system in her favor so she could vote the law and order position. This isn’t the first, second, or third time she’s done this. She violated her own precepts by not engaging the very constituents she claims support this.”

Atlanta City Council: treat the City Design document more seriously!

Community engagement and implementation of the Atlanta City Design are two things that the City of Atlanta claims to be priorities. But this decision to push through the proposed consolidated police and fire training academy at the Old Atlanta Prison Farm is in complete contradiction, disrespecting both of those priorities. We need to expect better from City Council and all leaders.

“The Atlanta City Design crafts the vision and direction and purpose of the city,” says Gravel. “It’s the starting point for public plans and policies that would determine more details and decisions of how the city gets built in both the public and private sector.”

So why would the City support a project that goes against its own vision adopted in the City Charter?

According to Gravel, “if there are compelling reasons why it should be there, then they [APF] should share those. And if the City is going to do something other than support the primary components of the Atlanta City Design, then they should have to go in there and change it. City Council should take up a vote and say they are against the South River Forest and they’re removing it from the Atlanta City Design.”

South River Park
Layout of the the South River Park concept, from the Atlanta City Design

How you can help!

Contact Atlanta City Council and demand that they follow the Atlanta City Design that they adopted into the City’s Charter and reject this proposal:

Groups that are supporting the prison farm efforts:

South River Forest Coalition has a petition you can sign:
Petition to Protect the Atlanta Prison Farm Property