UPDATE 9/3/21: Since first announced in May, there have been three Zoom public meetings about the Atlanta Police Foundation’s proposal to build a public safety training center at the city-owned Atlanta Prison Farm. None of them included the voice of the community, or any voice contrary to the view of the APF. Even as neighborhoods continue to pass resolutions against the proposal, their only chance to be publicly recognized has been to submit questions beforehand. These have been selectively answered by APF and there is no follow up or pushback from the moderator. This is not the kind of robust community engagement that Maynard Jackson envisioned when he formed the NPU system in the 1970s. What a shame for Atlanta City Council to not hold fast to those ideals.
Q: If the Atlanta Prison Farm was within the city limits of Atlanta, what community engagement process would we expect?
(faq.) A: The Atlanta Prison Farm is the essential centerpiece of the South River Forest, and while its protection for greenspace dates to the early 2000s, it was formalized into a much larger greenspace proposal as part of the Atlanta City Design in 2017. One of the low points of the recent drama has been watching so many people look the other way regarding Atlanta’s community engagement process. Anyone working on the ground in the city knows that a redevelopment this large of any sort anywhere within the city limits would go through a months-long process of community review before it goes to Council.
Thanks to Mayor Maynard Jackson in the 1970s, the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) System was put in place to formalize community recommendations to Atlanta City Council and other bodies on a wide range of issues, including land use and real estate development. While the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) has apparently been drafting up plans for the proposed Public Safety Training Center (PSTC) for years, they were working behind closed doors. The big decision makers knew about it, but the community did not. They heard about it for the first time in the newspaper last May, and it was pitched as a fait accompli. This is it – no discussion.
APF found a sense of urgency for the PSTC in this election season because “crime” is a big issue these days, but their proposal for the Atlanta Prison Farm didn’t go through the normal NPU protocols for only one reason. Although the historic 340-acre site is owned by the City of Atlanta, it is not within the city limits. It is not in any Council District. It is in no NPU. The adjacent neighborhoods cannot hold decision makers for the property accountable or have input in its fate because they are not residents of the City of Atlanta. They cannot vote for leaders at City Hall.
I learned the ropes of community organizing and engagement as a citizen volunteer and resident of NPU-X, which follows Metropolitan Parkway through southwest Atlanta. There were many lessons about how Atlanta works. Among them was that City Council is generally responsive to the voice of affected NPUs and that on local redevelopment issues, Councilmembers generally go along with the vote of the Councilmember within whose district the site is located – not always, but often.
Since the Atlanta Prison Farm is not in a Council District, we might imagine it is represented by the DeKalb Commissioner for that unincorporated part of the county. Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, whose District 5 abuts the city limits in this area, called that Commissioner, Larry Johnson. She learned that the APF had not even talked with him. Even though they have drawings for an “urgent,” $90 million controversial project in his district, they didn’t even bother to give him a courtesy call. According to reports, that’s the reason Archibong decided to table the legislation last Monday, (8/16) – and it’s the only reason those 85 acres got a three-week stay of execution from Council.
On Friday, (8/20), Larry Johnson responded to an email from the East Atlanta Community Association, which had informed him of their unanimous opposition to the PSTC at the Atlanta Prison Farm. East Atlanta is within the city limits, but also in DeKalb County, and Johnson is their representative on the County Commission. He responded, “The Police Foundation finally reached out to me this past Wednesday and I will bring up [your] points as well. I have expressed to them the sentiments of the DeKalb residents surrounding the proposed facilities. I have told them I support the Public Safety and a Training Facility but not at this location.”
“…but not at this location.”Larry Johnson, DeKalb County Commissioner, District 3
This is a fascinating turn of events, and we’ll see how things go, but I still haven’t answered the question, “If the Atlanta Prison Farm was within the city limits of Atlanta, what community engagement process would we expect?” Here’s what I learned from my former role as Land Use Committee Chair of NPU-X back in the early 2000s and in hundreds of community meetings that I’ve both attended and presented before. If the neighborhoods of unincorporated DeKalb County that surround the Atlanta Prison Farm were treated with the same respect as communities within the city limits of Atlanta, they would enjoy a robust community engagement process that would easily take 3-5 months, possibly longer since the APF’s proposed PSTC is not aligned with existing city land use plans.
Here’s the step-by-step:
- Neighborhoods. The APF would meet with each neighborhood impacted by the proposed development. In Atlanta, most have regularly scheduled monthly meetings, and each has their own process and committees. Typically, the Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) would wait for a recommendation from each association before hearing the case.
- Bouldercrest Walk
- Gresham Park
- Glen Emerald
- NPU Committees. The APF would meet with relevant NPU committees. Most have regularly scheduled monthly meetings and typically the NPU would wait for a recommendation from each relevant committee before hearing the case. All NPUs are structured differently, but in this case, these committees would certainly apply:
- Land Use & Zoning Committee. In addition to zoning, these committees typically cover anything related to real estate development. The site is currently zoned for residential, so this is a significant change. The Atlanta City Design and other documents have always described this site as future greenspace. This committee would do a thorough site plan review covering all kinds of development impacts, such as: sound (from the open-air shooting range, bomb detonation, helicopter training, car chases), smoke (from the burn building), night training activities, traffic and access, trash and loading, security, lighting, stormwater management, etc. The APF would need to articulate how any negative impacts would be resolved or mitigated. The committee would typically write conditions based on any commitments made by the APF regarding the site review.
- Public Safety Committee. These committees typically cover local safety issues like crime, but in this case, importantly, the security of the training facility itself would likely be a major issue, as it would be a logical target for future anti-police protests. Any commitments made by APF would likely be added to the list of conditions.
- Parks Committee. This proposal represents a loss of at least 85 acres of future park land, although with the noise and smoke impacts, the quality of the remaining greenspace is questionable. Similarly, the impact of the training facility on existing parks is a relevant issue. Noise and sound would negatively impact existing parks like Constitution Lakes, Entrenchment Creek Park, Glen Emerald Park, and Gresham Park. The noise from the shooting range and bomb detonation field would likely have triggering effects and cause trauma for some residents. The APF would need to also respond to concerns about negative impacts to wildlife habitat, dark sky, tree canopy, invasive species, water quantity/quality, etc. Commitments made by APF would be added to the list of conditions.
- NPU. For the record, none of these issues have yet been addressed by APF. Hypothetically, however, if they had, the next step in the process would be for the APF to meet with the full body of the NPU. All NPUs are structured differently, but because of the size and impact of this proposal, the APF would likely be given enough time on the agenda for a robust discussion. The NPU may choose to host a specially called meeting for the APF, or it may defer any decision for one or more months to allow more discussion at the committee level. When it is ready, the NPU would vote on the proposal, including any conditions proposed by the NPU committees and the result would be sent formally to Atlanta City Council. Note that deferrals for large projects are quite common, and any special-called meetings would require proper public notice.
- City Hall. By now we are easily three months into the process for a proposal this large and controversial. With the NPU’s recommendation in hand, the City Council then begins its own process. There is often additional public engagement at Council committees, and this is especially true in this case because the property is a citywide asset and public safety training is a citywide issue. We have seen that APF has gone to both the Finance/Executive and Public Safety Committees, which makes sense. If the property were in the city limits, I’d argue it might also go to Zoning. In any case, next, the legislation would go to the full City Council for a vote, which also includes public comment, and then, assuming they approve it, it would go before the mayor.
This process should have started years ago with any new proposal for the Atlanta Prison Farm, but instead, the deal was made in secret and APF skipped the first three steps. They began at #4 and their so-called public meetings over the last few weeks have been wildly inadequate, to say the least. >> Ryan Gravel