Mayor candidates talk equity, vie for green vote, at Downtown forum

By Maggie Lee

The organizers of an Atlanta mayoral candidate forum on green space Thursday night had to move their event to a bigger auditorium — their first venue couldn’t hold everyone who wanted to know more about what the political hopefuls propose for the city’s trees, watersheds and parks.

So on a Georgia State University stage, 10 mayoral hopefuls sketched out green visions for a crowd of nearly 400.

All the candidates broadly support more finding more money for parks, more green space, and making sure there’s greater equity among Atlantans when it comes to good access to top-quality outdoor spaces for walking, playing or just chilling.

All also want to strengthen the tree ordinance — the city law that sets out when people can chop down trees and what it will cost them in fees.

Atlanta mayoral forum on green space

An audience of some 400 people came to Georgia State University on Thursday night to hear Atlanta mayoral candidates make their green stump speeches. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Indeed, there’s enough alarm over tree clearance and Atlanta’s shrinking tree canopy that City Council recently passed a temporary pause on all applications to destroy more than 10 trees on residential parcels of land that are five acres or larger.

But the candidates did stake out their own spots even as they stayed in the same camp of broad support for a leafier Atlanta. And on the question of equity, several candidates mentioned the role of parks and green space in driving up property values — and pricing some folks out.

Former Atlanta COO Peter Aman said that paying attention to equity is one of the most important things Atlanta can do as it focuses on the parks and recreation budget. He also talked about making sure parks, green space and recreation are part of the very fabric of the city.  “The tree canopy is vital and we have to protect it. But it’s not just about the tree canopy, it’s about the people and what makes people happy,” Aman said.

Candidate Al Bartell said that his commitment would be for Atlanta to be a part of the United Nations’ world environmental strategy. And he very much disagrees with President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.  “That’s the worst decision he has made and probably the worst one he’ll ever make,” said Bartell.

City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said she’ll pitch funding for new green spaces like they do on Marthas Vineyard: “When you purchase a home, two percent [as a transaction surcharge] is set aside for the land bank, and green space is purchased on behalf of the island. So I think something like that would work well within the city,” she said. Bottoms also said that she’d work with Atlanta Public Schools to develop a school that focuses on environmental justice and education.

Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves returned more than once to his support for the idea  of opening up recreational access to the Chattahoochee River and its banks in Metro Atlanta, an idea promoted by the nonprofit Chattahoochee Now.  “Right now the Chattahoochee River is utilized as a recreational area — not just water, but recreation (on land). But it stops in the city of Atlanta. It could continue through Atlanta and into south Fulton,” Eaves said.

Atlanta state Sen. Vincent Fort said that equity has to be a central theme in every department in the city of Atlanta. “Unfortunately …  much of the city’s green agenda has added to gentrification, has added to the fact that the city has become more unequal over these many years.  The fact of the matter is the Beltline has not followed through with its commitment on affordable housing,” said Fort, who has run as a City Hall outsider.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall also said that equity would be a theme his administration and that the city is gentrifying through its green investments. “We know that the investors from around the globe, they buy wherever our investment has gone; (with the) Beltline and TSPLOST (transit spending.) So we ned to be very considerate about how our actions affect our city. I’ve felt it in the Old Fourth Ward and we’ve done some things to prevent it but I think theres some bigger things we need to do throughout our city,” he said.

(Hall also walked back an April remark of his, when he said he had a “question mark” over global warming.   Thursday night, Hall said, “We all make mistakes in our statements and I accept that one.”)

Audience members line up for sign-in and name tags ahead of an Atlanta mayoral candidates forum. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Audience members line up for sign-in and name tags ahead of the forum. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said he that he worked to get principles of equity, of affordable housing and community benefits written into Beltline legislation and would continue work in those areas.  As for parks funding, he told the audience, “what I’m going to do is … find a dedicated funding source that we will not lose and then … ask you, all of you in this room, to be the experts and give us the answers on what we do.”

City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said her big idea is “focusing totally on the preservation of the canopy.”  And the audience was apparently full of folks who prefer cozier homes; she had to pause for applause after she called out chopping down trees for big houses.  She called for “everything from conservation easements for all of those acres in trees that are in private hands, to not oversizing houses and wiping out acres and just paying a fine … to acquiring new green space with ‘East Side Park,’ which is what I call the Prison Farm.”  That last one is a reference to a surprisingly bucolic abandoned prison farm in southeast Atlanta.

Former Atlanta Workforce Development Agency Executive Director Michael Sterling said that equity has to be at the top of Atlanta’s priority list.  “We saw that inequity had gotten so bad along the Beltline corridor … that … the person that came up with the idea himself quit the Atlanta Beltline board,” said Sterling. “I cast my candidacy in opposition to the status quo, the status quo that has allowed this type of inequity to build in our city and turned us against each other,” Sterling said.

Former City Council President Cathy Woolard said the reason she got into the race was equity — or lack thereof — along the Beltline, a project that got its first City Hall foothold in her office. “My concern has been as I’ve watched the Beltline develop, and in some cases not develop, is the poor quality of design, the lack of taking the opportunity to use land we own to build affordable housing and other amenities that people need in the communities,” she said. For another big idea, Woolard said she’d like to see proposed trails that have come up in the last few years  — like Chattahoochee Now and Proctor Creek — built and linked into a regional network that could see folks bike on paths from Atlanta to Alabama.

A Facebook Live video of the event is available on Park Pride’s page.

The election is set for Nov. 7.  If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held Dec. 5.

The top nine fundraisers in the mayor’s race have already reported more than $7 million in campaign contributions and loans.

SaportaReport Editor Maria Saporta moderated the forum. Its hosts included Park Pride, Trees Atlanta, the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Piedmont Park Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, Georgia Conservancy, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and the Greening Youth Foundation.

 

6 replies
  1. Robert Johnson says:

    This forum was a complete waste of time. You changed the questions that the sponsors wanted asked and replaced them with the likes of a long discussion on the Paris Accord which has little bearing on the immediate needs of local parks and greenspace. Also, just loved “what is your favorite tree” as an effective use of limited time as well as questions that you only allocated 10 second responses thereby allowing really in-depth elucidation of positions. You should be ashamed of yourself for wasting everyone’s time. Oh, I also forgot, with limited time available from GSU, you started the evening 25 minutes late. Screw Hall and Fort if they can’t get there on time especially since neither one of them is going to be mayor.
    Maybe you could have focused on what entity is going to maintain the 1,500 acres of open space that the beltline is going to create, what standards will be utilized and how will it be paid for? Another one would be, do you support a $1 surcharge on all parking in the COA with funds dedicated to open space?Report

    Reply
  2. Maria Saporta
    Maria Saporta says:

    Robert, thanks for your feedback. This forum was never intended to be the one and only or last opportunity for the mayoral candidates to address these issues. In fact, several of the organizations are having one-on-one sessions with the candidates so they can drive down on the multiple issues. My goal as moderator of this forum was to give the candidates a chance to present their ideas as well as give the audience a better sense of who is running. I do like to ask personal questions – like “where do you when you want to commune with nature” so we can have an insight on these candidates as people. The other goal was to keep the session moving and lively so we could keep everyone engaged. By the way, the prepared questions were much more appropriate for a written response, and I believe several of them would have fallen flat in such a forum because they were too much “in the weeds.” Of course, doing a forum with 10 candidates in a 90 minute time frame is challenging. Working with 11 organizations was exciting and heartwarming, but there was a difference of opinion about whether we should wait for Vincent Fort and Kwanza Hall or start the forum without them. We actually started without them. Also, the favorite tree question was a 10 second one, and most candidate answered with one word. That segment lasted less than a minute. I’m sorry you felt the forum was a complete waste of time. I do hope you are in the minority. In my mind, we got significant commitments from virtually every candidate to protect our tree canopy, to increase funding for parks, to acquire land for more parks and green space and consensus to continue with the Atlanta City Design’s Urban Ecology Framework. All those pledges will be extremely important going forward – from Nov 7, Dec. 5 and most importantly next January when the next mayor takes office. Also, I do appreciate that you read SaportaReport, and that you share your thoughts and your criticisms. One of our aims is to have SaportaReport become a place where people can exchange ideas, have a constructive conversation and provide a venue to advance our city. MariaReport

    Reply
  3. BPJ says:

    Good article overall. I hope that if the Report is going to cover the candidates’ positions in alphabetical order, it will alternate that approach with reverse alphabetical order, to be fair 🙂Report

    Reply

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