By Guest Columnist MELODY HARCLERODE, who promotes significant historical, cultural, and natural sites as an architect, non-profit consultant, and writer
The city of Atlanta receives much press as the financial, cultural, and transportation hub of the metropolitan area, yet small cities in this region also offer amazing stories for the public to appreciate. Consider the city of Lithonia, a town with approximately 2,000 residents covering a radius of one square mile of land north of I-20 and outside I-285.
This community sits within the northern end of the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area, a federally recognized, 40,000-acre region with extraordinary historic, cultural, and natural sites running in DeKalb, Rockdale, and Henry counties. Incorporated Lithonia lies separate from the unincorporated suburban areas bearing its name around the Mall of Stonecrest and outlying communities in DeKalb County.
A rich history and sense of place magnifies the city’s modest size.
Stone Steadmen, of Covington, and Bob Guinn, of Conyers, published the first newspaper in the county, the New Era, in a store over Main Street. In 1907, the county’s first public library opened in Lithonia within the private residence of Miss Lula Almand. The library later moved into the Lithonia Woman’s Club in 1928, at the edge of Main Street and the downtown district. Lithonia is recognized as the location of the first public school for African American children in DeKalb County. These youngsters received their public school education in the county for the first time with the construction of the Bruce Street School in 1938.
The city name Lithonia originates from the Greek word “lithos” or rock. Workers blasted, sliced, and transported the distinctive granite rock from local quarries in the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area to places throughout Lithonia and around the United States with the opening of the area’s first quarry in 1879.
This handsome material can be found on the building exterior of the Lithonia Woman’s Club, the Lithonia First United Methodist Church, the United States Military Academy in New York, and the United States Naval Academy in Maryland. Granite from Lithonia quarries has been used for street curbing around metropolitan Atlanta and the country. Architects, builders, and property owners recognize the strength and natural beauty of this rock. The city was recently listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its preservation of the local architecture.
With the construction of I-20 starting in 1956, population growth shifted from Lithonia into suburban communities with stand-alone buildings surrounded by parking areas. Taking a move from the competition, voters approved the development of Lithonia Plaza in 1963 to spur urban renewal in the city. Residents and civic leaders hailed Lithonia Plaza for its “abundance of parking.” While supporters added a new, modern retail complex to the city, they sacrificed the historic fabric of the downtown area through the demolition of numerous buildings including the train depot, fire station, and one of the city’s first churches. The new development also altered the existing street grid making access around the downtown district more cumbersome.
During the following decades, the city of Lithonia faced a declining population, the exodus of retailers from the downtown district, and a lack of civic engagement by aging residents.
Undeterred by this adversity, then Mayor Marcia Glenn-Hunter hired attorney Deborah Jackson in 2003 as a consultant for the development of the Livable Centers Initiative study. A project of the Atlanta Regional Commission, LCI grants fund the creation of community revitalization strategies. Additional ideas that emerged from the blueprints studies by Katherine Moore, with the Georgia Conservancy, and from the studios overseen by Georgia Tech Professor Ellen Dunham-Jones fueled excitement about the potential for renewal in Lithonia.
These studies centered on the redevelopment of the Lithonia Plaza. Once revered in the past, the Lithonia Plaza was shunned in the present for inappropriate building materials on the exterior, an odd building configuration, and insensitive site placement.
Now, the one-time consultant for the city serves as the top official for the municipality.
Mayor Deborah Jackson sees the upcoming Granite Crossing development from Wendover Partners LLC, to be located at the site of city-owned portion of Lithonia Plaza, as more than a $10 million investment into the city. She describes the development as a catalyst for, “bringing new families and residents to Historic Lithonia, supporting local businesses, and strengthening more community engagement.”
While many municipal leaders grapple with the issue of affordable housing in cities across metro Atlanta, Jackson, the Lithonia City Council, and city staff have invested time and energy to ensure the quality of this 75-unit affordable housing project. The project will set the tone for new construction and renovation projects in the downtown district.
Seeking a sensitive architectural design for Granite Crossing, Jackson and the council asked the developer and architect Slocum Platts Architects to create the new development that is compatible with the existing, historic Main Street buildings. The building exterior for this new project will include granite accents as a nod to the local, historic material. Once a dead-end road into the Lithonia Plaza, an expanded pedestrian walkway along Stone Mountain Street will connect residents from Max Cleland Boulevard around Granite Crossing to the restaurants and businesses on Main Street. This connection will enhance walkability, civic pride, and community engagement.
Like the granite rock covering buildings around the country, the City of Lithonia has proven its endurance. Years of stagnation are giving way to revitalization. New, local retail stores and restaurants are opening in the downtown district. The Lithonia Farmers Market takes place every Sunday during the summer. A new chapter of progress respectful of its storied past is taking place in the city. Take the drive into town, enjoy the walk, and observe the progress.