Atlanta City Council asked to vote on public safety center despite unknowns
By Maria Saporta
So many unanswered questions.
In light of mounting opposition to its initial proposal, the Atlanta Police Foundation hastily presented an alternative plan at last Wednesday’s finance committee meeting of the Atlanta City Council for a new public safety training center on the site of the historic Prison Farm property in DeKalb County.
The amended proposal presented by the Foundation said the training center would now be built on 85 acres instead of 150 acres on the city-owned prison farm property. The Foundation is proposing to lease the 85 acres of the area that is now mainly green space from the city for 50 years for $10 a year.
The Foundation and the city’s law office, however, did not present the proposed ground lease to the committee, which surprised Councilmember Howard Shook, who said it was “disappointing.” And Councilmember Natalyn Archibong said the City Council should not approve of the plans until it has a copy of the ground lease.
Still, the committee unanimously voted to move the legislation forward for a potential vote at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting.
But does City Council know what it’s voting on?
Update: Atlanta City Council on Monday amended the legislation for the facility at the Prison Farm, and then it tabled the vote until its next meeting. Read John Ruch’s story here.
I sent a text to the Atlanta Police Foundation asking for a site plan showing how the 85 acres will be developed? I asked for a list of condition the Foundation was agreeing to. And most importantly to city taxpayers, I asked the Foundation to breakdown how much it will cost the City of Atlanta to build out the facility.
(The Foundation initially said it will cost $60 million, and that it would raise half from the private sector. Now it is saying it will cost $90 million, and that it will raise $50 million privately. That means the city would have to come up with at least $30 million to $40 million to build out the facility).
The proposed legislation also said the city will be responsible for maintaining and operating the facility. I asked the Foundation for how much maintenance and operations will cost City of Atlanta taxpayers each year.
The Atlanta Police Foundation has yet to respond to my text or answer my questions.
Several Atlanta City Councilmembers are questioning whether the Prison Farm is the right location for the public safety training center.
Councilmember Carla Smith, whose district is one of the closest to the property, put out a post on Facebook saying that she cannot support it being built at the Prison Farm – a critical part of the vision of the South River Forest.
“While I fully recognize the importance of a state-of-the-art training facility, I also recognize the rare opportunity the city has to preserve and protect this greenspace in perpetuity,” Smith wrote on Facebook.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Smith said that once trees have been cut down, “you can’t go back and make it a forest again.”
Smith and Councilmember Natalyn Archibong (whose district also is near the Prison Farm) also took issue with the Atlanta Police Foundation’s description of its community engagement process.
There were two Zoom “community listening sessions” where residents were able to listen to the Foundation present its plans, but they were not given an opportunity to comment. “They had the chat turned off,” Smith said.
Smith made several other points on Sunday. She said there should not be an outdoor shooting range near greenspace or residential areas. In fact, she said a world-class training center should have an indoor shooting range.
“Honestly, I’m just against the whole thing,” Smith said of the Prison Farm location. “It’s not the right place. I would like them to consider alternative locations.”
She mentioned the possibility of locating it on the campus of Atlanta Metropolitan State College, the temporary home of the training center. Smith said the president of the College “is open to discussing” that as an option.
“We should explore partnering with other governments, such as Fulton County, DeKalb County and the Georgia State Patrol,” she said.
Other councilmembers are working on a list of conditions and amendments to accompany the legislation. The Nature Conservancy, which has been working on the grand green space vision of the South River Forest, presented a list of proposed conditions to City Council President Felicia Moore among others.
“We were blindsided that there was going to be substitute legislation,” said Deron Davis, executive director of the Nature Conservancy – Georgia. “I was disappointed with the lack of deliberation on an issue that is so important to our city.”
Ryan Gravel, who helped the city’s planning department draft the Atlanta City Design, which called for the Prison Farm to be green space when it was incorporated into the Atlanta City Charter in 2017, said councilmembers “haven’t done their due diligence” on the legislation.
For example, does the public safety training center really need to be 85 acres?
An article by The Intercept about the project raised that issue.
“It will be much larger than facilities used by police departments in other major cities,” according to the The Intercept. “New York City’s police department, for example, uses a 32-acre training facility in Queens, while the Los Angeles Police Department’s facility sits on 21 acres. The NYPD and LAPD are two of the top three largest police departments in the country, while Atlanta’s ranks 19th.”
So many questions loom over the proposed development of the public safety center at the historic Prison Farm property.
How big does it really need to be?
How much will it cost the community and taxpayers to build and to maintain?
Is there a more appropriate site for the project – one that will not erase dozens acres of green space?
Are there opportunities to collaborate with others to build a regional public safety center on already developed land or industrial property?
How can the nearby residents and community members be shielded from the car chases, bomb detonations, practice fire drills and the shooting range that would take place at the proposed center?
These are but a few of the questions our elected leaders should be asking before they move forward to approve a 50-year lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation to develop a public safety training center on the historic Prison Farm.
Note to readers: this Maria’s Metro column was updated after the Monday, Aug. 16 meeting of the Atlanta City Council. For an update of the Council’s action, please read our latest story.