The former Lakewood Heights Elementary School property at 335 Sawtell Ave. as shown in an Atlanta Public Schools presentation about a disposal plan that makes it a pilot project for mixed-used redevelopment centered on affordable housing.

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) may team with the City’s brand-new affordable housing organization on community-led, history-preserving remakes of several surplus properties – starting with the former Lakewood Heights and Peeples Street school sites.

The Atlanta Board of Education Sept. 19 gave a thumbs-up to the innovative disposal strategy, which could involve partnership with the new Atlanta Urban Development Corporation (AUDC) – a key creation of Mayor Andre Dickens’ affordable housing priorities – and relies on historic significance assessments created by the Atlanta Preservation Center (APC).

At-Large Seat 7 board member Tamara Jones later told SaportaReport that the approach is especially “groundbreaking” for an intent to determine future uses of properties – through a public process and advance rezoning – before seeking developers. She also said she loves the tactic of public entities keeping an ownership stake in the land to ensure permanent housing affordability. “This idea of public lands in public hands is huge,” she said.

The strategy involves disposing of 16 surplus properties in a blend of mixed-use, ground-lease redevelopment via authorities skilled at affordability components, single-family home construction via a land trust, land swaps or purchases with governments, and – in the single case of The Lodge or Little White House in Buckhead – a direct sale by APS. Public engagement on the two pilot sites could start within months, and the goal is to have construction kicking off in about 12 months. 

“Establishing this explicit process for revitalizing public land and buildings for the public good is groundbreaking for APS,” said Jones in a written statement. “It ensures transparency, gives voice to communities, and protects against political influence. This is the definition of collaboration and solid process.”

The focus on Lakewood Heights Elementary as one of the first two pilot projects is especially notable. APS’s attempt in early 2022 to demolish the historic school in Southeast Atlanta after largely private dealmaking efforts drew criticism from the community and the City’s preservation office, helping to trigger and shape the current disposal process for all “surplus” buildings. Advance public input is now a key part of the process. So is the APC’s historic significance assessment, which ranks buildings by the importance of saving them. “An overarching priority for ALL APS excess properties is historic preservation and the reduction of blight,” said an APS staff presentation to the board.

The former Lakewood Elementary School at 335 Sawtell Ave. in a photograph from the Lakewood Heights Historic District filing on the National Register of Historic Places. The filing was submitted in 2002.

Among other sites marked for disposal are shuttered APS schools once used as police officer and firefighter training academies before poor conditions led to the current public safety training center plan and debate.

APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell said the strategy shows how historic preservation can be a key component of major redevelopment. “Embracing how to retain historic character and cultural diversity should be established as a universal goal, and we are all indebted to those who had the foresight and self-determination to protect and steward these buildings,” he said in an email. “The Facilities staff of the Atlanta Public Schools has exhibited a courage and vision that should be envied.”

The projects could be an early use of the AUDC, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Atlanta Housing Authority that just had its first board meeting last month. AUDC was created as an affordable housing developer by Dickens’ Affordable Housing Strike Force, which counts APS among its members. APS is in discussions with AUDC and other local development authorities about partnering on some of the properties, according to Larry Hoskins, the district’s chief of operations. He declined to name the other authorities to the board pending further discussions.

The Mayor’s Office did not offer comments, but Atlanta Housing Chief Operating Officer Terri Lee confirmed the possible partnership as part of Dickens’ goal of creating 20,000 affordable housing units. “Some of those units could end up in historic APS properties as we work collaboratively with our partners on new concepts and opportunities to advance and increase affordable housing across our city,” said Lee in a written statement.

APS has a list of “excess” properties and has worked on a system for determining their future for months. The board and APS have placed them into two broad categories: “hold” and “disposal.” The “hold” category means APS will retain full ownership and may continue to use the properties or lease them for terms of up to five years. More than 30 properties are in the “hold” category, with their fate currently backburned and a strategy update expected in mid-2024.

Another 16 properties are in the “disposal” category, where they have been declared “surplus.” The category means APS intends to sell or swap them to new owners or have them redeveloped under ground leases running 20 to 50 years – the maximum allowed by state law, the board said. Surplus properties are the priority and the subject of the new disposal strategy. 

The strategy has four different tactics, in part depending on the size of the property. 

Mixed-use redevelopment

Mixed-use redevelopment under a long-term ground lease, anchored by affordable housing and in partnership with AUDC or a development authority, is the proposal for eight larger properties:

  • Simpson Road Property, Joseph E. Boone Boulevard at Sewanee Avenue
  • Former Collier Heights Elementary site, 338 Collier Drive
  • Former Rosalie Wright Elementary, 360 Autumn Lane
  • Former Dobbs Elementary site, 1965 Lewis Road
  • Former Lakewood Heights Elementary, 335 Sawtell Ave.
  • Forrest Canyon Land Site, 1100 Hendon Road
  • Former Peeple Street School site, 575 Peeples St.

The intended mix of uses could include green space, early learning facilities, workforce development facilities, commercial and retail space, and “community resources,” such as arts organizations or nonprofits. 

The former Peeples Street School site as shown in the APS disposal presentation.

Affordable housing is currently defined by the board as 15 percent of the project’s units priced at a rate affordable to households making 80 percent of the metro area median income (AMI), and 10 percent of the units priced at 60 percent of AMI. Several board members indicated they want to set deeper levels of affordability in such surplus-property projects. The projects would attempt to prioritize APS employees for the affordable units.

The concept involves AUDC or a development authority leading the planning, development and property management, while APS would receive income from the ground lease that could help subsidize more affordable housing. AUDC or the authority would start by holding public input meetings and then lead any necessary rezoning to suit that vision. At that point, AUDC or the authority would issue a request for proposals from developers, help select one, and then oversee construction.

Any existing community input studies and reports would be factored into the public engagement process, according to board discussion.

Saving historic buildings is a priority at such sites as Lakewood Heights, which ranked high on the APC-created assessment mechanism. APS staff explained how the system ranked buildings by age and cultural and architectural significance.

Single-family houses

Another four surplus properties are pegged for redevelopment as permanently affordable single-family houses. That is largely because they are small lots within residential neighborhoods. They include:

  • Welch Street Lots, 884 Welch St. in Pittsburgh
  • Martin Street Lot, 935 Martin St., Peoplestown
  • Terry Street Lot, 753 Terry St., Summerhill
  • Forrest Circle Lot, 895 Forrest Circle, South River Gardens

The disposal and development process in those cases would involve the Atlanta Land Trust buying the properties and building the houses through the Metro Atlanta Land Bank. The Trust would continue to own the land with a ground lease, while the houses would be sold to qualified homebuyers at affordable amounts. In any subsequent property sale, the house owners would get part of the equity, while the Trust would reinvest the income into subsidizing an affordable sales price for the next owner. 

Cynthia Briscoe Brown, the board’s At-Large Seat 8 member, praised the approach as ensuring permanent affordability against gentrification. “This strengthens communities,” she said.

Government purchase or swap

Three other surplus properties are pegged for sale to or land swap with unnamed “partner governments”:

  • Former Hartnett School site, 1410 Bridges Ave.
  • Former Carey Facility, 2588 Etheridge Drive
  • Former Harper Facility/former Atlanta Police Department Academy, 180 Southside Industrial Parkway

APS offered no detail on possible government plans for those sites. The former police academy site is adjacent to dozens of parcels owned by the City, Atlanta Housing or Invest Atlanta, the City’s development authority. 

The Lodge/Little White House

A special case is The Lodge or Little White House, a historic house-like structure next to E. Rivers Elementary at Peachtree Battle Avenue and Peachtree Road. The deed restricts its use to  “museum, monumental, educational, park or other like purpose.” 

Due to that special restriction, APS officials said, they intend to run a sales process themselves targeted at higher education institutions, museums and galleries, and the City of Atlanta for such departments as parks and transportation. The Buckhead Heritage Society, a local history organization, appears to have recently started examining the feasibility of buying the building.

Next steps

As for next steps, APS will negotiate intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) with AUDC or development authorities regarding the overall partnerships, processes and goals for redeveloping the eight mixed-used sites. After that, IGAs would be negotiated for the specific Lakewood Heights and Peeples Street projects. Hoskins said he hopes public engagement and developer selection can be complete for those sites in six to 12 months.

APS also will negotiate an IGA with the Metro Atlanta Land Bank and conduct appraisals of all 12 properties pegged for the affordable housing redevelopments.

The strategy was presented at a board retreat, where it was approved by informal consensus. Hoskins said he wanted a “nod” from the board that APS is “headed in the right direction” and can finalize discussions with partners. Actual final deals would come to the board for votes.

Board members applauded the staff presentation and praised the strategy. “It’s thoughtful,” Briscoe Brown said. “It’s well-reasoned, and it’s very well-presented. So just thank you very much.”

In public comment afterward, Lakewood Heights resident Heather Graybill also praised the approach as “very thoughtful” and for saving the historic school building there.

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