Atlanta’s East Lake success exported to Indianapolis

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 14, 2011

Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit group founded four years ago by Atlanta businessman Tom Cousins and billionaire investor Warren Buffett, and now led by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, held its second annual Network Member Conference in Indianapolis in September where supporters could see firsthand one of its neighborhoods under construction.

Atlanta Business Chronicle contributing writer Maria Saporta was there. Here is her second of two stories reporting on the group’s work.

Back in the 1960s, the Avondale Meadows community in Indianapolis was one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city — a place where young professionals could raise their families on tree-lined streets.

Then the city decided it need a place to house the city’s poor.

“We had a bright idea and built five very low-income housing projects, and the Meadows fell off the face of the Earth,” said Darrell “Gene” Zink, chairman and CEO of Strategic Capital Partners LLC, who now is the master developer of the Avondale Meadows renaissance.

Zink was compelled to tackle the Avondale Meadows community when he found out that for 30 years the area’s school only graduated 20 percent of its African-American males. It was not surprising that the Meadows also became one of the worst crime areas in Indianapolis.

So Zink and other community leaders decided in 2003 to establish an inner-city charter school, which was having great success inside the classroom but having little impact on the rest of the community.

Then, three years ago, a friend of Zink said that a guy from Atlanta — Tom Cousins — was in town to talk about how he had been able to transform a similar community.

Zink was busy and almost didn’t go to the event. But when Cousins talked about East Lake Meadows, the parallels in the names, the history and the communities were striking.

“When I heard ‘Meadows,’ I knew there’s a reason I’m here,” Zink said.
Cousins’ trip to Indianapolis was part of the Atlanta developer’s efforts to replicate the success of East Lake to communities across the country.

He established a nonprofit — Purpose Built Communities — to provide consulting services, strategic support and seed capital in similar redevelopment efforts in other cities.

Today, Purpose Built Communities has established a network of eight redevelopment efforts under way in New Orleans; Clarkston, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; Jackson, Miss.; Indianapolis; Rome, Ga.; Birmingham, Ala., and of course Atlanta.

It also has been working with several other potential partners in Chicago; Flint, Mich.; Galveston, Texas; Greensboro, N.C.; Houston; Omaha, Neb.; Philadelphia; Savannah, Ga.; Shreveport, La.; and Spartanburg, S.C.

Representative from all those communities converged in Indianapolis from Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 as part of Purpose Built’s second annual Network Member Conference.

“Tom Cousins has been a mentor to all of us,” said Zink, who said that the “Cousins model” was that every element of a community needed to be addressed at the same time — the schools, the homes, the neighborhood’s amenities and the surrounding environment.

At Avondale Meadows, which will be a $150 million project over 100 acres when completed, the model was taking shape. Three schools are being co-located: an elementary school, a high school and an Excel school for people who never completed high school.

There also is a $17 million health and wellness community center under construction so that health-care services can be readily accessible to residents rather than having them go to emergency rooms for care.

The public housing projects have been demolished, and a mixed-income community of 800 residences is being developed. The Purpose Built conference attendees were able to tour the first phase of the development — East Village, which has 250 units.

The three investors in Purpose Built Communities — Cousins, Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson — participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony of the community center located in that first phase.

“This is an incredible project, bringing this community full circle,” said Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard at the ribbon-cutting. “Tom Cousins, you really have inspired all of us. We are witnessing one of the greatest community transformations in the history of Indianapolis.”

While the mood of the conference was upbeat, there was much discussion on the tremendous challenges and obstacles that such redevelopment projects have to face.

For example, Zink said that they had to build seven layers of financing to develop the $27 million to build East Village, the first phase of the project.

“We still have to raise $90 million,” said Zink, who openly questioned whether such redevelopment projects were sustainable. He expressed frustration about the lag time that exists in bringing other amenities to the community, such as a grocery store. The closest store is more than three miles away, but every attempt to attract retailers has not been successful.

Cousins, however, provided a longer view. “The influence of this will spread,” he said. “In East Lake, it went miles in every direction. People are not afraid to invest.”

Larkin Tackett, director of Place Based Initiatives for the Office of Innovation and Improvement for the U.S. Department of Education, said the Obama administration was taking notice — which was reorienting federal policy toward a model that would combine federal funding in education and housing to build holistic communities.

“We have been inspired by organizations like East Lake that have been able to take on multiple challenges in the neighborhoods,” Tackett said. “We at the federal government believe we can do a lot better to put together the tools to be more interconnected. If we can be a better partner with communities, we can break the cycle of generational poverty that exists in some of these neighborhoods.”

Purpose Built Communities is taking the same approach. It hopes to be working in a total of 25 communities across the country in the next five years, looking for places, people and organizations that have the ability to transform their most troubled neighborhoods.

The team behind Purpose Built includes several Atlanta leaders who have been involved in the redevelopment of East Lake as well as people who served in the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

The former mayor serves as chair and CEO of Purpose Built, which offers its services to communities free of charge, thanks to the philanthropy of the three investors.

Pete McTier, former president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, who now is a trustee of the foundation, also provided a historical perspective to communities early in their redevelopment efforts.

“Key to any experience like this is the necessity of being able to overcome all the myriad of problems and challenges and faults that people will find with what you are doing,” McTier said during a panel. “The residents of the community will not trust what you’re about.”

But that will change as the project takes hold, McTier said, recalling the evolving attitude of Eva Davis, the vocal community activist who represented the East Lake neighborhood during tense negotiations with Cousins and the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Quoting Davis, McTier said: “We tore down hell and built heaven.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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