Can a BeltLine park provide recreation on, beside, a drinking water reservoir?

By Guest Columnist MARK PENDERGRAST, an Atlanta native and author of ‘City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future.’

Does Atlanta have the creative capacity and vision to develop the Westside Park as a true community asset? Will the new lake there be its beloved recreational center? The park is literally the biggest promise of the Atlanta BeltLine.

Mark Pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast

At a recent meeting of the Westside Future Fund (Sept. 1), Atlanta Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Kishia Powell spoke about various projects her department is undertaking, including plans for the new Rodney Cook Sr. Park at the Historic Vine City, on the west side of Atlanta, where watershed plans to build a new detention pond to prevent storm water run-off from flooding the combined sewer system. This pond is to be similar to the pond in the Historic Fourth Ward Park.

Since taking office earlier this year, Powell has indicated that she wants to reach outside the “silo” of watershed management to partner with the Department of Parks and Recreation, Park Pride, and other organizations, and she has proven to be a good listener.

So during the question-and-answer period, I asked if she planned to allow recreational use of the new lake in the quarry that will be the centerpiece of the new nearly 600-acre Westside Park. In other words, will people be allowed to fish, swim, kayak, or canoe in the lake?

The short answer was: No. She said that the reservoir would be too deep, with a sheer drop-off from the edge of the lake, so it would be too dangerous to use, even for fishing. Also, because it would serve as an emergency water supply for the city, no one should be allowed in it (or near it, I gather).

Bellwood Quarry, reservoir

Questions abound over whether the former quarry cavity should be opened to recreational use. File/Credit: youtube.com

Powell’s vision for this new body of water differs substantially from that of Yale University city planner Alexander Garvin, author of What Makes a Great City, who spotted the quarry from a helicopter in 2004 as he explored the future BeltLine corridor and surrounding areas. In The Beltline Emerald Necklace, his vision for the parks along the BeltLine, which was published later that year, Garvin wrote that the quarry could become a, “splendid lake that would provide the residents of the city with wonderful opportunities to sail, kayak, canoe, and fish.” (page 117) I recently shared the stage with Garvin at a panel about the BeltLine at the Atlanta History Center.

Powell’s argument that no one should be allowed to use the lake because it is a potential source of drinking water does not hold water, so to speak. Lake Lanier is also a reservoir for the city of Atlanta, and its water actually is drunk regularly by the city’s residents, after it travels down the Chattahoochee, where it is also enjoyed by boaters and fishermen. The fact that motorboats and sailboats ply Lanier’s waters and that people swim in it doesn’t matter, because it is treated before it becomes potable water. And, in fact, the water in the quarry lake, which will be that same raw water that was released from Lake Lanier and travelled down the river, will be of that exact same nature. It will be treated after it leaves the quarry – for emergency use – like any other city raw water source.

Powell did not bring up potential terrorism as a reason to prevent people from using the lake, but let me address that as well. As I documented in City on the Verge, my new book about Atlanta, it would be impossible for a terrorist to poison such a large water supply, even if he or she tried. (And this also applies to the raw water reservoirs at the Hemphill Water Treatment Plant, usually called the Water Works, along Howell Mill Road, where public access should be restored by taking down the fences around them.)

The provision of recreational facilities for swimming and boating atop the retired quarry should be part of the city’s redevelopment plan for the property, some parks advocates content. Credit: georgia.sierraclub.org

It is true that the walls of the quarry lake will be steep in many places and its waters deep, but it need not be inaccessible when full. Let me suggest a solution. Bear in mind that this lake is a gem that will be within the city limits, part of a huge new park, much larger than Piedmont Park. The tunnels to and from the quarry, connecting it with the Chattahoochee River and the Water Works, will cost an estimated $46.1 million, with a projected completion date estimated for late 2021, with the first phase to be opened in 2019. The complete cost of the park project is estimated at $280 million.

So a bit of added expense to allow for public recreational enjoyment of the lake makes sense. All it takes is political will and good planning and engineering.

Here’s one way to do it. There is already an access road that spirals down to the bottom of the quarry from its edge. That road was used for huge trucks to transport granite out of the quarry when it was in operation. Use that road as a path to let people walk to the edge of the water once the quarry lake is filled. Blast out a larger shallow shelf in the nearby quarry wall to accommodate boating, fishing, and waterside leisure access areas, including a swimming area.

The fact that the water will be deep at the edge of the shelf has no logical impact on risk as compared to any other lake or even the deep end of a swimming pool.

I ran these ideas by Alexander Garvin, who wrote back: “What is needed is an intelligent design for a recreational facility – not just a reservoir. Surely, Atlanta has enough imagination to make what could be its largest park, more than a tub filled with excess water!”

Bellwood Quarry

An aerial view of Atlanta’s Bellwood Quarry, which is to be the next major park in Atlanta. File/Credit: City of Atlanta

The City should look to the brightest minds in urban planning with the goal of solving this challenge, rather than fencing the quarry off like an overprotective parent.  Atlanta wanted the Olympic Games and figured out the partnerships it needed to craft a proposal that secured its historical place – against large odds – as an Olympic host city.  Twenty years later, there is an opportunity to create a recreational icon for the entire city to enjoy regardless of socioeconomic status.

As the design of the quarry park including its lake goes forward, it is so important that it not just become the equivalent of a huge water storage silo at which people can look at from a distance only. Just as the ponds in the Old Fourth Ward Park and Cook Park were designed to be integrated into the recreational fabric of the surrounding parks, so should the quarry lake and park design be similarly integrated to allow for multi-faceted recreational use of what may well be the most spectacular piece of public space this city will have.

To that end, on July 25, the City of Atlanta issued a request for proposals designing the Westside Park, which includes conceptual drawings by the Atlanta City Studio. Careful review of one of these drawings shows the completed lake with what looks an awful lot like a potential lake access and recreation area where the old quarry road runs into the surface of the filled lake. There are also photos of comparable parks, including “Accessible Lawn and Waterfront, Mount Royal Park, Montreal.”

Another part of the RFP references a “Department of Watershed Management 150-foot buffer zone” and calls for coordination between the park designer and the Department of Watershed Management in that zone. Proposals were due Sept. 7, 2017 but the deadline was extended to Sept. 21. I hope that some of those proposals include allowing people to use the lake, not just look at it.

Bellwood Quarry

The Bellwood Quarry’s view from below – during a tour of the site in June 2016 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

At my book talks around the city – at the Carter Center, Atlanta History Center, and Decatur Book Festival, among other venues – I have been calling for recreational access and use of the quarry lake, and that call has been met with broad and strong applause from the audiences. I urge anyone interested in maximizing the value and use of the quarry park and its centerpiece lake for civic and recreational purposes to help make this vision become reality as design, collaboration, and public participation efforts go forward.

Please urge the Parks Department, Department of Watershed Management, the mayor and city Council (present and future) to make it happen.

The quarry park could also benefit from a non-profit or conservancy group of benefactors that could push for more a progressive design. Perhaps this article will serve to inspire the formation of such a group.

Note to readers: Mark Pendergrast resides in Vermont and can be reached through www.cityontheverge.com or www.markpendergrast.com.

Bellwood Quarry

The size of the Bellwood Quarry is immense as evidenced by the construction workers in June 2016 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Bellwood Quarry

Imagine the Bellwood Quarry filled to the brim with water (Photo by Maria Saporta)

17 replies
  1. Roby Greenwald says:

    I invite the commissioner to contact Mayor Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, Tennessee. There are several old marble quarries near downtown Knoxville that had been off-limits for years. However, people were constantly sneaking through the fences and illegally using them for all the reasons you mention: swimming, canoeing, fishing. The police would occasionally come in and ticket everyone they found, but shortly after Mayor Rogero was elected, she legalized the de facto practices and made it swim at your own risk. They really are beautiful places to go for a summer afternoon dip walking distance from downtown. Disclosure, the Mayor Rogero is my mother-in-law.Report

    Reply
    • Mark Pendergrast says:

      Great point, Roby, and tell your mother-in-law Mayor Madeline Rogero that I congratulate her for legally opening the quarry lakes in Knoxville for recreational use. But let me make clear that I am not suggesting “swim at your own risk” in the new quarry lake in Atlanta. I am suggesting a swimming area that will have a lifeguard. And if the city is spending so much money on the park, surely it can afford to hire a night-time security guard for the Westside Park. I hope for many more comments on my article!Report

      Reply
  2. Wormser Hats says:

    Not in just Watershed Management, but in all city departments, leadership needs to be wrested from its bureaucratic silos.

    For starters, Watershed Management, Public Works, Parks and Recreation (all of them) need to quit looking through the lens of the dicrete functions of their facilities as mere water resources, rights-of-way, and play-spaces.

    Instead open their minds to the idea of leveraging public-owned assets for maximum value. Watershed management facilities, whether reservoirs, sanitary sewer easements, or stream conservation corridors should be leveraged for their recreation values. Similarly, parks and greenspaces can be leveraged to enhnace the citys limited, but sorely-needed stormwater management infrastruicture. Such as the example at Piedmont and Fourth Ward Parks.

    It probably will not happen in the twighlight of the current administration, but the next Mayor should focus far beyond the Beltline, but continue using its promise to pilot creative thinking and land use initiatives of benefit to the entire city and its government.Report

    Reply
  3. Francisco Olmedo says:

    I could not agree more with your stance here. The issue will be getting the proper parties involved to all agree to an appropriate system of design and then management. Regardless, it can and should happen! Very interested to learn more about the Knoxville solution Roby mentioned….going to look into that!Report

    Reply
  4. Jeff Kling says:

    Here’s an idea. Use the Bellwood Quarry Lake as a training ground for crew/rowing teams. It would benefit both Atlanta college and HS students and it is the best form of exercise available. Club teams could also train there. I am driving down to Sarasota for the World Rowing Championships next week and it is on a man made lake near I-75.Report

    Reply
  5. Bill McGahan says:

    I couldn’t agree with Mark more. The amount of enjoyment that we can all get out of the park should also be considered, and not just the possibility of something, perhaps, going wrong. Do you think New Yorker’s would do without their central park? New Yorker’s can go right up to the edge of their reservoir and use the edge as one of the most iconic running paths in the nation. And that access has generated huge demand for real estate and development along the park and the reservoir. So, I politely say to all politicians standing in the way of the use of quarry to stand aside. You have no right to tell us what we can handle, and keeping Atlanta from fully developing the park to its highest and best use is the not the kind of mindset that made Atlanta great. We have the greatest airport in the world (or at least the busiest), the best stadium, the best business environment, etc…etc… Now we need great parks to be the best place to live.Report

    Reply
  6. Michael D Brown says:

    I’m confused “detention pond to prevent storm water run-off from flooding the combined sewer system” implies it would be prone to sudden flooding (as it takes in large amounts of excess storm water) and that would be a good reason not to allow people to swim, boat etc in the lake, but this was not mentioned as one of the concerns. I agree that the “terrorism” argument just seems lazy.Report

    Reply
    • Woodscraps says:

      I think the combined system is the root issue. No easy way to keep the sewage out in the event of a huge storm and backup.

      Nobody wants to mention that though, because who wants to say that the future emerald gem future largest park in the city is anchored by a body of water that will routinely have an influx of fecal matter!

      It’s a potential source of drinking water – after treatment.Report

      Reply
      • Mark Pendergrast says:

        There is no danger whatsoever that any combined sewer water will backwash into the new quarry park. No way for that to occur. The quarry lake will be connected on one end to the Chattahoochee River and on the other to the Water Works.

        Nor can such a backwash get back into the detention pond in the Historic Fourth Ward Park. The whole idea of that detention pond is to prevent runoff from going in massive floods into the combined sewage system. Instead it is held above ground and then allowed to drain slowly and harmlessly into the system.Report

        Reply
  7. Bill Seay says:

    Mark is right on target with his comments about the park. “City on the Verge” should be required reading for every Atlanta politician – particularly those currently running for Mayor and City Council positions. The recent T-Splost and related initiatives put Atlantans firmly on record as wanting better infrastructure and willing to pay for it. We need to elect enlightened political leadership to spend that money in the right ways.Report

    Reply
  8. Dwight A Glover, Co-Chair- Friends of Atlanta Waterworks says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Mark’s letter. We have been working for 6 years to get the waterworks green space opened for public access and Commissioner Power has been the first in Watershed to cooperate and support our efforts. I would encourage her to use the same approach with the quarry lake. What a gem that would be for the city in an area that is starved for park space.Report

    Reply
  9. Mark Pendergrast says:

    After the flurry of comments, there has been silence. What is going on with the plans for the Westside Park and recreational use of the quarry lake? Presumably, all of proposals have been received by Watershed. Have they been made public?Report

    Reply
    • Wonder Hats says:

      Since we’re in the city’s “silly season,” I’d be surprised if much decision-making occurs before year’s end (unless Bellwood can be leveraged for political advantage).Report

      Reply

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