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.
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).
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.)
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!”
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.
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.