City needs to hit pause on Brock English Ave. project

By Maria Saporta

A proposed mixed-use project by Brock Built Homes and partners has become a lightning rod in the already divided English Avenue community.

Despite a lack of consensus among key players on the Westside, the project has been sailing through the Atlanta City Council’s committee meetings. It was scheduled to go before the full Atlanta City Council on Monday, July 2, but it has been delayed for 30 days.

Ivory Young zoning

Councilmember Ivory Young (center) chairs Zoning Committee as he and his colleagues discuss Brock project (Photo by Maria Saporta)

It is not yet known if and how the project has been revised. So it is too soon to know whether it is more acceptable to the different factions in the English Avenue community and the Westside neighborhoods.

That’s why the city – be it City Council or Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms – needs to hit the pause button on the project until it has been fully-vetted by the various stakeholders.

Let me explain all the reasons why this project should not be rushed through.

First, for nearly two years, the Westside communities worked long and hard on the Westside Land Use Framework Plan to serve as a guide for how the neighborhoods should be developed. The land use plan was unanimously-approved by the Atlanta City Council in December.

The Brock project is the first major development to be proposed since the land use plan was adopted. But Brock’s initial proposal  called for nearly double the density as was recommended in the land use framework plan.

Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young said developers Steve and Adam Brock have made changes to the plan that he believes would make it more consistent with the land use plan. But he has been waiting for an analysis by the City’s planning and zoning divisions to validate whether that’s true.

Even in a best-case scenario, the revised project should go back to the various community stakeholders so they can see what changes have been made – before it gets a green light. (Once the City approves a project, the City loses all negotiating privileges with the developer).

Westside

Standing room only crowd attends Transform Westside Summit to hear Mayor Bottoms (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Because this is the first major project to be proposed since the approval of the Land Use Framework Plan, it is even more critical to make sure it is done right. How the City handles this project could become either a terrible or a wonderful precedent of whether the City will respect the will of the communities.

Next, one of the biggest concerns about the project is that it could spark gentrification on the Westside – making it even harder for existing residents in surrounding communities to be able to stay in place.

City Councilman Michael Julian Bond said that 80 percent of the property is owned by people who do not live in the community. Outside ownership – including land speculators – add to the vulnerability that existing residents will be displaced.

The project, before it was revised, called for 135,000 square feet of retail/commercial space; a 120-room hotel; 302,000 square feet of office space; 40 townhomes and 650 multifamily units. It is not known how the revised plan will change those numbers – another reason to put the project on pause.

Brock has said 20 percent of the units will be leased at 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) – roughly affordable for people making more than $50,000 a year. (That is more than what the city requires in the community – which is 15 percent at 80 AMI).

But that exposes the real disconnect.

“Most of the residents who live in English Avenue make $20,000 a year,” said Young, who said that is closer to 30 percent AMI. “We have high concentrations of poverty in English Avenue.”

Keisha Westside

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Transform Westside Summit on June 15 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Mayor Bottoms, the City of Atlanta and a host of nonprofit organizations have said housing affordability is a top priority going forward – especially on the Westside. There have been hints the developer might be willing to have 5 percent of the units be at 30 percent AMI, but it would need some kind of government subsidy to offer units at that discount – either through the Atlanta Housing Authority, the Westside Future Fund or Invest Atlanta.

Again, that has not been nailed down. Until an acceptable plan for housing affordability has been reached for the Brock development, the City should hold off approving the project.

At a recent Transform Westside Summit meeting, where Mayor Bottoms was the speaker, she was asked about the Brock development.

“Steve (Brock) has been a very thoughtful partner with the City of Atlanta on a number of projects,” Bottoms said. “My commitment is that I will work with Ivory Young and Steve Brock to make sure residents are not pushed out. We have not had that conversation. We will have those conversations. I trust that Steve will do the right thing. Right Steve?”

Long-time English Avenue resident Mother Mamie Moore was comforted by the Mayor’s words.

“It was very important for the community to know that the Mayor’s office is fully aware of the project and of the Land Use Framework Plan,” she said. “And she is willing to assist in having a dialogue that’s inclusive and broad-based – a democratic dialogue about land use.”

Dhiru Thadani John Ahman

Planner Dhiru Thadani and John Ahmann of the Westside Future Fund talk about the Land Use Framework Plan (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The situation in English Avenue is further complicated because the neighborhood association has been splintered into two different groups – and there has been no consensus between them towards the proposed Brock development.

“There is a civil war going on in the community,” Young said during last week’s Zoning Committee meeting. He went on to say he had hoped the rift would be resolved and that “rational minds would prevail.” In fact the Brock proposal has caused that fracture to grow even wider. All the more reason to make sure this project is done right – in a way that’s consistent with the Westside Land Use Framework Plan and offers significant housing affordability options.

“We have rare opportunity here to do something,” Moore said. “We are about building the beloved community. The alternative to gentrification is building the beloved community.”

Young understood what is at stake

“It would be a shame for the neighborhood to go through the effort to produce a plan and then not have a developer adhere to it,” Young said. “The entire city is watching.”

So are the residents of English Avenue, Vine City and other Westside neighborhoods.

Again, Mother Moore summed it up beautifully.

“This is a waterloo project,” Moore said. “If we blow this one, we might as well throw out the whole plan. This is a waterloo moment for the neighborhood, the city and the developers.”

"Mother" Mamie Moore

“Mother” Mamie Moore at Lindsay Park in English Avenue (Photo by Alison Sawyer of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation)

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.

11 replies
  1. Julian Bene says:

    What’s needed is a value for the density concession that Brock negotiated. That value becomes the subsidy available for bringing some units in at affordable rents of $600 / month. That and designing small, low-cost units for low-rent residents. Nothing else can work – except as tokenism for a handful of lucky beneficiaries of huge public subsidy.Report

    Reply
  2. J. Smith says:

    I’m actually a homeowner on the Westside, so I feel obligated to comment.

    #1. Brock should stick to the original density plan, or modify it slightly for the sake of market conditions and what the neighborhood designed. Most practical residents wouldn’t have an issue with this, as long as it’s not doubling the size of the original plan that the community created.

    #2. Whatever he does, he’s still making money. If he follows the mandated affordable housing model for the city, he’s doing what he’s required. You can’t make up the rules as you go when it comes to affordable requirements/expectations, nor can Brock make up the rules on how much he wants to build today. We can’t have it both ways.

    #3. If Brock sticks with the neighborhood original suggestions, renters will be still displaced, you can’t stop it. 80% of the property is owned by non residents, how so you stop that? If billionaire decided to buy every parcel in English Avenue, tear down every home and build McMansions, who can stop it? People will be displaced. For this development, and unless there is some government subsidy included (Invest Atlanta, etc) the AMI must take precedence.

    Is it even financially viable to build $600 rent apartments? Let’s get our heads out of the clouds and let’s be realistic for once. If you can’t afford the rent, you move. That’s not gentrification, that’s how the US economy works. I pass this area every morning for work, and I beg for the day that it’s cleaned up, with other people going to work as I am, not with drug addicts standing on the corners begging, sketchy corner stores, as well as people sleeping on the streets and sitting on the corners all day.

    English Ave has been an isore for the Westside for decades. Let’s praise Brock for putting his money where his mouth is by supporting the project. There’s nothing worse than all of these “for the people” journalists, sitting back in their safe and stable communities, writing opinion columns, contributing to the delay of progress in areas that need immediate revitalization. I’m sure if many of the journalists lived in the actual community, you’d have a better appreciation for any planned development.Report

    Reply
  3. atltree68 says:

    @J.Smith
    You stated my point very well
    A little background. My family has lived (still living) in the English Ave\Bankhead area for more than 70 years.
    I spent the first 30 years of my life in this neighborhood. My 92 year old mother which I visit every weekend still lives there. I would like the media behind this hijacking of Brock’s project to sit in my mother’s living room for a couple of hours on Friday or Saturday night. It sounds like a Syria war zone after 11pm with all the close-in random gun shoots. Sometimes I have to wait until the shooting subsides before leaving for my home.
    After many decades of decay, crime, drugs, prostitution and being worst slum in the city of Atlanta, we get media folks and people that has never set foot in English Ave crawling out of the woods trying to get Brock to be a AHA for the entire English Ave area.
    The only way this area will get some of the better grocery stores, quality retail and restaurants, is to become a mixed income neighborhood.
    We already know what happens when your build 1000 units of low income building together. (Techwood homes).
    We finally get a builder\developer that willing to help change the area for the better, then the media types start campaigning against a project and neighborhood they know little about.
    If this project was in Old fourth Ward, Howell Mill district or Midtown, there would be no media outcry.
    We finally get a project to change the neighborhood, and the media folks attempt to destroy it. For the media, We need to post pictures of the quiet crime-free neighborhoods they enjoy everyday. Better still, lets allocate 10% of vacant homes in their neighborhood to low incomes folks.
    They aren’t helping the lower income folks at all attempting to stop this quality development.
    This builder offered to allocate almost twice the percentage of affordable units that’s required by law, and that still not enough.
    Build this Brock project now. Please!Report

    Reply
  4. P Kupersmith says:

    Homeowner in Vine City, here.

    The mayor who ran on affordability and preservation of southwest Atlanta calls Adam Brock, the owner of Brock Built Homes, “Steve”? Wasn’t Keisha a councilperson during the Brock Built Mechanicsville Cityside project? By now she must know Brock’s first name?

    Ivory Young is the first on Facebook to photograph himself with underserved English Avenue and Vine City residents and the last to show at public meetings where neighbors clearly need Council representation.

    Tim Keane…?

    The COA planning office led EA neighbors to believe concessions would stay in place – a quick public records search will tell you they had their minds orherwise made up in advance of crucial public meetings where residents believed their comments actually mattered. City planning disclosed the GRETA study only days before the Brock project’s BZA hearing to request removal of all medium density conditions. There was no time for any community to read or respond to study numbers that impact every neighborhood along the Northside Corridor; an increase from 21K to 53K cars per day (without suburban soccer fans) across the Marietta St. Corridor, English Avenue, Vine City, AND Castleberry Hill, the stadium-slammed neighbors who have yet to weigh in or be included in these stories.

    Brock Built uses required public meetings to wait residents out, telling neighbors something different every time. Sometimes Adam is in the mood to “give” concessions, sometimes not. Neighbors are so frightened of being driven from their homes that they chastise each other for ticking Mr. Brock off, fearful he will take all they have left if angered. Brock has become adept at letting fear simply work for him while neighbors deeply divide and our City officials turn a blind eye.

    Maria, I hope your next piece lays out for Atlanta exacrly how a 1.8M sf planned community is being ramrodded through to beat the Westside Land Use Framework Plan you briefly mention. This framework will not be adopted until around late November/early December; projects submitted to COA office of buildings for permitting 60 days beforehand are subject to the framework – which includes reasonable density and better affordability. To understand the Brock Built timeline for plans submission alongside the framework timeline and intent is to know city officials are complicit in assuring Brock Built a 100% pass on a plan painstakingly assembled by citizens with an average annual income of $19-$22k who were led to believe their voices and vision for community and historic preservation mattered.

    Thank you, Maria, for being the voice in this discussion – southwest Atlanta needs you.Report

    Reply
  5. Alma says:

    I am more then sure all really don’t think building a project stop crime please people .Not calling names but most have gotten paid and still getting money let’s look at Mrs. Holiday the oldest in the Vine City Community never worried about nothing until they moved new in .Let’s say all who are with this the funding stop cause most have used up all the grant money. People are not trying to stop this Project just want what’s right most families in these Community’s don’t make that big $50,000.00 but the sad part is we have people fronting like they got it like that not thinking about the families and Elderly that’s sleeping outside the only solutions they can give is the Shelter oh yes all a be apart of Atlanta but not in your owe (Shelters) All the promises when it comes down to getting the people vote but when in they get throwed around like trash . What I will tell all keep your garden going cause you’re going to need it to feed your families oh yes taxes going on I want to say something but I just can’t believe these people trying to be what their not shame on y’all . When looking back and seeing all that happen it took real Leaders to come out people who is compassion about their Communities and people. Its to much conflict of interest, corruption, false paperwork going on. When they fixed up a fake Board to get a project to move fast sad and you people sit around and is alright with that. People are getting put out everyday cause of lies and lost promises investors and politics go together promise Low Income families keep setting it back just lie like you care sad. You have all the Board members had projects even NPUL they lied projects got signed off without a vote even funded these people need to be in Court. This poor Leadership the snakes that follow is sad. Its sad when you open your mouth had funding to help but used all of it for projects another way to remove they have not helped nobody in these Communities nobody. We don’t want to live for free just want what’s right for the people and injustices is no justices our Civil Rights have been tooken and that’s the voice from the people .I don’t look up to nobody that get weak from truth God Bless All and the winners are the people who care money and beau don’t make a Community people low income families make it more beautiful. Look at our Schools their closing fastly just look nobody even thought about the children that graduated in these Community’s nobody is thinking about if they wanted to go to College get a part time job they can’t even afford to stay. Nobody give a Thank you all children are not bad most want something and their our future Congratulations to our Hero’s always look towards your dreams the batter is not yours alone Love All. Giving thinks to all that’s not afraid together we stand United we fall God Bless AllReport

    Reply
  6. J. Smith says:

    @P. Kupersmith, Mayor Bottoms knows Brock’s name. Adam is his son, Steve is the owner of the company. They both represent the brand, and I’m sure Steve was present at the meeting. She’s a pretty sharp woman, don’t insult her that way.

    Also, you do realize that high density means more home available for affordability? What immediately tells me that people are complaining just to complain, is when they start talking about traffic concerns. There are boarded up homes, crack pipes, trash, drug needles, etc, slewed all over that community, yet people want to talk about increased traffic concerns.

    85% of English Ave is owned by investors. Are we trying to protect renters or actual homeowners? Elderly residents are already protected by tax freezes. They don’t have to worry about their taxes increasing. The people that own their homes shouldn’t be overly concerned because their home value has increased. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Having value in your home? The majority of the whining and complaining comes from the renters. Those that have little to no financial stake in the community. Those that are only concerned about living where they’re accustomed to living, and not wanting to move, as well as staying in a prime area of the city, for pennies on the dollar.

    English Ave can be a very appealing area once you get the riffraff out; the drugs, blight, illegal dumping, trash on the streets, as well as all the people that continue to contribute to the demise of the neighborhood. Go away already, the homeowners of English Ave. deserve an opportunity to live and thrive in a safe and quality community.

    @Alma, I can’t even translate what you’re trying to say.Report

    Reply
  7. P Kupersmith says:

    J, thanks for the Brock correction. Sure Keisha is sharp; let’s see if she chooses to fulfill her campaign promises. As for insults, I doubt English Avenue neighbors like the word, riffraff, and Alma Lott is well understood.

    Our conversation reminds me of the attitude that City of Atlanta has been comfortable with since the Olympics: let’s get em outta here.

    High density: sure, some more affordable housing, but this instance is about both affordable and low-income housing, and those formulas being discussed with consistency and respect at the community bargaining table.

    Traffic: with Atlanta’s population, traffic, and transportation concerns on the rise, no Atlanta neighborhood is an island. We all pay taxes and use Northside Drive; we all get to weigh in on a development with key density levels facing it/us.

    Boarded up homes, cracked pipes, trash, drug needles: it’s time we see the whole bill for leaving any Atlanta neighborhood to languish. From infrastructure and taxes to classism and racism, the check belongs to us all.

    Homeowner tax freezes and property values: most Atlantans know property taxes are only a fraction of affording gentrification. With the rising cost of Atlanta housing, most EA owners would be hard-pressed to relocate here should they choose to sell their homes for “top dollar”. (Back to let’s get em outta here.)

    Renters: whining and complaining from renters is an issue all of Atlanta is struggling with – EA is as good a place to hold this discussion as we price them out of their ability to live and work in this town.

    85% investors: City of Atlanta holds many of these boarded up properties, minus what they’ve divested to key investors because they (we?!) can no longer afford the dilapidation or the light being shone on mismanaged and misappropriated funds. Those investors are, in turn, still holding – no change to the disrepair despite deals struck again and again. Turning just these two groups of houses around could do much to move what Mamie Moore calls the beloved community forward. Look at Fulton County and Atlanta tax records – investors who hold boarded properties do so pretty cheaply. During the last round of elections, much was said about such investors paying their fair share of taxes to offset the cost of this blight – to us all. It’s time to revisit those discussions.

    @J, you said in your first post that medium density would be acceptable to the community. We agree, so why this rush to support high density? Any investor will get the same return on medium density – and better preserved, more diverse, more usable southwest neighborhoods in the bargain. Adam and Steve won’t starve at medium density, J. All the investor, nonprofit, City, and TAD flurry that treats them as if they might…. feels backroom handshake crazy.

    Maria’s article is about honoring The Westside Land Use Framework Plan, a document southwest Atlantans have worked hard on for two years to assure historic legacy amid inevitable development. Its implications for community planning and civic engagement are overwhelmingly positive for all. Now, with City assistance, Brock Built Homes seeks to circumvent citizens by removing zoning conditions and submitting their high-density project before the document goes into effect. Maria just reported the high-density project at the corner of Monroe and 10th is folding because the city will not release a single slice of Beltline property, but historic English Avenue is about to get plowed. Why? Virginia-Highland and Midtown neighbors worked together, their City Council rep did her job, and Saporta kept the story in the spotlight.

    Ivory Young, time to step up like Jennifer Ide just did. Maria, keep going. Southwest neighbors, thank you for working hard on the Framework to preserve community legacy and keep this project at medium density.

    In case anyone is interested, here’s the Frameowk Plan: https://www.westsidefuturefund.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Westside-Land-Use-Framework-Plan-Abbrev-Dec-2017.pdfReport

    Reply
  8. Curtis E. Preston says:

    First of all P. Kupersmith Ms. Bottoms knows whom she is speaking to and about. The Mayor ran on affordability and preservation and should stick with the plan. I hope and pray that the community voice will be heard, and that the people are not displaced to appease the chosen few that have money. Brock the father who owns and develops the properties is named STEVE. Keisha knows whom she’s talking to and I know Steve personally and hopes He does the RIGHT THING for this Important community to maintain It’s roots. Adam is his son and heir to the throne to which we tend to give away willingly to all who shows an initial concern but are most concerned about their offsprings. We need to get this thing RIGHT at the beginning or loose all opportunity to correct it later… Do Your due diligence and check the records before you call someone on a name you don’t even know. There is only one NAME that needs to be known…And at that Name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess…And that’s the Name everyone will KNOW !!!! And That’s the name of JESUS !!!!Report

    Reply
  9. Alice Brown Pickett says:

    Wow, you said it well. I live a little north of the area but still in the NPU-K group of neighborhoods, I have gained knowledge of the area, not only by knowing a few residents; but also by researching and saw that of the owner occupied properties, how very little city and county tax they paid. I also saw how many holding companies owned the property, so this situation was bound to happen: few owner occupied lots, seriously declining value on the land, yet jam up to the city of Atlanta. Of course land holders with no concern for the neighborhood move in and buy. Most of them do not even live in Atlanta and sometimes are only buying the land through an organization that invests their money.

    But Brock is not like that and whatever is out of order with the neighborhood needs to be solved very soon so he can move forward. The affordable part is actually only minor to the real problems. Some of the people who live here would have difficulty paying any kind of rent. Some live in rooms. Some may have some kind of ability to pay the small rent, but the land owner is not going to go on much longer with these arrangements. As Michael Bond said 20% at best own the property, so the neighborhood is not in control.

    All of it makes me sad. It is also a little discouraging to think that anyone
    would not want some of the blight turned away. Only private money can do this for the neighborhood. Bill Clinton’s Empowerment didn’t do it. None of the Atlanta mayors have been able to do it. No amount of federal grants are making a huge impact.

    Let change happen and be a part of the process. Others have been forced to
    do the very same thing. Become more open minded and don’t judge Brock so
    harshly. He is making concessions and has risks.

    In closing I would like everyone concerned to think about what residents of the neighborhood on all of these streets who lived here in the 1930s and 1940s would think if they zoomed down and saw their nice little home. They would be horrified in some cases. Their home has become squalor. Their home is borded up or burned out. What they thought was a nice neighborhood is now like a war zone in some spots.

    Well, let it change into something brighter. The lovely older homes will be
    saved and really damaged homes will no longer blight and sadden the area.

    There should be a siver lining for everyone.Report

    Reply
  10. Alice Pickett says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t talking about my post, but rather the posts after my first that had wanted the neighborhood to be positive for Brock. I was most touched be the person who talked about his 92 year old mother. No one should have to listen to gunfire and see blue lights in their golden decade. That is what is so wrong about this push back. Life is about change. Some change is bad. And that is what has happened in the past 40 years to this part of town. Let it change back to something positive.Report

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.