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.
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).
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.”
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.”
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.”