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DeKalb, Blackhall Studios swap land — county promises “innovative” public park

The Intrenchment Creek Trailhead is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county will pay for them. Credit: Maggie Lee The Intrenchment Creek Trailhead is mainly wooded and quiet — some would rather see a park with more amenities, if the county will install them. Credit: Maggie Lee

By Maggie Lee

Southwest DeKalb residents will get a large new park, now that the county has swapped land with a movie studio on Bouldercrest Road, says county CEO Michael Thurmond.

But it will take some money and commitment from a county that doesn’t have everybody’s trust. (In fact, just as this story was published, opponents to the swap announced a lawsuit.)

Thurmond says the tentatively named Michelle Obama Park near McNair High School on both sides of Bouldercrest will be an innovative and creative park.

“That’s a part of our county, quite frankly, that’s been starved for access to quality recreation,” Thurmond said last week.

A slide from a DeKalb presentation shows the would-be Michelle Obama Park linked to Gresham Park.

A slide from a DeKalb presentation shows the would-be Michelle Obama Park linked to Gresham Park. DeKalb previously owned what’s in the red “Blackhall”  boundary. It traded away several parcels along Bouldercrest.

The county has just acquired land for the park by trading some parcels with nearby neighbor Blackhall Studios. DeKalb ends up with a net gain of about 13 acres. Both parties get more consolidated parcels, and Blackhall has also agreed to kick in $1.5 million worth of improvements and $100,000 for more land acquisition.

The county proposes building an ADA playground that all kids can enjoy regardless of ability, a splash pad, and an outdoor classroom that could possibly double as a very small performance venue.

And Blackhall, according to a county presentation last month, is to provide trailhead development on Bouldercrest, grading, landscaping, security lights, an emergency call box, a pavilion with restrooms, signage, parking and an access gate.

But DeKalb traded away part of a gift that environmentalists appreciated, a gift of land from The Trust for Public Land with the support of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation almost 20 years ago.

The main amenity in the green space now is a multiuse paved trail. And the quiet undisturbed acres.

The two nonprofits bought and protected the land that they did in part because of how the old trees and roots there keep the air clean and filter water before it gets to the South River.

Even though Blackhall’s construction will kill some of that, the nonprofits gave their blessing to the controversial swap this year. DeKalb ends up with a net gain in land, they point out.

George Dusenberry, TPL’s state director for Georgia and Alabama, said he walked the streets in the area with probably a dozen residents and talked to almost that many more neighborhood presidents on a Zoom call.

“The community, what they want, carries more weight than anything else,” he said. “We had to talk to the people to decide what was best in regards to the land.”

Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, speaks to the online meeting during public comment, calling out DeKalb for giving a pro-swap presentation. “Nothing is that perfect … there is no balance here, there is no serious public comment.”

Jacqueline Echols, board president of the South River Watershed Alliance, speaking against the swap during an online public meeting in September. (File/credit: Maggie Lee)

And plenty of neighbors do say they’re happy with an amenity-filled park that would be an easy sidewalk stroll from their homes. And with a studio that might attract other businesses to the neighborhood.

But if this were a Hollywood movie, Jacqueline Echols would be a scrappy underdog bringing in receipts. As board president of the nonprofit South River Watershed Alliance, she’s spent years hounding the county to stop letting tons of raw sewage spill into the South River.

“I’ve been fighting them for years: Do you what you said, what you promised, to do,” Echols said. “And they haven’t.”

Federal courts and the county itself have agreed for years that the sewer situation is disgusting and DeKalb ought to clean it up. But when it rains too hard, DeKalb toilet flushes still end up in the river.

Echols doesn’t see much reason to believe DeKalb will follow through with the park it promises or environmental protection or restoration. She and others aren’t convinced that the land DeKalb is getting is very high-quality in terms of healthy tree cover. And part of the land is scalped of trees anyway.

“DeKalb wants what DeKalb wants and they are very pro-business, and this is just one more of those pro-business moves at all costs,” she said.

That business case that got the attention of DeKalb, the county’s chamber of commerce and an area community improvement district is an expanded Blackhall Studios.

Ryan Millsap of Blackhall Studios in front of Studio 8 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Productions could employ two or three thousand people, according to Ryan Millsap, the CEO of Blackhall Studios. And those county and community leaders are counting on other businesses springing up to support the studio, like caterers.

“We’ve got a huge amount of jobs that are being created over the next few years,” Millsap said.

He also talks about the studio, the Georgia Film Academy and others partnering with DeKalb County Public Schools, perhaps to make McNair or part of its campus a film academy, along the lines of the DeKalb School for the Arts in Avondale Estates.

But Michelle Obama Park would cost more than the $1.7 million than the county has set aside for it plus the $1.6 million that Blackhall will kick in. Thurmond said the balance of the cost could be private or public money or a mix.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure that number one: the commitments that have been made will be fulfilled,” Thurmond said. “But more importantly, to continue to work with Blackhall and other interested sources to improve opportunity in that area.”

Joe Peery, one of the folks leading the Stop the Swap campaign, isn’t impressed with any of it, especially the public meetings on the swap. At one meeting, there was no public comment.  At others, the county heavily managed it, with several “pro” speakers having a professional stake in the swap.

Opponents turned out dozens of public meeting attendees even during COVID-19.

What Peery called a lack of due process on the county’s part is going to be at the center of a planned legal challenge.

Stop the Swap is gathering donations and working on an injunction request, he said.

Update: Advocates did file with a DeKalb County court to stop the swap on Feb. 12, after SR interviewed Joe Peery. The plaintiffs include the South River Watershed Alliance, Joe Peery personally and other individuals and organizations. The defendants are Blackhall Real Estate Phase II and DeKalb County.  Echols sent this comment: “It is truly unfortunate that some individuals have worked really hard to make the swap about race or the color of the neighborhoods that are for or against the action. The protection the law affords Intrenchment Creek Park is in place because it belongs to the public and it is that collective group that should be thoroughly engaged before a decision is made to hand it over to a private developer. ”

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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