By Maria Saporta
A pivotal property to the future of the westside of downtown Atlanta is what is best known as the Morris Brown campus — a college that is a shadow of its former self.
What happens with the Morris Brown property likely will determine how the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive corridor will be developed — connecting the new Atlanta Falcons stadium with the historically black colleges that are part of the Atlanta University Center.
And the viability of that corridor also will send ripples of renewed prosperity or of continued disinvestment to the communities of Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill and West End.
Everyone also agrees that this is the westside’s moment. Given the anticipated $1 billion investment of the new Falcons stadium and the intense civic focus on the surrounding neighborhoods, the westside has the greatest opportunity in decades to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime lift if, and only if, everyone can get their act together.
But that’s where the agreement seems to end.
Just take the Morris Brown property. Nearly 40 acres of land have been in legal and financial limbo for years, and Morris Brown College, with its $35 million of debt, has been facing bankruptcy for the past year.
Recently, the City of Atlanta found a way to unravel the tangled legal mess and made an offer of nearly $10 million to help Morris Brown wipe its the slate clean. The city envisioned being able to guide the development of the property to help transform the renaissance of the community.
But the city’s offer was at least $2 million less than college leaders had expected, and they rejected the city’s offer out of hand.
City leaders, in turn, were surprised that Morris Brown did not make a counter offer and enter into negotiations. Instead college leaders told the city they had a much more lucrative offer on the table.
On June 28, Morris Brown filed papers in bankruptcy court that listed FD LLC as the prospective buyer of the property — offering — at least on face value — a package worth $20 million. Part of FD’s holdings is in Family Dollar, a chain of discount stores.
So the westside is at a real crossroads. It could leverage this incredible property into an anchor development that would bridge the Atlanta University campus with downtown Atlanta.
Or the area could be turned into dollar discount stores, pawn shops, liquor stores, check-cashing places and the kind of retail that discourages others from investing in the area. (Apparently, folks familiar with the FD‘s $20 million offer say it may be more smoke and mirrors than real cash — and the bankruptcy judge could reject it).
The third option, also an unattractive one, is that the land would remain vacant or with boarded up buildings and overgrown lots as the legal and financial battles continue. Morris Brown would keep trying to hang on by a thread, now with only 35 students attending the unaccredited college; or it would have to go out of business and liquidate its assets.
If Morris Brown ceases to exist, another legal battle could begin because Clark-Atlanta University (actually Atlanta University) originally owned the land. The agreement between both institutions is that if the Morris Brown land were to quit being used for educational purposes, the property would revert back Clark-Atlanta. But others stand ready to challenge Clark Atlanta’s claim on the property — making an already messy situation even messier.
Meanwhile the city and neighborhood leaders are trying to hammer out a Community Benefits Plan or Agreement to figure out how to have a coordinated approach to future investment and development in the area.
The first meeting of the Community Benefits Plan/Agreement committee met at Invest Atlanta July 2 to figure out how to involve the neighborhoods in all the changes that could be taking place as a result of the stadium development.
The scope of the committee’s work is expected to include the environmental impact, traffic and congestion, impact on surrounding neighborhoods, public safety, gentrification and economic development.
When Invest Atlanta presented a time schedule that would have led to completing the work by the end of the year, committee members resisted saying they needed more time and that there shouldn’t be a “rush to judgment,” according to City Councilman Ivory Young.
State Rep. Able Mable Thomas, an English Avenue resident, said the community needs to talk about “revenue sharing” in the same way that the communities have around Turner Field.
Deborah Scott of Stand-Up said the Community Benefits process has been one of Invest Atlanta talking to the neighborhoods rather than engaging community representatives and facilitating discussion. “This is a flawed process,” she said.
But Councilman Young actually identified one of key challenges — the number of different groups with various interests and visions on what should happen to the area. “All I’ve been watching for the last three to four months is people jockeying for position,” Young said. “We need a consensus of all the groups.”
While the community is trying to find consensus, development decisions already are being made. Family dollar and strip shopping centers. Mixed-use development that encourage healthy communities with residences, quality retail, office that respects the existing historic buildings, mature trees and park land that adorns the area.
Just a couple of blocks west, the differing developing patterns already have been playing out.
On the south side of the street, the historic Paschal’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant — the dining room of the civil rights movement — remains boarded up, and it obviously is an endangered historic treasure that is owned by Clark Atlanta University.
Across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, there’s a new Walmart that totally is out-of-character with the neighborhood. It’s suburban big box retail store with a big parking lot. While the Walmart does offer fresh groceries to the neighborhood, the community certainly deserves better.
Now is the westside’s moment. The question is whether community and city leaders will be able to seize that moment and settle for nothing but the best.