Future of Morris Brown land offers Atlanta a distinct development choice

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.

Morris Brown's Fountain Hall (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Morris Brown’s Fountain Hall (Photos by Maria Saporta)

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.

Morris Brown land covers both sides of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive connected with bridge

Morris Brown land covers both sides of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive connected with bridge

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.

DSCN4695

Gaines Hall on Morris Brown land

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.

Morris Brown's now closed Herndon Stadium

Morris Brown’s now closed Herndon Stadium

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.

Bridge over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

Bridge over Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

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.

View of downtown from the Morris Brown pedestrian bridge

View of downtown from the Morris Brown pedestrian bridge

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.”

The now closed Paschal's Motor Lodge and Restaurant

The now closed Paschal’s Motor Lodge and Restaurant

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.

New Walmart  on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

New Walmart on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive

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.

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.

10 replies
  1. ATL_Prof says:

    The launch of a Walmart in (southern) West Atlanta is probably a godsend for most residents there.  Walmart sells quality goods at low prices — something very few retailers match.  For people of limited means, it is a very good store.  True, its parking lot is not beautiful, but this part of town has a lot of blight that looks much worse than a well-maintained Walmart parking lot.
    As to who should develop the Morris Brown lands, I am not convinced that the City would do a better job than the private sector.  The City has shown itself very, very sensitive to the needs of the powerful interests that want the stadium.   So there we seem to have a small subset of the private sector steering the public sector.  In contrast, true market-driven investment by FD or whoever might allow in more sunshine.

    Atlanta needs a statesman [sic} for a question this big.  I would love to see Shirley Franklin serve as the facilitator of this process.  After all, she fixed our sewers and created the Beltline — two of the most significant public achievements in this city in decades.  She has the credibility to work with the various parties to hammer a true public interest position.
    As the article states, this is a moment of opportunity for the city.  We need disinterested leadership to serve the public.Report

    Reply
    • moliere says:

      ATL_Prof The problem is that Morris Brown’s leadership isn’t interested in a public interest position. They are very insular and detached from reality, and since the school lost its accreditation even more so. Right now they are looking to 1) squeeze very penny out of the deal that they can in order to cut their own financial losses and 2) hold onto as much semblance of power and influence as they can for as long as they can. It is pretty much like how Friendship Baptist Church is trying to squeeze every last nickel out of the city that they can: it is about power, pride and money and not the common good.
      That Morris Brown is doing this to the city is particularly shameful when you consider that the city did everything possible to help Morris Brown survive or at least to delay its demise. The city could have forced this issue years before now simply by taking a harder line on the water bill (for example) and had they known that Morris Brown’s “leadership” was going to behave in such an ungrateful fashion, the city almost sorely regrets not doing so. The city didn’t want to take the PR hit of being blamed for causing MBC’s closing, but it certainly looks as if they should taken on the bad publicity and done so anyway. So often the black leadership in cases like this pretends that they are doing things for the black community when they are really looking out for themselves to the detriment of the community.
      The truly sad thing is that there actually is a place on the educational landscape for Morris Brown, who in its heyday was a private black college that offered good professional school and STEM – especially in conjunction with Georgia Tech – programs. They had good biology/pre-med, nursing, pre-pharmacy, computer science, pre-architecture etc. programs as well as the 3+2 agreement with Tech. It cost more than state schools, sure, but it had a real niche where it offered students who didn’t quite have the grades for Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta more opportunity. That good that the institution accomplished and was capable of – especially now in our soon to be post affirmative action landscape – is now gone thanks to the selfish decisions by the leadership (they refused to abandon their open admissions model for ideological reasons) and now they are standing in the way of revitalizing that blighted area. What is going on at MBC is simply a reflection, a micrososm maybe, of the self-serving hypocrisy of the larger national black leadership at every level. 
      You could say that this includes Kasim Reed, but lest we forget Reed never claimed to be a black leader or a civil rights leader, but just a mayor. And if Atlanta were being led by his many critics on his left, it would be headed in the same direction that Morris Brown is. Which means that ironically Reed is winding up doing a better job for Atlanta’s black citizens than the civil rights leaders who criticize him are.Report

      Reply
  2. Burroughston Broch says:

    Given the limited financial support for Atlanta HBCUs, Morris Brown should be euthanized so the available financial support can be focused on Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark Atlanta.Report

    Reply
    • moliere says:

      Burroughston Broch 
      The problem is that Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta have different support streams from Morris Brown and even each other. Morris Brown was owned and operated by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who first allowed this mess to develop with some terrible choices with regards to the leadership and direction of the college, and then walked away from and abandoned the college financially when the inevitable mess resulted even though they had the resources to bail the college out. They – or more specifically the leadership they put in place – also consistently rejected several restructuring plans that would have saved the college after it lost accreditation. Spelman, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse and the Morehouse College of Medicine have different organizational support, leadership and revenue streams, so killing off Morris Brown would not help those 4 HBCUs. However, if the Morris Brown campus and surrounding area falls victim to blight and crime, then that would negatively affect Spelman, Morehouse, MCM and especially Clark Atlanta (the weakest one financially) because the schools are so close to each other. And that is the main reason why Morris Browns’ decision not to take the city’s offer and allow the city to redevelop the area is so tragic: the negative effects it will have on the HBCU’s that remain. It is further proof that they only care about themselves.
      The root cause of the problem with Morris Brown is that after integration of higher education in Georgia was fully and practically achieved – and not just at a tokenism level – in the 1980s, attending a state college/university with a large black population became a much more desirable option than attending a private HBCU, especially if that HBCU wasn’t one of the elite ones like Morehouse, Spelman, Tuskegee, Howard, Hampton and Xavier. Back when most of our state college campuses were hostile to blacks, attending Morris Brown was a much better option (for those who could afford it) than going to our state HBCUs (Fort Valley State, Albany State, Savannah State). But now, if you can’t get into Spelman or Morehouse, don’t want to leave the state for Tuskegee or a good black public college like FAMU or North Carolina A&T, then you are better off at a place like Georgia Southern or Valdosta State. Honestly a lot of the kids who would have been at Morris Brown 30 years ago are at Clayton State University (not classified as a HBCU but has a mostly black enrollment) now.
      Morris Brown had plenty of time to adapt by becoming a more rigorous school with a better reputation, a sort of a co-ed Morris Brown/Spelman, or by working with Georgia Tech, Emory and some of the other universities to focus on being a preparatory school for professional schools … kids who wanted to major in engineering, architecture, law, medicine, pharmacy etc. but lacked the background could have started out at MBC and either transferred to the larger schools or gone there after getting their initial 4 year degree from MBC. But the AME church was determined to continue to view MBC as a last hope for kids who couldn’t go anywhere else. They refused to acknowledge that society had changed … thanks to meaningful integration, kids had plenty of places – many of them lower cost – to go. They didn’t want to admit that their role was gone because they didn’t want to diminish with it. They knew that they couldn’t compete with Spelman and Morehouse or even Clark Atlanta for the same kids (with superior academic records) but they couldn’t deal with being 2nd (or 3rd/4th) best. So they stuck with the notion that they were still serving as a lifeboat for underprivileged kids when in fact they were a sinking ship. All they were doing was burdening kids who should never have gone to college in the first place with tens of thousands of dollars in debt before those kids inevitably flunked out of school.
      Honestly, stuff like the MBC situation – where they allowed a perfectly good school to go bankrupt because they were too proud to acknowledge that their original purpose no longer existed – is why I like Kasim Reed. Reed does not claim to be a black or civil rights leader, but rather just a politician. That makes him less likely to pull nonsense like the AME church and the MBC leadership (that the AME church chose) with MBC under the guise of helping black people.Report

      Reply
      • Burroughston Broch says:

        moliere
        Spelman receives significant alumna support, Morehouse recieves less, and Clark Atlanta recieves even less; I don’t know where Morehouse College of Medicine ranks.
        There is a limited amount of financial support available for HBCUs. Spending any substantial portion of it on a moribund institution lessens the survival chances of the stronger institutions.Report

        Reply
  3. Alumni says:

    Morris Brown College is not an animal and deserves better respect than to be talked about as such. That is the only college in the state of Georgia that was founded by Blacks , for Blacks. What makes anyone think we will just go away for the good of the other institutions that has looked down on this scholar producing, only REAL black institution in the state is beyond me. You did not help create, support, nor maintain Morris Brown, and you will not EUTHANIZE it. How disrespectful can you actually be?
    The institution will survive with the help of REAL Black people (not sell-outs), God, and maybe Family Dollars (FD LLC) or by any means necessary. You talk as if the other institutions care about MBC. These schools are not as independent as Morris Brown College and are virtually and always have been white ran. KNOW THE HISTORY BEFORE OPENING YOUR MOUTH! 
    Integration has never been fairly implemented, if it had, the same tax dollars going to public colleges would go to HBCUs because the discrimination was against Blacks, now Black’s tax dollars are supporting the very institutions that would not allow them to attend. You are missing the CULTURAL aspect of education, which only exist at the level it does at Morris Brown College. I guess by your analysis, the mother of Dr. King (Alberta Williams-King) should have never went to college, Hosea Williams, James McPhearson, Derrick Boasman, Dr. Clarissa Myrick-Harris (Dean at Morehouse) etc. The school produced more teachers than any other (black or white), passing the teacher’s certification examination the first time, yes higher than Spelman and Morehouse (myself included). There are many success stories from Morris Brown College, research before you offer your ill-gotten opinions. 
    I have attended every school at the AUC, recieving an M.A. at Clark Atlanta University and none are as caring, inspiring, nurturing, and AFROCENTRIC as Morris Brown College. We don’t produce sell-outs like yourself, Kasim Reeds, Clarence Thomas, etc. We will not leave, “And Still I Rise.”Report

    Reply
    • Burroughston Broch says:

      @Alumni
      “Integration has never been fairly implemented, if it had, the same tax dollars going to public colleges would go to HBCUs because the discrimination was against Blacks, now Black’s tax dollars are supporting the very institutions that would not allow them to attend.”
      AUC and its members have always been private and have never been entitled to taxpayer-support. The same applies to Emory and Oglethorpe. To state otherwise is untrue.
      Blacks now attend institutions that 60 years ago would not have admitted them. This has placed the HBCUs at a disadvantage. This disadvantage was understood 60 years ago and is now biting the HBCUs.Report

      Reply
      • Alumni 2 says:

        The reason these HBCUs exist is because blacks were denied entrance into the white institutions; HBCUs did not deny white students. At the same time black students were being denied, tax dollars from the black citizens were supporting these institutions; therefore, paying for their own demise had it not been for the HBCUs. You cannot honestly support struggling black paying to educate racist whites, then expect them to turn their backs on the very institution that is not only their history but their salvation as well. 
        Take a course in black history and study the struggle, then you might respect the roles of ALL HBCUs. Had the white institutions not mistreated black historically, there would never had been a need for HBCHs. They are ours and we should not be willing to stand by and allow them to be closed down because white institutions have found ways to exploit black students, especially our athletes. We owe these institutions respect. The black church and HBCUs are the foundation of our parents, grandparents great…. Self-sufficiency and leadership of the black race grew from them. THEY ARE OUR OWN HISTORY. We should not allow one HBCU to be closed.
        Your suggestion of closing MBC for the other institutions is baseless, preposterous, and defeatist. It’s hurtful, disrespectful, and careless to use a term like euthanize to describe what should become of MBC. (I believe you just wanted to use the word.) Make your suggestion to Derrick Boazman and I’d like to hear him chew you up. Good thing you won’t be making the decision about what happens to MBC. And we shall not be moved, SO DEAL WITH THAT.  
        AlumniReport

        Reply
  4. shamachen says:

    If only Morris Brown would give up (give in) and cede to progress, the Vine City would see “renewed prosperity”? For who? This is the westside’s moment to gentrify and allow White hipsters and former suburbanites to move in, enriching none of the people who currently live there, is that what you mean Maria? Thanks but no thanks. We know that none of the people who are salivating over the Morris Brown property now give a rat’s behind about improving THAT community nor “bridging” with the Atlanta University Center. My sincere hope is that if Morris Brown is not able to survive that the land will revert to Clark Atlanta; at least it will stay in the family.Report

    Reply
  5. HoraceHenry says:

    As a product of the Atlanta University Center, I have always advocated the schools working together as a cohesive unit when it comes to resisting any outside approaches that are not meant to protect what we have here in the AUC. As a music major, I sat at the feet of giants who taught at all four undergraduate schools. What I needed at Clark Atlanta, I got, what I needed at Morris Brown, I got and what I needed at Morehouse and Spelman, I got. This is the beauty of being a student developing your education in the world’s largest group of Black private colleges and universities anywhere on the face of the earth. An education received within the Atlanta University Center has shown me that I can compete with and be comfortable with others and they can develop and feel comfortable around me. It is from our diversity that we develop the strength to compete with anyone as we move outside and into the largeer world. My thoughts are….Morris Brown College belongs to ALL of us within the Atlanta University Center. She is one of us and but for the grace of God, any one of us could be her. The problems at MBC have been identified and adressed. She now strugles to regain her footing and it leaves wide open spaces for all of her sister schools to do whatever we can to help her regain her proper place within the Center. Morris Brown College is struggling right now. We all know and can see that. As such, we cannot afford to sit, stand, observe, or otherwise remain idle as this sister school slowly struggles to rise to her feet. It will take some time for her to fully regroup, get her footing, “steady up” and stand again, but I am one who believes that Morris Brown College will make it back and I, for one, look forward to being in that number who can hold my  head up high one day and proudly say, “I helped Morris Brown College come back, and contributed to her survival”. Finally, we all may have different campuses, different boards of trustees, different presidents and different ways of operating, but when it comes down to us educating students, and being a part of the largest group of private insitiutions of higher education in the world, as a part of the Atlanta University Center, we are all in this together.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.