In many ways, Lakewood Heights is where Atlanta Public Schools’ (APS) new surplus-property disposition process began. It’s also likely to be the first test case in determining whether that process will build trust and plan from the community level upward.
Lakewood Heights has struggled with disinvestment, crime and commercial vacancies in the decades since a GM auto plant shuttered in the 1990s. A key property that could aid a turnaround is the former Lakewood Elementary (also known as Lakewood Heights Elementary) at 335 Sawtell Ave. However, APS mystified the community in early 2022 with a surprise plan to demolish the historic structure and leave a vacant lot.
That clashed with more than 15 years of community revitalization planning that called for mixed-use remakes of that area and culminated in Neighborhood Planning Unit Y backing a general concept from Omar Ali, a developer who has a similar facility, the Ali at Lakewood, right next door. APS’s surprise stirred stronger agitation for Ali’s plan, but also new and different ideas from other community members for such uses as a new school, which has sparked sometimes bitter debates.
Chastened by the backlash, APS — with Atlanta Board of Education (BOE) input — began work on a cohesive disposition process for all surplus properties rather than such ad-hoc surprises. Last month, the BOE gave a thumbs-up to an approach that emphasizes community input, historic preservation and affordable housing. Lakewood Elementary is in a subset of properties with a particular strategy of mixed-use redevelopment under a long-term ground lease, anchored by affordable housing and in partnership with a government development authority or the Atlanta Urban Development Corporation (AUDC), a new Atlanta Housing Authority subsidiary.
At first blush, that’s good news for Ali and his supporters, as he shares that general redevelopment concept and already has some formalized neighborhood backing. But he and some community leaders are expressing concern about whether the affordability and preservation components will match or slow their vision to the point of infeasibility. Even the chair of the Lakewood Heights Community Association (LHCA), who is a skeptic of Ali’s proposal as premature and a supporter of the new process in general, shares a sense of caution about the involvement of AUDC.
“There’s no trust at all from the community when it comes to trusting APS,” said Ali, who instead has taken on the role of standard-bearer. He said further delays in seeking developers or such mechanisms as historic tax credits could increase costs and put affordability out of reach.
NPU-Y chair Nichole Weiswasser did not respond to questions but outlined community concerns in a Sept. 27 letter to BOE members. The first concern on her list was “community input.”
“Our community requires greater control over how the property located at 355 Sawtell Avenue will be managed and developed,” she wrote. We willingly believed we were being heard during the previous community engagement meetings about this property. However, the recent ground lease proposal with a local authority further disconnects our community from what we requested. Moving forward, we advocate for meaningful community involvement in decision-making processes.”
Other items on her list: a “comprehensive assessment” of where affordable housing is needed in a community “inundated” with it; allowing small businesses to bid on property management and related services; opposing a tactic of pre-emptive rezoning before developer selection; creating some type of community benefits agreement; spending development impact fees on local schools; clarifying how affordable housing subsidies would work and be used; ensuring that historic preservation doesn’t “hold our community hostage” by delaying redevelopment; and a comprehensive assessment of how the redevelopment fits into the bigger picture of other future uses in the neighborhood.
LHCA chair Zachary Murray said he thinks NPU-Y already gave up too much leverage in the “frustrating and just backwards process” of supporting a particular developer – Ali – without a formal process or proposal in place. He broadly supports APS establishing a public, formal process.
“I’ll just be happy when this is over,” Murray said with a laugh. “It’s just a headache that APS could have and [now] are working to prevent for the community.”
But Murray is also concerned about the capacity of AUDC as a brand new organization to lead the show or if affordable housing bond money will be available. “There’s a lot of vagueness,” he said, adding that APS should be ready for alternatives in seeking developers.
In the previous planning vacuum, Ali worked for years with community leaders on a concept to keep the historic building while demolishing a 1990s addition. His concept includes a grocery store, restaurants, office space, an early childhood center, and housing with a percentage of affordable units. It’s purely conceptual at this point, though Ali said it’s realistic and could move quickly due to his family’s ability to do cash funding.
“If they came to us next week and said, ‘Get started’… we would start designing in a matter of two to three weeks,” Ali said.
Ali has won over many NPU-Y members and other community leaders as sympathetic and with proven success with a similar historic-reuse project next door.
“It’s not Omar’s plan. It’s the community’s plan,” said longtime community leader Gloria Hawkins-Wynn.
However, there has been community dissension as well. Ali characterizes it as four sole newcomers — Murray among them — against all the other “legacy residents.” Murray and such other figures as Heather Graybill — who is on the executive boards of NPU-Y and LHCA — said that the backing of Ali came without broad community outreach. Ali boasts a support letter from LHCA, but Murray said he never saw it or was aware of its approval. Ali counters that Murray and Graybill would not put the letter on the LHCA agenda and that other members moved to bring it forward for a vote.
Late last year, Graybill helped promote a petition calling on APS not to sell Lakewood Elementary and instead reuse it as a school. She spoke in support of the process at last month’s BOE retreat, where it was discussed. She later told SaportaReport — speaking for herself and not her organizations — that she supports it in part because APS retains control through the ground lease, making future school use possible when and if it is needed.
The nonprofit Atlanta Preservation Center (APC) played a key role in the APS process by working with the district to establish an innovative system of grading surplus properties by their historic significance. Lakewood Elementary is “tier one,” meaning it is among the most significant and should be preserved.
Ali has met with the APC, and his concept includes saving the building. But he also calls preservation a “huge concern” for possible delays and expenses. In part, he misunderstood “tier one” as meaning someone else would have control over changes to the building’s interior. APC Executive Director David Yoakley Mitchell said that is not so because the grading is purely for information and focused on avoiding demolition. Some types of historic tax credits could put guardrails on interior changes but would not ban them altogether, he said, and other funding mechanisms are possible.
Another part of the concern, as expressed by Ali, is that APC is seen as aligned with the skeptical bloc of the community and has more influence on the APS process.
Mitchell said that historic preservation is not the project’s challenge but arguably its biggest asset in giving the community identity and leverage. He said he understands trust issues with APS but that the new process is a major change that everyone should seize as a chance for “civil” discussion rather than allowing the building to further rot and potentially be sold on the general market, possibly to someone with no community ties at all.
“Better to be challenged by those you know than ruined by those you’ll never meet,” Mitchell said.
Ali pitches a simpler option. “In a perfect world, what APS should do is say, ‘Hey, Omar, you’re gonna be the developer,” he said. The district could bring him and APC to the table, “get everybody on the same page, and greenlight it.”
But APS has a process and confirms that no matter what, that includes seeking competitive bids for private developers, though direct sales to government entities is also possible.
“All interested individuals, developers, and organizations will be welcome to share their ideas during the formal engagement process and will be encouraged to participate in the formal solicitation process,” said APS spokesperson Seth Coleman.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from Ali about the LHCA letter.