By Hannah E. Jones
This August, the former Inman Middle School will open its doors as the new Virginia-Highland Elementary School. Before the 2023/24 school year begins, though, there are plans to fence a section of the property that residents have used as a neighborhood greenspace for nearly 50 years.
The pocket park, which sits at the corner of Clemont Drive and Greencove Avenue, has evolved organically over the years. The land was originally part of a 1965 plan by the Georgia Highway Department to build a six-lane interstate called I-485. The plans were strongly opposed by residents and eventually fell apart in 1975. Since then, the space has been relatively untouched by Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and residents have used it as a community park.
In March, neighbors learned that APS has plans to use the space for outdoor education, but before doing so, will fence off the area. APS cites safety as the primary reason for adding a wrought iron fence, which will match the fencing that surrounds the lower and upper playgrounds.
Longtime residents including Lee Wilson and Nancy Garcia are concerned about these plans and losing access to the greenspace that neighbors have enjoyed for decades. APS has proposed adding a gate to the fence that would allow community members to access the space outside of school hours, but some neighbors are apprehensive that this could change without community input.
“I don’t trust that it will remain open to the community once it’s fenced — even with a gate — because the gate can always be locked at any time,” said Wilson, who has lived on Clemont Drive since 1981. “We won’t have the same easy communication with our neighbors that we have now. It feels very unnecessary to lose this space because I can’t imagine that the school will use every inch of that land.”
After some discussion, APS recently agreed to leave a small portion of the plot unfenced and available for public use. However, these plans aren’t finalized. While the land would still be APS property, the school system said that the community would need to find a way to pay for liability insurance and maintenance for the unfenced land.
Over the decades, this greenspace has become a cornerstone of the community. Homeowners describe the area as a local hang-out, with folks walking their dogs, playing with their kids and having picnics with friends.
“We’ve had potlucks, we planted trees in that greenspace in memory of folks who died and babies who were born,” Wilson said. “[The school] didn’t maintain it well so we as neighbors seeded grass and mowed it so that it would be a pleasant space for us to check in with neighbors and for the kids to play. The Virginia-Highland Civic Association has used this space for concerts, so it’s been used by neighbors and the broader community.”
Garcia painted a similar picture when talking about the greenspace’s important role within the neighborhood.
“[Losing] the greenspace would be tragic,” said Garcia, who moved to the neighborhood in 2011. “It would be tragic if that area was completely closed off — no land for the community to go and talk, play ball, frisbee, do fly fishing casting, skate down the hill and everything [else].”
There is also some resident concern over an unused, historic alley that divides seven homes on Clemont Drive and the APS property. Garcia’s home backs up to this 10-foot-wide alleyway that is currently open, but APS plans to put up a fence that closes off the space. Residents hope the school system will agree to move the fencing plans slightly to avoid removing large, mature trees and hollies.
To that end, Wilson emphasized the importance of holding onto local greenspaces that offer respite from the bustle of urban life and Atlanta’s ever-increasing density.
“I have no problem with density but we need greenspace to go along with it,” Wilson said. “Piedmont Park is way overused and these little community parks are busy. Rather than lose green space, we need more of it.”
That’s the basis behind the Trust for Public Land’s (TPL) Community Schoolyards initiative. Through this program, TPL is transforming 10 Atlanta schoolyards into thriving greenspaces that are open to the public outside of school hours.
George Dusenbury, TPL’s vice president for the Southern region and Georgia state director, said that APS’ plans are “consistent with our Community Schoolyards program.” He added that he’s glad to see the school system lean into outdoor learning, which can be highly valuable for students.
He continued: “I think the solution for this is more open community engagement. I cannot comment on what has happened with APS but there does seem to be a disconnect. I do think there’s a sense that something’s been taken away from the community but I would argue it’s not. [However,] when you put a fence around something, obviously, they get the perception that is what’s happening. I think that an ongoing conversation between the school, the school system and the neighborhood is [what’s needed].”
APS declined an interview with SaportaReport but did share a comment: “The safety and security of our students, employees and campus resources are a top priority for the District. As such, it is our intent to add a wrought iron fence around this swath of land to provide extra security. Recognizing that this area has been used in the past as a gathering spot for community members, Virginia-Highland Elementary School administrators and APS will work with the community to allow for the continued use of the space after school hours and during weekends.”
Overall, the community is happy that the building is opening its doors in August.
“I am thrilled that Virginia-Highland Elementary is going to be there [and] that the building has reverted back to an elementary school, which is what it was originally,” Wilson said. “It will have a much smaller enrollment than Inman had as a middle school and way fewer buses.”
However, the neighbors want their voices to be heard and to be treated as collaborators in the process of reopening the school.