By Maria Saporta
In a wonderful beginning, Atlanta welcomed its newest green space on Sunday – a 4.5 acre site that offers dramatic views of the city’s skyline.
The new greenspace is a result of the persistent hard work by a grassroots community group – Friends of Atlanta Westside Park. They joined up with the recently-formed business organization – the Upper Westside Improvement District – to clear the overgrown land from brush, weeds and dead trees and create a park-like setting at 17thStreet and Northside Drive – a part of town in dire need of public greenspace.
The groups signed a memo-of-understanding with the owner of the land – the City of Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management – pledging to transform the area into a public greenspace and maintain the property for years to come.
“We have been working on this for nine years,” said Dwight Glover, a co-chair of the Friends group. “We have worked with three or four different watershed commissioners, and Commissioner Keisha Powell has been the most helpful by far.”
Now that they have removed the debris on the site, the Upper Westside Improvement District is working with ASD/SKY architectural firm on a master plan for the land – one that will add sidewalks, play areas and benches to the greenspace – and will highlight the theme of the waterworks.
It was a really special day for Chris LeCraw, another co-chair of the Friends group who lives in Underwood Hills. He and his wife were leaving the ribbon-cutting to go to the hospital where she was going to be induced to deliver their first child.
LeCraw said he was looking forward to bringing his yet-to-be-born son to enjoy the new greenspace.
Glover explained they couldn’t call it a park because of stipulations in the Department of Watershed’s bond regulations. So officially it is a greenspace that will look and feel like a park.
Joe Knight, a consultant for the Upper Westside Improvement District, said the next phase will be raising money to implement the master plan for the “park.” When asked when the park would open, Knight said it depended on when they would be able to raise the funds, which could be around $500,000.
Two other co-chairs – Chris Palmer and his husband George Koulouris – live in White Provisions, a few blocks from the Waterworks. They love living on the Westside, but it lacks adequate parks and greenspace.
“You see all the green spaces, but they have fences everywhere,” Palmer said.
Those ugly barbed-wire fences didn’t always exist. When I was growing up, the Waterworks were open to the public – a favorite destination for picnics and family gatherings. People used to stroll or jog around the reservoirs on the westside of Howell Mill.
The reservoirs were built in 1892 as a back-up to the city’s water supply system, which then was located near the Lakewood Fairgrounds, according to a 2011 article in Creative Loafing.
The Westside Waterworks is a total of 204 acres, and it includes several reservoirs that look more like lakes – complete with fish and ducks.
The fences were erected before the 1996 Summer Olympic Games as a security precaution, and they have been there ever since – creating an unpleasant and unwelcoming feel to the area.
Former Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean had worked as a liaison between the community groups and the city to turn the 4.5-acre site into a public greenspace.
“This is just the beginning,” said Adrean, pointing to the Atlanta Waterworks lodge across the street – a facility the public used to be able to rent. “As a councilmember, I realized watershed had a lot of greenspace.”
She said the city could do “a lot of good work” with a close partnership between the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Watershed Management.
Atlanta’s new parks commissioner – John Dargle Jr. – was on hand for the ribbon-cutting celebration.
“It’s sort of a city park,” Dargle acknowledged. “It’s an open space for everyone to enjoy.”
Although he’s still learning his way around the city, Dargle said he could see the potential of the parks department working more closely with the watershed department.
“We are going to be working hand-in-hand to protect our natural resources to have spaces that Watershed has under ownership to be open to the public,” said Dargle, who mentioned the Historic Fourth Ward Park and Rodney Cook Sr. Park, currently under construction.
Elizabeth Hollister, executive director of the Upper Westside Improvement District, is looking forward to add amenities to the new greenspace so that people can walk or ride their bikes there and enjoy the city’s skyline.
Hollister called the new greenspace a “proving ground” for the district – an opportunity to show the city that making the area more accessible to the public would be a valuable addition for the community. As it builds credibility, Hollister said the group would love to work with the city to turn more of the land around the
into public greenspace.
For the past 15 years, every plan for the area has envisioned the entire Waterworks campus being used like a park.
Adrean said she would support taking down the fences.
“I honestly believe in the days after 9/11 people may have overreacted,” Adrean said. “If you look across the country, many people are using their water reservoirs as amenities so people can walk around them.”
As an example, she mentioned the Water Tower Park in Louisville, Ky., where she used to live.
“It is so expensive for the city to buy greenspace,” Adrean said. “We have land that is owned by Watershed and Public Works that could be freed up for greenspace.”
The city of Atlanta already has demonstrated that when the Department of Watershed and the Parks Department work together, they can add to Atlanta’s quality of life. Another partnership that’s in the works is the Bellwood Quarry Park. Again Watershed will use the cavity of the former quarry as a reservoir, and the area around it will be a new city park.
As one person told me privately at the ribbon-cutting, we should be encouraging Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to do her best impression of former President Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 told then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: “Take down this wall.”
And that led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Berlin.
So Mayor Bottoms – take down the fences around our Atlanta Waterworks Park.