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Opposition grows to police training center at Atlanta Prison Farm

The Atlanta Prison Farm in Spring 2020 (Photo by Sixpitch)

Update: The Atlanta City Council’s Finance Committee heard more than 125 public comments Wednesday afternoon urging the city to take some more time.for public engagement and explain what other sites were considered. “The body voted unanimously to ‘hold’ (or keep) the paper in Committee for the next several weeks so those discussions can take place,” Citywide Councilmember Matt Westmoreland. wrote in a text “The Atlanta Regional Commission will be helping to facilitate those conversations.”

By Maria Saporta

For decades, the vision for the historic Atlanta Prison Farm has been to transform it into a green jewel for the region.

The Atlanta City Design, incorporated into the official city charter in December 2017, called for the prison farm to be the centerpiece of a grand South River Forest Park. That vision was unanimously adopted by the Atlanta City Council.

But now the Atlanta Police Foundation and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have proposed turning 150 acres of the Prison Farm’s 348 acres into a massive public safety training campus complete with indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, bomb detonation and explosion tests, burning building for fire training, a road course to practice car chases, pastureland for the city’s mounted patrol among other training facilities.

Map shows the parcels of the South River Forest Park that are owned by the City of Atlanta (Special: The Nature Conservancy)

The problem is that the Prison Farm (also called the Honor Farm) is owned by the City of Atlanta, but it sits entirely in DeKalb County. So, the communities around the property have little to no voice on what will happen on the site.

“There are all sorts of equity issues around this,” said Shannon Lee, who lives in the Eastland Heights Neighborhood. “A really bothersome point is that there’s no representation because we are outside the City of Atlanta.”
Lee said the vision has been for the Prison Farm to become a lynchpin of the 3,500-acre South River Forest Park.

“It would be one of the largest urban parks in America,” Lee said. “Plans for the training center came as a complete surprise. I don’t know how much I want to walk the trails where there’s bombing and shooting going on.”
In addition to equity issues, the plans are fraught with environmental issues.

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry, who represents that portion of the county and who used to run the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, also was “blindsided” by the plans for the training facility. He is scared it will be a fortress surrounded with barbed wire.

“Atlanta is a city in the forest,” Terry said. “If we as a society are serious about climate change, one of the best ways is to protect this area. There’s so much opportunity. We want to connect all these neighborhoods through a trail network.”

Neighbors gather at Constitution Lakes Park to talk about the Atlanta Police Foundation’s plans for a public safety training center at the Atlanta Prison Farm (Left to right): Nicole Moerado, Shannon Lee, Ingrid Buxbaum, Ted Terry and Andrea Cervone (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Dave Wilkinson, president of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said 50 to 60 acres will be “black top” and the rest will be pastureland and an urban farm. (By comparison, Centennial Olympic Park is 22 acres). That means hundreds and hundreds of mature trees will be cut down if the proposal is implemented.

“No one wants to take down trees,” Wilkinson said. “But we are at a point in our city’s history. If we don’t start immediately building this training center, the number of our officers is going to continue to dwindle.”

Wilkinson also pointed out that portions of the property already are being used for police training with a shooting range. He said the Atlanta Police Foundation is willing to working on a community engagement process on the design of the facility as long as that doesn’t slow down the project.

“We don’t want to spend six to nine months on hold while we are doing citizen engagement,” Wilkinson said. “We feel it is the perfect location for the training center. The city of Atlanta spent months and months studying every potential location of city-owned land.”

But that was not a public process. And the city’s real estate folks only considered city-owned land, which excluded other potential sites that would be better suited for the training center.

“There are lots of places where there are closed industrial areas,” said Jenessa Lynn Williams, a resident of South Atlanta and Lakewood area. “We don’t support the cutting down of healthy trees. Artillery, explosives near a residential area is not a solution to the problems they are trying to solve. It’s going in the totally opposite direction. Just leave it alone. Let it be a park.”

Atlanta Prison Farm in the Spring of 2020 (Photo by Sixpitch)

In agreement was Nicole Morado, who lives in Starlight Heights and met with several neighbors at Constitution Lakes Park on a recent Saturday to talk about the proposal. Morado especially dislikes the official name of the facility – Institute of Social Justice.

“I don’t want a military-style training facility in my backyard,” said Morado, who added people have moved to the affordable community partly because of because of the vision of the prison farm. “To me, it’s the complete opposite of an Institute of Social Justice.”

Ingrid Buxbaum, who has lived in Starlight Heights for 15 years, remembers when the prison farm was publicly accessible without a fence.

“It is a beautiful property,” said Buxbaum, who doesn’t understand how the center will stop crime. She asked rhetorically: “Why not put it in Buckhead or Inman Park instead of at the Prison Farm?” It’s a community that is used to being a dumping ground with three surrounding landfills, raising questions of environmental injustice.

In a Zoom press briefing after the June 11th meeting of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, Mayor Bottoms said she’s aware of the issues with the site. “We are working with DeKalb leadership,” she said. “Our teams are already engaged.”

Community leader Jenessa Lynn Williams would like to see public safety complex built in an industrial area rather than on greenappce (Special)

About 20 years ago, the City of Atlanta considered selling the land to DeKalb County or turning it into an Atlanta-DeKalb parks district. But those talks fell through.

The Atlanta City Council’s Finance Committee on June 16 will consider legislation introduced by Councilwoman Joyce Shepard for the city to enter into a 50-year lease with the Police Foundation to build the training center at the Prison Farm. Conceivably, it could go before the full City Council on June 21.

But others are saying “not so fast.”

There’s a move afoot to get the city to consider other locations for the facility, and not limit the options to city-owned land. The Prison Farm area was recently selected by the Atlanta Regional Commission for a community stakeholder process that could provide the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County and the local community a well-timed opportunity to explore alternatives.

For example, the platform of the influential Committee for a Better Atlanta calls for the building of the center, but it does not name the location.

“This city absolutely needs a new public safety training center. The current facility is atrocious,” said Councilmember Matt Westmoreland. “We haven’t really had the full conversation yet  I’m sensitive to concerns people have raised about the proposed location, and I look forward to the conversation.”

Meanwhile, Wilkinson said the center will cost about $60 million to build, and the Police Foundation has a goal to raise half from the private sector. “We have raised almost the entire amount,” Wilkinson said.

The Atlanta Prison Farm in the Spring of 2020 (Photo by Sixpitch)

Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises and the 2021 chair of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, is chairing the fundraising campaign.

When asked in an email about the location of the center, Taylor gave the following response through spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs: “The capital campaign committee is funding a project that is not site specific.”

For a project as important as the public safety training center, the city should consider all options.

Ideally, the city would find a site where the center would improve an area by revitalizing an area that’s filled with vacant warehouses and surface parking.

That way, we would not have to sacrifice 150 acres of forest and green space in a move that would greatly diminish the grand vision for the South River Forest Park.

Atlanta, rather than settling for expediency, let’s aim high for the best solution.

The Prison Farm has become a resting place for parts of the now oemolished Atlanta Carnegie Library as well as a burial ground for Zoo Atlanta animals (Photo by Sixpitch -2020)

Part of the greenspace at the Atlanta Prison Farm in the Spring of 2020 (Photo by Sixpitch – 2020)

A remnant of the Atlanta Prison Farm in the Spring of 2020 (Photo by Sixpitch)

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Maria Saporta

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.

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12 Comments

  1. Anna June 14, 2021 7:04 pm

    Thank you, Maria, for continuing to dig up the goods. The Institute for Social Justice is a sham of a name for this bombing, teargassing training facility. What kind of social justice includes learning to bomb the people you are supposed to protect?!Report

    Reply
  2. urban gardener June 15, 2021 9:43 am

    The City could have a win-win with rehabbing an abandoned industrial site – all those APD officers will need to eat somewhere, get snacks and gasoline, have some nearby amenities… and folks need more park space and less gunfire in their back yards.

    Use the need for a new facility as an opportunity for a bit of community investment in a very neglected area; there are plenty of wateland areas on southern Moreland Ave. in need of a breath of financial lifeReport

    Reply
  3. Steve June 15, 2021 9:47 am

    Thank you again Maria. This was brought up at our NPU meeting in Joyce Shepards District and the Chat had quite a few comments about the process and the site.She seems to be set on moving forward!Report

    Reply
  4. MAX LEVENTHAL June 15, 2021 10:48 am

    Walked it this morning. Truly beautiful woods. Is there not some adaptive reuse of industrial space that could be found? Ironic that the Kennedy/Cox family’s Path Foundation built the beautiful South River Trail through this pristine woods. Would that Alex Taylor found a way to meet the police department’s needs without diminishing his family’s legacy in the vicinity of the ATL prison farm.Report

    Reply
    1. Maria Saporta June 15, 2021 12:55 pm

      Perhaps the Cox Foundation and others will read your comment and consider alternative sites. The Cox family and companies have been great stewards of the environment, and we can appeal to their best selves. IT would be great if they considered alternative sites that would uplift a community rather than hurt a fragile ecosystem.Report

      Reply
  5. Clarence Blalock June 15, 2021 7:32 pm

    This use will never be acceptable to those who value greenspace in the city of Atlanta. I am going to continue this fight as long as it takes, even if means taking the fight to City Hall.Report

    Reply
  6. Robert Peppel June 15, 2021 11:07 pm

    Heaven forbid that the City might use some asset they already own rather than than line some politician’s pocket by buying newReport

    Reply
    1. SCOTT A FERGUSON July 22, 2021 12:02 pm

      “… the city’s real estate folks only considered city-owned land”Report

      Reply
  7. Eric Ganther June 15, 2021 11:20 pm

    I’m all for supporting police department stability and a good training facility – seriously. But putting it in this location is an absurd injustice to the future of the south side. A police facility is extremely disruptive to the land and to any existing or potential future neighborhood. This facility needs to be by the airport where the natural value of the land has already been disrupted and where housing or parks can’t be built due to airport proximity. Come on Atlanta, we can do so much better than this!Report

    Reply
  8. Scott Petersen June 18, 2021 1:20 pm

    Hi Maria , Another great story , I plan on doing more flying in parts of the 12 council district . I have a street protest planed for Saturday the 26 th on Constitution road . All those years of leading tours of the site are paying off . Any other targets for street actions come to mind , let me know . Scott PetersenReport

    Reply
  9. BlkRob June 21, 2021 11:11 am

    Atlanta and Dekalb should partner on this project and make it a regional public safety training facility. Also, drop the fancy, euphemisms and call it what it is…….a public safety training center. I get the NIMBY crowd, but in this location which is heavily industrial and underutilized the project stands to be least disruptive.
    DK should be more concerned about how they were bamboozled by Blackhall Studios.Report

    Reply
  10. Wormser Hats July 7, 2021 8:17 pm

    $60 million sure could pay a lot of public safety officials to train at the existing GPSTC just 45 minutes south in Forsyth, where much of the rest of the state sends trainees. Why does Atlanta need a duplicate facility?Report

    Reply

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