By Maria Saporta
What a complicated mess.
The controversy over building a public safety training center on the site of the old Atlanta Prison Farm continues to fester.
And there’s no guarantee the Memorandum of Understanding announced on Jan. 31 between Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond on the development of the project will end the protests and settle the controversy.
Unfortunately, the issue has become a lightning rod that is gaining national and international attention – especially with the shooting death on Jan. 18 of protester Manuel Esteban Paez Teran by state troopers.
Let me establish two points.
For starters, I believe Atlanta needs a new public safety training center because of the poor condition of existing facilities.
Second, I abhor violence – whether it be from protestors or from the police. I am a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. – understanding that nonviolence is the most effective way to achieve social and environmental justice.
So, the goal of this column on the public safety training center is two-fold. I want to explore what went wrong and what can we do to make it right.
This said, the whole project was flawed from the beginning.
In April 2021, the Atlanta Police Foundation and then-Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced plans to build the training center on the site of the old Prison Farm. The city owned the land, which was surrounded by unincorporated DeKalb County, meaning the closest neighbors had no official voice to weigh in.
Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, said in an extensive interview on June 10, 2021, that the site for the center had been under review for four years by the city’s real estate department. But only sites already owned by the city were considered.
Imagine if there had been a much more open process with the City of Atlanta letting the public know of the need for a new public safety training center. Then several sites – publicly and privately owned – could have been considered, including the old Prison Farm. If people had been given an opportunity to be part of the decision-making process, it would have been easier to get public buy-in.
At the time, Alex Taylor, CEO of Cox Enterprises who was chairing the fundraising effort for the Atlanta Police Foundation, was asked about the location of the public safety center. Through a spokeswoman, Taylor said: “The capital campaign committee is funding a project that is not site-specific.”
That gave some people hope other locations would be considered. Instead, the decision for the Prison Farm site was presented as a done deal.
It didn’t help that for decades, all discussions in Atlanta and DeKalb called for the old Prison Farm to be green space. In fact, the 2017 Atlanta City Design plan later approved by the city’s elected leaders, embraced the site as a centerpiece of the 3,500-acre South River Forest vision.
The issue got further conflated with differing views on public safety. Some were seeking less funding for police. Others wanted to see training spent on a 21st-century public safety model with more community-based policing and conflict de-escalation techniques. In fact, a key proponent for an enlightened police department had been the Atlanta Police Foundation with its At-Promise centers to serve at-risk youth.
But the public safety training center at the Prison Farm caused the foundation to be at odds with the environmental community as well as police-reform folks.
When the issue was presented to the Atlanta City Council for a vote, public comments totaled 17 hours with the overwhelming majority of them opposing the $90 million public safety training center at that location. The council, however, approved the 50-year lease with the Atlanta Police Foundation in September 2021 rather than seeking a reset.
I had numerous conversations with people representing all sides to get insights into what went wrong and how can we make it right. Virtually no one I talked to is convinced the controversy over the public safety training center will go away – short of a total restart.
But taking a fresh look also is fraught with problems.
For example, the people supporting the City of Buckhead likely would seize upon a pause in the project by claiming Atlanta is not serious about addressing its crime problem. It also could hurt the fragile relationship between the City of Atlanta and state elected leaders.
So, what can we do to make it right?
Excuse the cliché. We need to turn lemons into lemonade by galvanizing community and government support for the greater vision of the South River Forest.
In a matter of days, the Atlanta Regional Commission’s South River Forest Community Engagement process will unveil its recommendations. The vision for the South River Forest was authored by Ryan Gravel, who helped the city draft the Atlanta City Design plan.
The city already took a step towards the South River Forest vision in 2020 when it acquired 216 acres of forest land that was once Lake Charlotte. Gravel led a tour of the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve on Feb. 4 inviting Monica Thornton, the new executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, to see the potential.
“The Prison Farm controversy has brought a lot of attention to the South River Forest, which I great,” Gravel said. “But there are half a dozen other big challenges that require just as much attention if we want to achieve the larger vision.”
That’s where Mayor Dickens and CEO Thurmond – with their respective governments – can help make lemonade. Using ARC’s guidance and community recommendations, we can galvanize support in Atlanta, DeKalb and beyond to make the South River Forest a reality.
Environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land and Park Pride among others can partner to protect land within those 3,500 acres – forest land that currently is privately owned and at risk of clear-cutting. We have several environmentally focused foundations in Atlanta that can support saving one of the largest forests in our region.
“The public safety training facility has brought a lot of new attention to our vision for the South River Forest, which people have fallen in love with,” Thornton said after the Lake Charlotte tour. “At the Nature Conservancy, we want to see the vision of the 3,500 acres become a reality.”
And when it comes to the old Prison Farm, Mayor Dickens and CEO Thurmond can make sure we fulfill the promise of protecting nearly 300 acres of the site and that the Atlanta Police Foundation’s 85-acre site includes 30 acres for publicly accessible green space.
One day, the issue of the training center on the old Prison Farm could be an amazing case study on how we as a city and a region make decisions and what we can do better.
As I see it, we can do better by welcoming and incorporating true community participation, striving for consensus and seeking solutions for Atlanta to shine as a city on a hill. Let’s become a city that resolves our differences nonviolently, respectfully and humanely – as we often have done in past.
Thank you, Maria.
The entire prison farm site is only 296 acres.
And the approved land Disturbance permit for the training facility is a 171 acres, not 85 acres.
Margaret Spalding, South River Watershed Allianc
Thank you for this measured and reasonable story! I hope perhaps cooler heads and folks without big ego problems will help sort this ugly issue. I wish I felt more optimistic, but it is hard to be optimistic about any development trends in the south part of Atlanta, especially Atlanta-in-Dekalb and unincorporated south Dekalb. Those neighborhoods have been dumped on, literally as well as metaphorically, for years.
Thank you for this informative and thoughtful column, Maria!
It is only fair that when mentioning the protestor being shot by police that you include that he shot and wounded a police officer first.
This training center plan is a good plan. The training is conveniently located. There is a youth detention center nearby. And this area could use more police presence. If you have visited this area before this issue came up, much of the forest was an illegal dumping ground. If a good message is to be sent it should be the conservationist partnering with the police. And, mentioning police shooting a protestor with no acknowledgement that he fired a struck an officer first isnot a good start if you want public partnership.
The claim that the site for the Public Safety Training Center is in the South River Forest is wrong. The South River and the South River Forest are south of Constitution Avenue, the Training Center site is north of Constitution Avenue. A heavy industrial presence along Constitution Avenue separates the two. Look at a map.Take a drive along Constitution Avenue. The Training Center is not going to denude the South River Forest. This contention is hogwash.
The photo used at the top of this story portays an area that’s nowhere near the Training Center site. It’s on the other side of Moreland Avenue and far south. This misrepresentative photo is not relevant to the issue of the Training Center. I have come to expect better journalism than this from the Saporta Report.
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