Smaller public safety training center site plan is pitched; transparency criticism continuesA draft site plan of the reduce public safety training center as shown in a Sept. 2 public meeting.
By John Ruch
As Atlanta’s controversial public safety training center heads toward a possible City Council vote just after Labor Day, its backers pitched a new, smaller site plan and an intent to form a community advisory committee at a Sept. 2 virtual meeting.
Officials emphasized community-inspired changes to the concept and answered many public questions. But they continued to be pressed about a lack of documentation for many of the privately developed plan’s rationales and costs, and many commenters blasted the presentation as one-sided for not including any critics or opponents, which now includes many of the neighborhood associations and environmental organizations in the area.
Meanwhile, new information continues to emerge, with the Atlanta Police Foundation separately telling SaportaReport that the smaller size imposed by the City Council means some facilities would have to go on other sites. Centralization is a major rationale of the plan.
Organized by City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong, who is also running for council president, the virtual meeting was the only general public input session since the council’s Aug. 16 tabling of a vote on a lease agreement necessary for the training center. Officials with APF and other backers have met with local community groups and DeKalb officials, including Commissioner Larry Johnson. Archibong said written answers to public questions would be posted on the council’s website and demanded the backers provide various documents to add there as well. If that comes together, the public will have some portion of the Labor Day weekend to review such materials in advance of the Sept. 7 council meeting where the training center legislation may go up for a vote.
The training center plan was created by APF, the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation and City administration officials. The APF, which has taken the lead on the planning, has pitched the training center as urgently needed to respond to crime and to recruit and retain officers with a high-quality facility. It also would simply be cheaper and easier for Atlanta to have a centralized, City-owned facility instead of today’s rented and scattered ones, they say.
While some critics question the need for such a facility at all, most of the controversy is due to the secretly selected Prison Farm site, a City-owned property along Key Road within unincorporated DeKalb County that is already used as a shooting range and once hosted the police academy. That use is in conflict with another City-approved vision for the Prison Farm: a piece of the South River Forest, a proposed 3,500-acre network of green spaces in southeast Atlanta and southwest DeKalb.
In response to those concerns, the council’s Finance/Executive Committee on Aug. 11 approved a version of the plan hurriedly chopped down from 150 acres to 85. That remains the version on the table for council consideration.
That was a dramatic reduction for a plan the APF had described as urgently necessary and whose size was a factor in rejecting some alternative sites. APF says the smaller training center site could work — but maybe not with everything on the wish list.
APF spokesperson Rob Baskin said in an email that “85 acres is workable and can accommodate most necessary facilities.” But he added: “The original plan, which called for 150 acres, would have been preferable, however, to enable more community interaction on the site, ensure adequate pastureland for mounted patrol horses, and the future ability to accommodate other City emergency/first responder facilities, such as redundant 911 center (which best practices in law enforcement recognize as desirable).”
The plan’s backers consider any fresh and more public review of alternative sites to be off the table. Baskin said talks between APF and the South River Forest Coalition (SRFC) — a major opposition group that the council legislation would require planners to include as advisory committee members — broke down over the idea of discussing alternatives. “That’s a non-starter and hardly a good faith beginning for a discussion,” he said.
Allen Doyle, one of SRFC’s leaders, said that APF had invited his group to work on the new site plan, but did not respond when his group replied “we would only meet with Atlanta Police Foundation if we started at the beginning with the needs assessment for different training functions, full transparency of documentation, and with City Council members present.”
The new site plan
The new site plan has the training center occupying two separate areas of the 350-acre property. The plan shows a 15-acre “campus core” with parking, classrooms and an administration building, surrounded by publically accessible green space. To the east, across a piece of that green space, would be a 70-acre training center. The campus in general is meant to be accessible to the general public, officials said.
Marshall Freeman, the APF’s chief operating officer, noted several ways the plan was changed in response to community concerns (some of which made their way into the council legislation as well). They include moving a firing range farther away from neighborhoods to mitigate noise, building a path connecting to the Atlanta BeltLine, and creating a permanent exhibit about the history of the site.
Freeman said that the recent discussions with neighborhood groups have raised additional concerns, including traffic and walkability. He said the planners have committed to work with DeKalb government on sidewalks and a “safety plan” for Key Road that could include a traffic light at a problematic intersection.
Steve Sanchez, a designer on the project, pushed back on concerns about tree loss and the South River Forest plan. He said the plan “will not impede the vision of the South River Forest” and would allow the public access to more of the site than they have today. He showed photos illustrating that most of the site was cleared 20 years ago and is not old-growth forest. “This is not a pristine forest site. It’s a denuded site that is just starting to have some regrowth to it,” he said.
Pressed by Archibong, Sanchez acknowledged that there are some large trees on the site that may be 100 years old and said they would be preserved. He said each native hardwood tree removed for the project would be replaced with 100 more such trees.
However, there are many other local and citywide concerns with the plan in both substance and process. To some local advocates, it continues a trend of imposing undesirable facilities like landfills and prisons on southwest DeKalb and southeast Atlanta. Neighbors in unincorporated DeKalb have no political representation in the City of Atlanta, which controls the site and its uses. And the plan was secretly developed, then revealed with scant documentation and two APF “listening sessions” where public comments weren’t allowed.
The demand for more public input was the reason the council tabled the legislation, which came from a motion Archibong made specifically because of word that Johnson, the DeKalb commissioner, never got a presentation about the plan. APF denied that at the time. In the Sept. 2 meeting, Jestin Johnson, the City’s deputy chief operating officer, said that the commissioner’s concerns were correct that the DeKalb area “was not initially engaged.”
“We have heard loud and clear from unincorporated DeKalb residents they don’t have a voice” or representation, Freeman said. The planners, he said, will create a community advisory committee to work “hand-in-hand” with architects and the police and fire rescue departments, and Commissioner Johnson will be involved in identifying members. The commissioner himself appeared briefly to say “we weren’t engaged at first” but that APF is now talking with him and DeKalb residents.
The Sept. 2 meeting format drew many complaints about opponents not getting presentation time. Among those complaining were Ryan Gravel, the urban planner behind the Atlanta BeltLine who co-authored the official City design document that includes the South River Forest and is now a consultant to its planners; and Stephanie Stuckey, the CEO of the Stuckey’s store chain and a former state representative and City chief resilience officer.
“Who on this Zoom represents the community voice?” asked Gravel. Joe Peery of SRFC replied his group asked to present but was denied on the basis that it would look unfair to other organizations.
One focus of transparency concern is the analysis of alternative sites or such possibilities as shared sites, which was done behind closed doors. Various critics and observers have suggested alternative sites, from SFRC’s pitching for office and industrial complexes to Joe Seconder, an Army veteran and Dunwoody City Council member pointing to the former Army Fort Gillem or sharing with Dobbins Air Reserve Base, which recently opened a shooting range.
The Prison Farm site was selected by a City “advisory council.” According to the advisory council’s report, which was not publicly circulated as part of the presentation, its members had two other sites on its short list, both in Southwest Atlanta, before choosing the Prison Farm: Greenbrier Mall and Atlanta Metropolitan State College, the latter of which is now serving as the temporary home of the Atlanta Police Academy.
The report is a narrative lacking detailed site analyses, and some of its statements have been contradicted. For example, the head of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation, who was an advisory council member, says she played no role in selecting the site and that the Prison Farm was already decided.
The report says the college was rejected due to lack of space and because college leadership said in discussions that only a temporary use would be “reasonable.” However, college officials have repeatedly said in recent weeks that they had no such discussions and would be open to hosting the training center. Dr. Georj Lewis, the college’s president, met this week with SRFC and sent them a letter repeating that stance. “In reference to the long-term site of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, while we were not part of initial discussions of the site, we are always open for a discussion about this site if it further advances the college’s educational mission and supports the local community,” Lewis wrote. “Regardless of the future site’s location, we are looking forward to a continued partnership with APD on educational and community initiatives.”
Baskin said the college has not directly contacted APF about the matter.
In the Sept. 2 meeting, Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum repeated that the college lacks space to build training center facilities. He also offered another piece of site-vetting information not mentioned in the report, saying, “We did have locations outside the city with some acreage,” but rejected them as too inconvenient. APD currently uses some outside facilities on a rental basis and wants to get out of them for similar reasons.
Regardless of the site, a major motivation for the plan is having a high-quality facility to attract and retain police officers and firefighters, an approach the APF has likened to colleges building fancy athletic facilities for major sports programs. Schierbaum and James McLemore, first deputy chief of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, emphasized the crucial role of regular training and the recruitment significance.
Asked by a member of the public what the alternatives were for boosting recruitment and retention without the new training center, McLemore replied, “There is no alternative. We must move forward and get us a training facility….”
Archibong said the planners also will have to provide more information. She said she wanted “documentation to back up any of the representations that we made” and “justification for any component part” for public review, including on such topics as the size of the facility, the type of training and the cost of maintenance.
“Trust but verify…,” she said.
Also joining in the meeting were City Councilmembers Marci Collier Overstreet, Joyce Sheperd and Matt Westmoreland, none of whom offered direct comment about the plan.