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South River Forest vision report calls for 445-acre park around training center, green jobs, more

The South River Forest study area. (Map by Atlanta Regional Commission.)

By John Ruch

A newly released South River Forest green space vision report includes such big ideas as green jobs programs, affordable housing pilots, and a new, 445-acre park centered on the former Atlanta Prison Farm and its controversial public safety training center.

The “Explore South River Forest” vision is intended to spark joint efforts between the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County to create and connect roughly 3,500 acres of green space. At the behest of the Georgia chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Atlanta Regional Commission led a stakeholder input process last year to produce the report, released on Feb. 24. The vision is just a set of recommendations that the City, County and other powerful interests can consider and act upon, or not.

“The ARC report highlights a huge opportunity to enhance air and water quality and benefit communities by protecting, connecting and activating an extensive network of forest and parkland inside I-285,” said the TNC in a written statement. “Achieving this vision will require a team effort that involves collaboration among the City, the County, a dozen disparate communities, and nonprofit organizations.”

The South River Forest concept is built on the longtime work of many local organizations and was formalized in “The Atlanta City Design,” an official City planning and development vision co-authored in 2017 by former City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane and Ryan Gravel, the urban designer who created the Atlanta BeltLine vision.

“The ARC’s report reflects an evolution of ideas that began with the Atlanta City Design, and outlines some of the opportunities and challenges for that big vision,” said Gravel in a text message. “But remember, like the City Design, the South River Forest is just an idea for our future. The work required to accomplish it will be difficult at times, and it is urgent because Atlanta is changing so fast. This report is among the first of many steps forward.”

The stakeholder recommendations in the new ARC report call for extensive City-County collaboration, including through a new authority. Not mentioned is the intense controversy and “Defend the Atlanta Forest” protest movement that both have sparked with the training center and a swap of nearby Intrenchment Creek Park to a private developer. Both are at the heart of the South River Forest area, and the pending vision process was a factor in controversy over the secret, surprise selection of the Prison Farm for the training center site.

The call for the massive new park around the training center site is one of the biggest specific recommendations, and also one of the most mysterious. It involves combining some land around that site with adjacent properties, including an old landfill, a water treatment plant and the current Atlanta Police Department shooting range. Public green space has been a key element of training center controversy and the City has vowed to preserve 296 acres in the plan – a number that does not add up in examinations of the acreage and the training center footprint, and which is part of the argument in a pending appeal against the project’s land disturbance permit (LDP). The ARC says the 296-acre figure is part of the basis for the 445-acre new park and that the ARC does not have a map of the proposed green space.

Recent maps circulated by the City, County and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) – the training center’s lead planner – in press releases and court documents show the site as including some of the adjacent green spaces referred to in the South River Forest vision report. But those spaces are not part of the official site plan from which the training center is being built, and their inclusion is a mystery, as City and APF spokespeople did not respond to SaportaReport questions. The City also did not respond to questions about the 445-acre park plan. Four members of the training center’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee – including chair Alison Clark – served on the ARC’s steering committee for the South River Forest vision, but such a park and those properties were not discussed in CSAC meetings.

ARC spokesperson Paul Donsky referenced a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) between Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond on various environmental points related to the training center and issued on Jan. 31 to tamp down controversy about its LDP issuance. Donsky said both governments are “assessing the report’s recommendations” and noted the MOU’s promise to engage the ARC for “continued multi-jurisdictional guidance to manage, protect, and enhance the South River Forest Basin.”

The following is an overview of recommendations in the report, which are divided into the categories of “Protect,” “Connect” and “Activate.”


  • Develop a detailed master plan, in a 12-to-15-month City-County process.
  • Transfer existing public land to Parks and Recreation. This specifically means the 445-acre new park, plus supporting an Atlanta City Council committee to acquire another 85 acres of green space in the area to replace the roughly 85 acres being used for the training center footprint.
  • Acquire additional private land for Parks and Recreation, which would be focused on South River, Intrenchment Creek and their tributaries, and properties that would connect trails and larger parks.
  • Establish the South River Forest Management Authority, a joint City-County authority.
  • Coordinate regionally to restore the South River.
  • Address gentrification with strategic “Growth Management Practices.” This is a multi-pronged recommendation. On development, it includes a zoning overlay to allow denser housing. On transportation, it includes improvements to sidewalks, traffic calming, more public transit and other sustainable approaches. On land use, it pushes for relocating the dumping-ground uses that have saddled the area with pollution and other issues, including heavy industry, prisons and landfills. On economic issues, it calls for supporting green and green-space-oriented businesses, employment and job-training programs.
  • Establish a “Green Development Zone.” This would start by making a “South River Forest Green Development Standards Handbook” for site and building design.


  • Expand the existing trail network. That includes the existing South River and Atlanta BeltLine trails, future Flint River trails, and proposed Intrenchment Creek and Thomasville trails.
  • Connect the forest, meaning trails and opportunities to make more.
  • Increase community engagement: “Ensure a more extensive engagement than has been accomplished to date.”


  • Establish the South River Community Development Corporation (CDC), an inter-jurisdictional organization that can operate independently of the proposed South River Forest Authority to leverage federal grants for such activities as land acquisition, job creation and affordable housing.
  • Construct a model affordable housing eco-development. That would start in Thomasville Heights, including spots like the troubled Forest Cove apartments and the Atlanta Housing Authority’s former Thomasville Homes.
  • Create a small business incubator, focused on local, small and Black and Brown businesses. A joint effort of the Atlanta and DeKalb development authorities, the Metro South Community Improvement District, and possibly led by the proposed CDC.
  • Launch an education hub. The “South River Forest Education Hub” would operate in local schools for STEM/STEAM programs tied to forest and green space resources.


Editor’s note: SaportaReport contributor Kelly Jordan served on the ARC’s South River Forest steering committee as a representative of Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area Alliance.



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