Editor’s Note: This is the latest version of the column.
By Guest Columnist NICK STEPHENS, an Atlanta writer and parks advocate
Earlier this year, over 15 years after it was first proposed, construction on the Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry finally began. The promise of the huge greenspace has been spurring private development nearby. As the area prepares to undergo dramatic rapid change, community activists have been raising concerns, with one major project recently arousing controversy.
As plans become reality, city officials now face the task of balancing the creation of a public good with the pressures of private development, a challenge that often hinges on the public sector’s ability to keep pace with the private. In such a turbulent environment, a diverse coalition of stakeholders should be formed to ensure that planning for the park, and its surrounding neighborhoods, is both inclusive and cohesive going forward. In the past, park conservancies were formed to return grand parks to their former glory; the creation of a transformative new amenity like the Westside Park requires a new structure of leadership.
In the years between the park’s conception and today, numerous planning efforts – both for the park and for surrounding communities – were undertaken. Many of these plans were rooted in significant public engagement. For a variety of reasons, some political, some economic, these plans saw little or no implementation. But important guidelines shared by these documents, which addressed both ongoing issues (like a lack of quality housing for residents making 10 percent to 50 percent of the area median income) and anticipated the changes the park would encourage (like rising housing prices), are still relevant. Despite years of anticipation for such a transformative new public amenity, the current project is deserving of closer scrutiny.
In particular, ensuring that the park is truly integrated into the fabric of the existing community is critical, a process that was consistently noted in earlier plans and has arguably been lacking during this latest planning and development phase. Fortunately, in September, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation announced a $17.5 million grant for the park’s development, which is slated to go towards providing better neighborhood connections—another objective long requested by community members. Despite the park’s draw on a regional level, its impact will be felt most directly in its closest communities.
In the last few years, many Atlantans have been inspired by the idea of transforming some of the city’s most troublesome corridors into “complete streets.” The design of a massive, 21st-century park could greatly benefit from the same type of holistic thinking.
The Westside Park’s remarkably large site (along with additional public land along its edges) and convenient location offer incredible opportunities to proactively address the socioeconomic challenges, particularly quality low-cost housing and workforce development, that the area faces, in addition to providing the broad range of recreational opportunities expected in such a major park. The fact that Atlanta Housing owns over 20 acres of parcels along the park’s edges is a convenient benefit, born of historic injustice.
Already burdened with existing maintenance and operations, Atlanta’s Department of Parks and Recreation would benefit from looking to local partners for assistance in such a major undertaking. This effort of joint development should bring together the relevant city agencies, governmental partners (Atlanta Housing, Beltline, MARTA) and all of the crucial nonprofit stakeholders and neighborhood representatives (Park Pride, Georgia Conservancy, neighborhood planning units, neighborhood associations, etc.) in a shared vision for joint, equitable development.
This work is critical, given that the Westside Park is being built in an area that has had high levels of poverty over the last 40 years, with the four neighborhoods closest to the park all above 30% poverty in 2015.
Importantly, the organizations with a record of results in the area need to be given a platform from which to effectively engage the community. Prime examples include the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Eco-Action, two environmentally-focused organizations that have made significant improvements to Proctor Creek (which flows through the park) since the 1990s. No representatives from these organizations were asked to join the Atlanta Park Department’s recently formed Westside Park Advisory Committee, a point which was raised at a community meeting for the park in May.
So far, the Parks Department has hosted two public meetings explaining the first phase of park development. But notably, long-time residents interviewed this spring – some of whose homes border future park property – were completely unaware of the park’s development. Accommodations appropriate for the demographics of the community – such as paper mailers and childcare during meetings – must be a component of the public engagement and planning process.
Fortunately, there are examples of promising efforts in other American cities towards creating robust community-based coalitions. The 11th Street Bridge Project in Washington has brought together a broad range of groups to minimize the negative effects of gentrification while adding a unique new park between communities long separated by class and ethnicity. And in Los Angeles, an organization called LA ROSAH is leading the charge to combine the efforts of greenspace and affordable housing advocates.
These examples represent the kinds of community coalitions where important issues can be openly debated. Two major ideas have long swirled around the park but have recently lacked a space for conversation.
First, the possibility of creating a new city-owned performance venue in the area. Whether a facility like the old Civic Center on public land near the park, or a venue more like Chastain Park’s amphitheater within the park, there are possibilities for a permanent performance space that could alleviate the need to close other local parks for music festivals, while providing a significant source of jobs and revenue to the area.
Second, the question of water recreation in the park lingers, despite the city’s longstanding declaration that the quarry reservoir will be completely fenced off. With summers only expected to get hotter, not including any form of water recreation in the city’s largest park shows both a lack of imagination and of credibility, in what is touted to become a “World Class Park.”
The recent announcement of the Blank Foundation’s major gift for the park was an exciting development. But it raises critical questions about how leadership around the park is organized. The gift was to the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, the non-profit fundraising arm of Atlanta Beltline Inc. Despite ABI leading the park’s early planning from 2006 to 2009, then Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration placed the park’s development firmly under the city’s control, resulting in drastic changes to the park’s timeline and plans. How ABI’s renewed investment in the park will affect ongoing development is unclear, although suggestions that the money will be used to better connect the park to surrounding neighborhoods is promising, given that this has been a longstanding community request.
As new residents and visitors to the park begin to arrive to a part of town that was long overlooked, complete leadership, that is both locally experienced and diverse, is needed to ensure that the area’s development proceeds in an equitable manner. More than a conservancy, a coalition is needed to achieve a complete vision for the park and its surrounding neighborhoods. Following the Atlanta City Studio’s lead, Parks and Rec could begin by creating a pop-up space to welcome neighbors and visitors and provide a place for ongoing discussion about the park’s – and community’s – future.
Note to readers: Nick Stephens is an Atlanta writer and parks advocate who recently graduated from Georgia Tech with a masters degree in City and Regional Planning. His final research paper was on the Westside Park.
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