Why not a park? Ideas abound for redeveloping Fort McPherson

By David Pendered

Atlanta faces a tough challenge as it prepares to absorb Fort McPherson on Sept. 15.

For starters, there are all kinds of strings attached once the military vacates the property – from federal requirements that it provide housing for the homeless to the immediate need for its protection by Atlanta police and fire.

Moreover, the city has to devise and adopt a master plan for this 488-acre tract amidst a fundamental shift in the economy. Atlanta and the state are supposed to woo redevelopment partners for the property at a time the region’s commercial and residential markets are moribund and showing few signs of recovery.

No wonder one fellow has suggested turning Fort McPherson into a park with a Civil Rights theme, according to Michael Dobbins, a former Atlanta planning commissioner.

“Given the fort’s history, it does make a certain degree of sense,” Dobbins said of the suggestion that he said was offered by a developer who has no interest in the property. Dobbins is now a professor at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture.

Fort McPherson Main Gate

Fort McPherson Main Gate. Photo by David Pendered

The proposal is not serious and is not even on the table. But the lens of history does cover some interesting tidbits around the time the fort was built:

  • The federal Reconstruction Act of 1867 put the “rebel states” of the South under military rule;
  • Military intervention ends in a compromise of 1877 and “home rule” is reestablished in the South;
  • Fort McPherson opens in 1885 as the first permanent Army installation in the Southeast;
  • Some African Americans go on strike in Atlanta in 1892 to protest a state law passed in 1891 to segregate streetcars;
  • The U.S. Supreme Court issues in 1896 its “separate but equal” ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case.

A portion of Fort McPherson already is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historic district is in the Northeast corner of the property. It covers a parade field and 40 buildings, including officers’ quarters, according to its page on the website of the National Park Service.

These historic components are referenced in the official redevelopment plan that’s been approved and presented to the city by the state authority created to oversee the fort’s transition to military use.

Staff Row, the officers' quarters in the historic district at Fort McPherson. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

Staff Row, the officers' quarters in the historic district at Fort McPherson. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army.

The authority’s plan envisions this future for the existing historic district:

  • Parade ground – active and passive recreation – picnics to polo;
  • Artist bungalows – cafes, bed and breakfast facility, galleries, studios, live/create space;
  • Open air market – near the Oakland City MARTA station;
  • New residential housing – transition the existing officers’ homes to new dwellings.

Again, no one is suggesting that Fort McPherson actually become a park.

Dobbins mentioned the idea in passing, mainly to illustrate the breadth of decisions facing the Atlanta City Council and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The Atlanta city government holds the power to guide the redevelopment future of Fort McPherson. Sometime later this summer, the city is to zone the 488 acres that have been off-limits to civilian control since the fort opened 126 years ago.

So far, two formal plans have been presented by the following entities:

  • The Fort McPherson Local Implementing Redevelopment Authority. It was created by the state Legislature to oversee the fort’s transition to civilian use and coordinate with state and local governments;
  • Georgia Stand-Up, a grass-roots organization whose funders include the Ford Foundation. It paid $20,000 for a studio of Georgia Tech students overseen by Dobbins to create a community response to the authority’s plan.

Both plans are being reviewed by city planners, according to Charletta Wilson Jacks, director of Atlanta’s Office of Planning.

Jacks said a June 28 meeting has been scheduled for city residents and others to present their ideas and goals for redeveloping Fort McPherson.

“We want to review the more recent plan that has been done by Georgia Tech,” Jacks told the City Council’s Community Development Committee last week. “We want to review that and see how we can mesh some concerns and policies with that plan and incorporate it into a zoning blueprint.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

13 replies
  1. Curious says:

    Why handcuff a future developer with a zoned site plan that will no doubt have to be rezoned when a developer with some business sense (and financing) eventually steps up to the plate? All that zoning the site now will do is set unrealistic expectations for the surrounding neighborhoods and create future hurdles for any developer that thinks about taking on this huge project. The Redevelopment Authority is essentially making promises that it has no way of knowing can be kept!Report

  2. Jack Sprott says:

    The federally-mandated mission of the McPherson LRA is to create a plan and establish a future use for the property that reflects the needs and desires of the neighboring community. Our plan is the result of grassroots input and direction from the community. Indeed, we are “handcuffing” a future developer by zoning the property to reflect the plan but, more importantly, we are removing the uncertainty of how the property can be legally used and we are giving the neighborhood the best opportunity for catalystic changes in their community.Report

  3. jeff sutter says:

    Fort McPherson has its “Casing Ceremony” this Friday to mark the end of FORSCOM’s presence and the move to Fort Bragg. It is a sad day. It is too bad the BRAC decision went this way. A simple computation of the added air travel costs from Fayettville, NC versus Atlanta, GA shows the millions of dollars our military will pay every year from now on. The net result is zero savings.

    Let’s not make another mistake and try to rezone the site before the end uses are determined by the buyers.Report

  4. Justin Chapman says:

    Zoning does not have to handcuff developers. Codes can be written to allow a range of uses and physical buildout, which will ultimately be determined by the market. The bigger question is whether (or when) the housing and economic conditions surrounding the base, and on the southside generally will facilitate significant investment in redevelopment. Answers to this question involve issues connected to, but largely beyond the scope of zoning the site. Nobody saw the severity of the economic collapse coming. Hopefully, the many intelligent people working on the project can figure out a way to turn the opportunity into a viable catalyst for economic stability and growth for the city.Report

  5. michelle says:

    Don’t forget the Health Impact Assessment that GSU is doing for the property. That initiative shows how important it is to work with the local community and to use zoning as a proactive planning tool rather than letting a development corporation stick up some cookie-cutter project.Report

  6. Leslie Caceda says:

    Councilmembers are providing positive avenues for community involvement that ought to be commended. That said, the process is long from over due to tight budgets, the re-development and integration of the Base into the existing urban fabric of the Cities of Atlanta and East Point will be move at an incremental pace during which community involvement will remain crucial.
    I second Justin’s assertion that zoning must be done wisely. The health impact assessment conducted by the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University wisely states some zoning recommendations. In the spirit of “why not:” Why not a solar farm? Teaming up with one of the numerous solar companies in the area and the Sweet Center or Georgia Trade-up to provide the training for ‘green jobs’ could make this endeavor a success.
    One crucial element that needs further examination is job opportunity. By examining existing job opportunities and job skills in the area, we can begin to conceptualize how to best zone and target employers who will provide opportunity to existing and future resident to flourish. The proximity of the base to the airport and to Downtown Atlanta already makes the Base favorable to employers. The questions now should be how do we zone for healthy community growth? And, what types of employers do we have the capacity to support?Report

  7. James R. Oxendine says:

    Great discussion on this topic: divergent viewpoints without rancor and some good background information from some of the key actors. Hopefully, as the project moves forward, there will be a focus on the transit oriented development aspects of the redevelopment. The proximity of two MARTA stations cannot be overlooked, especially as the national,regional and local conversations on TODs intensifies.Report

  8. Bill Fuller says:

    For so long I have looked at the economic lost to the Southside when Fort McPherson closes. Many people who do not live on the south side will not care. Many more will look to develop things that will have no tangible means of replacing the lost of income that the Southside will suffer which equals to over $500,000,000 per year. No one in the Atlanta community of power and finance will care as the Fort McPherson area continue to decline. They do not live there and do not have to worry about the immediate community’s safety and security. Because of the community economic lose we can look for decades of decay in the area after the base closes. To that end, I have looked at the positives and negatives of the change in the area and its future.

    First, for the positives, the land area and location is an asset as it relates to the region. It is close to the Interstate System (I-75, I-85, I-285, and Langford Parkway), the Regional Airport (Hartsfield-Jackson), and the Regional Transportation System (Marta and the Interstate bus system). Secondly, it is a highly secured tract of land with secure fencing surrounding the entire tract of land. It also has complete infrastructure (electricity, gas, water, sewer, and communications) already built-in within its borders. Third, it has local surface commuting systems (paved streets, traffic controls, signage, etc…) within its borders. Finally, it is surrounded by highly developed urban areas with multi-governmental controls.

    The negatives are just as compelling. First, it is a large tract of land that is bordered by many independent and governments and municipalities. This autonomy will cause problems with the ultimate use of the property. Second, the resulting lost of revenues that this location has generated for years will be difficult to replace with new development of equal revenue generation. Third, in the new century, the use of the property must generate substantial regional income for a long time. Fourth, the development must be attractive to many inhabitants of the Metropolitan Atlanta Region as well as many international visitors.

    Now, what can we do to resolve a majority of these concerns and create a positive community image? In my opinion there are only a few things that can satisfy a majority of these concerns. In order to create jobs on a magnificent scale, generate economic stimulus at a level that the Fort generated for the area, create a long lasting economical impact for the community, use existing amenities and infrastructure, and attract international income, we must create an international attraction. We will have to create a development that will generate $500,000,000 or more annually on a consistent.

    After thinking about a redevelopment that can accomplish all of these objectives I have come up with the ideal solution. We can create a locale gaming district unique to the State of Georgia. This will create several thousand jobs, generate over three times ($1,500,000,000) the lost revenue of the Fort, and rejuvenate the existing area. It will generate jobs in the hospitality industry, the food industry, the vending area, the transportation area, the cleaning service area, the public relations industry, the entertainment industry, the security industry, and many skilled and professional jobs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As for area security, the Fort already has a very high security system that surrounds the Fort and also provides protection for the surrounding communities. The development will attract business and gaming entities from all over the world; create jobs for all kinds of artisans, craftsmen and professionals, and create an attraction that will allow the Metropolitan Atlanta Area to continue to prosper of a long time to come as it continues to develop as an international city.Report

  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Bill Fuller
    It’s amazing that gaming always bubbles up as the miracle use for depressed or soon-to-be-depressed areas. Have you checked on how well Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the ultimate gaming areas, are doing? I’ll save you the bother – they’re both much more depressed than the rest of the country. No miracle cure here.

    Gaming is a system of taxing the mathematically ignorant.Report

  10. Adam says:

    Gaming??? That’s rich.

    So people attending conventions will travel 20 min from their hotels with no public transportation to gamble at a low-rent casino.

    How would these casinos give work to “artisans”?Report


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