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Neighborhood developing a complex

Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park clash over massive project

Once one of Atlanta's more-impoverished districts, the Old Fourth Ward is enjoying a renaissance that's gotten a wee bit ambitious for the neighborhood next door.
Developer James Braden, of BHC Property Group Inc., plans to build a three-, four- and six-story complex along Highland Avenue with shops, office lofts, 373 condos and a restaurant. The project is being cheered by Old Fourth Ward leaders. It won the approval of the Old Fourth Ward Neighbors and the local Neighborhood Planning Unit. Even city Zoning Administrator John Bell says the development will have a positive effect on the neighborhood.
To long-term residents, Braden's plan caps the progress the neighborhood has made since the mid-1990s, when dilapidated homes, petty crime and public drug use were commonplace. Known in the '60s as the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, the district fell on hard times in the '70s and '80s. It was even called Little Beirut by police, but has recently drawn attention for revitalization efforts ranging from a home-improvement loan program to the Studioplex arts complex.
Not everyone's excited about Braden's project, however. The development has drawn opposition because it would run along the west side of a rail line that historically served as the barrier between the predominantly black Old Fourth Ward, and Inman Park, an affluent, historically white neighborhood. Both neighborhoods now are racially mixed but the Old Fourth Ward retains a far greater diversity of land uses than largely residential Inman Park.
Thirty-five-year-old Greg Evans, who was born in the home he now occupies near the site of the proposed development, views Braden's plan as testament to the fact that the Old Fourth Ward has lifted itself out of inner-city hell.
"For the first time, we have a development that involves a comprehensive plan," he says. "I do realize we don't live in the suburbs. We're going to have growth, but the kind of growth is very important."
The type of growth also was important to Stan Hathcock, who decided to sell the auto-body repair shop his family opened in the Old Fourth Ward back in 1939. Hathcock and the other landowners say they were very careful to sell the land to someone who would do right by the neighborhood. Hathcock was the first to sign up for a condo in the proposed development.
But Braden's development is in danger of being shot down by what Evans and Hathcock call the intrusion of Inman Park.
What irks Inman Park Neighborhood Association President Tim Price is the project's size and its potential impact on his neighborhood. The dense development would bring more traffic to Highland Avenue, he notes. More importantly, Price says, it would set a precedent of allowing similar projects to engulf the neighborhood. Price says the development would be acceptable if it had around 250 condos instead of 373.
Tom Hills, a two-and-a-half-year resident of the Old Fourth Ward, shares Price's concerns. "The issue is not just this development, but the other industrial acreage along Highland is also for sale. When that property gets sold and developed in the same density as [Braden's project], there will be an accumulative impact on Highland," Hills says. "This development will not solely overwhelm Highland Avenue, but additional developments like it will."
The NPU that represents Inman Park is in the process of filing its own recommendations for what the project should look like with the city's Zoning Review Board.
"There are ordinances which enable any NPU to provide recommendations regarding any issue affecting the livability of the residents in the NPU," says Bob Schreiber, chairman of the Inman Park NPU. "So while they may not like that someone else is evaluating the impact of their plan, they are nonetheless subject to the comments and recommendations of an adjacent NPU."
To some Old Fourth Ward residents, Inman Park's involvement amounts to a slap in the face. Harold Barnette, chairman of the area's NPU, calls Inman Park's encroachment "imperialism." He says Old Fourth Ward leaders followed land use and zoning laws to the letter when they studied and approved the proposal.
"It's an effort to derail our neighborhood autonomy. Inman Park is a rich, politically powerful neighborhood, while the Old Fourth Ward is generally poor, and not politically connected at all," he says.
"What's most offensive to me," Evans adds, "is for someone else to tell me we don't know exactly what our neighborhood needs. Our neighborhood has been talked down to, not shown the proper respect it deserves, and I don't understand it."