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Good fences, bad neighbors

HUD wants Atlanta complex gated

In some ways, London Town Homes in southwest Atlanta is the picture of suburban bliss. Most of the buildings boast tidy rectangles of yard. A line of trees on Brownlee Road tries to muffle the roar of traffic on I-285.
The complex, a co-operative insured by the federal government, is an oasis of home ownership in an area that its councilman says has a "serious drug problem."
The issue before the residents, and soon before the Atlanta City Council, is whether London Town Homes should do what so many mega-bucks developments in Atlanta have already done — put up gates.
A fence already encircles the complex. That was put up more than two years ago, courtesy of a $125,000 drug elimination grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the gates never were installed. So, right now, anyone can saunter in and out of the London Town Homes development.
According to HUD, a fence really isn't a fence unless it completely encloses something. The agency has indicated that it might force the community to pay back the grant if the gates aren't installed.
Still, it's possible other arrangements could be made, says HUD spokeswoman Linda Allen. "We're still working with a group of people to find something that will work for everybody," Allen says. "We're not going to come in and rip the money out."
But before HUD starts working with residents, it's waiting to see whether City Council votes to abandon the streets within the development, which would make them private drives.
Meanwhile, the prospect of possibly having to pay back the grant has divided residents at London Town Homes.
If you took a vote today, residents would vote against gating, says Sunshine Lewis, a member of the board of directors. The same vote could go differently tomorrow. There's no clear consensus.
"People would breathe a little easier if we knew one way or another (what HUD plans to do)," says Sonia Miller, the president of the board of directors for the town homes.
It's not good enough for HUD to say it might make residents pay back the grant.
"If you tell me a train may be coming, I might try to cross the tracks," Miller says. "If you tell me it is coming, I won't."
In essence, each side is waiting for the other to make a move.
At Councilman C.T. Martin's request, the city Finance Committee on Tuesday put the issue on hold to allow residents time to work out the problem with HUD and break the deadlock.
The arguments for gating the community are simple: It would help keep people who don't belong inside the 200-unit complex from getting in, and that would make London Town Homes safer.
Since the fencing was erected, crime has dropped within the town homes by 30 percent, says Atlanta Police Maj. T.A. Knox, Zone 4's commander. The surrounding community, dominated by smaller apartment complexes, hasn't seen a corresponding decline, she says.
"We think security gates are a tremendous crime deterrent," Knox says.
Lewis says her truck has been stolen while parked at the complex, and she saw people breaking into a car on London Town Homes property a few weeks ago.
"Nobody wants to live in a contained situation, but when predation is going on, and you're trying to reduce it, unfortunately, you have to go to that," Martin says.
The local Neighborhood Planning Unit doesn't agree. It voted not once but twice to keep the streets that run through London Town Homes open to the public — in 1998 and 2000. Neither vote was even close, says NPU chair Andrew Fellers.
Fellers, like Miller, worries that gates could hinder ambulances or fire trucks. Also, gates might keep MARTA from serving London Town Homes residents. However, MARTA spokeswoman Dee Baker says buses will be able to continue their travels through London Town Homes as they do through other gated communities.
What could be an issue is road maintenance. The cooperative may have to pay to repair any damage to the roads in the complex if the city abandons them. Residents might also have to pay the city fair market value for the streets if they become private.
No pricetag has been put on the streets yet.