Paving Piedmont Park?

The park's own guardian is mulling a plan to build a parking deck

On May 19, Piedmont Park Conservancy Executive Director Debbie McCown stood in front of 40 citizens concerned about the future of the park and, pointing at a steep hill covered in high grass, weeds and trees, told them the land might soon be replaced with a parking deck big enough for 500 cars. The hill, just below the eastern end of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, flattens out into an unsightly swath used as a maintenance facility by the city.

After the tour, McCown hosted a public meeting to explain the advantages of building the parking deck and to dispel rumors that the parking deck was a done deal — a common belief among those who oppose it.

But even after the tour and the meeting, opposition to the project — and the way the conservancy manages Piedmont Park — was stronger than ever. To some Midtown residents, the parking deck proposal reinforces the conservancy's reputation as the tyrannical ruler of one of Atlanta's best amenities.

"They are really reluctant to give us a voice in the planning of Piedmont Park, which is OK. But at the same time, they don't have to be so sneaky," says Susan Abramson, who's active in both the conservancy and the Friends of Piedmont Park, a group that's challenged several of the conservancy's plans for the park. "They just ram it down our throats."

As secretary of Friends of Piedmont Park, Abramson is one of 15 volunteers whose self-appointed mission is to watch over the park — and keep an eye on the conservancy. Friends of Piedmont Park has gathered more than 300 signatures opposing the parking deck.

McCown is well aware of opposition to the deck and the perception that it's being pushed through without public input. She said several times during the public meeting that the parking deck was merely a proposal.

But at the same time, McCown laid the groundwork to win the parking lot debate by explaining how great the deck could be, for three reasons.

First, it would provide more parking for both the park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the latter of which currently shuttles visitors from lots outside park grounds. Second, the conservancy would get half the revenue that the parking deck generates and use it to fund park improvements and maintenance. Third, Piedmont Park would actually grow by up to 50 acres if the deck were built. Here's how:

The Atlanta Botanical Garden would build the deck, at an estimated cost of $15 million, on the hill between the garden and the maintenance facility. In exchange, the conservancy would get about three acres of wooded land that the botanical garden currently controls. That land would serve as a bridge to a plot of city-owned land on the north side of the park, which the city has indicated it would be willing to give the park. That the land is flat — and therefore suitable for a playground or soccer field.

"What we're talking about is increasing the size of the park," McCown says.

After the meeting, some audience members praised McCown for the good job she's doing and thanked her for getting the public involved. But most of them weren't budging about the traffic problems the deck could create and the eyesore it could become.

And while the meeting was ostensibly called to gather input from the public, McCown defended every criticism of the plan to build the deck. She even refuted suggestions that would've allowed the conservancy to access additional land without having to build the deck.

Doug Abramson, Susan Abramson's husband and vice president of Friends of Piedmont Park, pointed out that the deck would create a bottleneck on Park Drive, where cars already compete with bikers, joggers and walkers. He also pointed out that there are other, off-site parking sources that can be milked — and could preclude any real need for a deck inside the park. "Using a shuttle system will protect green space," he said.

But McCown has said that shuttle service would probably be too expensive.

Susan Abramson called McCown's actions reminiscent of the time the conservancy tried to sell a piece of the park to MCI in 1998.

"They never brought the idea to the public, ever," she says. "The Friends of Piedmont Park got wind of it and stopped it."