Ambitious parks plans could give Vine City, English Avenue another chance

If they built it, would you come?

Since the late 1980s, taxpayers and private foundations have pumped more than $100 million into projects that officials had hoped would, bit by bit, revitalize the historic and beleaguered neighborhoods of Vine City and English Avenue.

A health center, affordable housing units, parks and playgrounds, shopping centers, you name it. And there's been no shortage of plans to return the neighborhoods, which have been plagued by crime, disinvestment, and blight, to their former glory.

Yet look around.

Entire blocks are filled with abandoned homes with kicked-open doors and overgrown yards. Street sign toppers and playground trash cans have been pilfered for scrap. Flooding, which nearly a decade ago caused residents along Joseph E. Boone Boulevard to lose their homes, still occurs in some low-lying areas. The neighborhoods have the least amount of park space of any section of Atlanta. And the very real prospect of a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons at the neighborhoods' edge on Northside Drive could further alienate a community that already feels ignored by the city despite being only a few blocks from downtown.

But several under-the-radar proposals are in the works that supporters say could solve many of the woes of Vine City, English Avenue, and other, long-overlooked parts of northwest Atlanta. The most ambitious would create a network of streams and ponds linked by 200 acres of parkland and trails that would replace dozens of houses and apartments — some of which are currently occupied.

The result would resemble the new Historic Fourth Ward Park along the Atlanta Beltline near Ponce City Market, only on a much larger scale.

Under the plan, developed by greenspace advocacy group Park Pride (PDF), properties in areas vulnerable to flooding would be purchased, long-buried streams brought to the surface, and retention ponds created to help prevent overflows by collecting stormwater. According to a study by the group, an estimated 30 million gallons of water drain from the asphalt-covered blocks around the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center into the community and toward Proctor Creek during a single heavy rain.

Parks would be built around the water features, as well as improved sidewalks and landscaping along neighborhood streets stretching from downtown to the east, the Atlanta Beltline to the west, Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway to the north and the Atlanta University Center to the south.

"This study could serve as a national model," says Walt Ray of Park Pride. "Wouldn't it be nice for Atlanta to be a national model for something nice rather than something wrong?"

The project's cost could stretch to hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on a such factors as land cost and engineering, but could be developed in phases over a number of years. Implementing just a few components, Ray says, "would be a huge win-win for the community, for Atlanta, and for the environment."

Also on the drawing table: the return of Mims Park, a greenspace designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Piedmont Park and Manhattan's Central Park. Named after Livingston Mims, an Atlanta mayor during the early 1900s, the greenspace was razed mid-century to make room for a school.

The project, which would span three city blocks along Joseph E. Boone Boulevard that the city purchased after homes suffered severe flood damage in 2002, is being pushed by Rodney Cook, a Mims descendant and a well-heeled booster of classical monuments who helped create Atlantic Station's Arc de Triomphe-esque Millenium Gate.

Once built, the 12-acre park would feature stormwater retention ponds and statues of former Vine City residents, including Martin Luther King Jr., lawmaker and civil rights advocate Julian Bond, and the late Mayor Maynard Jackson. An 80-foot-tall column and viewing tower, atop of which would stand a statue of Tomochichi, the native American who greeted Georgia's English settlers in peace, would serve as the park's centerpiece. The grounds would include greenhouses and an urban farm, a nod to the site's former life in the 1870s as a plant nursery and seed supply store, from which Vine City took its name. Classical buildings, including a recreation of downtown's erstwhile Carnegie Library, would line the park's perimeter.

"Great central spaces that become the town green are historically, through millenia, the foundations for organic healthy communities," Cook says. "This community doesn't have one anymore. It's unpardonable that they don't have their park."

Under Cook's proposal, local residents would work the farm, taking a cut of the proceeds when the crops are sold to a nearby planned Walmart.

Finally, City Hall is also in talks with the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation group, about using development incentives to help reclaim tributaries of Proctor Creek, which runs from downtown to the Chattahoochee River. If realized, the project could help connect the Atlanta Beltline to the riverway, creating a new amenity for northwest Atlanta residents.

All the proposals have obstacles. Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. and NPU-L Chairwoman Makeda Johnson say some residents have resisted the Park Pride plan because they object to the idea of longtime homeowners being relocated. Park Pride has applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is apparently very interested in the proposal's potential to clear up several problems — lack of park space, flooding, urban blight, brownfields — with one stone, to study more of the area in-depth.

And Mims Park, which has more community support because it could create jobs, requires the city to donate the land to Cook's foundation. Cook says his project could cost in the "tens of millions" of dollars, but adds that he's got potential investors lined up to help fund the project and business incubators interested in the area's possibilities.

Sources tell CL that Mayor Kasim Reed is interested in all three projects. Both Park Pride and Cook have pitched their plans to the mayor's economic development subcabinet, a sign that the administration views the proposals with more weight than simply building a pocket park with a bench.

"We're excited about this," says Parks, Recreations and Cultural Affairs Commissioner George Dusenbury. "These aren't just parks for parks. They're parks that are addressing green infrastructure, that are catalysts for economic development, and meeting a community need. I really like that connection and understanding the value of parks in that regard."

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