Proctor Creek’s second chance

Plans for extensive cleanup, trail along polluted stream announced

Proctor Creek, the waterway that snakes from downtown and through northwest Atlanta before ending in the Chattahoochee River, wasn’t always so polluted, says Na’Taki Osborne Jelks. Many decades ago, children played, men and women fished, and babies were baptized in its water.

“Proctor Creek used to be a source of pride for our communities here in Northwest Atlanta,” says the chair of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, a community organization that advocates for the area’s creeks and streams.

But today Proctor Creek is besieged by high bacteria levels, illegal dumping, pollution, and erosion. An estimated 42 percent of the pollutants that flow into the Chattahoochee from the city come from Proctor Creek.

But if everything goes according to plan, the troubled waterway could finally be cleaned up and restored. Last Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the creek was among 11 streams being added to a special federal program launched by President Barack Obama aimed at restoring waterways in urban areas. The Urban Waters Federal Partnership doesn’t come with cash, but rather direct orders from the White House to federal officials to cooperate on improving the streams. It’s an across-the-board, multi-department effort to revitalize waterways that, if done right, could not only help the environment but create community assets.

Along Proctor Creek, that means helping such groups as the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance to continue removing trash from the stream and assisting local officials with watershed clean up.

In addition, there are plans to build a transformative 400-acre linear park that links with the Atlanta Beltline. The seven-mile trail-and-stream system would ultimately wind all the way to the Chattahoochee, finally giving landlocked Atlantans access to a waterfront.

The linear park and multiuse trail would abut Bellwood Quarry, the 350-acre proposed greenspace and reservoir that played a prominent role in the first season of the “The Walking Dead.” Once complete, the 400-acre greenspace would be more than twice the size of Piedmont Park.

A major player in the complex initiative is Emerald Corridor LLC, a firm run by local real-estate developer Greg Todey and landscape architect and planner Joel Bowman. For the last few years, the company and its related firms have purchased large amounts of properties along and near the creek. Judging from property tax records, the Atlanta Housing Authority, Georgia Power, an outfit called Atlanta Greenspace Initiative LLC, and Emerald Corridor control much of the nearby land.

Under the plan, Bowman says land along the creek that would comprise the greenway would be consolidated and transferred to the city. A conservancy, similar to the organization that acts as a caretaker for Piedmont Park, would be set up to manage the linear park. To help fund the project, parts of the creek would become a mitigation bank, meaning real-estate developers elsewhere would be able to offset damage they caused to other wetlands by revitalizing and repairing Proctor Creek.

Bowman hopes to break ground in 2014 and complete the first of at least two phases in a couple of years. The entire process could unfold over more than a decade.

“We’re in,” Bowman says. “We’re certainly committed to be there a long time and move it down the road. And hope it keeps moving.”

Advocates are viewing the project as a win-win for everyone involved. Proctor Creek would no longer become a dumping ground and feeder of pollution into the Chattahoochee. Nearby property owners — and the developers who helped push the project — would see their property values increase. The city would gain park space. And northwest Atlanta residents would be near a groundbreaking project that could give their long-neglected part of town a jolt of life. The cost estimates are still in the works, but could be in the many millions of dollars. Still, Mayor Kasim Reed, says the project could have a “six-, seven-, eight-to-one return.”

“When you see what this tributary could mean to the city of Atlanta. When you see what it looks like right now ... I knew this was something we had to do,” he says.

The project does raise some complicated questions, among them: What is the potential impact of such a desirable amenity on the homes of longtime residents, especially those who live on low incomes? (Reed has said the community will be able to offer input on the effort.) In addition, how will the project balance restoring the environment with the public’s strong desire to access not just an amenity, but also the Chattahoochee, by foot and bike?

“I imagine a place that’s a beautiful, fishable, swimmable creek where kids can safely play,” says Osborne Jelks of WAWA. “I imagine it being a positive amenity and not a dumping ground for scrap tires. Not a place where there’s fecal matter and raw sewage flowing. I think of a place that can help transform the neighborhoods.”