The uncertain future of the old Atlanta Prison Farm

After decades of neglect, residents want the largest greenspace inside the perimeter to be restored.

About a mile from Starlight Six Drive-In, longtime community activist Scott Petersen steps over piles of discarded tires, past old marble slabs from Downtown's long-since-demolished Carnegie Library, and ventures into the heart of the historic Atlanta Prison Farm. Some interested Atlantans consider the 400-plus-acre site to be the largest greenspace inside the Perimeter.

The mostly abandoned land includes forests, ponds, a creek, and an abundance of wildlife. Petersen, producer Jill Kahanek, and illustrator Joe Peery — collectively involved an effort called Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm — envision the former destination for city code offenders someday becoming an "eco-park" that could transform a major swath of southeast Atlanta.

"It could be a social area for us," Petersen says. "You can hike the farm. We can even have bike trails; community gardens; a variety of athletic fields such as soccer, baseball, and cricket."

During the early 20th century, the prison farm first opened as an experimental minimum-security federal facility that allowed some nonviolent inmates to tend crops, cultivate livestock, and help feed fellow convicts. The city took over the farm for half a century before closing it in 1995, the same year Atlanta opened its current Downtown detention center. The city currently operates a wastewater treatment facility and police shooting range on a small portion of the property. For the most part, the land has sat idle for nearly two decades save for the occasional movie production, guerilla photo shoot, or urban exploration expedition.

"It's a beautiful site with a history that's tinged with sadness," Petersen says. "It's a place where prisoners were given some modicum of freedom while they were incarcerated."

City officials have entertained a few offers for the land but mostly remained content to wait until the right deal came along. In the early 2000s, Atlanta and DeKalb County started discussing how to turn the shuttered corrections facility into a regional park. DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson says philanthropic institutions such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation were interested. DeKalb bought more than 100 acres to help facilitate the process. Former Mayor Shirley Franklin says DeKalb County made an informal offer to buy the land from the city, but the two sides couldn't agree on a final price.

Talks stalled during the Great Recession. DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon says she started working in 2013 with then-Atlanta City Councilman Aaron Watson on a plan to convert the land into public greenspace. That plan fell by the wayside when Watson lost his citywide post, however. "It's still a viable option," Gannon says.

City officials are planning to revisit what to do with the prison farm. One option involves selling the property as part of Mayor Kasim Reed's push to shed city-owned properties to help finance $250 million in bridge, road, and sidewalk repairs, provided voters approve the measure. The mayor thus far has focused on selling property in the Downtown area, including Underground Atlanta and the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center. A Reed-appointed "blue-ribbon" panel tasked with identifying potential savings in the city's budget also recommended the sale of the historic Atlanta Constitution Building, the former Fire Station 17, and the old prison farm.

Reed spokeswoman Melissa Mullinax says conversations about a potential land swap with DeKalb could resume in the coming months. Future plans might also include green initiatives such as a solar farm operated through the city's sustainability office. But it's a low priority for the city at the moment.

"We're not currently negotiating or planning around it," she says. "It's on the list of the properties we need to resolve, but it's far down the list."

Still, selling the property to a private developer could prove difficult. According to Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm members and city officials, much of the land lies in a floodplain, making it nearly impossible to build throughout the property. And Atlanta can't make zoning changes or issue bonds for sewer system because the property is located outside the city limits in DeKalb. It's also an environmental hazard. People have illegally dumped tires and chemicals on the land for years. The former prison's abandoned buildings have today turned into homeless encampments, drug dens, and graffiti havens. Exposed asbestos in large amounts covers some structures, some of which might be beyond repair.

The vision of Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm will take years to come to fruition, if it can do so. Funding is currently non-existent. The group's cheerleaders, though zealous, are small in number, with more 1,000 Facebook supporters at press time. But they at least want to restart talks to get more people behind their mission to make the property available to all Atlantans.

"It's not really legal to be out wandering around here," Peery says. "The neighborhoods around there include a lot of vacant houses and poor residents who would benefit from a really nice park. People around here are so desperate for places like the Atlanta Prison Farm that they break the law to go anyway."