Trinity Avenue Urban Farm finalists want answers

Four years later, City Hall still hasn’t announced winner of ambitious contest - or $25,000 prize

Four years ago, Brian Barth’s eyes lit up. The then-University of Georgia graduate student heard that Mayor Kasim Reed, Sustainable Atlanta, and Walmart were launching a competition to design a nearly 1-acre urban farm on a vacant lot directly across the street from City Hall on Trinity Avenue. Private funds would be raised to help build the project.

He thought the contest was a great opportunity. Barth and a classmate had discussed starting a company focused on urban agriculture after finishing their environmental planning and design studies. Barth says they organized a team and spent “hundreds and hundreds” of man-hours fine-tuning the 42-page proposal, which they turned in at deadline.

“We were trying to do so much with it and flesh out that idea to the greatest extent possible,” Barth says. A few months later, they were named one of three finalists for the $25,000 prize.

But around the summer of 2012, City Hall officials essentially stopped communicating about the urban farm. They still have not named a winner and have yet to give out the cash prize. The website that once housed information about the competition has been taken over by a Japanese-speaking manga fan. This past February, the three finalists asked the city for closure and for Reed to finally announce the winner. It went unanswered. The vacant lot still remains vacant.

Following the Great Recession, people in cities across the country turned moribund patches of land into urban farms and gardens. They created jobs, grew fresh food, and helped bring to life dead lots in struggling neighborhoods. Atlanta was no different. Atlanta’s contest, Barth says, was probably the boldest step any American city had taken to embrace and endorse urban agriculture.

“We were glad the city was supporting the urban farming movement that was already underfoot,” says Mark Field DiNatale, a local urban farmer and another finalist team member. It was also an opportunity for local architects and designers who saw work dry up during the housing market crash, says Sharon Tsepas, an architect whose team was also named a finalist.

An urban farm offering fresh food to nearby residents, educating children and communities, and demonstrating urban agriculture’s possibilities next door to City Hall would show Atlanta wasn’t just paying lip service to a national movement.

“This is the kind of thing that would put Atlanta on the top,” says K. Rashid Nuri, the operator of Truly Living Well, the 8-acre urban farm in Old Fourth Ward, and one of the competition judges.

After the finalists were named, City Hall needed more information about the proposals, which the finalists provided. City Hall staffers crunched numbers and conducted due diligence on proposals that could cost as much as $2 million to get started. But around summer 2012, emails basically stopped getting returned, all three finalists say. Phone calls went to voicemail. Occasionally they’d get callbacks or responses.

Still, City Hall kept the anticipation high, telling Creative Loafing in 2012 that numbers were still being crunched. In June 2013, then-Reed Spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs Dade told CL that the process was almost finished and to expect the winner to be announced later that summer. In late 2014, Barth contacted the other finalists, a rare move in any kind of competition, and asked if they’d heard any updates.

No one’s knocking the city for trying to make sure it doesn’t blindly sign on to building — and ask donors to support — a Taj Mahal of urban farms. But the finalists stress an important point: The contest was for a design, not to design and build. They fulfilled their end of the bargain and now just want closure and the winner to be announced.

“They had a duty to award the prize based on the criteria they set out for that competition,” Tsepas says. “Whether or not the city moves forward with that project based on a particular design, or engages with one of the three firms, that’s totally beside the point.”

Reed Spokeswoman Anne Torres says the city has been vetting the estimated cost of the winning proposal. But in 2014, the estimates “skyrocketed.” She was unable to discuss specifics. That sticker shock, along with ongoing attention to complex real estate deals involving city-owned properties such as Underground Atlanta and the Atlanta Civic Center, among others, that Reed wanted the city to unload, stalled the farm project.

Torres says the city remains committed to the “concept” and is optimistic that Stephanie Stuckey-Benfield, the city’s recently hired sustainability director, will “move this project along.” The administration is even considering whether to move forward with awarding the cash prize first and then fine-tuning the design.

“We realize the right thing to do in this case is to find a resolution sooner rather than later,” Torres says. “That’s what we’re working on doing.”

As CL went to press, the status of the $25,000 award could not be confirmed. Noted as an initiative in a previous year’s budget, it’s nowhere to be found in the next fiscal year’s proposed spending plan. Torres says she believes Sustainable Atlanta, the eco-nonprofit that co-sponsored the contest, held the award. SA was absorbed by the Center for Civic Innovation in 2014. A CCI board member said to be familiar with the financial award was not available for comment.

DiNatale says he likes the Reed administration and thinks it has made some good policy decisions. But the lack of transparency about the contest has soured him on participating in such an endeavor again.

“I will never participate in something like this again because I don’t trust the city to follow through again on its word,” he says, echoing Tsepas’ feelings. “The city lost three teams of designers that could help Atlanta and the city of Atlanta to design, create, and imagine the possibilities. It’s lost the trust of those people.”

Barth, who now lives in Canada, says the teams deserve closure to the process and residents should expect better transparency.

“We’re not adversarial people, it’s not our nature,” he says. “But it’s also not in our nature to walk away with our heads down. We expect the city to be accountable ... The city, the community, the citizens of Atlanta deserve that from their government.”