Atlanta’s forgotten $55 million greenspace

Vine City and English Avenue’s Historic Mims Park never happened. It’s time to try again.

More than three years ago, city officials brokered a deal with one of Atlanta’s most prominent residents to turn more than 16 acres of barren land in Vine City and near English Avenue into Historic Mims Park, what could be one of Atlanta’s most picturesque green spaces.

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A retaining pond would be created on blank parcels purchased by the city after a flood ravaged the area in 2002. Urban farms and greenhouses would be built. More than a dozen statues honoring local civil rights heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr., who lived one block away as an adult, would dot the green space. Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who welcomed Georgia founder James Oglethorpe from Britain in 1733, would stand atop an 80-foot-tall column.

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Today, the land looks no different. Pollution is partly to blame. But there’s also been debate over whether the ambitious vision first presented in 2012 can actually become reality. And city officials, nonprofit bigwigs, and the park’s visionary are set to try to break the logjam and iron out the next steps.

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Historic Mims Park is the brainchild of Rodney Mims Cook, an Atlanta native and creator of the Millennium Gate, Atlantic Station’s faux Arc de Triomphe. Cook is one of Atlanta’s blue bloods, a descendant of a former mayor and movers and shakers, and the founder and president of the National Monuments Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to classical architecture and monuments.

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Cook’s vision has been to recreate a Vine City park, also called Mims Park, designed by renowned landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted that was demolished in the 1950s to make room for an elementary school. Former Mayor Livingston Mims, a Cook ancestor, commissioned the green space in the late 1800s. Rebuilding the integrated park in Vine City was a longtime dream of Cook’s father, Rodney Cook, Sr., a former state lawmaker and member of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen, now the City Council, who died in 2013.

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In July 2012, the Atlanta City Council gave Mayor Kasim Reed the green light to enter into an agreement and ink a 50-year lease with Cook. It included a provision that the estimated $55 million, privately funded park’s first phase, a basic build out, would be complete by July 2014.

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But city officials and Cook never hammered out that agreement. Since then, a more-than-$100 million wave of public, private, and philanthropic investment pegged to the new Atlanta Falcons stadium has started to crest over the surrounding neighborhoods. Historic Mims Park sits idle.

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One of the hiccups is the fact that the vacant parcels, like other pieces of land in traditionally underinvested parts of town, are polluted. The city conducted tests of the soil on the parcels and, in June, the state Environmental Protection Division gave permission to move ahead with a clean-up plan to dig up lead from the future park’s dirt, among other tasks.

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There is also chatter that the delay has been over just how much of Cook’s original vision is feasible. No one opposes the park being built, sources tell Creative Loafing, but disagreements have arisen between the city, Cook, and the Blank Foundation, which has become a major player in the neighborhood because it’s investing in the area. (Cook was traveling and unavailable for comment. The Blank Foundation says it’s “very supportive” of making the park become a reality.)

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Sources tell CL that there have been differing opinions over the placement of park features. The urban agriculture component might have to be downsized to accommodate other features. A retention pond to catch most of the storm water that flows from the Georgia World Congress Center and the new stadium to prevent future floods might need to be larger. Atlanta City Councilmember Ivory Young, who represents the communities, says the pond would “rival what’s been done in Historic Fourth Ward Park.” Young says there is “absolute energy being placed to produce a team that can produce the concept the community developed. That concept is unprecedented in parks that I’ve seen.”

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On Sept. 4, the three sides are scheduled to meet and discuss next steps and whether the initial vision can be realized. New legislation would have to be introduced to finalize the lease and details. Funds must be raised. Teams must be selected. And if the vision changes substantially, park boosters might have to win community support a second time. Young says it’s vital the park’s initial focus — “healing wounds” caused by segregation and discrimination and honoring the men and women who advocated for peace and equality — is kept intact.

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Jenna Garland, a spokesperson for Reed, says the mayor plans to “listen to all perspectives about the park’s features and design and looks forward to weighing in with his opinion.”

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“When Mims Park is completed, the City of Atlanta will have a new, best-in-class park in a neighborhood with little green space,” she says. “This park will be a significant improvement over what we have now ... Where we end up will be far better than where we started.”