Pro-parking deck 'grassroots' group has links to Botanical Garden

A group advocating for the construction of a parking deck in Piedmont Park calls itself "grassroots." But it's more like Astroturf.

Grassroots groups typically form when enough people sharing a like-minded mission find each other and take a stand. They organize, and then they act.

The group Safe Accessible Greenspace Expansion imitates this pattern - to a point. SAGE members share a common goal. They stake "Yes!" signs in their yards in support of a controversial cause: expanding Piedmont Park by 53 acres in exchange for building a six-story parking deck there. Whenever there's a meeting, debate, or vote on the deck, a dozen or so SAGE members plant themselves nearby with picket signs.

But SAGE was not organically grown. It was created from the top-down rather than bottom-up, after the Atlanta Botanical Garden hired a public relations firm, the Edison Group, to humanize the argument in favor of the parking deck. (The privately operated garden is the deck's biggest proponent; it has offered to foot the entire bill for the $15 million deck, which would be located on park property between the garden and Magnolia Hall.)

The garden hired the Edison Group last fall. Since then, one of the firm's employees has organized rallies and sent out e-mails urging as many people as possible to attend meetings where the parking deck plan was discussed. The Edison Group, among others, also maintains SAGE's website, according to Darren Katz, Edison Group principal and co-founder.

However, Katz stops short of saying the Edison Group is SAGE.

"I wouldn't say that we run or operate it," Katz says. "We have folks who are involved in it, and there are a lot of other people involved in it as well."

The fact that SAGE is organized in part by a for-hire group (one that's paid by the deck's biggest supporter) doesn't mean the parking deck is without a genuine following. After all, more than 1,500 people have joined SAGE. But it does mean it's difficult to differentiate between true, pro-deck activism and purchased PR. Consider this statement by Ben Bradley, director of operations at the garden, posted on the Edison Group's website: "I can't recommend the Edison Group highly enough. Their staff is hardworking, savvy and totally dedicated to helping us achieve our goals."

According to parking deck opponents, the problem with the garden's ties to SAGE is a lack of transparency. To activists like Jim Kulstad, SAGE appears to be a homegrown grassroots group when it's more like an extension of the garden's PR machine.

"I have never heard anyone disclose the fact that SAGE is organized through a paid PR consultant," says Kulstad, a deck opponent and member of Friends of Piedmont Park. "And I'd venture to bet there are a number of people listed as SAGE supporters who actually signed up without that knowledge."

But according to Katz, the partly voluntary nature of the Edison Group's involvement in SAGE, coupled with the need to give deck proponents a voice, makes SAGE just as legitimate as anti-deck groups like Friends of Piedmont Park.

"We don't think that either the media or a lot of folks in the public are giving [the parking deck and expansion plan] a fair shot," he says.

Mayor Shirley Franklin's task force on the park expansion plan, which includes the parking deck proposal, will hold a public meeting Fri., April 1, from noon-2 p.m., in Committee Room No. 1, City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave.

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