Cover Story: Welcome To Piedmont Parking Deck

What the two sides of the parking deck debate won’t tell you

In a perfect world, traffic planners, park designers and environmental engineers would spend months, maybe a year or two, studying the best way to provide more parking for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and Piedmont Park.

They’d look at every alternative to clear-cutting trees, digging up greenspace and constructing a multistory garage in the park. Using computer models, they’d evaluate whether the current proposal - to build an 800-space deck on a one-acre slope - would alleviate traffic in the park or make it worse.

Before making up their minds, they’d solicit the public’s ideas and review other options, including building a deck on nearby, unused land owned by the city. They’d find out whether office garages in surrounding neighborhoods could be used for park visitors on weekends, and whether it would be feasible to run a shuttle system from remote lots to the park and the garden.

In a perfect world, the powers that be would spare no expense, take as much time as needed, and look at every conceivable option to make sure that Atlantans’ best interests were served.

This is not a perfect world.

In perhaps the most heated intown dispute between the Atlanta establishment and grassroots activists in nearly a decade, the powers that be have opted for the bulldozer approach: Crank up the political-influence machine, grind it out full-speed ahead, and yell “we can’t hear you” to anyone who objects to the predetermined plan.

They’ve held crucial votes in secret meetings, withheld documents, dismissed state open records and open meeting laws, and hired high-priced lobbyists to sell the deck to neighborhoods and City Hall. And they’ve insisted all along that theirs is the one and only proposal that could solve the park’s parking problem.

Neighborhood activists have responded in kind, with yard signs, protests and furious flurries of e-mails pronouncing the latest rumors and intelligence about the deck deal.

The surprise in that predictable scenario is this: The high-handed elitists - with their contempt for open processes and their naked use of power and hired guns - have come up with a plan that could improve Piedmont Park, and the real challenge for park lovers lies not so much in defeating the deck as in ensuring that the promised improvements are fulfilled.

Between May and December of last year, the Atlanta Botanical Garden looked like a psychedelic alien planet. Seattle-based artist Dale Chihuly was contracted to install hundreds of his colorful and bizarrely shaped glass sculptures among the garden’s flora.The exhibit broke all records. Overall garden attendance for 2004 rose to 400,000 - more than tripling combined visitation from two years earlier. Finally, garden officials could argue that the garden - a private nonprofit housed, thanks to a sweetheart lease, on city land carved out of Piedmont Park - belongs on the upper tier of the city’s cultural institutions, alongside the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum and Fernbank Museum.

There’s just one catch. The garden’s tiny lot has space for just 120 cars. Special events, or simply sunny spring days, send scores of drivers into nearby neighborhoods in search of parking spots. At times, the garden has been forced to make arrangements to send its own guests to nearby commercial lots.

“During Chihuly, we spent over $100,000 running four shuttle buses, running all the time,” says director of operations Ben Bradley. “It was great, and exciting, but we’ve got to give all these people a place to park.”

Parking is even worse for the park itself. Its 146-space lot near Magnolia Hall is too small for the multitude of visitors, causing neighboring streets to overrun with cars almost every weekend. Obviously, visitors who choose to drive to the park or the garden would find it more convenient if there were room for their cars.

The notion of a deck was first broached in 1998 by three blue-blood institutions: the garden; the Piedmont Driving Club, a private club adjacent to the park; and the Piedmont Park Conservancy, a nonprofit that operates the park under a memorandum of agreement with the city.

“We started talking about how we could do something collaboratively between these three organizations in the same proximity and build one parking solution that served all three of these organizations,” the garden’s Bradley says.

At one point, conservancy officials backed out of the negotiations, declaring they didn’t need more parking, according to Bradley. The garden and the driving club talked for another six months before club officials decided they could accomplish what they wanted on their own property.

“So at that point, the garden started looking at what our alternatives were within our lease line,” Bradley says. “While we were in the long process of doing that, the conservancy came back to us and said, ‘Let’s rethink this one more time,’ and that’s how we got to where we are with this particular proposal.

“We felt like that hillside back there was good as far as the adjacency between the two of us.”

There’s nothing special about the slope that drops from the garden’s unappealing backside and levels out behind a maintenance shed near Magnolia Hall. The steep terrain makes the hill difficult to walk up, though it’s not as if anyone would bother. It’s not the sort of place where visitors picnic, throw a Frisbee or walk the dog.

But just the principle - that the park’s own custodian, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, would want to replace a natural area with a massive block of cement to accommodate more cars - sounds outrageous. The idea of firing up chainsaws and bulldozers in the city’s great, green refuge causes a visceral reaction someplace deep down inside.

“Its location in the heart of the park will bring thousands of cars into the park, destroying peace and tranquility, creating air, noise and visual pollution, and raising safety issues,” says Doug Abramson, president of Friends of Piedmont Park - an advocacy group that has taken the lead in opposing the deck.

Abramson and his wife, Susan, learned about the garage in September 2003, when she attended a Conservancy Advisory Committee meeting where the deck plan was unveiled.

“I came home that night in tears, literally,” Susan Abramson says.

Conservancy officials insisted that they hadn’t taken a position, but all signs pointed in the opposite direction. It became clear that the more the Abramsons and Friends of Piedmont Park raised objections, the more they’d be locked out of the process. And the more they were locked out, the more vocal their opposition became. The longtime Midtown residents personally paid for almost all of about 600 “Keep the Deck Out of Piedmont Park” yard signs that have sprung up around town.

For months, conservancy officials continued to act as if they didn’t favor the plan. On a dog-and-pony show of the deck site last May, conservancy Executive Director Debbie McCown showed about 40 concerned neighbors and members of the media the hill where the deck would go. During a public meeting after the tour, she stressed repeatedly that the deck was merely a proposal and that the conservancy hadn’t taken a position. But in the same breath, she listed the reasons the deck was a wonderful idea.

The deck, she argued, would be a key part of an ambitious, $40 million-$50 million plan to improve the park and expand it by 53 acres. It would provide more parking for both the park and the garden. And the garden would foot the entire $15 million bill, while the conservancy - and, by extension, the park - would be able to use revenue generated by the deck to fund park improvements and maintenance. (It should be noted that City Council ultimately will decide how much to charge for parking and who gets what share of the money.)

Finally, in exchange for letting the garden construct the deck on park property, the park would gain access to about three acres of wooded land that the Botanical Garden currently controls. That land would serve as a bridge to a plot of city-owned land on the park’s north side, which the city has indicated it would be willing to turn over to the park. It’s where the conservancy wants to put a basketball court, a skate park and an athletic field for soccer, football and ultimate Frisbee.

“What we’re talking about,” McCown said at the time, “is increasing the size of the park.”

Opponents - already seething at the way in which the deck was being pushed by the conservancy — saw big problems with the plan.Bells and whistles didn’t change the fact that the deck would quadruple the number of cars entering the park. Cars would enter the deck from two directions - on an existing road off Piedmont Avenue that currently isn’t open to automobiles, and along an extension of the driveway for the city’s Clear Creek sewage treatment plant. Trees would be felled, all to serve the needs of the mighty automobile. And it seemed that other options hadn’t seriously been considered.

When McCown opened the May meeting to public comments, Doug Abramson unveiled the Friends of Piedmont Park’s alternate plan. To protect greenspace, buses could shuttle visitors from off-site parking to the garden, he told McCown. And, if necessary, a deck could be built on flat, unused land near the north side of the park.

McCown countered that a shuttle probably would be too expensive. It was the first of many failed attempts to get the conservancy to look at alternatives. And the mere fact that she was arguing for the deck, while claiming that the conservancy didn’t really support it, fueled the opposition’s growing suspicion that the deck was a deal already done behind closed doors.

The battle escalated. Two of Atlanta’s most activist politicians, state Sen. Vincent Fort and former Councilman Derrick Boazman joined anti-deck activists and helped Friends of Piedmont Park present alternatives to as many of the city’s neighborhood planning units as would let them speak.

They had a great pitch. Just the phrase “parking deck inside Piedmont Park” is enough to get most people shaking their heads. Add to that the well-founded perception that the high and mighty were ramming through a plan with little public input and the anti-deck crew was incredibly successful.

Fifteen of the 16 NPUs that took a vote on the issue opposed the deck. While NPUs can’t set city policy, they are city-sanctified boards designed to offer grassroots advice to City Council.

The conservancy and the garden were obviously losing the grassroots debate. So, they did what smart politicians do when they face opposition: They compromised a little and spun a lot.

The conservancy says it will make sure trees cut down to make way for the deck will be replaced in even greater numbers. Allison DeShaw, a conservancy spokeswoman, says 33 of the 80 trees on the parking deck site would die within five years, anyway. The conservancy has vowed to replace all of them, inch for inch.

Jeff Dickerson, an influential spokesman hired by the garden, says the garage itself will be one of the “most environmentally friendly” decks ever built. It will feature a stormwater cistern to irrigate plants on and around the deck. The top level will be so covered in foliage that “it’ll be camouflaged from an airplane overhead.”

At least three of its six stories will be underground, hidden from view. Mature evergreens planted just after the deck is constructed will mask most of the aboveground portion, Dickerson says.

Conservancy and garden officials also contend that traffic inside the park won’t be as bad after the deck is built. They’ll be able to close the portion of Park Drive that runs to the Magnolia Hall lot to all but emergency and maintenance vehicles. As long as the sun is out, that short stretch of road is jammed with bikers, roller bladers and joggers, who end up playing Frogger with drivers.

Conservancy officials also announced that if the deck is built, they’ll rip up the Magnolia Hall lot and replant it with grass and trees. The garden will rip up its lot, too. The net effect, both groups say, will be about an acre-and-a-half more greenspace than before.

“A one-acre parcel for the deck in a 210-acre park - it’s just smart,” McCown says. “I think that’s a responsible thing to do.”

And unlike Park Drive, the new 500-foot extension from the sewer plant to the deck will be traversed by a pedestrian bridge before disappearing into a tunnel that empties into the garage’s bottom level.

“By doing this,” Dickerson says, “you get a net loss of roads within the park and for this first time ever, completely separate people and cars in Piedmont Park.”

While deck backers tweaked the plan in a way that might have gained more acceptance, they played the power game when it came time to give the deck their official backing.In what must go down as one of the most boneheaded PR maneuvers since Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” the conservancy board tried to dodge protesters by moving the November meeting in which they’d vote on the deck to a secret location.

Out of public view, they backed the plan 18-3, with three abstentions. Fort, a potential mayoral candidate and guardian of all things populist, led the charge to force the conservancy to open its meetings to the public. He solicited a decision from the state attorney general’s office, which said the conservancy, in its quasi-public duties, probably had violated state open meeting laws.

On Dec. 21, the board appeased the attorney general and replayed its secret meeting publicly. About 15 protesters against the deck and six deck supporters carried signs outside Piedmont Park’s Magnolia Hall, where the meeting took place.

During the public comment period before the vote, Doug Abramson told the board, “The fact remains that from day one, this deck and its location was predetermined.”

An hour-and-a-half after the meeting started, the board voted even more overwhelmingly - 21-2 with two abstentions - in favor of the deck.

By that time, public opposition was fiercer than ever. Besides the NPUs, some 30 organizations, from the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to the Little Five Points Business Association, have now gone on record opposing the deck.

The garden and the conservancy have meanwhile worked the inside. The conservancy contracted with Angelo Fuster, a longtime politico who’s worked for three Atlanta mayors, to push the plan. The garden has employed Dickerson, a PR specialist and sometimes lobbyist who also writes columns and is a panelist on the WAGA/Fox 5’s “The Georgia Gang.”

The two power brokers were hired to sell a done deal to the public and City Hall. They approached that task with vigor.

To undermine the alternative plan offered by Friends of Piedmont Park, for example, Dickerson points to a three-dimensional model of the entire park. He pulls a 1-by-3-inch replica of the deck out of the sloped hill where it’s currently planned, and places it on the flat area where the skateboard park may go. Dickerson says it would be ridiculous to build the deck there because “it would stick out like a monstrosity.”

Of course, any idiot would realize that the deck could be redesigned to be wider and shorter to go into a flat area, as opposed to a hill where several stories of the deck are to go underground. And even if the deck would look like a monstrosity elsewhere, lots of people would choose a monster deck in another location over digging up and paving a part of the park.

All the slick presentations in the world couldn’t sweep past the perception that the conservancy and the garden didn’t want to hear about any other options and that genuine public input wasn’t desired. Indeed, the slick presentations only made opponents angrier.

“The way these things unfolded,” says Jim Kulstad, a veteran Atlanta activist who opposes the deck, “shows it was clearly designed to accomplish the original goal and idea by the Atlanta Botanical Garden - a private parking facility on public parkland.”

The debate over the deck raises broader questions. Should a private organization like the conservancy be given as much sway as it has over the park? If the conservancy does get that much sway, shouldn’t the city ensure that conservancy officials do a better job of authentically soliciting public input? And can private groups like the conservancy and the garden really be counted on to look out for everyone’s interests — taxpayers, park users, the environment — as opposed to their own interests?In a perfect world, a private group conducting public business would lean over backward - not just give lip service to public input, but to leave no doubt that it truly wanted to benefit from everyone’s ideas. In a perfect world, we’d be sure by now that the best plan was on the table.

But this isn’t a perfect world.

The deck plan could increase greenspace in the existing park, help expand the park’s boundaries and generate more cash for park maintenance.

So, at this point, the real question may not be whether to oppose the deck, but how to ensure that park lovers, taxpayers and other city residents get the best deal we can. Should the garden, for example, be required to give more back to the public in exchange for its obvious gain? And will enough safeguards be built in to ensure that the garden, the conservancy and the city fulfill their parts of an eventual deal?

In February, the city’s Urban Design Commission was set to vote on the deck. With bad feelings all around, however, it was time for someone with more clout to save the plan from the fumbling of its chief advocates. So, Mayor Shirley Franklin stepped in and created a task force to study the deck plan and issue its own recommendation within 75 days.The mayor’s actions gave the appearance that the parking deck issue was entering an open forum where cooler heads could work on a resolution. But they also hinted at the direction she wanted the debate to head.

When she named the task force, she issued this statement, “The members of the task force represent a cross-section of civic experience, professional expertise and a sincere commitment to contributing to the betterment of our city.”

Then, she promptly stacked the panel with folks who’re more inclined to favor building the deck. Among them was Randall Lautzenheiser, who represents NPU-E on the task force. A majority of NPU-E, which includes Ansley Park, Midtown and Atlantic Station, voted for a different representative, one who opposed the parking deck. Franklin picked Lautzenheiser, who supports the deck, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

She didn’t appoint a single person to the task force from Friends of Piedmont Park. In fact, Doug and Susan Abramson said, Franklin didn’t even acknowledge their request to be on the task force.

The mayor’s office appears intent on pushing the deck through without getting mired in the controversy. Her office, for example, simply ignored repeated requests for an interview for this story.

On Monday, at the task force’s first meeting, only one side was heard. Conservancy and garden officials hit every highlight of their wonderful plan. Chairwoman Sharon Gay, a McKenna Long & Aldridge attorney and longtime Franklin friend, banished the Abramsons to comment at a later meeting, where they’ll have to share time with the general public, including another wave of deck supporters.

Two hours later, task force members, conservancy and garden officials, and journalists filed out of Magnolia Hall. They were the only ones invited to enter a white bus to tour parts of the park that would be affected by the deck and the expansion.

Doug Abramson and his fellow deck opponents were left standing in a stone courtyard, planning a protest rally that evening at Park Tavern.