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Cover Story: Proctor Creek: From polluted waterway to Emerald Corridor

The new West Atlanta project includes a 7-mile creekside trail that connects to the Beltline

As children in the early 1990s, Trinderlyn Williams and her friends ate peaches and apples from trees growing in the yards of English Avenue. They played in the streets and could depend on the neighborhood's mom-and-pop grocers to cut them a break when they were short on cash.

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They'd also walk a trodden trail among the many tributaries of Proctor Creek to explore their neighborhood, watch churchgoers sing as they baptized their flock in its water, and play with the creatures swimming on the banks.

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"It was fun to go in there and grab those turtles," says Williams, who moved to the neighborhood when she was 18 and has lived in seven different homes there.

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The English Avenue of today is different from the neighborhood she once knew as a child. The stream that snakes its way to Proctor Creek, a vital and polluted waterway, is now covered by overgrowth and, in some areas, houses. Last year, Williams was hired, and later volunteered, to help clean up the creek. The Atlanta native was shocked at what she discovered. An old wooden TV set. Bras. Tires. Men's underwear. A rusted motorcycle.

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Over the decades, the creek that starts in West Atlanta near I-20 and winds its way to the Chattahoochee has gone from a fishing and swimming hole to a polluted and largely neglected urban creek. The surrounding neighborhoods that were once populated with more residents and public housing complexes that helped support businesses along Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway are now in limbo.

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Community members have been trying to bring the creek back to life. Since 2010, resident volunteers trained by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and West Atlanta Watershed Alliance have taken weekly samples to monitor e. coli levels along the creek and pinpoint sources of pollution. And adjacent to where Proctor Creek meets Hollowell, inside a former gas station that's been revamped as an office for planners and architects, the nonprofit Emerald Corridor Foundation is piecing together a grand plan that it says will help build on those efforts, add parks and a bike trail linking Atlanta to its waterfront, and spark redevelopment. The foundation's board includes former Atlanta Braves player Mark Teixeira, finance and consulting executives, and a sustainability nonprofit leader.

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Known as the Emerald Corridor, the project has been several quiet years in the making. The first phase calls for building a 7-mile creekside trail along the waterway, starting at Maddox Park at Hollowell and snaking its way through northwest Atlanta neighborhoods, until the stream ends at the Chattahoochee. The estimated $20 million project would bring to life approximately 400 acres of greenspace along the path. New parks would be donated to the city once complete. A portion of the land along the creek would create a buffer, helping to protect it from the kind of pollution that has prompted government officials to post signs warning people not to play or fish in the waterway. The trail, which would run approximately 200 feet from — and connect to — the proposed Westside Reservoir Park at Bellwood Quarry, would also touch the Atlanta Beltline, linking nearly 45 neighborhoods to the river via a trail.

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The Emerald Corridor could also benefit groups that have amassed control of land along and near the creek to start the project. For the past several years, using different names, project backers have purchased properties that, from the street, look like any other investment property. But the relatively inexpensive land was a potential development opportunity. Adding a park near the properties could, in the long run, entice other investment and increase land values.

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Like the Beltline, the Emerald Corridor could have positive and negative consequences, such as adding bike paths, parks, and restaurants to an underserved part of town while also making housing more expensive in the long run. Creating greenspace can improve nearby property values and lead to higher property taxes, causing landlords to raise rents and tax bills to become prohibitively expensive for people living on low incomes. Throw in issues related to pollution, social and environmental injustice, race, and concentrated poverty, and the potential impact balloons. The foundation says the private investor group that has assembled the land is focused first on helping build the parks and trails and, in the long term, dusting off previously created community-driven plans to help spark "healthy mixed-income and diverse live, work, play opportunities" for residents.

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As Proctor Creek winds closer to the Chattahoochee, the water quality improves and the construction hurdles become smaller. The foundation plans for its first project to be one of its biggest. Next year, it will begin turning a kudzu-covered wasteland into Proctor Park, a 9.2-acre greenspace with a natural wetland feature close to the creek that will divert filthy water, clean it, and return it to the waterway. Once complete, the greenspace will hug Maddox Park, a beloved piece of land that is in need of repairs.

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"We're trying to create energy and bring people back," says Debra Edelson, who helped put together New York City's High Line and who now serves as Emerald Corridor's executive director.

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The Emerald Corridor could build on the work of residents and environmentalists to revive a stream that runs through historic neighborhoods and feeds the metro region's most precious river — and once again make Proctor Creek a place where people can connect with nature.

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Proctor Creek starts near I-20 in southwest Atlanta and flows north, bending under bridges and winding past homes until reaching the Chattahoochee River close to I-285.

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Trinderlyn Williams stands outside one of the homes she lived in since the Atlanta native moved to English Avenue as an 18-year-old. She cries when she visits it, seeing what it has become. Williams thinks the most important thing for the Emerald Corridor project is to include affordable housing. “That’s realistic to me,” she says.

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The creek runs just a few hundred feet from Bellwood Quarry, a 250-foot-deep hole in the ground that the city is turning into a reservoir to supply 90 days of emergency drinking water. Under current plans, bicyclists and pedestrians would be able to walk along the Atlanta Beltline Westside Trail, link to the Emerald Corridor, and access the 300-acre greenspace planned to surround the reservoir. Once complete, it would be the city’s largest park.

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Even though Proctor Creek is relatively close to residential and some industrial areas, parts are home to a diverse array of wildlife. In addition to herons, ducks, and beavers, fish, snakes, and other animals can be found swimming and bathing in the waterway.

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The Emerald Corridor will be funded by grants, funding from the investment group, and what’s called a mitigation bank. The federal program offers the private sector a financial incentive to clean up polluted waterways. The group will focus on trails, parks, and stream banks and then improve water quality.

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A railroad berm required part of the creek to be directed through a culvert. Manmade twists and turns have “tortured” the waterway, Edelson says.

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Before joining Emerald Corridor as executive director, Debra Edelson led the Georgia/Alabama chapter of the Trust for Public Land. Previously, she worked for Mayor Rudy Giuliani before leaving to help CSX turn over former rail lines to build a linear park, now New York’s High Line.

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Some properties along and near the creek could be retrofitted to serve as commercial or residential spaces. At the old Bankhead Enterprises site along Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway abutting the creek, old buildings with roll-up doors and authentic signage could become offices.

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Emerald Corridor’s first project is tackling a vast expanse of kudzu adjacent to Maddox Park along Proctor Creek. At one time the area was a street lined with homes. But after persistent flooding, the city purchased the land. Dubbed Proctor Park, the greenspace would include a natural wetland to help clean the water, a path for pedestrians and cyclists, and a playground.

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The creek’s water quality improves the closer it gets to the confluence with the Chattahoochee River. But Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth says volunteers who monitor e. coli levels have detected high levels near the headwaters of the creek.

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Also on the long to-do list is addressing a mosquito-infested spot near the North Avenue Combined Sewer Overflow Facility operated by the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management. The city is allowed to dump a mix of minimally treated sewage and stormwater into the stream up to four times a year during heavy storms. The large concrete wall can cause trash ranging from cans to shirts to accumulate until a large rise in water levels carries the debris over the barrier.

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Nearly as intriguing as the creek’s natural beauty are the quirky landmarks and sights it passes. Parts of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium are thought to be dumped near Bellwood Quarry. Along James Jackson Parkway, the creek runs alongside Pet Heaven Memorial Park, one of the city’s few pet cemeteries, established in 1942. Gun Club Park was long ago a spot where — you guessed it — people are said to have fired guns. The park is now closed and would require cleanup to reopen to the public.

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Environmental justice is a core issue at play in any conversation about Proctor Creek’s history and future. Williams recalls homes that were built on top of the creek having a foul odor. Along Florence Place (above), gigantic utility poles are fixed in people’s front yards.

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Rev. Larry Hill, who has owned a childcare and pre-K facility less than 200 feet from the creek on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway for more than 20 years, stands in the middle of the long-closed Maddox Park pool that he’s urged the city to refurbish and reopen. Hill says he supports the project but hopes it includes residents and businesses. “The time is at hand,” he says. “It’s just a matter of the community and city saying let’s not continue to eliminate those who have been in this area.”

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“Proctor Creek is a waterway on the rebound right now,” Ulseth says. “Since the city’s sewer projects, it’s cleaner than it has been in decades. But it still has problems and needs a lot of work. But with all the community members, organizations, and government agencies dedicated to restoring the waterway, we’ve seen improvements already and we’re excited about where it’s going.”

??Editor's note: This article has been altered to correct an error. The street with large utility poles is Florence Place.



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