Cover Story: The long revival

Westside communities in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium prepare for a $100 million jolt

Mother Mamie Moore has a view of the world from her front porch on Oliver Street in English Avenue.

The 77-year-old community activist can see her daughter Annie’s budding tomato plants and oregano. Next door is Lindsay Street Park, the neighborhood’s first greenspace. Every person walking by says hello to Mother Moore and she says hello to every person.

But beyond the garden crops and greenspace are reminders of the stubborn challenges English Avenue, long known for its blight, drug market, and poverty, has faced for decades. A man bicycles by with a kitchen sponge for a bike seat. A car with out-of-county plates rolls past. The house across the street is dilapidated. So is the house next door.

Moore, who serves as president of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association, does not want to look at those houses across the street forever. But she doesn’t want them knocked down, either. She’s more concerned about the people inside.

“I want to be able to empower and enable the person living in that house to enjoy something better,” she says. “Therein lies the challenge. What can we do?”

It’s a heady time in English Avenue, Vine City, and other westside neighborhoods. When the new Atlanta Falcons stadium crashed down on two historic black churches in 2014, it unleashed a tidal wave of money and good intentions from city officials, CEOs, and philanthropic leaders who want to help people live in healthy and vibrant neighborhoods. They say they hope the efforts can create stability and community that can somehow, someway undo decades of disinvestment, poverty, crime, and blight in the area.

Investors are swarming to purchase land, joining a motley crowd of property owners that range from mom-and-pop operations to overseas groups. City officials are buying and demolishing eyesores. The Nation of Islam has set up shop on a main drag and called on 10,000 followers to rebuild the community. Signs in yards urge people to “Unite or Die.” And some residents are mobilizing to make sure that the better future everyone is envisioning includes them.

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WHEN FALCONS OWNER Arthur Blank and Mayor Kasim Reed announced in 2013 they had struck a deal to build a new football stadium that included at least $200 million in public money, they were quick to note that they also planned to rebuild the adjacent communities of English Avenue and Vine City. It was, Reed and Blank said, the right thing to do.

It’s also no easy task.

City, state, and federal officials over the past decades have pumped more than $100 million into westside neighborhoods, the bulk of which has gone to Vine City and English Avenue. But poor investments, lagging schools, high crime, and amateur home flippers have wreaked havoc on the community’s foundation. The Great Recession dealt the decisive blow, sparking a wave of foreclosures that, at the downturn’s lowest low, left approximately 60 percent of English Avenue homes vacant. Today the neighborhoods rank high on nearly every negative indicator imaginable. More than half of the residents are living below the poverty level. One hundred percent of the children who attend the local Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club receive free or reduced school lunches, says executive director Leisa Smith.

The city, through its economic development arm Invest Atlanta, promised in 2013 to kick in $15 million to pay for new roads, parks, and other infrastructure in the two neighborhoods. Blank’s eponymous philanthropic foundation pledged $15 million on what Foundation President Penny McPhee calls “human capital” — people-focused programs that help students, teach job skills, and support entrepreneurship.

The number of do-gooders who followed Blank to shore up the communities is downright dizzying. The Atlanta Committee for Progress, an influential group of Atlanta CEOs that holds quarterly closed-door meetings with the mayor, created the Westside Future Fund in 2014 and pledged additional resources. In 2015, Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, a strong backer of the City of Refuge, a homeless service organization just outside English Avenue, announced that he also wanted to help and added other nearby neighborhoods to the mix.

“There’s something wrong when we’ve let a section of Atlanta that’s not participated in the growth enjoyed by other parts of the city stay that way,” Cathy said after a November WFF summit. “I feel a deep and moral conviction of what it says about Atlanta. I have a deep spiritual calling ... This is not a PR stunt or a headline in the paper to me. This is about coming to the rescue of people with broken lives.”

Then there’s the investment being made by local, state, and federal governments and other entities both inside the communities and on their edges, including a complete overhaul of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive between the new sports shrine and Fulton Industrial Boulevard. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced a $30 million grant to help complete mixed-income housing, buy and bulldoze eyesores, and help spark new development in the area. The Atlanta Beltline’s Westside Trail is under construction near Washington Park. The Emerald Corridor Foundation is moving ahead with a greenway along Proctor Creek between Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway and the Chattahoochee River. All told, more than $100 million will find its way into English Avenue and Vine City over the next five to 10 years. When you include what’s happening just outside the area, including the conversion of Bellwood Quarry into the city’s largest park, the Emerald Corridor, and the Westside Trail, that number is more than $200 million. Factor in the short timeframe and partnerships, and it adds up to arguably the largest intervention ever performed in Atlanta neighborhoods since, well, maybe ever.

“We’re at a place we have never been in our history,” says Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young, who represents the area and lives in Vine City.

The National Guard and Atlanta Police code enforcement have knocked down dozens of blighted homes. The U.S. attorney’s office has scared straight — or simply run off — more than a dozen suspected drug runners in what has been called the Southeast’s largest drug market. And the efforts are well underway to make the predominantly blighted neighborhoods into communities like Villages of East Lake. To Cathy and city officials, the mixed-income neighborhood once known as “Little Vietnam” that now includes mixed-income housing and an excellent school is seen as a model.

The Blank Foundation is currently focused on improving the lives of people living in the communities, and helping grow programs that would address the neighborhoods’ endemic issues.

In 2014, the foundation launched Westside Works, a job-training facility that has placed more than 300 neighborhood residents with skills to work in IT, health care, clerical work, and positions constructing the new stadium. Foundation officials say 76 percent of the people who went through the program are still working, which is higher than the national average. On Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, a former service station has been turned into a fitness center where residents can pay $15 a month to get in shape. Trash cans have been placed on street corners to help cut down on littering. The foundation is trying to help residents boost the Mattie Freeland District, one of English Avenue’s most stable and populated pockets, with decent housing and by demolishing known drug-dealing spots. They hope it creates a ripple effect throughout the community.

“I think they’ve taken a big step,” says Derrick Jordan, an eight-year Vine City resident and affordable housing developer. “They put their money where their mouth is. You can see the work if you drive around the neighborhoods. You see what’s happening at Westside Works, the resource center. They put consultants in place. They didn’t try to disassemble the community groups. They tried to build capacity. They haven’t turned their back on the neighborhood.”

The Blank Foundation team, led by Frank Fernandez, is also focused on health, education, inclusion, and housing to fuel initiatives and find long-term approaches to helping English Avenue and Vine City.

“What we’re trying to do, the end result, is to move the needle of concentrated poverty, place, and people,” Fernandez says. “There are all these interventions that have to happen in a particular kind of way for it to be successful, for it to be inclusive, for people to feel empowered, and for it to really benefit longtime residents rather than just new residents.”

A few miles away, in a sleek space constructed with funds from Cathy, longtime political insider John Ahmann is leading the Westside Future Fund, which he says will serve as a sort of “community quarterback” that will help to launch and support other charities and initiatives. (The Blank Foundation is a part of the effort.) But it has also begun an ambitious land-use planning process to identify projects that could actually be built, and quickly, to address the various infrastructure woes afflicting the communities and entice new residents. Once a month, a team of hired consultants evaluate the multiple plans that have been compiled for the westside neighborhoods and conduct a weeklong blitz with residents in one community. Residents point out what’s important from past plans, outline what they want to see, and hear what the experts think is feasible.

“Our goal is to find actionable projects,” says Dhiru Thadani, a new urbanist planner from Washington, D.C., who’s leading the WFF’s planning efforts. “What can come out of the ground?”

For the stretch of Joseph E. Boone Boulevard between the Beltline and the upcoming Mims Park, planners have envisioned mixed-use and mixed-income housing. They’ve also proposed what they call a Peace Lake to be built in a flood-prone area and surrounded by residential units. A linear park could replace blighted homes built on top of a Proctor Creek tributary, connecting people from the Beltline to Downtown, among other ideas.

For English Avenue, planners recommended investing in the neighborhood’s center and hanging strings of lights along the most traveled streets. Churches should be illuminated as community beacons. Flat church parking lots could be turned into basketball courts for neighborhood youth. The old English Avenue school should be brought back to life as community center. But most importantly: Renovate the 600 existing abandoned-yet-decent houses and replace the roughly 350 dilapidated homes to bring the residential streets back to life.

Residents, many of whom have fatigue from years of meetings about plans that ultimately sat on a shelf, have been cautiously optimistic of what’s to come. During a string of early May meetings about English Avenue, residents and business owners asked what was different this go-round, expressed frustrations over whether incentives would ever arrive for small businesses, and pushed planners focused on bringing in new residents to first tackle vacant and dilapidated eyesores that are magnets for crime.

“To say we’re going to build 50 rentals up there, that doesn’t really interest us because there are six vacant houses right beside me,” Kelly Brown, an engaged resident, said at a recent WFF meeting. “I see children going in and out of those units. And they use a field that’s overgrown to access that vacancy.”

Throughout the process, Moore has emerged as a guardian for what she calls “the beloved community,” a real-life example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a multiracial, multicultural community with socioeconomic diversity. She views what’s happening now as “veiled gentrification.” For the community to truly rebuild, the discussion needs to be about more than just land. She says the neighborhood needs a “holistic plan,” one that includes affordability, jobs, and an acknowledgment of the neighborhood’s individuality. The community can and will stand its ground, but she says it also agrees change is needed.

“We can not afford to say no to anything that’s going to be good for our people,” Moore says. “We’re a neighborhood in triage. When you go to an ER and you’re dying, they put tubes on you everywhere to save your life. Anyone that comes in here with the wrong tube, we don’t want you here. Because that’s sure death ... We have to be willing to partner.”

IT WILL TAKE MONEY to bring the WFF plans to life. It will also require property. The latter might be one of the biggest challenges, Thadani says. Investors own 85 percent of the property in English Avenue. Some of them aren’t even located in Georgia or the United States. For businessmen and women entranced by the buy-low, sell-high mentality of real-estate investment, the Westside is the land of opportunity.

In some instances, out-of-town family members inherited the houses after a longtime owner died. Some of the investors are located in the neighborhood, such as Bethursday Development Corporation, a community development corporation owned by the influential Antioch Baptist Church. Others are owned by local investors such as Rick Warren, who, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, held roughly 150 properties and has famously quarreled in court with Reed. Others are in different states.

Then there are entities not even based in the United States such as Beltem Trust, a London-based group that owns approximately 20 properties in Vine City and English Avenue, among others throughout Atlanta. CL was able to determine that the administrator for the trust is Adrian Davies, a London lawyer who helped launch the British Democratic Party, a right-wing political party with an anti-immigration platform.

Nearly all the trust’s properties were acquired from limited liability corporations affiliated with Sam Dickson, a prolific Atlanta property investor and real estate lawyer who once defended the KKK. Davies and Dickson both spoke at a conference organized by American Renaissance, a website that publishes white-separatist viewpoints. Davies says he is neither a white supremacist nor a white nationalist but politically is concerned about immigration in the U.K.

In an interview, Davies says the trust acquired the parcels, some of which were purchased in 2009 when the U.S. was roiled in the Great Recession, “on the premise that property values were so low they could only go up.” He says he “knows nothing” about the neighborhoods and plans to “hold them until someone makes me a good offer.” As trust administrator, he earns “extremely modest fees.” If sold, proceeds would be distributed to the trust’s beneficiaries.

Over the past two years, according to Jesse Wiles, a consultant with APD Urban Planning and Management who’s helping Invest Atlanta and the WFF, 50 to 60 properties have been purchased by Invest Atlanta or effort partners. Quest Community Development, with funding from the Blank Foundation, has purchased or is in the process of buying roughly 25 properties, including 22 single-family homes, one multi-family complex that could have a total of 140 units, and two commercial properties that will be focused on remaining affordable.

But acquiring property is difficult. Investors are sniffing opportunity with the stadium redevelopment and promises of a grand revival and the potential profit it could bring. Quest CEO Leonard Adams says the investor activity is now more competitive than he’s seen in his 15 years working in the area.

And when investors are willing to sell, Wiles told a group of residents at a recent English Avenue Neighborhood Association meeting, they’re asking for up to seven times the appraised value, making it difficult to secure a single property, much less build an assemblage that could make a meaningful difference.

“You have some very uncooperative property owners,” Wiles said. “I understand commerce and real estate and people want to make money, but in terms of what is happening with what we want to do in the neighborhood, it is totally unrealistic and we can’t deal with it.”

The upside to the issue is that investors have a breaking point: a price. And for the first time, after many efforts to kick-start the communities out of an economic malaise, the city is willing to cut a deal, Young says. At a recent Westside Future Fund meeting, he told the investors seated in the audience that there was no better time to do something with their languishing land than right now.

“If you are an investor, you have a unique opportunity in this season,” he said. “We have financial institutions and philanthropists at the table right now to work with us to get financing. The thing we’ve lacked for decades is critical mass ... If you come to us and work with us you will find yourself with resources you didn’t have before and participating in critical mass we have never been able to accomplish. This is not a taking, this is a partnership.”

TAKE A DRIVE through English Avenue, Vine City, or other nearby neighborhoods or talk with everyday residents and the tension is there.

“I’m representing the position that you should not have to lose your home as a result of Proctor Creek, the stadium, or anything else,” Moore says. “Why do people have to lose whole communities?”

Red-white-and-blue yard signs stuck in the ground in front of homes proclaim “Not For Sale – I’m Staying!” Brother Sharrieff Muhammad of the Nation of Islam’s 10,000 Fearless, which moved into a house last year on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, echoes the skepticism uttered by others who have seen people displaced or been displaced themselves.

“I’ve been to meetings and seen a lot of red tape and the people who need the help are not getting the help,” says Muhammad, who offers security patrols, a food co-op, free haircuts, conflict resolution between gang members, and free clothes. “I see a move to buy these people’s houses and take their houses. Once they come in they’re not going to bring the people back. That’s why we’re here to say ... I know there’s a plan to move our people completely out of here and take over and move in a new group of people. As long as we’re here we’re not going to stand for that.”

City officials stress in every presentation that they are prioritizing keeping people in their homes and communities intact. But displacement is top of mind for current residents. More than 85 percent of residents in Neighborhood Planning Unit L, which includes Vine City and English Avenue, are renters, the most at-risk population for displacement. In an April study for the Westside Communities Alliance, an organization that tries to help boost schools and health, Georgia Tech Professor Dan Immergluck noted that there is relatively little subsidized housing in the area, and much of what’s available could convert to market-rate in six years. At a recent meeting outlining the potential housing demand for the neighborhoods the Westside Future Fund is studying, Yvonne Jones, a longtime English Avenue community leader, asked a consultant what happens when existing residents start getting “classed out and raced out”?

Longtime homeowners who are already living on low incomes — and who may even own their houses outright — might not be able to sustain the increase in property taxes that can come with a wave of investment and revitalization. What do the people who stuck through the hard times do when the visions of new housing and parks start becoming reality and property values rise?

There is cause for concern. City living is seeing a resurgence across the country. And the development industry has returned with a fire after the Recession. Though some westside communities might appear far off, gentrification happens sooner rather than later. Building the grand vision of parks and ponds and pinpointing where bike lanes and new housing go “without getting affordability locked down first is a recipe for gentrification,” says Winifred Curran, a DePaul University associate professor who studies gentrification.

“When you’re prioritizing the make-it-look-pretty part rather than the substantive policy part,” she says, “you’ve made your choice in terms of what will happen.”

“We’re playing catch up here,” Young acknowledges. “But an integral part of our redevelopment has to involve engaging the 84 percent of landowners who are investors. We don’t have all the answers. But we can ill afford to sit around while property continues to increase in value and do nothing. It’s not a perfect solution, but we are on our way to establishing what that is.”

Writing a check to build a pond is sometimes faster than overhauling city policies on affordable housing and tax programs. City and nonprofit leaders are currently studying several approaches. Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane says a specific strategy needs to be tailored for the area and introduced when the plans are finalized. The Blank Foundation has partnered with a nonprofit legal group to help homeowners get clear title on their homes and wipe away liens. Investors can, and often do, purchase liens and use them to force foreclosures. The foundation is also working with homeowners to fix roofs, foundations, and address other home projects to provide stability.

The Atlanta Housing Authority is considering releasing vouchers that could be tied to housing units in the westside neighborhoods, offering people affordable housing options and rebuilding the population, which is key to making the neighborhoods safer.

Another group is working to create a community land trust, a progressive affordable housing model in which a nonprofit owns the land and people can purchase the home, allowing them to build equity.

But there’s a catch-22, according to foundation and city officials, consultants, and some residents: If the communities want to attract new businesses and services, they need new market-rate housing.

“Without a significant improvement in household income and demographics in this community, these communities cannot sustain conventional economic development,” Young says, noting that the late legendary developer H.J. Russell could not score a loan to build a shopping center on MLK Jr. Drive because the bank did not see enough potential in the area. “The challenge for all of us is to do it in a way that has little impact on residents. We cannot fund economic development on the backs of folks who live below the poverty level. We have to protect them, we have to provide a place for them in this transformation effort.”

ON A SUNNY SATURDAY morning in early May, members of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association filled every seat in New Life Covenant Church to watch what the Westside Future Fund planners envisioned for the neighborhood.

Mother Moore had already given the plan her tentative blessing, provided the planners made a few tweaks where the community had concerns and promised the concepts get a full legal vetting by the community and the Neighborhood Planning Unit process. (City officials say it will.) She also wanted them to chill with the ponds-everywhere-proposal and to look at special pavers that could stop water from ever reaching the flood-prone areas.

She has been through this before, in Ohio in the 1960s, and most recently in the 2000s in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where $1 million homes on the boardwalk were bumping up against $90,000 homes a few blocks away. She saw it happen in Harlem.

But Moore is inspired by her neighbors’ determination. The neighborhood association brokered a compromise with the Atlanta Police Foundation on its plans for a new center in the heart of the community. Last year, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia launched an initiative to divert drug dealers off English Avenue’s streets and into job, health, and counseling services. Due to the program’s success, the association decided it wanted the same opportunities offered to every law-abiding citizen. The neighbors’ persistence paid off. On May 19, Acting U.S. Attorney John Horn stood at the lectern in Lindsay Street Baptist Church and announced the program’s expansion.

After the Westside Future Fund presentation at the beginning of the month, Moore urged her neighbors to stay engaged.

“Now is not the time to lay down, because you’re gonna get run over,” she told the group. “If anyone wants to stand with me, I’m standing up. This is our last chance. There’s a major change coming up in here. If we want it, we gotta go get it. This plan belongs to us. I’m down with negotiating. I know what time it is. We are at the table. Let us stay at the table. Not be on it.”