Opinion - Where the streets have 1,000 names

The city's heroes deserve a better honor - and Council should follow its own rules

Occasionally, observers of the Atlanta City Council are treated to unintentional comedy gold that seems ripped from an episode of "Parks and Recreation." Such was the case on May 18 when policymakers bent over backward to approve the renaming of a healthy chunk of Spring Street in Downtown to honor Ted Turner. Specifically: "Ted Turner Drive at Historic Spring Street."

For nearly an hour, councilmembers wasted time and oxygen opining why Turner, the larger-than-life founder of Turner Broadcasting and CNN, should be honored with a street renaming, Atlanta's go-to honor. Council waived its own rules to make it happen. And it ignored the pleas of people who constantly see Downtown's streets get rechristened, causing headaches and confusion. City Hall seems to pay much closer attention when powerful people are speaking.

And powerful people did indeed speak. At council meetings presenting the proposed street renaming, heavyweights turned out in force wearing "Friends of Ted Turner" tags. Visitors to the meetings included former Mayor Andrew Young, former CNN honcho Tom Johnson, and civil rights activist and broadcaster Xernona Clayton, who headed the renaming initiative.

Friends and family of the business genius and Downtown resident, not Turner himself or a city official, requested the Spring Street name change, saying other thoroughfares proved too difficult. From the beginning, the process was riddled with missteps. As it unfolded, it was hard not to imagine Turner shaking his head from his Luckie Street penthouse as he focused on helping fund the United Nations, saving the American bison from extinction, boosting clean energy, or ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Or any of his other philanthropic, and more worthy, endeavors.

According to the city code, 75 percent of residents and business owners along the street must support a renaming. The proposal must also be heard at a regular meeting of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission.

During public comment, Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association President Kyle Kessler noted that the AUDC heard the proposal in a special-called meeting, not a regularly scheduled meeting. On the day Council was supposed to vote on the legislation, the city still had not made available the list of supporters. Only when the measure was under consideration, and after much prodding for an answer by Council President Ceasar Mitchell and Councilwoman Felicia Moore, did the public learn that the level of support did not meet the required 75 percent. Only two property owners signed in favor. One person signed against, stating the name change was costly to their business. More than 20 were nonresponsive, yet somehow were included in the "support" category.

Council, as it has done before, ended up waiving these and another provision, which might sound like a triviality. But these are policies that a City Hall task force itself put into place years ago after residents demanded some sanity surrounding the constant street renamings.

The lengths council and city departments went to rename a street to appease a group of powerful people should offend the average resident who has struggled to get City Hall to pay attention to boarded-up homes, persistent crime, or shoddy infrastructure. It raises the question: Why does council spend time crafting rules if it never intends to follow them?

The street renaming ultimately passed 9-3. Councilmembers who voted against the honor stressed that their nay votes weren't tied to thinking Turner didn't deserve a tribute. It was on principle, a feeling that Turner deserves a greater honor than just a street renaming and discomfort with how the process played out.

"We have the problem because we create it because we just want to waive everything and not want to go through the full process," Moore said after the vote. "I certainly want to honor Ted Turner. It's not about personal favors or personal likes. Our oath says 'without fear, favor, or affection.'"

We as a city need to get over the quick-fix hat tip to our success stories that is a piece of hanging metal positioned next to an unsynchronized traffic light. The tributes we make to residents who have changed our city should enhance our city. Think parks and public art. Downtown and its streets — try renaming West Paces Ferry Road, we dare you — should not be a sandbox of patronage and empty honors.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond, speaking after the vote, bemoaned how the process became so messy, saying the renaming should have been a "no-brainer" and "gone through with much celebration and fanfare." That's City Hall's fault for making up the rules as it goes along and wasting time and political energy on trivial issues. It sows distrust and sours residents.

A legal challenge, if filed, could still stop the renaming. And renaming supporters say an additional tribute is in the works, which is good to hear. Maybe before either of those two things happen, the people who pushed for the renaming should thank the city for its hard work and use their clout and creativity to find a more fitting honor. Council, perhaps in between deciding what other parts of the City Code it deems unnecessary, could get back to focusing on more pressing issues that actually affect the lives of Atlantans.

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