All Eyes on the Westside: How the City of Atlanta is Addressing Displacement, Development

Anti-Displacement and Revitalization the aim of two recent City of Atlanta development initiatives
On the eve of the launch of the Beltline in 2008, a not-yet Atlanta mayoral candidate Senator Vincent Fort chided the City of Atlanta for the amount of economic attention that areas of Atlanta deemed Tax Allocation Districts – or TADs – were getting and would be getting anyway, irrespective of government intervention. “We should not be engaging in developer welfare by setting aside TAD money. I don’t believe we taxpayers should rush to subsidize wealthy developers for areas they were planning on developing anyway.”
In the same year, at a public hearing held by Atlanta City Council, members of the community pointed out that TAD money can only be collected and used in economically and social depressed areas and that many sections do not meet that criteria. Furthermore, in order to achieve TAD status; it must be proven that redevelopment would not be possible for the area without government intervention. The areas in question: Piedmont Park, Inman Park, Virginia Highland, Morningside and Ansley Park – not exactly underserved.
But the City has always had its sights as well as its development arm set on the city’s blighted and long underserved areas – namely the West End – in ways that would attract both development (i.e. the Mercedes Benz Stadium) and inevitably the vestiges of gentrification.
To address the latter, the City of Atlanta launched two recent initiatives. The first – a partnership with the Westside Future Fund to launch the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund Program, an initiative that will pay any property tax increases for qualifying homeowners in the English Avenue, Vine City, Ashview Heights and Atlanta University Center communities. The new program is designed to help ensure that current homeowners are not displaced due to rising property values as public and private investments are made in these neighborhoods.
“The City of Atlanta is proud to launch this essential program which will help ensure that long-time residents get to share in the prosperity coming to the Westside, thanks to new infrastructure, new parks, more transit, the Atlanta BeltLine, and a surge in economic development,” said Mayor Kasim Reed. “This program is another stake in the ground to preserve the character and the history of our transformative Atlanta neighborhoods.”
“The Department of Planning and Community Development is committed to achieving sustainable growth in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods,” said Commissioner Tim Keane. “As part of that sustainable growth, we must have programs and policies in place to ensure affordable housing and offer housing incentives and resources to our residents who need them the most. We hope that the Anti-Displacement Tax Program is one of many initiatives to come.”
The fund, administered by the Westside Future Fund and sourced from philanthropic donations and community weigh-in, will operate as a grant for individuals and will not require participants to pay back any funds received. Fund payments will begin in the 2018 tax year.
The program is one of many strategies initiated by the Westside Community Retention Collaborative which was created to address Westside resident concerns on displacement and gentrification.
In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the City of Atlanta a $30 million CHOICE Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, which has already enabled the city to leverage additional public and private funds to assist in revitalizing five Westside neighborhoods.
In June 2016, the City of Atlanta received the Promise Zone designation, which allows the City to work strategically with HUD and other federal agencies to boost economic activity and job growth, improve educational opportunities, reduce crime and leverage private investment to improve the quality of life in the “Westside Promise Zone,” comprised of the historic Atlanta University Center neighborhood, Ashview Heights, Vine City, English Avenue and Castleberry Hill.
The communities will also soon welcome the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Castleberry Park mixed-use development and a Hard Rock Hotel.
To double-down on the furthering equitable neighborhood development, Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm, plans to revitalize 24 single-family vacant and blighted properties in Atlanta’s English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods, transforming the abandoned land parcels into affordable and energy efficient workforce housing units for Westside residents. The acquisition of these vacant and blighted properties for development was completed as part of the Westside TAD Neighborhood Strategic Implementation Plan with the approval of the Invest Atlanta board of directors.
All units also must be developed for homeownership and be made available at prices affordable to households earning a maximum of 120 percent of the area median income for Atlanta’s metropolitan statistical area.
“We implemented a Westside land assembly strategy in 2014 to activate vacant and blighted land, putting these properties to use for the community as affordable workforce housing,” said Dr. Eloisa Klementich, president and CEO, Invest Atlanta. “This initiative is one part of our larger strategy to encourage equitable development that benefits residents in English Avenue, Vine City and other Westside neighborhoods.”
Developers can submit bids using a variety of unique and innovative housing types, whether through new construction or the renovation of existing homes. All responses must align with the vision articulated in the Land Use Action Plan, which recommends the preservation of homes with historical importance and the implementation of new housing design that is consistent with the existing historic homes.
“This effort will bring a variety of new affordable housing options to English Avenue and Vine City while also preserving the heritage of these historic neighborhoods,” said Dawn Luke, senior vice president of Community Development, Invest Atlanta.
If all goes according to plan, the redevelopment will help to reduce blight, enhance security and catalyze future private investment in these communities.
However, some residents are reasonably skeptical. The construction of Turner Field in 1997 made similar promises to the surrounding Mechanicsville community. And current redevelopment plans revolving around its sale to Georgia State University – some of which involve eminent domain demands on behalf of the City — have been met with both engagement and resistance.
The Westside is no different.
“Before the new Mercedes Benz Stadium was being constructed, one of the controversial points that were there in terms of location was that there were two historic black churches that were a tangible representation of the history of culture for a lot of folks, not just for the city of Atlanta but for the people who have been inspired by the work that these institutions have been able to move the meter on,” said Greg Clay, candidate for the Atlanta City Council, District 3 in an interview.
“The community just hasn’t healed over it. Before the Georgia Dome was constructed there was a community there, and adjacent to the Georgia Dome there was the Georgia World Congress Center and there was a community there as well – and so when you look at development along that Northside Drive corridor, folks in the community are considered to be a wall, almost in the shadows of the GWCC. You can stand in their parking lot and throw a baseball across the street and hit the door of Bethune Cookman Elementary School that had to close its doors last year.”
Short of public policy aimed deliberately at reducing inequity in economic development, proximity to billions of dollars in development still presents challenges. “A lot of the trust associated with the different waves of large projects that have come in – the context of the open air drug market that’s there in the English Avenue that folks have, since the ‘80s been dealing with, it makes for a narrative of mistrust when folks come and say ‘hey we want to make the area better,’ but the waves of development just have not changed the community a whole lot.”
Despite its challenges, it’s a community that has a very rich history that city officials say its two new initiatives aim to preserve by preventing displacement and enhancing quality of life.
“Martin Luther King Jr. made his home there and he still has a home that’s there that his family owns. The Herndon Home is in that district; it’s sitting next to Morris Brown College which is holding on strongly for dear life as a part of the Atlanta University Center. One can say that in the face of a lot of this development, why is it that the community has not been at the table to grow like the other side of the street? One project or one corridor being developed is not going to repair the mistrust that folks have had over decades. The challenge for us who care about communities, is to know that people make communities just as much as brick and mortar things do.” ADW

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