Mattie Jackson, Neighbors Vow to Stay, as UDC Adopts Findings
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.
(APN) ATLANTA — On Wednesday, September 09, 2015 the Department of Watershed Management petitioned the Urban Design Commission for the demolition of homes, including seven they do not currently own or have under contract.
Over thirty members of the public, including four current residents, showed up and voiced their opposition to the petition.
“I am going to fight it because I don’t want to go… I belong where I am now… because that’s where I raised all my children, that’s where I worked… and here somebody comes along and tells me I got to go,” Mattie Jackson, 93, who has lived in the same home for nearly fifty years, told the Commissioners.
As Atlanta Progressive News has previously reported, moves like this can pose serious threats to the health of vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly.
“Mattie Jackson is my mother, she’s not your mother, but she’s my mother. The City moves her, my mother going to die… the City makes all these promises to people and they don’t keep them. Do not take my mother’s house, and do not make my mother move her house, please, you’re gonna kill my mother and that’s not fair!” Josephine Lowe said.
“Japanese garden” themed retention ponds, along with a “passive recreation area,” are proposed to replace the homes in Peoplestown-Summerhill.
Residents pushed back over the impacts of moving on their families and the lack of any notice from the City about its plan to gain approval to demolish their homes.
The opposition to the plan is being spearheaded, in part, by Jackson.
The City has said they will try to move her entire house to a new lot, but as fellow resident Tanya Washington pointed out, “that is disruptive and disorienting.”
Washington has her own concerns about the impacts of moving on her family.
“My son goes to a charter school, I have to stay in the City of Atlanta or he gets kicked out. I cannot violate the law and have him there if I’m not zoned properly. They aren’t considering any of those things, they are just like ‘go away,’” Washington said in an interview.
None of the residents knew this meeting was even happening until it was reported by Atlanta Progressive News.
“So the City does not own our houses yet. And yet we were on this agenda. So that had been initially our first question – why are our homes on this agenda and we’d not been notified?” resident Connie Sutherland Baker asked the Commissioners.
Todd Hill, the Director of Environmental Management for the Department of Watershed Management, conceded that, “at the time of our application, we did not realize that we were required to provide any public notice to the residents, because they knew we were in the process of acquiring their property.”
This retention pond project is part of a larger plan called the Southeast Atlanta Green Infrastructure Initiative, estimated to handle 23.6 million gallons of stormwater in the area.
The initiative came about in response to a 2012 lawsuit filed by several residents who experienced flooding after several days of heavy rain.
Ms. Mattie and her neighbor’s homes sit on top of a junction box, where multiple major lines that are part of the City’s combined sewage-stormwater system connect. This means that floods in the area can and have involved sewage.
Everyone at the hearing agreed there needs to be a solution that doesn’t leave the neighborhoods of Peoplestown-Summerhill prone to flooding; however, contention rests on the process the Department has used so far, as well as the planned demolitions to build the ponds.
“The best option was to buy out the homes, to keep everyone safe from flooding, to keep properties safe from flooding, and potentially combined sewer overflow, and create a beautiful amenity for the community in return. Very, very similar to what we have in the Fourth Ward area. It’s the same concept,” Jo Ann J. Macrina, Commissioner at the Department of Watershed Management, stated during the meeting.
However, Lowe tells APN that the Fourth Ward park is not an appropriate comparison because a sewage line does not underlie that park. Lowe says the City has admitted that sewage will infest the ponds, which will lie in the open air.
The other projects in the Southeast Atlanta Green Infrastructure Initiative include: the largest permeable pavers project in the United States, two underground storage vaults, raised curbs, bioswales, rain gardens, and other revegetation projects in the area.
Without the controversial capacity relief ponds, these other projects will still detain 91 percent of the water capacity the city is attempting to address.
Notably, the other projects do not require the demolition of any homes.
The media parking lots at Turner field now have a storage vault underneath them that detains 5.9 million gallons for $19.6 million – 0.30 million gallons per million dollars.
The planned storage vault at Phoenix II Park would detain 8.1 million gallons for $18million – 0.45 million gallons per million dollars.
The retention ponds would only detain 2.1 million gallons for as much as $14 million (including purchasing homes) – 0.15 million gallons per million dollars.
Adding more permeable pavers is also more cost effective, at 0.45 million gallons detained per million dollars.
As State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said the capacity relief ponds planned for the Peoplestown-Summerhill community are an “engine for gentrification, moving certain folk out of the community, whether that is the intent or not, that is what the result will be.”
Repeatedly during the meeting, both residents and commissioners asked about looking to implement solutions upstream – as both the parking lots around Turner Field and the construction and expansion of the downtown connector have had impacts on the runoff this low lying area faces.
“The area has ultimately been victimized by the construction of Turner Field, and the construction of the downtown connector, and expansion of the downtown connector multiple times,” Commissioner Robert Reed said.
Watershed Management has continued to reject the idea that upstream improvements are a feasible solution.
“In this particular instance, no we did not look at areas that we could specifically work with DOT,” Macrina said.
As previously reported by APN, one alternative plan to deal with the problem upstream was included in a report by Gresham Smith.
Department spokeswoman Lillian Govus claims the City found this alternative to be unfeasiable.
APN has made an open records request to Govus for any and all documents in support of the request.
Susan Ross, open records coordinator for the Department, wrote in an email to APN that Govus did not rely on any specific documents.
At the hearing, when asked by Commissioner Garfield Peart about the response the Department has received from the community, Director Hill admitted that they’ve received “mixed reviews” from neighbors in the area.
Initially, Peart proposed a motion to defer, suggesting the Commission deliver comments at a future meeting; however, this met with some resistance.
“I hesitate to argue for a deferral… This is round two of these demolitions… We didn’t ask for [more information] the first time, I disagree that we need to ask for that now all of a sudden. I think this needs to go forward,” Andrew Kohr, Chair of the Commission, said.
Several homes have already been purchased and demolished by the Department of Watershed Management.
Staff present at the meeting also discouraged the commissioners from deferring this issue to a future meeting.
The Commissioners were reminded that they are not a body that can approve or deny a project.
The Urban Design Commission is intended to “to develop and administer this city’s historic preservation activities. So, consistent with staff’s comments, I recommend that you go ahead and issue those comments to the applicant and to the public,” Jeff Haymore, Senior Assistant City Attorney, said.
Commissioner Johnny Edwards made a motion to issue comments, which passed 5-2.
Commissioners Julie Brow, Tommy Jones, Johnny Edwards, Andrew Kohr, and Angela Waldrop all voted for the motion, while Commissioners Garfield Peart and Robert Reed voted against it.
A second motion was passed to confirm delivery of comments, with the vote breaking the same way.
“I am encouraged because I watched the Commissioners get it. Maybe not all of them, but I think they fully appreciated that there are some problems here. There are some problems with the plan and whether it’s been thought out and is as comprehensive as they say it is. There are some problems with how they’ve been engaging with people,” Washington said after the decision came down.
Meanwhile, since the hearing, Jackson has secured legal assistance.
Jackson and neighbors are hosting a block party and rally on tomorrow, Thursday, September 17, 2015, with organizing assistance from Occupy Our Homes Atlanta.