On Nov. 10, after five months of inaction, an Atlanta City Council committee voted in favor of a six-story parking deck in Piedmont Park.
No big surprise there.
Still, Nov. 10 is a significant date. That's because it fell a mere two days after Council members were re-elected to another term. With elections securely behind them, it was suddenly safe -- after two years of heated debate -- for Council to push the Piedmont Park parking deck plan through City Hall.
In the eyes of deck opponents, the flurry of action was just another example of the stealth with which the city had handled the parking deck proposal from the get-go.
A year ago, the Piedmont Park Conservancy, the private, nonprofit group that controls the public park, attempted to approve the parking deck plan in a secret location, a move the state attorney general's office said was likely illegal. Then, in February, Mayor Shirley Franklin formed a parking deck task force that was stacked with folks already inclined to build the deck. That task force, as expected, recommended that the conservancy go ahead with a land swap that would allow the privately owned Atlanta Botanical Garden to build a parking deck on a wooded one-acre hill between the garden and the conservancy's office spaces.
In exchange for the deck, which would benefit the garden and be funded by it, the garden would give the conservancy land that bridges the park to an additional 53 acres.
The deal might be a good one. But it also was the only one. And the way it was greased by the city and the conservancy prevented the public from hearing alternatives -- or from giving input that was seriously considered.
At the uncannily timed Nov. 10 committee meeting, parking deck opponents and supporters shared the routine, 45-minute public comment period. Doug Abramson, president of Friends of Piedmont Park and a leader of the opposition against the parking deck, was given two minutes -- the amount of time allotted to all citizens wishing to address the Council -- to sum up almost two years of research and debate.
During the following committee session, the Piedmont Park Conservancy and Atlanta Botanical Garden were given one hour to present the advantages of their concept. The committee then promptly voted in favor of the deck -- as did the entire Council, on Nov. 21. The vote was 12-3.
Just as the mayor's task force had rubber-stamped the deck plan and overlooked its criticisms, so did City Council. Of course, Council regularly votes against the tide of public opinion. But rarely has it done so in the face of such concentrated opposition.
To Abramson, the vote was a sign that his worst fears were confirmed: "The powers-that-be did what they were going to do from the outset," he says.
Of course, there are several reasons why City Council should support the parking deck proposal. After all, the construction of the deck itself is at the heart of a $40 million plan to expand the park and possibly add a basketball court, skate park and new athletic field.
What's more, revenue from the deck will go toward park maintenance and improvement. And the deck will give visitors a place to park that doesn't further congest nearby neighborhood streets.
Unfortunately, though, deck opponents were left with the distinct notion that the mayor's and conservancy's heavy-handed tactics obscured most of deal's benefits -- not to mention that a 783-car deck inside the city's crown greenspace jewel was hard to swallow to begin with.
In fact, of the 21 Neighborhood Planning Units that took up the deck issue, 20 voted to oppose it.
There are a total 24 NPUs in Atlanta. The fact that more than 83 percent of the city's active citizens expressed their disapproval of the deck should have sent a clear message to City Hall, according to Atlanta Planning Advisory Board Chairwoman Peggy Harper. After all, the NPU system and the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board were created to give citizens a direct channel to City Council on quality-of-life issues.
But an NPU vote is merely a recommendation, and one that can be dismissed.
Councilwoman Anne Fauver, who represents the district that includes Piedmont Park, voted in favor of the parking deck. She says she didn't heed the NPUs' stance on the deck because it's her belief that the opposition, mainly from Abramson and other members of Friends of Piedmont Park, convinced neighborhood groups to oppose the deck before the plans were done.
"Prior to either the garden or the conservancy making presentations to the NPUs, [the NPUs] had already heard at least one [presentation] from the opposition," Fauver says. "Another thing is the neighborhood associations, which make up the NPUs, represent a neighborhood point of view but have a very small, very infinitesimal percentage of the neighbors actually represented."
It's worth nothing that Fauver was re-elected Nov. 8 by a mere five votes -- a margin that some observers ascribe to her stance on the parking deck.
What's more, in addition to the anti-deck yard signs that dot lawns throughout Midtown, opposition to the deck spread across the entire city, even reaching lower levels of city government. A Sept. 14 report by the city's Urban Design Commission staffers stated that the deck "thwarts the basic principles of Olmsted's landscape practices." Frederick Law Olmsted is the father of landscape architecture and designer of parks such as Piedmont Park and New York City's Central Park.
And on Nov. 19, two days before the Council voted on the deck, the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board passed a resolution stating "the Conservancy and Garden have been unresponsive to citizen objections." The resolution also says the two groups were "insensitive" and "exclusionary."
Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause of Georgia, a nonprofit citizens' group, agrees with Abramson that the parking deck appeared to be a done deal from the beginning.
"It was a failure of the way the system should work when you see something that lopsided, where all the NPUs thought this was a bad idea, and nevertheless it goes into practice," Bozarth says. "One has to question whether the elected officials are indeed listening to the people of Atlanta."
Abramson, meanwhile, is considering his next step, which may include litigation.
And even though the deck is basically a shoe-in, needing only the mayor's blessing (which she already indicated she'll give) and the necessary building permits, it could continue to cast a shadow on future projects. The Beltline, the Peachtree Street streetcar, and the possible redevelopment of the Lakewood Fairgrounds and Fort McPherson all will have a major impact on citizens throughout the city.
The question is, will those citizens' concerns be heard?
"We're not saying that every recommendation that comes out of the NPUs and planning board is law or should be followed," says Harper, the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board chairwoman. "But it would seem to me that if you have the majority of the NPUs saying this parking deck is bad, then perhaps it would behoove the administration to listen to its constituency."
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