Neighbors or not 

Gentrification looms for East Atlanta

On a seedy stretch of Moreland Avenue, across from a gold-lettered sign welcoming visitors to East Atlanta, developer Steven DeFrancis doesn't see the two dilapidated duplexes, the liquor store and the chicken joint.

He sees a row of shops, cultivated like the Virginia-Highland retail district but with hip digs built on top, too.

A few hundreds yards south, on the opposite side of Moreland, an empty schoolhouse has caught another developer's eye: lofts. There are plans to refurbish the building along the lines of the locker-lined halls of Bass Lofts, a former school a few miles up Moreland in Little Five Points.

"That would really be at the gateway to East Atlanta, and on a road that is currently very unfriendly and taking a property that is currently a mess," says Don Bender, a member of a task force bent on revitalizing the neighborhood. "It's potentially a very dramatic idea."

The problem, at least part of it, is in the zoning. Current zoning rules make it difficult for such construction. But Bender and others are working with city officials to change that.

Then there's the people who live in the duplexes and the people who make a living frying chicken and selling brown-bagged bottles of liquor. And there's all the other longtime East Atlanta families. The problem is, they don't envision the change that the starry-eyed investors do.

"I am deeply concerned about the displacement of traditional residents," says the Rev. Timothy McDonald of the First Iconium Baptist Church, "particularly the elderly."

In November, the Atlanta City Council will likely vote on whether to approve the rezoning of East Atlanta Village -- the swath of land between Moreland and Flat Shoals avenues from Interstate 20 to Glenwood Avenue a few blocks south.

Developers, business owners and many residents are pushing for East Atlanta to be redesignated "neighborhood commercial," which requires that new construction be reminiscent of old-style downtowns.

One significant stipulation of neighborhood commercial zoning is that new buildings would have to abut sidewalks, in the style of historic downtowns, rather than sitting behind parking lots, in the style of suburban strip malls.

DeFrancis, with Capitol Realty, says zoning as it currently stands is counterproductive to his Moreland Avenue vision because the laws prevent him from building on the sidewalk.

"Neighborhood commercial really is more pro-urban development, as opposed to trying to fit urban development into suburban guidelines," DeFrancis says.

Neighborhood commercial also eases the number of required parking spaces that a new business must provide, be it a new construction or a refurbished one. The current parking requirements caused one potential club owner to take his plans elsewhere in the city, away from the popular nightspots along Flat Shoals Avenue, because there was no room for the required parking lot.

Parking also has posed a problem for investors trying to reopen the Madison Theater, a white-spired, 70-year-old movie house set to be restored for showing indie films, hosting bands and staging plays. Current zoning requires that the Madison have 90 parking spaces. The small lot behind the theater has room for about 30.

Neighborhood commercial will allow the Madison, and possibly a number of other abandoned buildings, to be restored to former glory.

"We will be able to get a lot of empty property developed," says the Rev. Dolly Mahone, chairperson of East Atlanta's Neighborhood Planning Unit W.

Neighborhood commercial zoning, which was adopted a year ago by city council and was passed for the first time in June for Little Five Points, was drafted with East Atlanta in mind.

Senior city planner Aaron Fortner, who helped create the neighborhood commercial zoning ordinance, says the city council already has given East Atlanta a favorable review. East Atlanta's Neighborhood Planning Unit will vote on the application Sept. 25. The application, if approved, will then go to the City Council's zoning committee in October and, if approved again, to the full Council in November.

NPU-W Chairperson Mahone says she is confident her group will vote to approve the application.

When asked if she foresees any problems further up the line, Mahone says, "No more than from our Council person."

Councilwoman Sherry Dorsey, who represents East Atlanta, did not return phone calls.

"She was in support of it in the beginning, and then she withdrew her support," Mahone says.

Brian Karpinski, an architect and East Atlanta resident who helped draft the neighborhood commercial requirements, says he is familiar with the opposition.

Not everybody knows the ins and outs of Atlanta's voluminous zoning ordinances, he says. But nearly everybody in East Atlanta is familiar with what it implies: gentrification.

"I think neighborhood commercial will help the community grow more, and growth means gentrification," Karpinski says. "And gentrification means people that have been there forever start losing their houses. As the community gets better, it gets more expensive and less likely for people to be able to afford to live there."

The Rev. McDonald says those who most fear gentrification are the strongest opponents to neighborhood commercial. They're also the strongest supporters of Councilwoman Dorsey.

"We have to be ever so vigilant about what businesses come in and what impact they will have on the community," McDonald says. "It's not always a good thing. Too much of it changes the whole character of a neighborhood."

He points out that the influx of new businesses has had a positive impact on East Atlanta's look, feel and quality of life.

But the balance of control, he says, is tipping away from the original residents and toward the new ones.

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