One of those two proposals — transforming 16 acres of city-owned, mostly vacant land along Joseph E. Boone Boulevard into Historic Mims Park, a majestic $55 million greenspace celebrating Atlanta's role in civil rights — took a major step yesterday toward becoming a reality. (There's also gossip that it'd be one of the community projects Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons would help fund as part of a new stadium. More on that in a moment.)
An Atlanta City Council committee today OK'ed consolidating parcels owned by the city and Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, and executing a 50-year lease with the nonprofit organization that wants to build, operate, and maintain the park that would span three city blocks on the edge of Vine City. The proposal now awaits the approval of the full City Council and Mayor Kasim Reed.
The total cost to the city: a little more than $488,000, most of which will be used to pay off debt to the federal government related to a failed affordable housing project once proposed for the site, which is bounded by Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and Elm, Thurmond, and Walnut streets.
The years-in-the-making idea, which supporters say will help create jobs, nurture the community, and attract new residents and economic development, is the brainchild of Atlantan Rodney Mims Cook. Cook's a well-heeled booster of classical monuments who, along with his organization, the National Monuments Foundation, helped create Atlantic Station's Arc de Triomphe-esque Millenium Gate. He's also a descendant of former Mayor Livingston Mims, the park's namesake. (Interesting factoid: Mims once lived at the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Peachtree Street where the Georgian Terrace now stands. Hence the hotel restaurants' names The Livingston and Cafe Mims.)
The greenspace Cook's proposing is modeled after the original Mims Park that once stood in the area but was razed in the 1950s to build a school. That park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect who designed the U.S. Capitol Grounds and Manhattan's Central Park, among many others, was home to the city's first integrated playground. Cook says his father, a former member of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen (the precursor to the Atlanta City Council), compelled him to rebuild the greenspace.
The proposal is filled with nods to Atlanta's complex history stretching back to the state's founding. Much of the park would be located on land where German immigrant Edward Wackendorff opened a nursery and seed store in the 1870s which gave Vine City its name. Statues of notable Atlantan "peacemakers," including the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Julian Bond, W.E.B. DuBois, former Mayor Maynard Jackson, Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who lived on nearby Sunset Avenue), former Mayor Livingston Mims, and Booker T. Washington, would dot the greenspace. An 80-foot-tall "Peace Column" topped with a statue of Chief Tomochichi of the Yamacraw Tribe, considered a co-founder of Georgia, would serve as a centerpiece and offer views of the surrounding area and skyline. Downtown's erstwhile Carnegie Library would be replicated on the property and, Cook hopes, become the new home of Prince Charles of Wales' Foundation for the Built Environment, you-know-who's private foundation that champions sustainability.
The park, which would be built in phases, would also include a retention pond to handle persistent flooding in the area, public art, educational activities, a museum, and an urban farm and greenhouses.
"A park like this would give people more of a reason to move here," says James Arpad, who owns 30 properties in the area.
Here's a video of the plans. Skip forward to 0:45 to see the Historic Mims Park proposal.
Under the terms of the deal, the city would lease the land to the National Monuments Foundation for 50 years. No rent would be charged. In exchange, the National Monuments Foundation would handle the operations, maintenance, and costs of repair. According to city attorneys, the nonprofit would also provide security and make a "good faith effort" to employ area residents for some of the construction, landscaping, and security jobs.
Councilman Aaron Watson said he's excited about the proposal but hopes the complicated history of Georgia's founding, Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement won't be glossed over. Livingston Mims, for example, was a major in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
"I hope it will be accurate as it relates to the Native Americans, Americans, and the African Americans," he says. "And the real story about some of their intentions and conflicts, even among the African Americans. It seems like an incredibly rich opportunity to do something wonderful. To me, it's only wonderful if it's complete and deep and rich."
Cook agreed. "That is part of the story that we want to tell," he told councilmembers.
Invest Atlanta came to own roughly five acres of the proposed park land after an affordable housing project planned for the site failed, which CL reported on May 2009. Other acres were purchased by the city in 2002 after homes suffered severe flood damage.
Councilman Kwanza Hall raised concerns about making affordable housing available near the park, since some of the park's land was originally planned for that same purpose. Councilman Ivory Young, who represents the area, said conversations are ongoing about such projects in the area and it's his and the mayor's priority to protect existing residents.
Many community members who spoke during Wednesday's committee meeting said they're excited about the park, which has been pitched in various community groups and residents' living rooms over the last year and a half.
"I'm excited," said Makeda Johnson, a 25-year resident and former chair of the Neighborhood Planning Unit that encompasses Vine City and English Avenue. "This is a great opportunity for us to have a catalytic change that could be transformative for our community."
Said Arpad, the property owner: "What Rodney Cook wants to do — bringing back a park that was lost to posterity — is a good thing... The new museum will tell a story that's missing."
But the Rev. Darrion Fletcher of Vine City's Walking Through the Vine Ministries called the proposal "a slap in the face for blacks as well as whites."
He said there was little community engagement about the project and that the neighborhoods, which for years have wrestled with crime, vacant homes, and lack of economic development need more than the greenspace.
Rodney Mullins, a homeowner who's working to create a commercial interest district in the area, challenged opponents to propose their alternatives for the neighborhood's future — especially when offered with a proposal to build and operate a $50 million greenspace at relatively little cost to the city.
"I invite you to find another developer who will do that today," he says.
Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who abstained from today's votes because his family owns property near the park, agreed.
"The city has an opportunity that it does not have to pay for, other than repaying [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] for a failed project," he said. "That's unprecedented. I don't see a way we can really turn that down, to be frank."
Tony Torrance, another resident, stressed that more needs to be done to control the flooding and sewer overflow issues that persist in Vine City and English Avenue.
The Historic Mims Park plan can address some flooding issues and add greenspace closer to downtown, Torrance says, but he thinks the city should also consider elements of another proposal by Park Pride, the greenspace advocacy group, that called for retention ponds throughout the neighborhoods and "daylighting" Proctor Creek, which runs from downtown to the Chattahoochee River. In addition, he told CL, residents need to be educated about the benefits of greenspace and how parks can improve the area's quality of life.
If approved by the full Atlanta City Council on Monday and OK'ed by the mayor, the park's first phase, which would include the basic park plan, must be complete by July 2014. Subsequent phases would open roughly every year after. If they don't live up to their end of the deal, the city has the right to renegotiate the lease — or take back the property.
According to the mayor's office, the foundation has nearly half the capital it needs to break ground. Cook, speaking with CL after the meeting, couldn't give an exact number of how much cash his group has raised from potential donors in the last year.
"Not one entity has said no," he says. "They said get the land and get back to us."
There's been talk that the greenspace would be one of the "public benefits" of the new stadium and would enjoy funding from either Arthur Blank, the Atlanta Falcons, or both. A Blank spokeswoman earlier this week told CL that they were familiar with the project.
"We’re exploring a variety of new investments to help revitalize these communities, but there are no commitments in place at this time," she said.
Cook said he has spoken with the Falcons and, with a smile, said that he hopes they're interested.
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