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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Old Fourth Ward parking lot conflict lingers, heads to City Hall (Update)

Our Lady of Lourdes wants to turn this 1.7-acre lot in Old Fourth Ward into a parking lot.
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Our Lady of Lourdes wants to turn this 1.7-acre lot in Old Fourth Ward into a parking lot.
The decisive fight over an Old Fourth Ward parking lot will come to a head tonight at City Hall.

Our Lady of Lourdes, the 101-year Catholic church located near the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, has tried to purchase a 1.7-acre plot bordered by Boulevard, Edgewood Avenue, and Gartrell and Daniel streets for the past several months. The religious institution plans to construct a sanctuary on its current lot and would use the land to provide parking for its members. But it needs a recommendation from the city's Zoning Review Board, and later Atlanta City Council's approval, to rezone the property.

Several neighborhood leaders have pushed back against the parish's plan. To some, the proposed parking lot represents bad urban design for a neighborhood that will soon welcome alternative transit options such as the Atlanta Streetcar and Atlanta Beltline. The church, which has many parishioners who regularly commute to services, says the parking would help the institution thrive in the years to come.

After tensions boiled at numerous meetings last June, the church agreed to defer its original application and devise a new solution that suited the entire neighborhood's needs. But those talks stalled and a compromise wasn't reached.

David Patton, an Our Lady of Lourdes member and former Neighborhood Planning Unit-M land use chair, says the church is "finished with neighborhood shenanigans" and now will move forward. Its latest proposal, which features a surface parking lot with several liner buildings along the property's edge, was recently rejected by Fourth Ward Neighbors and NPU-M.

"We've decided to make our case [to ZRB]," Patton says. "Parking is an issue in the district. ... Ultimately, we've got a group of folks who aren't interest in supporting longterm historically black churches."

According to Fourth Ward Neighbors President Matthew Garbett, the current application contained loopholes that didn't require the church to build out those structures unless funding was available.

"The buildings were a pretense," Garbett says. "It's a parking lot with buildings shoved around. The site plan would not be binding. ... They could completely just build a surface parking lot and never [construct] the buildings. There's no guarantee."

Councilman Kwanza Hall dislikes how the issue has divided the neighborhood. He thinks Our Lady of Lourdes made some mistakes with its initial approach to neighborhood groups and received bad advice from the city's planning department. Despite that, he says some interim parking in the immediate area is needed and both sides should devise a plan.

"I don't believe in parking lots as silver bullets," Hall says. "We've always had churches and establishments. It's time for a compromise to be struck."

Hall says Invest Atlanta and the church have talked about a partnership with the site. Some ideas pitched have included liner buildings around a parking deck that the city would potentially help fund. Once constructed, the church could potentially operate the facility as a for-profit entity when services weren't being held.

Patton says the church currently has three options: Partner with Invest Atlanta on a new proposal, seek ZRB and Atlanta City Council's approval with the current plan, or build a new sanctuary on the Daniel Street property and keep its current parking lot. However the dispute plays out, Hall thinks the neighborhood-level skirmishes need to simmer down and all parties should figure out a possible solution.

"If people want to make it different, make an offer and pay the price," Hall says. "Don't obstruct the church's efforts."

Our Lady of Lourdes' application will go before the ZRB tonight at 6 p.m.

UPDATE, 10:24 a.m.: The Zoning Review Board deferred Our Lady of Lourdes' application last night at the church's request. Charletta Wilson Jacks, director of the city's Office of Planning, said in a memo that her "staff has been in discussions with the applicant as well as with the community." She recommended a deferral until next month's ZRB meeting.

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