Archive for January, 2012

Residents to get say on Brookhaven at Capitol

By  April Hunt

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Both opponents and supporters of carving a new city out of north-central DeKalb County will argue time is on their side when residents get their say for two hours under the Gold Dome on Tuesday.

A state House committee that must recommend whether the Legislature allows a vote this year on Brookhaven is holding its first of two hearings, to get general input on the idea.

Supporters, who want lower property taxes, will argue that the time is right for a vote this summer. Opponents, including those who have signed petitions against Brookhaven, are expected to ask for more time to thoroughly vet the city.

“Regardless of viewpoint, I want to ensure the process is open and allows for every viewpoint to be presented,” said Government Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming.

Members of the cityhood advocacy group, Brookhaven Yes, think they will have no trouble convincing their neighbors to vote for more local control.

Group president J. Max Davis II, an attorney and namesake son of a late conservative state representative who touted that he never voted for a tax increase, said many DeKalb residents already feel the county is too bloated.

Those in Brookhaven want to reinforce that idea by voting for cityhood, he said. But the first goal is convincing lawmakers to allow the July 31 referendum.

“Our motto is ‘better services, lower taxes,’ but before we can discuss why we think we can do a better job of spending our money than the county, we have to get the right to vote,” Davis said.

The DeKalb County government, meanwhile, is officially lobbying for any vote to be delayed, so that more time could be spent studying what losing Brookhaven would mean for county coffers.

The county lost $20 million in revenue when Dunwoody incorporated in 2008, and Brookhaven is expected to cost the county at least $22 million, according to county estimates.

More than 500 residents have signed petitions also asking to slow down a process they believe has been rushed. A group formally opposing the city, called Ashford Neighbors, circulated the petitions.

Eddie Ehlert is among the Ashford Park residents who plans to call for a delay, though he would prefer the idea be killed altogether.

Ehlert said there hasn’t been enough transparency about one goal he sees for the city: to undermine county control of a 63-acre tract of hardwoods just across Clairmont Road from the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

The land is now a runway protection zone owned by the Federal Aviation Administration and county, shielding residents from noise and fumes from airplanes in the area. Ehlert, who is political chairman of the Sierra Club Georiga, worries that developers supporting Brookhaven actually want that land for a big project.

“We cannot possibly support a police department without needing more taxable land, but there hasn’t been any notion that we’re going to leave that property alone,” he said. “There hasn’t been enough time to really look into that.”

Creating DeKalb’s second new city, and the sixth in the metro area since 2005, was first raised in the last days of the Legislature last year. State rep. Mike Jacobs, a Republican who represents the area, said he filed a bill for the city after hearing from residents who wanted a local, not county, government.

A study by University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute for Government released in November concluded Brookhaven could provide services comparable to those provided by DeKalb, with no tax increase.

Even residents who liked the idea of a new city complained, though, that the study called for the same 6.39 mills that residents there now pay for county special district services.

Earlier this year, Jacobs revised the proposal for Brookhaven. He lowered the tax rate to 3.35 mills – or about the same rate residents paid before the county raised taxes last year.

“By rolling that back, we are able to deliver a property tax decrease from DeKalb’s tax increase and still end with a projected $261,000 surplus,” Jacobs said of the proposed $25 million budget for the city of about 50,000 people.

Whether the timing works remains to be seen. The hearing at 3 p.m. Tuesday in room 341 of the state Capitol.

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January 30, 2012 at 6:28 pm 2 comments

Strip Club Fights to Keep Liquor License

By Jaclyn Hirsch for Virginia-Highland/Druid Hills Patch

A strip club on Chesire Bridge Road is fighting to save its liquor license.

Owners of Bliss, an all-male strip club on Cheshire Bridge Road, filed a request to appeal the revocation of the liquor license for the business, according to an announcement at Monday’s meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit-F.

City of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed revoked the liquor license in December after the Atlanta License Review Board unanimously recommended to void the license. The Lindridge Martin Manor Neighborhood Association also opposed re-issuing the license to the business.

But according to Monday’s announcement, the business can continue to serve alcohol until the issue is heard.

The neighborhood group was unhappy with the announcement and plans to keep a close eye on the issue.

After a business owner files a liquor license application, the owner  presents the application to the neighborhood civic association, the  neighborhood planning unit and the license review board, which is run by  the Atlanta police department.

If the neighborhood groups deny the license, the applicant still continues forward to the license review board.

The final step for approval or denial rests in the hands of the Mayor.

Past violations

The Lindridge Martin Manor Neighborhood Association sent a letter to Reed in October that outlines the past violations at the business and asked him to revoke the license.

In October 2009, Atlanta police raided the club after a five-month investigation, the group said in the letter to Reed.

The following information outlined below was either published in the  Atlanta Journal- Constitution or by the Fulton County District  Attorney’s office.

  • According to the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, between  May 13, 2009 and Oct. 17, 2009, Atlanta Police conducted an in-depth  undercover investigation. Investigators were able to purchase cocaine,  MDMA, and other illegal narcotics from employees of the club, as well as  being solicited for sex acts by the employees. Additionally, several of  the employees were not licensed by the city. The investigation resulted  in a 32-count indictment of 18 individuals, all employees of the  establishment.
  • Atlanta Police officers obtained 43 arrest warrants and arrested 29 people during a Saturday morning raid in 2009.
  • Police reports released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed  that employees and others at the nude dancing club offered cocaine,  marijuana and prostitution.
  • APD booked the general manager, a floor manager, a bartender, and 16  dancers into the Fulton County jail, according to the report.
  • Floor manager was arrested after officers found 23.4 grams of  packaged marijuana on the floor between him and customer, the report  states.
  • Sixteen of the 20 dancers did not have permits, according to the  report. Several of the dancers told police that management told them  they didn’t need permits. Two dancers also had outstanding warrants for  theft and failure to appear, according to the report.
  • The bartender also didn’t have a permit to sell alcohol, police said.
  • Police said they also found a 19-year-old, who tested positive for  alcohol, with a drink in his and in the VIP room. He also gave police a  fake ID.
  • Officers seized marijuana, cocaine, pills, used condoms, cash and a stolen car from the club.

In October 2006, the license review board found the club guilty of  selling alcohol to minors and staying open too late. The board suspended  Bliss’ liquor license for six months.

“Having a liquor license is a privilege not a right and our community  expects those who hold liquor licenses within this city to be familiar  with and abide by its Alcohol Code,” the letter said. “Failure to do so  should result in harsh penalties, particularly when these are such  egregious and repeated failures. Our community grows weary of the  continued disregard for this City’s Alcohol Code at this location.”

Bliss is located at 2284 Cheshire Bridge Rd., across the street from Landmark Diner.

January 19, 2012 at 10:58 am Leave a comment

DeKalb schools have too many administrators

By  Ty Tagami

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Taxpayers in DeKalb County have been funding a top-heavy school system that could stand to shed more than 300 administrators, according to an outside review.

The audit of management positions was commissioned by new Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson as she sculpts a new organizational structure for the 15,000-employee district. It’s the first comprehensive study of staffing in years.

The report, released Wednesday , said DeKalb has 1,499 employees in the  central office — too many for a system its size. The  consultant, Virginia-based Management Advisory Group, recommends that DeKalb slim down to 1,162 administrative slots.

But don’t expect immediate cuts. Job titles, and their lack of descriptiveness, are a problem, Atkinson said. The district employs directors, coordinators, secretaries and others in the central office whose titles don’t reflect their responsibilities.

The audit focused mostly on white collar positions. It found confusion about who does what and how much they should be paid. Some secretaries, for instance, have more responsibility than the presumably higher title of coordinator. Atkinson said it would take at least 30 days to review the titles, redefine them and place them in a proper hierarchy — work that must be done before major organizational changes.

Atkinson said she’s not sure how closely she’ll follow the consultant’s proposal.

“This is their recommendation,”  she said. “We’ll take it now and massage it.”

The DeKalb school district has long been maligned as a bloated operation, but  evidence supporting those charges has never been this clear. Atkinson, who just finished her first 90 days on the job, has been saying that she’d make substantial personnel changes. She’s already reassigned a few high-level administrators, replacing the chiefs of finance, curriculum and instruction, operations and information, for instance.

But this report says the district needs a whole new organizational chart, and a top-down reclassification of all positions.

“I think what this has really found is massive redundancy,” said school board member Don McChesney, who attended Atkinson’s presentation Thursday. “We’ve got secretaries making more than our teachers. That might be justified, but somebody’s got to show me how it’s justified.”

The audit says DeKalb has 15.5 central office positions per 1,000 students and should have more like 12, according to the consultants. Comparable school districts had numbers ranging from 18.5 central office positions per 1,000 students in Fulton County to 5.8 in Cobb and 6.1 in Gwinnett, the report said. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — a city against which Atlanta jurisdictions are often compared — had 14.5 central office jobs per 1,000 students.

This was the first phase of the review. The next phase will look at all of the school system’s positions. It’s due March 15.

January 19, 2012 at 10:56 am Leave a comment

Explore a New Trail Near Peachtree Creek

By Sally Sears

Invitation  to explore a meadow in winter — it’s a newly created trail through a  long-ignored slice of Midtown, beside Peachtree Creek and Interstate 85.  Popular tours of the trails last week gave dogs, owners and neighbors a  walk in nature.

The  neighbors and the South Fork Conservancy are carving a new vision for  caring for our intown creeks. Simple trails through the landscape beside  the south and north forks encourage people to walk their dogs, breathe  deeply and re-discover big hardwoods hiding in plain sight on public  land. This meadow is interstate right of way, next to a neighborhood  with almost no accessible greenspace.

Two years of cooperation helped to  build this mulch trail, weaving along the creek and through a meadow of  wild flowers and grasses.  Neighbors hope to connect the trails under  the interstate to the Morningside Nature Preserve, Zonolite Park and  then to the Herbert Taylor-Daniel Johnson Nature Preserve.

If  you want to walk it, the trail head is just across the guard rail at  Lindbergh Drive and I-85. On street parking available at Lindbergh Drive  and  Armand Road.

More information is available at the South Fork Conservancy website.

Sally Sears is the Executive Director of thr South Fork Conservancy, a nonprofit that seeks to restore, conserve and protect the Riparian systems of the South Fork of Peachtree Creek Watershed. This article appeared in the Virginia Highland/North Druid Hills Patch on January 11, 2012.

January 12, 2012 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

The Tricky Second Wave of Urban Highway Removals

Dismantling urban freeways—replacing elevated viaducts of steel and concrete with parks and boulevards—is happening in so many places, it’s like an unspoken national urban policy. We’ve reached a unique point in city-building when the destruction of a public works project has all the glamour and buzz of breaking ground on a new one.

The “death row” of roadways, marvelously packaged by Eric Jaffe in this slideshow and noted in Michael Kimmelman’s dispatch from highway-erasing Madrid, has become a familiar, almost comforting narrative.

Portland, Ore., led the way, turning the multi-lane Harbor Drive into the Tom McCall Waterfront Park at a time when other cities were still blasting roadways through the urban fabric. San Francisco was prompted by the earthquake of 1989 to re-create the Embarcadero; Seattle anticipated a similar fate for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In Milwaukee, an ambitious mayor, John Norquist, championed the demolition of the Park East Expressway. He later became president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and encouraged others to do the same. In New Orleans, fascination with the Treme neighborhood post-Katrina drew attention to the hulking Claiborne Expressway burdening its core.

And then there’s New York, where Robert Moses famously built hundreds of miles of roads throughout the metropolitan area, including the Sheridan Expressway, now set to come down. Moses suggested or designed or laid the foundation for many more urban freeways, from Portland to New Orleans and beyond. In a fitting coup de grace, New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) backed the replacement of the Robert Moses Parkway outside Buffalo, the urban highway named for the great master builder himself.

But if all those projects are blockbuster movies, some cities are now moving on to the sequels. It’s time for the Son of the Sheridan, and Alaskan Way II.

Whether this stage of urban design interventions can be pulled off in quite the same slam-dunk fashion as the Embarcadero is very much in question. The infrastructure being re-engineered is similarly from a half-century ago, and exclusively built with the car as priority. But the scale is a bit smaller. Rather than big elevated interstates through downtowns, these are connectors and overpasses, sometimes a long way from the center of town, where the neighborhoods are defined on different terms.

The perfect example of this trickle-down dismantling can be found in, where else, Boston, home of the $15.6 billion Big Dig, arguably the biggest, best-known, and most expensive act of removing an elevated highway.

The three post-Big Dig interventions are surely less well-known around the country, but passions about them are running just as high: the McGrath/O’Brien Highway in Somerville and the Rutherford Avenue connector through Charlestown, both north of the city, and the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain, well south of downtown.

First, a little context. Boston’s freeway revolt started after 1968, when Jane Jacobs fought the Lower Manhattan Expressway in SoHo. The city put a park and a transit line in the planned corridor of the Southwest Expressway, which would have extended Interstate 95 from Rhode Island all the way into Back Bay. A Republican governor, Frank Sargent, put an end to the Inner Belt, envisioned as a mini-circumferential highway whisking motorists through Roxbury and other Boston neighborhoods, Cambridge, and a piece of Somerville, rejoining Interstate 93 there. The turnoff ramp remains, a stub ending abruptly at the sky.

The Big Dig took things to the next level, not just stopping new highways but dismantling one that had become an eyesore. The suppression of Interstate 93 gave Boston the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Younger folks can’t remember the Central Artery ever being there.

McGrath, Rutherford, and Casey are all similarly unsightly, and like the Central Artery or Alaskan Way Viaduct, falling apart; a trip over the crumbling and pothole-ridden Casey Overpass conjures a trek in the Third World. Like the failing Longfellow Bridge and Storrow Drive, they either need to be rebuilt as is, or retooled. The sustainability and Complete Streets crowd has lobbied hard for the latter, arguing for multi-modal surface boulevards.

Not so fast. Nearby residents, who conceivably might be thrilled to see this kind of transformation, want to keep the roadway like it was in 1962, not 2012. They worry about commuters getting frustrated by surface rejiggering and attempting shortcuts through residential streets.

The hearings and the public process on these three interventions have revealed a cultural clash: old vs. young, bicyclists vs. solo drivers, yuppies vs. townies, and so on. The fight is in the trenches, in long discussions and blog posts on traffic counts, state modeling and projections, and the methodology of license plate surveys. Everyone’s voice must be heard, a legacy of the exclusion of citizens in the original construction of the roadways, but seemingly a guarantee of paralysis when it comes to repairing the damage they have caused.

Tim Love, associate professor at Northeastern University, principal at Utile, and an urban designer on the multi-disciplinary team studying alternative futures for McGrath, thinks that more sophisticated data available to project teams will help better frame the transportation and quality of life issues, demystifying claims made by various sides.

“There’s an evolution in these kinds of second-generation de-elevation projects,” Love says, that promotes a more sophisticated public discourse. “Some early testing of the physical implications of transportation alternatives is already uniting the stakeholders around smart alternatives.” He says he is confident that “the outcome will be a fully-integrated enhancement to the urban realm.”

An optimistic view, to be sure. I’m a bit more reminded of my top-floor bathroom and its 1970s ski-lodge decor and giant pale blue whirlpool that hasn’t worked for years. The full-scale renovation that other parts of the house enjoyed is so daunting in there, we just keep it as is, hoping it doesn’t fall apart completely anytime soon.

Photo credit: David McNew/Reuters

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City and This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America.

January 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm Leave a comment

Local Voices – Why a Clifton Corridor Transit Line is Long Overdue

by Nenad Tadic for Virginia Highland/Druid Hills Patch

I wrote an article in August on a recent development to bring MARTA rail service directly to Emory’s Druid Hills campus. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up with the initiative since then so I don’t know the current status of it.

But it’s a shame that when MARTA was constructed, it bypassed plans to service the Druid Hills/ Clifton Corridor area with a rail line. These are some of the biggest commercial centers in all of Metro Atlanta, which include Emory University, Emory University Hospital, Emory Point (coming soon) and the CDC, to name a few. These prominent institutions are located just 4-5 miles from Downtown Atlanta, yet because of the absence of a rapid transit line near them, travel times from the CDC to the Five Points station, per se, can take upwards of an hour.

Convenience. Convenience. Convenience.

That’s the first buzz word that comes to mind for me when I think of what a MARTA station off Clifton Road would bring to our entire community. Getting around town would be no hassle at all.

It’d be safer. It’d make exploring Atlanta neighborhoods more of a possibility. It would diminish the prevalence of the “Emory Bubble,” coined because a freshman at Emory is so limited because of unreliable and oftentimes confusing public transit options that he or she makes his own little bubble on campus.

Emory sponsors Cliff Shuttles which operate on a fixed schedule to/from Emory and various nearby business sites. Emory also has special shuttles that run to shopping districts like Lenox Mall or Atlantic Station. These usually operate on weekends, but not every weekend.

These shuttles are great! I use them often. But they are just too limited and run too infrequently to satisfy the student who has an internship Downtown and commutes everyday, or the cafeteria worker whose home in Southwest Atlanta can’t realistically be reached without a car, especially late at night or early in the morning.

As the 9th largest metropolitan area in the country, Atlanta’s public transportation is a nightmare compared to #10 Boston, #18 St. Louis, or even #23 Portland, Ore.

Of all the cities I have visited during my college visits (these include New York, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and of course Atlanta), getting from Hartsfield Jackson to Emory was the hardest airport-school commute.

I myself am from Chicago and can attest to the fact that you can get anywhere in the city with public transit. Anywhere. Especially the University of Chicago and Northwestern University – Emory’s peer institutions. In fact, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) runs the “Purple Line,” named after neighborhing Northwestern which the line runs near.

That’s not to say better public transportation would necessarily make Emory a better school. Not at all. Sure it may make it seem more of an attractive option to prospective students, but that doesn’t get at the bottom line.

The bottom line is this: Atlanta is famous for its urban sprawl and consequently, its traffic. Its infrastructure is severely lacking for a city of its size.

Those opposed to transit lines cite that they bring crimes to otherwise safe and wealthy white neighborhoods. Policymakers need to address their concerns.

It is time for Atlanta to develop a plan that suggests it really is the forward-thinking city it once prided itself on. Better public transit is only going to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. And in important districts like the Clifton Corridor, a transit line is crucial.

January 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm Leave a comment

Atlanta’s quality of life to improve if we transform our ‘red fields’ into ‘green fields’

By VAL PETERSON, first lady of Georgia Tech for SaportaReport.com

Since coming to the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2009, one thing I have learned is that the City of Atlanta has truly benefitted from projects created by our students, faculty and alumni.  From our skyline to Atlantic Station to the Beltline, Atlanta would be a very different place without Georgia Tech.

A new project is being proposed by Mike Messner, a 1976 Civil Engineering graduate who grew up in Atlanta and still cares deeply about our city. In Mike’s mind there is far too much non-productive real estate and not enough green space in Atlanta.

Thus, in 2009, Mike and his wife, Jenny — through their family foundation: the Speedwell Foundation — created and funded a program to bring more green space to urban areas. They call it “Red Fields to Green Fields.”

A “red field” is a property that is deeply in the “red” financially. These properties can ruin neighborhoods. Today there are an estimated 27,000 “red” properties in metro Atlanta. They can become hangouts for criminals. They can become a blight to surrounding neighborhoods.

Regardless of how hard homeowners work to keep their houses looking decent, an abandoned house or vacant strip mall in the neighborhood drags down everyone’s property values.

Messner’s solution is to turn “Red Fields” into “Green Fields,” knocking down financially distressed real estate and replacing it with “green fields”—creating parks and green space.

Kevin Caravati, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech, and his team are employing this approach and working to make this vision a reality.

Trees, plants and flowers are filters. They clean the air and cool cities in the summer; and they help with storm runoff and flooding.

Parks help to build community. They make people feel calm, boosting spirits and adding beauty to our neighborhoods. Being in nature can ease the symptoms of depression.

Parks and greenways also make surrounding property values climb. Knock down an unused building and the surrounding property values go up, sometimes up to 200 to 400 percent, researchers have discovered.

The Atlanta Beltline, another former Georgia Tech student’s class project, is one example of Red Fields to Green Fields.

Atlanta was originally a railroad town. Today, there are 22 miles of historic rails that are being pulled up, creating linear parks, playgrounds and bike trails.

Community gardens could also be built on these spaces. A partnership between the Atlanta Beltline, the PATH Foundation (which builds bicycle and walking trails) and Georgia Tech’s “Red Fields to Green Fields” research program to create a citywide initiative should be explored.

When you compare park land in Atlanta with park land in other similar cities, Atlanta ranks near the bottom of metropolitan cities nationally. Only 4.6 percent of Atlanta is parks. We can do a lot better than that, and “Red Fields to Green Fields” can help.

The initiative can help in other ways as well.

Georgia has had more bank failures (70) than any other state due to this economic recession. Many banks that lent aggressively during the housing boom suffered when the bubble burst. The commercial real estate business was growing, but was stopped in its tracks by the downturn—and the economic engine stopped as well. Let’s knock down the Red Fields and get them off the ailing banks’ books.“Red Fields to Green Fields” can help create jobs in Atlanta—jobs to help locate and process purchasing of the land, conducting environmental impact studies where needed, employment for park construction, jobs recycling old building materials and positions for the maintenance and operation of the resulting parks.

These are all real jobs that can be created here and stay here. Messner has proposed that cities form land banks. They would create parks and greenways until the economy improves and we can start building again and add properties to the tax rolls.

US financial institutions have lost over $70 billion in assets since 2007.  If the federal government can loan money at near zero interest rates to banks, why not form a land bank, a public/private partnership to invest in these properties?

The federal dollars could go straight to the land bank to buy properties at the current, discounted rates. This would remove these properties from the banks’ rolls and help to clear bad debt, so they can have resources to lend again. This would lead to the creation of parks and green spaces and elevate property values of adjacent neighborhoods.

Setting aside a small amount of the purchased land to build on and sell would generate funds to help sustain the “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative in Atlanta.

Caravati and Messner have met with individuals from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; U.S. Sen. Johnny Isaacson; the Metro Atlanta Chamber; the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Treasury, and Interior; and the White House. Additional meetings are being planned.

And it is my hope that they meet with First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been a proponent of eliminating childhood obesity through her “Let’s Move” campaign. Parks can help kids to be healthy—particularly the one in three who are overweight—by helping them to become more active.

Building the necessary partnerships and consensus for a citywide “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative is similar to problems faced in solving Atlanta’s transportation issues.

We will vote next year on whether to have a penny tax allocated to T-SPLOST, dedicating resources to improve transportation in metro Atlanta. There are so many small entities involved that it was impossible to discuss this and come up with a solution until the state legislature got involved. A list of potential projects was drafted by a roundtable of local leaders.

Let’s take the same approach with a “Red Fields to Green Fields” initiative for Atlanta. Such an initiative can make all of Atlanta a better place to live and raise families.

January 4, 2012 at 5:39 pm Leave a comment


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