Kempner: One of Atlanta’s longest, ugliest road fights pays off

EVENT, Sunday (Aug. 7), 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Opponents of the Presidential Parkway have scheduled a 25th anniversary reunion at Olmsted Linear Park - Dellwood (corner of Clifton and Ponce de Leon Ave.). The event, which will include music, is free, but there is a suggested donation for food served.


During the fight over the parkway, opponents penned their own lyrics to a tune we think you know:

“This land is your land, this land is my land,

From east Atlanta to Virginia-Highland,

From the Fernbank forest to the quiet Lullwater,

This land was made for you and me.”

Timeline of a road fight:

1961 - Georgia Department of Transportation starts buying land for a proposed Stone Mountain Tollway and I-485, two highways that would have intersected where the Carter Center now stands.

1971 - Neighborhood groups convince judge to suspend I-485 construction until environmental impact study is complete.

1972 - Then-Gov. Jimmy Carter kills the Stone Mountain Tollway.

1978 - DOT proposes a parkway in place of the Stone Mountain Tollway. The parkway would run east from the Downtown Connector, eventually connecting with Ponce de Leon Avenue near what is now the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

1981 - Former President Carter announces his decision to build the Carter Center along the route.

1984 - Construction begins on the Carter Center. Also, a state contractor begins grading and clearing for the parkway.

1985 - A new group called Roadbusters is formed to begin civil disobedience to stop the road. Meanwhile, another group, CAUTION, continues to fight a legal battle against the project. DeKalb County Commission votes to oppose the parkway. So does the Atlanta City Council, but then-Mayor Andrew Young vetoes the action. A judge halts construction.

1986 - The U.S. DOT determines the parkway would cause less harm than its alternatives. Carter Library opens.

1989 - Mayor-elect Maynard Jackson vows to kill parkway.

1991 - With plans for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta looming, negotiations over the parkway and a planned park resume. Final settlement is reached.

SOURCE: AJC archives

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The history of the Presidential Parkway fight is included in the Atlanta History Center's new exhibition "Gatheround: Stories of Atlanta"

How do you protect the value of your home and neighborhood?

Danny Feig-Sandoval and some middle-aged buddies figured they’d sit in a giant tree near the ninth hole of the Candler Park golf course and try to get arrested.

They struggled to get up the tree and spent a few cold hours in the branches. But the road construction company’s chain saw crew never came to cut down the tree they were guarding. No problem. Feig-Sandoval rushed over to block a bulldozer crew clearing land for another part of the road project. Sure enough, police hauled him and other protesters off in handcuffs.

The stunt in 1985 grabbed media attention and opened another front in the anti-Presidential Parkway fight, which spanned 30 years.

I imagine some of Georgia’s biggest power brokers groaned when they heard of the arrests. The anti-roadies were like fire ants. Why wouldn’t they just quit?

» FLASHBACK PHOTOS: Atlantans fight the Presidential Parkway

We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of neighbors forcing government leaders to scale back plans for the Presidential Parkway, one of the longest, most ornery and twisted road fights in Georgia history. It was a signature moment for the power of grassroots efforts in Atlanta. And it highlighted the ability of communities to wield historic preservation arguments as a way to control growth. A "Stop The Road Reunion" is slated for Sunday.

If you've recently walked the Atlanta Beltline or seen property values soar in intown neighborhoods, I figure you're witnessing ripples at least tangentially affected by the parkway's outcome.

Sure, lots of intown communities around the nation have been on the rebound. But the east side of Atlanta got an extra jolt to already budding rejuvenation efforts.

The deal produced a new park (Freedom Park) and a new road (the Freedom Parkway) that was a greatly scaled back from the Presidential Parkway originally planned to slice through Inman Park, Druid Hills, Poncey-Highland, Old Fourth Ward and Candler Park.

“It would have been like a knife through these historic areas,” said Gale Walldorff, a homemaker who became president of CAUTION (Citizens Against Unnecessary — breathe — Thoroughfares In Older Neighborhoods) and, later, a DeKalb County commissioner.

Neighbors organized. Protesters erected tents in the path of the road, trying to protect a piece of the historic Olmsted Linear Park along Ponce de Leon Avenue. Dozens were arrested trying to block bulldozers or climb trees slated for removal. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits.

All that in defense of at least some border communities that were still struggling to climb out of blight.

Since 1961, a highway had been pegged for the area. One iteration, called the Stone Mountain Tollway, would have linked downtown Atlanta and the eastern suburbs. There also were plans for it to intersect with I-485, which would have extended Georgia 400 far south of Atlanta.

Killed by Carter

Jimmy Carter killed the tollway project when he was Georgia’s governor.

But hundreds of homes already had been flattened for the project. Oops. For years afterward, the swath of land looked confused and messy and covered with kudzu.

Of course, Atlanta abhors a vacuum. Within a few years, the state DOT was again pitching a big road, this time called the Presidential Parkway, along part of the route. Soon it had the backing of Georgia DOT commissioner Tom Moreland, then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and former President Carter, who wanted to put his Carter Center near the middle of the route.

The project would ease traffic, they said. They talked of using brown concrete to make it natural looking. They promised parks and trails.

“They tried to soften it up,” Walldorff, the former CAUTION president, said. “ ’When you get it, you’ll love it.’… We didn’t buy it.”

Young, now in his 80s, backed the road project. But he tells me now he never was aggressive about it, other than wanting to make sure the Carter Center got built.

“The thing that disturbed me is the no-road coalition was almost as emotional as Black Lives Matter,” Young said.

The Presidential Parkway on the east side and another road project, a northside extension of Georgia 400 (from I-285 on the northside to I-85) were the toughest challenges of his time as mayor, he said. “I was getting cussed out by all my friends.”

The elongation of Georgia 400 made it possible for Buckhead to add lots more office towers, he said. And offered bottled up northsiders another avenue to intown jobs.

“I couldn’t imagine Atlanta without Georgia 400,” Young said.

I can’t either.

Road overkill

But there’s such a thing as road overkill. Lay down too much asphalt and you strangle the thing people were trying to get through or to in the first place. Put up too many raised walls, whether for stadiums or highways or MARTA lines, and you cut up neighborhoods.

Atlanta’s history is rife with such brute-force building. The Presidential Parkway, at least early on, seemed like more of the same.

That’s not just a problem for the touchy-feely crowd. Make neighborhoods people seek out and you have a better shot at boosting property values and attracting a strong workforce.

“Parks are where people want to live. Highways are where people don’t want to live,” said David Hamilton, an architect who is the board president of the Freedom Park Conservancy.

I called Moreland, the ex-DOT commissioner who pushed hard for the Presidential Parkway. (That’s Moreland as in the Moreland Interchange, better known as Spaghetti Junction.) He politely said he didn’t want to talk about it: “That controversy is behind me.”

Feig-Sandoval, who climbed a tree to fight the parkway, is now 64 and expresses no regret for fighting the project. He lives in Inman Park, maybe a half mile from the road’s proposed path.

“It would have been a psychological and concrete barrier,” he said. “The city is already divided enough by its highways. It’s bad for the community.”