Tyler Perry says he’s been steaming since 2018 about plans for a future government laboratory near his expansive movie and TV studio at the former Fort McPherson in southwest Atlanta. And now he says he’s concerned about potential environmental risks to the neighborhood.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab has been planned for the former Army Forces Command building since 2018; the agency previously said it would relocate its current human and animal food testing operations from Midtown and 350 employees.
Perry has long opposed the lab, blasting the McPherson Implementing Local Redevelopment Authority, or Fort Mac LRA, which sold the building for $17 million to a developer. He has called that deal “shortsighted” and said the lab could hinder future development in the area. He also said he could have put the land to better use for the predominantly African American neighborhood nearby.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week, Perry ratcheted up the criticism.
Perry said he made a comparable bid to purchase the land in 2018 and he was befuddled why the authority chose Easterly Government Properties and the FDA over him.
Perry said his concerns were spurred by a recent conversation with the company that designed his studio building, a firm he said has experience building similar labs.
“I hear smokestacks will emit pollution into the air,” he said. “There’s a VA hospital right next door. I’m told the smoke is harmless but I grew up in New Orleans in ‘Cancer Alley.’” (”Cancer Alley” is the nickname for a stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans which contains more than 150 petrochemical plants and refineries.)
“I have a major issue with a building of that size being used in that capacity,” Perry added. “They’re releasing chemicals into the air in a Black neighborhood. It’s environmental racism. I’m very angry about it.”
The FDA denied those claims.
“FDA’s mission is public health. The safety and environmental record for the current FDA Atlanta laboratory located in Midtown Atlanta, as well as all the FDA laboratories, is excellent,” according to an FDA spokesperson. “All the current safety practices will be continued at the new Atlanta laboratory at the former Fort McPherson site. Additionally, the Atlanta laboratory is and will remain a low emission facility.”
An Easterly representative also said Perry is mistaken that the building will have smokestacks. Rather, they use Strobic fans that are part of “a safe and clean exhaust system and can be found on the roofs of hospitals, medical facilities, and other laboratories. They can be easily researched online. The current FDA laboratory, located off Peachtree Street in the heart of Midtown, also has exhaust fans on its roof.”
Perry said the semantics don’t matter, adding: “They still emit pollutants.”
John Hriczo, an engineer who runs a Hoschton-based firm that helps companies comply with FDA standards, said “the exhaust systems of their proposed facility would not be a concern with diligent validation of the specified design and detailed review of the operational protocols.”
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division spokesperson Sara Lips said the agency has no permits or applications for permits on file for either the current FDA facility in Midtown or the one planned at Fort McPherson. Lips said this is likely because the proposed facility does not require a permit. Lips said the state agency cannot say definitively because it has no information about the processes or the equipment used.
The new FDA lab was supposed to be finished by 2021, but because of the pandemic and changes in funding priorities, the space has not yet been built out and ground may not be broken until the end of this year. Currently, an Easterly spokesperson said it is now targeting completion in 2025, with the number of anticipated employees scaled back from 350 to 200 to 250.
‘Full speed ahead’
Perry purchased 330 acres of what was once nearly 500 acres of Fort McPherson in 2015 for $30 million, four years after the 126-year-old Army post shut down. He held a star-studded grand opening in 2019 following the opening of 12 soundstages and an array of other back-lot structures such as a White House replica, a jail, an airplane terminal, a mansion, a functioning diner and a trailer park.
The Forces Command building, also known as FORSCOM, was one of the largest buildings on the Fort McPherson campus and is a critical component to any development outside the gates of Tyler Perry Studios.
When Perry bought the land for his campus nearly a decade ago, the authority and then-Mayor Kasim Reed promised a community-centered development on the remaining Fort McPherson land. That, so far, hasn’t happened.
“The building has been sitting vacant and has been an eyesore for years,” Perry said, adding that the FDA lab is hardly an efficient use of a building of nearly 400,000 square feet.
Perry has had a challenging past with the Fort Mac LRA. There have been times when the sides worked amiably together. At one point, Perry nearly pulled out of his initial deal to buy Fort McPherson land. At other times, Perry has told the AJC and other media outlets that he would no longer pursue deals with the authority only to re-engage when properties came available that he wanted.
Perry and then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were highly critical of a former development team that wanted to build a mixed-use community on about 145 remaining acres of the former Army post. That project was scuttled and now a new team led by Bishop T.D. Jakes is leading the project.
A Fort Mac LRA spokesman and the authority’s chairman did not respond to requests for comment.
Last week, Perry said he is open to buying the FORSCOM property from the government.
But Easterly said in a statement that isn’t likely to happen.
“Easterly is committed to fulfilling its contractual obligations with the U.S. Government under our signed, non-cancelable, 20-year lease agreement,” the company said. “We look forward to delivering a state-of-the-art laboratory for this important federal agency. We also look forward to being part of the Fort Mac community alongside Mr. Perry.”
While his studio, which often has more than 2,000 employees on-site on any given workday, is not open to the public, Perry has promised for years to build an open entertainment district on nearby property. Perry said in his AJC interview that the project will include restaurants, a Georgia film and TV museum and a 4,000-seat theater.
Those plans, he said, “are moving full speed ahead,” now that he has officially closed on the 37 acres of additional property for $8.4 million. “I’m looking to break ground in eight to 10 months.” Like the reset timeline of the FDA lab, Perry said he hopes to have a grand opening in 2025.
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