By a narrow margin, the Atlanta City Council on Monday held off on leasing a swath of forested land to the Atlanta Police Foundation for the construction of a $90 million police and fire training facility — a plan that has garnered immense attention and pushback from residents and activists.
On an 8-7 vote that followed more than four hours of comments from the public, the council tabled the proposal, which could be considered again at the next council meeting on Sept. 7.
After the vote, several council members said they are in favor of a new training center for Atlanta’s first responders, but wanted more time to to gather feedback and input from the public.
The closely watched vote and discussion followed weeks of debate over the plan to convert 85 acres of land at the site of the old Atlanta prison farm into a state-of-the-art training center, which supporters say is essential to bolster the city’s police and fire forces.
But activists and residents have protested the idea, saying it was conceived outside of public view and could harm the natural wildlife at the site, which is located just east of Atlanta city limits on Key Road in DeKalb County. Most of the public comments played during Monday’s meeting urged the council to vote no on the proposal.
“We are going to work aggressively to make sure we correct the public engagement missteps, and do a much better job of making sure we are clear and making sure we have addressed the concerns,” said Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, who added that the next two weeks would be a “working period.”
Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who sponsored the original proposal to lease the land, said she was disappointed after the vote was delayed. She said the city and police foundation have done “everything possible” to engage the community.
“We have been through a series of meetings,” she said. “We have heard over 20 hours of just public comment in the last month.”
The facility would house the training academies for future Atlanta police officers and firefighters, and would include classrooms, a shooting range and a building for firefighters to practice fighting blazes, renderings show.
In a statement Monday evening, Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the police foundation, said the vote was “a blow against public safety, the police and fire/rescue departments and our city’s ability to attract and retain highly motivated law enforcement professionals.”
Wilkinson said the foundation “remains convinced” the Key Road site is the only viable location for the training center and will continue the discussion with council members and the public.
Last week, the finance and executive committee amended the proposal to restrict the amount of land leased to the police foundation from 150 to 85 acres, out of the total 380 acres owned by the city. The council added a number of new amendments Monday to ensure the police foundation follows state and federal environmental guidelines and protect historic landmarks on the old prison farm site.
The $90 million center would be funded by a mix of private and public dollars involving the Atlanta Police Foundation and the city’s philanthropic community, the police foundation said. Cox Enterprises President and CEO Alex Taylor, who also chairs the Atlanta Committee for Progress, is leading a campaign to raise private funds for the project. Cox Enterprises owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The police foundation would pay $10 per year to lease the land.
The city would contribute $30 million to the project through a 30-year, $1-million-per-year agreement beginning in 2024 or through a general obligation bond, police foundation officials have said.
Opposition continued ahead of Monday’s vote, as dozens of demonstrators protested outside City Hall on Sunday.
A group of 16 Atlanta-area environmental advocacy organizations, including the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter and the South River Forest Coalition, sent a letter to Bottoms and the Council last week urging them to oppose the lease.
“Fragmentation of the South River Forest will leave the surrounding areas susceptible to stormwater flooding, which is Atlanta’s top natural disaster, continually increasing in intensity due to climate change,” the letter states.
The police foundation has said it will follow environmental regulations and requirements during the planning and construction process. The amended version of the ordinance codifies a promise from the foundation to replace trees removed during construction.
But advocates feel the city has rushed through a process with too many unknowns and not enough input from the public. A city-convened group said earlier this year that the prison farm site was the most viable location, and renderings were made public in April. The ordinance to lease the land was introduced in June.
The amended proposal mandates that the police foundation convene a group of neighborhood and community leaders to provide input on the final training campus and greenspace design. The police foundation said it has met with a wide range of stakeholders over the last several months and adopted some recommendations from community members.