False text message enraged Atlanta residents over road project

Rolanda Powell waits to merge onto Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway from Center Hill Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Rolanda Powell, head of her neighborhood organization, has been raising concerns about the safety of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway following several recent fatalities. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Rolanda Powell waits to merge onto Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway from Center Hill Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia, on Tuesday, October 13, 2020. Rolanda Powell, head of her neighborhood organization, has been raising concerns about the safety of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway following several recent fatalities. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The outrage began with a Saturday text message: Not only was Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms trying to stop safety improvements that would make a street that claimed several lives safer by narrowing it, but she had also negotiated in secret to expand the same road.

The unfounded rumor that a neighborhood association president initially distributed to about 10 people, soon spread from neighbor to neighbor, highlighting how quickly a message can inflame an already cranky electorate well before anyone has a chance to set the record straight in today’s technological and social media landscape.

“The word on the street is the Mayor promised Microsoft a five-lane highway,” according to a message from Grove Park Neighborhood Association President Brandon Pierre-Thomas. Pierre-Thomas added that Councilman Dustin Hillis, whose westside district includes are of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, had requested that Pierre-Thomas share the information with residents.

No one has produced evidence to support the notion of the mayor’s involvement in any backroom deals for bigger roads to appease the tech giant. But that didn’t stop the rumor from igniting residents’ fears. People from the neighborhoods along Hollowell quickly filled up councilmembers’ voicemail accounts with comments for its Monday meeting, leading to a rare override of a mayoral veto.

Business would have to be shuttered to accommodate additional lanes, they claimed. People would speed even faster through the neighborhood, they predicted. Worst of all, more lives would be lost, they said.

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“I’m appalled and very concerned that the the mayor is wishing to give more lanes and more traffic space on Donald Lee Hollowell,” said Rev. Larry Hill, a pastor for church located on Hollowell, told the council on Monday. “Please override that decision.”

After the meeting, Thomas worried that the false message could overshadow the real problems with Hollowell that residents have complained about for years.

“This predated whatever rumors and comments that were in the air,” Pierre-Thomas told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, adding that Hillis was his source.

Hillis told the AJC the message “was a copy/paste from an email someone received either Friday or Saturday night, so not sure where the (Microsoft) five-lane (reference came from).” The councilman declined to say if he intentionally asked the information to be shared.

On Monday, the council overrode Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ veto of legislation that exchanges a portion of Mitchell Street at the southern border of the Georgia State Capitol to the state for safety improvements to Hollowell.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Carmen Chubb, told the council that all the talk of the mayor wanting to expand the road was unfounded.

“In fact, the plans are just the opposite,” Chubb said, adding that the mayor wanted to reduce the number lanes.

Pierre-Thomas said that 20 people have died from vehicle accidents during the past 10 years.

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Chubb said that the mayor first met with Microsoft in November 2020 in order to ask for the company’s support for narrowing Hollowell. The meeting following an announcement that the company was building a new Atlanta hub in the area.

“She has made it clear that the safety improvements on Donald Lee Hollowell are a priority,” Chubb said.

Bottoms has said she initially vetoed the legislation because the council lacked the authority to negotiate such deals on its own.

After the council’s veto override — a move that hadn’t occurred in more than 10 years — Bottoms in statement said that members broke the law either willingly or ignorantly.

“I am disappointed in my colleagues on the City Council, who should know the separation of powers outlined in our City’s Charter, as well as the appropriate public process related to this matter,” Bottoms said in a statement.

“Council has been duped,” the mayor continued. “There is no agreement or articulation from the State outlining any commitment to improving Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway. The Georgia Department of Transportation has been derelict in their duty to repair that road.”

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