Norfolk Southern backs out of Chattahoochee Brick development plans

The Chattahoochee Brick Company site in northwest Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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The Chattahoochee Brick Company site in northwest Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Norfolk Southern announced Thursday it is abandoning its plans to build a rail terminal on a large plot of land in northwest Atlanta that was once home to a brick company known for using convict labor.

The rail company’s decision comes days after the city of Atlanta took legal action to stop Norfolk from developing the land. The news also drew cheers from nearby residents who have pushed for years to prevent development on the historic land.

The large site, located near the Chattahoochee River just north of Bolton Road, once belonged to the Chattahoochee Brick Company, which used inmates from Georgia’s prisons to perform backbreaking labor. The inmates, who were leased through a state-run system operated from the 1860s until the early 1900s, suffered and some even died on the job from abuse and a lack of care.

Last Friday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the city filed a legal petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board to stop Norfolk’s construction on the site.

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The company said it believes the city’s action lacks legal merit, but it “listened to the community and has no interest in protracted litigation if the city opposes the project,” according to a statement. Norfolk Southern, which is also building its headquarters in Atlanta, held meetings with neighbors, vowed to build a memorial to recognize the history of the land and conducted archaeological and historical surveys.

“We pride ourselves on being a good corporate citizen in the communities where we operate,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO James Squires said. “In this case, that means walking away from the project despite our very best efforts to work with the community on the responsible development of the site.”

After the announcement Thursday, Bottoms thanked Norfolk Southern for “their cooperation in protecting this historic site.”

“Atlanta is singular among cities in its relationship with private and philanthropic sectors, and we appreciate our partners who act in the best interests of our communities,” Bottoms said.

The atrocities that happened at Chattahoochee Brick and other convict leasing sites were outlined in Douglas Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Slavery by Another Name.”

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Norfolk Southern said in the fall that it planned to build a rail transfer terminal on the land to move materials like ethanol, oil and other commodities. The proposal was met with angst and frustration from local residents.

For Robert Kent, who lives in the Whittier Mill Village neighborhood next to the old Chattahoochee Brick site, Thursday’s announcement came as a relief and somewhat of a surprise. He and other neighbors have been advocating since 2016 against plans to build a rail terminal on the land.

“We think they made a mistake, and I guess they’re recognizing it, and good for them,” Kent said of Norfolk Southern. “They’re not being stubborn about it. ... We’re glad that they’re doing it.”

Norfolk is leasing the land from South Carolina-based biofuel shipping company Lincoln Energy Solutions, which previously sought to build a fuel terminal there but withdrew its permit with the city due to community pushback. Norfolk said in the fall that it had already received ground disturbance and air permits from the state’s Environmental Protection Division, and was in the process of getting federal permits to move forward with construction.

Norfolk said it will “complete the necessary work to stabilize and secure the site and then withdraw.”

It’s unclear what is next for the property; City Councilman Dustin Hillis, who represents the area, has proposed that the city should acquire the land.

“To say I am delighted would be an understatement,” he said in a statement reacting the Norfolk’s decision. “While this is a great victory for the city, our work is not done, and we cannot rest until this important piece of land is in the city’s possession.”