DeKalb, movie studio close on land swap after deed restrictions nixed

A sign outside the existing trailhead for the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park, near Bouldercrest Road in southwest DeKalb County. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM
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A sign outside the existing trailhead for the South River Trail at Intrenchment Creek Park, near Bouldercrest Road in southwest DeKalb County. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios have closed on their long-discussed land swap, finalizing an unorthodox deal that sends existing south DeKalb park land to the film company in exchange for other nearby property.

That newly acquired land, officials say, will be converted into a new county park with more amenities and better connectivity with the surrounding, historically underserved community.

The deal — which has drawn its share of resistance but is largely supported by nearby residents — has been discussed for nearly three years. It was finalized earlier this week, shortly after the Trust for Public Land and the Arthur M. Blank Foundation agreed to remove deed restrictions on the county-owned land being given to Blackhall.

“The Blank Foundation has always believed in the power of parks and greenspace to offer social, emotional, and ecological benefits to residents and visitors alike,” Blank Foundation president Penelope McPhee said in an emailed statement. “We join the Trust for Public Land in this decision because we believe it offers the greatest value to the community.”

A parcel map showing the property involved in DeKalb County's land swap with Blackhall Studios. The county receives the blue parcels from Blackhall, which receives the orange tract. The green is existing greenspace, including Intrenchment Creek Park. SPECIAL PHOTO
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A parcel map showing the property involved in DeKalb County's land swap with Blackhall Studios. The county receives the blue parcels from Blackhall, which receives the orange tract. The green is existing greenspace, including Intrenchment Creek Park. SPECIAL PHOTO

Under the arrangement, Blackhall receives about 40 acres of the existing Intrenchment Creek Park, which backs up to its campus near Bouldercrest Road and I-285. The studio will use the land to dramatically expand its capacity for TV and film productions.

CEO Ryan Millsap said that, in terms of soundstage space, the additions will make Blackhall “the largest studio in the English-speaking world.” Everything could be up and running by next summer, he said.

“We’re excited to be able to take the next steps and turn the area into an incredible, growing entertainment mecca,” Millsap said.

The 53 acres that Blackhall is giving to DeKalb is just to the north, in several parcels on either side of Bouldercrest Road.

County officials and other supporters say the property will help create a larger contiguous swath of greenspace while connecting Intrenchment Creek with nearby Gresham Park. They envision a 13-acre meadow, a large ADA-accessible playground, a water feature like a splash pad and improved trails.

Blackhall has agreed to contribute $1.5 million worth of monetary and in-kind donations to the park project. That includes replacing amenities like a section of trail and an airstrip for remote control airplanes that will be lost during the studio’s expansion.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, meanwhile, recently voted to allocate about $1.7 million worth of unused urban redevelopment bonds for the overhaul.

“The land exchange is about bringing more access and more amenities to these long-standing communities to support their sustainability and quality of life,” Commissioner Larry Johnson, who represents the area, said in a news release.

A map of proposed amenities and replacements at the park planned on land DeKalb County acquired from Blackhall Studios in a recently closed land swap. SPECIAL PHOTO
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A map of proposed amenities and replacements at the park planned on land DeKalb County acquired from Blackhall Studios in a recently closed land swap. SPECIAL PHOTO

The swap has the backing of many residents who live nearby, including leaders of the Southwest DeKalb Neighborhood Association and the Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association. Those folks have said they’re excited about the greenspace as well as the economic development opportunities presented by Blackhall’s expansion.

There has been some pushback, however.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon represented the western half of DeKalb, including the area in question, for more than 15 years before her recent retirement. She was adamantly opposed to the swap, saying it set a bad precedent to give public park land to a private developer.

There’s also a group called “Stop the Swap,” which has fought the Blackhall exchange for years. Jacqueline Echols, who also serves as president of the South River Watershed Alliance, is a member.

She said the group is still considering taking legal action to try and prevent things from moving forward.

“Since all else has failed,” Echols said Thursday, “we will pursue the only other option available.”