Buford Highway: Development threatens Atlanta’s immigrant corridor

The pulse of this region’s immigrant community is found along an eight-mile stretch of road in DeKalb County, just east of Atlanta’s city limits. Here, you can grab a green tea roll or soboro bread for breakfast at a Korean bakery, then slip next door for a lunch of pollo asado with a side of tortilla.

Atlanta doesn’t have a Chinatown or Koreatown or Little Havana. But there is Buford Highway, the international corridor where all these cultures, and more, co-exist.

“I don’t know where else you can have a taqueria beside a Vietnamese restaurant beside a Middle Eastern restaurant,” David Schaefer, managing director of advocacy for the Latin American Association, said recently. “And those groups live in very close proximity to each other. You go to an apartment complex and hear 20 languages.”

Buford Highway has been an affordable place for immigrants and first-generation Americans to shop, work and live for decades. More than 1,000 immigrant-owned businesses line the street. But the area's growing popularity among developers is threatening to drastically change its culture and identity.

A dealer shop is decked with bunting on Buford Highway in Atlanta on January 19, 2018. Buford Highway is the cultural epicenter for Metro Atlanta’s Latino and Asian populations. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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A national trend toward urban living has coincided with a population boom in metro Atlanta, putting a premium on areas inside Interstate 285. Buford Highway — which runs through Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville — is one of the few places where builders can purchase land at relatively low prices.

Clusters of apartment buildings on the road have been purchased and razed. In their place sprout townhouses or condominiums that carry price tags far out of reach of the residents who have long lived along the thoroughfare. Now many are concerned that the panaderias, hair salons and ethnic markets could be muscled out by the Starbucks, Whole Foods and mixed-use developments.

At El Autentico Sinaloense Pollos Asados restaurant in Doraville, patrons pay little mind to the encroaching development. During lunchtime, they fill small tables and booths surrounded by bright green walls and posters of rural scenes.

Manager Octavio Vergara says the same people come into his restaurant day after day: Mexicans who miss home and its food; Americans who have developed a taste for authentic Sinaloa style chicken. Spanish hip-hop blares from the restaurant’s speakers. When the music shifts to a ranchera ballad, a waitress sings along.

Most of the customers know little about development coming to the old General Motors plant a half-mile mile away or the planned Peachtree Creek Greenway, which will start a mile down the road. But the changes will be hard to ignore.

Brookhaven City Councilman Joe Gebbia’s district runs along Buford Highway. He said change is unavoidable and to be expected.

“This is the hottest market right here, and it’s going to flow over into Chamblee and Doraville eventually,” he said.

He is sensitive to concerns about property values rising so rapidly that local business owners and residents are squeezed out. There are no magical solutions.

“We’re really wrestling with how to address this issue and how to be effective in doing it right,” Gebbia said. “We haven’t come up with the answer.”

Gebbia points to the cranes that hover over the North Druid Hills campus of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, as well as the recently constructed Emory Sports Medicine Complex that houses the Atlanta Hawks' practice facilities.

As related businesses sprout up, the effects are bound to reach the immigrant corridor on the other side of I-85.

“This whole thing is just going to light up like a firecracker right here along Buford Highway,” Gebbia said.

The uncertainty worries longtime residents like 19-year-old Adela Lopez. She has lived in the Foxwoods Apartments almost all of her life, but now she wonders if rent will increase to the point her family is priced out or if the property might be sold to a developer who will tear down the buildings.

Nearby at the old GM site, a 165-acre project called the Assembly is already home to a movie studio and was chosen for the new headquarters of Serta Simmons Bedding. Also coming are apartments, a hotel, a park, shopping and so much office space that the Assembly is on the list of sites pitched to Amazon.

Marian Liou wants to bring attention to the businesses along Buford Highway that exist today. She created We Love BuHi to highlight the community's cultural identity and to come up with programs and policies that support it.

“You can’t ever preserve a place’s value until the people there see it as a place of value and a place of protection,” she said.

Jonathan Jimenez, a stylist at The House of Jolie Hair Salon, cleans up his work station on Feb. 24, 2018. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

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Deidre “Chantel Jolie” Bell opened the House of Jolie Hair Salon in the Northeast Plaza strip mall in September. On a recent Saturday afternoon, reggaeton blasted from the speakers as men and women waited their turn at the stylists’ chairs.

Bell said the location along Buford Highway helps her cater to people from various backgrounds. She isn’t too worried about the threat of development, as long as government agencies implement policies to protect small businesses.

“I think what it’s going to do is make my business grow,” she said. “It’s only going to bring more people.”

Much of the shop’s clientele is drawn from foot traffic generated by roughly 60 other businesses at the plaza.

Down the street at El Autentico Sinaloense Pollos Asados, Genesis Lugo waited for her order and talked about the sense of connectedness she feels when she comes to the restaurant. “The food they make here is like the food they make where my mom’s from,” she said.

Her brother discovered the restaurant a couple of years ago, and Lugo visits Buford Highway about once a month. Lugo said these kinds of restaurants make this part of Atlanta unique.

“It’s just really special to have all these cultures together to allow people to explore and try all these different things,” she said.

On the other side of Buford Highway is ViVi Bubble Tea, a colorful shop serving the milky beverage that originated in Taiwan. The New York-based owners wanted to expand into the Atlanta market, so they chose this roadway because of its high density of Asian residents and businesses.

“My family has always come here for grocery shopping,” Vivi employee John Zhang said of the area. “Especially if we want to have something close to our culture.”

Betsy Eggers and Sarah Kennedy lead a tour of an area in Brookhaven near Buford Highway that will one day become the Peachtree Creek Greenway. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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Many look forward to the Peachtree Creek Greenway, the linear park that will extend 12 miles from Doraville to the Atlanta Beltline once completed.

The first mile of the Greenway will be built this year and snakes underneath Buford Highway. It will have wide sidewalks for pedestrians and cyclists, giving them close-up views of a babbling creek. Trailheads will hitch the Greenway to nearby roads and businesses.

“The people want connectivity,” said Sarah Kennedy, vice chairwoman of the nonprofit organization behind the Greenway.

Still, the project’s similarities to the Beltline have caused apprehension.

The Beltline, the network of parks and trails that circles intown Atlanta, has been popular among tourists, residents and developers, winning numerous awards for urban renewal. But it's also caused housing prices to skyrocket. Some accuse project administrators of ignoring warnings and failing to prevent longtime residents from being priced out of their homes.

Patsy Moeller is a member of the board for Interfaith Outreach Home, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing along Buford Highway for needy families. The organization owns a 10-unit apartment building where clients pay reduced rents as part of a program to get them on their feet.

“Look at what is happening all around us, and we are right in the middle,” Moeller said. “Can the city come along and change zoning so that we are not allowed to be in that space anymore? What does that mean for our families?”

The Greenway’s backers say they have paid attention to some of the negative impacts the Beltline had on affordable housing, and they don’t want to replicate those problems along Buford. They are hopeful that local governments and other groups can help guide them.

“It’s difficult for us to have much control over other people’s property,” Greenway Chairwoman Betsy Eggers said. “That’s not our mission.”

Buford Highway is the pulse for Metro Atlanta’s Latino and Asian populations, particularly the stretch that begins in the city of Atlanta and continues across DeKalb County.

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A group of Georgia Tech graduate students analyzed affordability along Buford Highway as part of their graduate level coursework last semester. Their professor, Gary Cornell, encouraged them to draft recommendations on how to preserve the area’s uniqueness, knowing that the Greenway and other developments could have a substantial impact on people who live there now.

His class presented it findings to the Brookhaven City Council in late November. Among the recommendations: requiring developers to calculate how new projects will affect affordable housing and creating zoning laws that focus on preserving Buford Highway’s character, even as new office buildings or subdivisions are planned.

Brookhaven Councilman Bates Mattison, whose district includes a small tract of the road, said the students’ suggestions should be taken seriously.

“That’s what our city needs is to really create a vision for this corridor. We know that it is our diamond in the rough that has so much economic potential,” he said.

The Latin American Association and Center for Pan Asian Community Services, both located in this area, are active in the fight to preserve Buford Highway as an immigrant-friendly community. Their efforts are buoyed by grassroots organizations like Los Vecinos de Buford Highway — translated to mean The Neighbors of Buford Highway.

Los Vecinos is an offshoot of work begun by Rebekah Cohen Morris when she was a teacher at Cross Keys High School. Hoping to keep her mostly Latino students engaged, she weaved civics and political activism into her lessons. After the class concluded for the year, those students decided to keep working. Today, Los Vecinos is a nonprofit that encourages people to speak up about the conditions of the neighborhoods and get involved in political conversations about the future of Buford Highway.

Sometimes, Morris worries the discussions are too late. She lives in the area and can rattle off the names of torn down apartment complexes.

It’s “hard to stop a rushing training,” she said. Still, she thinks there’s time to shape the way development goes.

Morris would like to see local governments update their zoning laws to allow more density in new housing developments, such as high-rise buildings. She thinks if developers have more units to sell, they’ll have incentive to keep them affordable.

She also wants governments to offer financial resources to landlords who would like to fix up aging complexes that have fallen into disrepair. Too often, Morris said, those complexes become eyesores and land in the hands of investors looking to build more townhouses.

Morris is also a proponent of inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of new units for affordable housing. The city of Atlanta’s inclusionary zoning ordinance just went into effect, so it’s too early to say if it will have an impact on housing prices near the Beltline and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

She believes the Greenway’s proponents, local governments, developers and residents must work together to address the challenges Buford Highway is facing.

“We have to think about things as interconnected,” she said.