City eyes creek cleanup as kick-start for NW revitalization

As a boy growing up on English Avenue in downtown Atlanta, Vincent Jones and his friends often played in nearby Proctor Creek. Those were the days before people realized the extent of the contamination in the stream, which runs from the Georgia Dome to the Chattahoochee River.

Flooding from downtown, trash and tire dumping, and sewage spills made Proctor Creek one of the most polluted streams in the state.

“We didn’t know at the time some of it was waste, but we had a ball,” said Jones, 59, who still lives on English Avenue.

Now, what began as an idea among private developers to clean up his childhood stream has evolved into a federally backed partnership that could transform a large swath of Northwest Atlanta in the process.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the project, with the creek and a greenway as a showpiece, can entice real estate development, reclaim 400 acres of green space and promote community health through improved water quality. While the city would have created an adequate solution to flooding in downtown Atlanta, he said the Proctor Creek Partnership does that and more.

“I believe it’s the difference between something that is mediocre that works and something that is best in class and worthy of a national model,” Reed said of the venture.

The Emerald Corridor, a group of landscape architects and engineers, approached Atlanta officials two years ago with a proposal to revitalize 11 miles of the creek. In conjunction, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land is raising money to build a greenway around the stream, providing walking and biking trails on a natural surface that would connect Cobb County’s PATH system to the Atlanta Beltline. That greenway would be conveyed back to the city upon completion, said the Trust’s Debra Edelson.

Some homeowners like Jones, who have long dealt with flooding in this part of Atlanta, are eager for the stormwater relief. But they worry that if the project succeeds and development flourishes, many could be displaced.

“My concern is that the people who have made this their home and want to continue in the community are allowed to do that, that they aren’t priced out,” said Jones, president of the English Avenue Neighborhood Association.

The creek project aims to address pervasive flooding problems that have long plagued neighborhoods like Jones’s around the Georgia World Congress Center, while beautifying what is now an overgrown, impoverished and rundown part of the city. The Emerald Corridor and Trust for Public Land are privately funding the venture, which is still in its planning and permitting stages, but approached the city for permission to include public-owned property in the project. Atlanta owns 29 percent of the land adjacent to Proctor Creek.

According to those working on the project, Reed leveraged his relationship with the Obama Administration and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 4 administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming to have Proctor Creek named to the Urban Waters Federal Partnership.

That distinction brings special attention and the potential for federal grants from such agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — funds that could improve the quality of life on the west side of Atlanta.

Landscape architect Joel Bowman, who is spearheading the Emerald Corridor venture, said his group expects to invest $6 million to $10 million in the project. As they clean the creek, the group earns environmental credits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and in turn plans to sell those credits to developers in years to come.

“What’s really cool about this opportunity is you are looking at a watershed and stream approach to rebuilding a community,” he said. “It’s a green infrastructure program that ends up breeding an incredible community around it.”

A community that Wallace Maffett worries he will no longer be able to afford if the project is successful. Proctor Creek runs through his backyard in Carver Hills. He remembers how the stream was lined with trees when he purchased his home in 1963. Now those trees are long gone, he says, victims of erosion.

He’s long dealt with flooding each time the creek overflows, he said, a problem for which he can’t get flood insurance. And so while he’s glad environmental problems could be fixed, he worries what the project could mean for his property values.

“I’m afraid what they will do is come out here and revitalize this thing, then the taxes will go so high these older homeowners will have to get up and get out of here,” said Maffett, 76. “I’ve been here too long and I’m too old to try to relocate.”

Tony Torrence, head of the Community Improvement Association, has worked for years to reduce flooding problems in Vine City. He’s encouraged by the attention the federal partnership brings to the community, but he is waiting to see how much input the public has in the project.

Too often, he said, residents are left out of decisions that radically change their community.

“They don’t work with the community, they come out and tell us what they want to do,” he said of previous developers. “Is this an investor’s project or is this a real community collaborative effort?”

City officials, the Emerald Corridor and the Trust for Public Land said they are beginning to solicit public comments.

“We want the community to voice what they’d like to see happen,” said Denise Quarles, the city’s director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “We have infrastructure problems, but it’s their community. They need to own it.”

The Emerald Group could break ground on the creek revitalization project as early as 2014. Construction could take seven to 10 years, Bowman said. (The federal partnership, however, is in effect immediately.)

When asked whether the Emerald Corridor could abandon the project mid-way, Bowman was candid about the risk. For their venture to be profitable, regional development must return. The group must also receive the necessary permits and approvals along the way.

“It’s not something we can do (just) because we want to,” he said. “As long as we get approvals and it continues to be a financially viable project, then we’ll keep going down the road.”

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