Daunting task to rebuild Atlanta’s westside

Longtime Atlanta insider John Ahmann has been named the new executive director of the Westside Future Fund, an organization geared towards improving the quality of life in communities near the future Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (HANDOUT - WESTSIDE FUTURE FUND)



Longtime Atlanta insider John Ahmann has been named the new executive director of the Westside Future Fund, an organization geared towards improving the quality of life in communities near the future Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (HANDOUT - WESTSIDE FUTURE FUND)

New key players

The work to rejuvenate the Westside Atlanta neighborhoods of Vine City, English Avenue, Ashview Heights and the Atlanta University Center area features a number of key players and institutions.

There are dozens of churches and nonprofits, the city of Atlanta and its economic development agency, city planners, the Atlanta Beltline, developers and homeowners.

The Westside Future Fund started in December 2014 as the brainchild of Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta Committee for Progress. It’s designed to be the community quarterback to coordinate many disparate efforts. The group will be involved in public safety, land planning, low-income and mixed-income housing, job creation, mobility and education.

The group just named its second executive director in John Ahmann, a longtime Atlanta civic, business and political player who ran the Atlanta Committee for Progress and is a former Metro Atlanta Chamber executive.

The group, led by Ahmann and Richard Dugas, the CEO of homebuilder PulteGroup, will be both a funder of programs that already exist and the convening body for the community, its leaders say.

Kelly Brown stands in the corner of a crowded banquet room, her camera rolling. Around the single mother of three, more than a hundred of Atlanta’s business and civic elite — a billionaire, a Fortune 500 CEO, a U.S. Attorney — file in for a summit on efforts to revive the neighborhoods around the rising Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Plans are underway to build six homes for police officers in Vine City, an effort to drive out crime and work with at-risk kids. A jobs training center is getting a new building. The future Beltline segment and cleanup plans for the long polluted Proctor Creek have gained the attention of developers in this historic part of the city.

When Brown rises to speak, the English Avenue resident and small business owner says she came to film the meeting for her neighbors who have questions about the changes that could come to their communities. She nods to the assembled power in the room, but also to what was missing — more residents like her.

“There is a lot of money in the room and there’s a lot of talent on the corners,” she said.

The $1.5 billion stadium is the most visible symbol of redevelopment on Atlanta’s Westside, and in truth it was always the easiest part. Rebuilding historic but blighted communities such as Vine City and English Avenue — where the Georgia Dome, the Olympics and more than $100 million in grants failed to make much difference — has always been a daunting task.

How daunting? Those communities and others in the shadow of the stadium have lost half their population or more since the peak of the late 1950s and 1960s. Poverty, unemployment and crime are high, and the implosion of the housing market last decade — after a run up of real estate speculation — set back the communities even further.

Some residents dread a repeat of the 1990s when little came of the big promises tied to the Georgia Dome. Others fear change will come at the expense of longtime residents who have stuck it out through decades of community decay.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed,whose term finishes at the end of 2017, and other leaders say they won’t fail.

Between the future Beltline segment, new parks, efforts to reform schools and a community policing model that will put cops in the neighborhood and create a new security force backed by a network of cameras and license plate readers, the activity on the Westside is unprecedented, city leaders say.

In the year ahead, signs of commitments by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the city, the Chick-fil-A Foundation, and numerous other charities and churches are expected to come to the fore. But whether the willpower of billionaires like Blank and Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, Reed and other heavyweights can sustain and coordinate an effort that will likely stretch for years is perhaps the biggest question of all.

In a recent interview, Reed said the might and capabilities coming forward dwarf anything seen when a lack of coordination, incompetence and some mismanagement squandered efforts after the Georgia Dome opened.

Reed points to examples such as the successful redevelopment of East Lake over the past two decades, spearheaded by developer Tom Cousins and Purpose Built Communities, and the influence of the Beltline in neighborhoods such as the Old Fourth Ward.

“That is why this story will have a different outcome,” Reed said.

‘We don’t trust you!’

Stadiums have not had a record in Atlanta, or really in the majority of American cities, of fostering community development. Entire neighborhoods were wiped out in the 1960s for the original Atlanta Stadium. The Olympic Stadium and Georgia Dome also paved over parts of in-town neighborhoods that were predominantly black and poor.

Two historic black churches were acquired and razed to make room for the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which will open next year.

After the Atlanta City Council approved a deal in 2013 to help finance the construction of the Falcons stadium with $200 million in bonds backed by hotel-motel taxes — plus likely hundreds of millions more tax dollars to help pay upkeep costs — city officials met with residents to discuss what they’d receive in exchange for more disruption in their backyards. A key piece of that negotiation was a community benefits agreement and commitments of $15 million each from the city and Blank’s family foundation for neighborhood redevelopment.

Residents often clashed with leaders over wording of the plan and how the funds would be spent. The process ended on a bitter note after city leaders fast-tracked the benefits agreement for approval before the residents signed off.

In a fiery November 2013 meeting, a resident blasted officials.

“You wonder why we wanted an agreement?” said Howard Beckham, who represented the Vine City and English Avenue Ministerial Alliance then. “Because we don’t trust you! And you have proved it!”

But in a sign of how bridges can be built, Beckham now works in intake services for Westside Works, a jobs training program set up by the Blank foundation.

Leaders — from Blank to Reed and others who pushed for the stadium — know their legacies are on the line.

Atlanta can’t build another stadium and ignore the vulnerable communities around it, Cathy said, calling the community recovery “a moral imperative.”

“We’re going to have limousines pulling in there where people are going to be eating caviar and shrimp cocktail, but across the street we got people digging through a trash can trying to find something for lunch,” Cathy said. “That’s an issue for me. That’s an issue for Arthur Blank as well.”

English Avenue and Vine City, two of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, are victims of de-population and neglect. Poverty, unemployment, drugs and gang violence are rampant.

But the area has a rich history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Vine City before his assassination. The area is home to the original Paschal’s restaurant, a headquarters of the Civil Rights Movement.

Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist, equates the rebuilding of the Westside to that of Jerusalem in the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah, a cup-bearer for a Persian king, returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls around the devastated city and repopulate the capital while restoring the laws of Moses. Cathy said like Jerusalem, the Westside needs both a physical and spiritual rebirth.

“[Nehemiah] rebuilt that wall in 52 days, but it took far longer to bring about the renaissance of the entire community,” Cathy said.

Earning respect

The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has, until now, been the center of the latest major revitalization effort on the Westside. But now it is being joined by the Westside Future Fund, an organization created by the mayor and a committee of powerful CEOs known as the Atlanta Committee for Progress in December 2014. The still-developing group aims to serve as the quarterback coordinating literally dozens of disparate aid efforts in an area covering more than 1,000 in-town acres stretching from the Atlanta University Center area north to Donald E. Hollowell Parkway.

It will both create aid programs and fund established charities on the Westside, said board chairman Richard Dugas. Dugas, CEO of homebuilder PulteGroup, recently named longtime Atlanta political and civic operative John Ahmann the fund’s executive director.

Ahmann, a former Metro Atlanta Chamber executive who ran the Atlanta Committee for Progress, has been a behind the scenes player the turnaround of Grady Memorial Hospital and the acquisition of the King Papers. He has a Rolodex of top CEOs to draw upon for help, Dugas said.

The fund is tasked with repopulating neighborhoods without pricing out longtime residents. More than eight in 10 residents are renters – the easiest group to displace.

Some in the neighborhoods have asked if the fund was looking to replace the efforts of churches and nonprofits working in the community for decades.

“My goal is to make sure you have a seat at the table,” Dugas said.

The Westside Future Fund meets with community, nonprofit, public safety and business leaders two Fridays a month at the City of Refuge, largely in coordination with Cathy and the Chick-fil-A Foundation, which spearheaded the meetings last year.

Early gatherings have mushroomed from a few dozen attendees to about 200, a small sign of success, Dugas said.

Cathy challenged the group at a recent meeting about why they were here.

“Is this a humanitarian effort on your part?” Cathy asked, or a prime place to network. “…Could you be here because you feel called to be here?”

He, like others, know that the skeptical community’s buy-in is critical.

At a February Westside meeting, the Rev. Leroy Wright of First Thessalonian Missionary Baptist Church, said the dozens of churches near the rising stadium hold sway with congregants, “but we don’t see authentic participation.”

Residents like Brown, church leaders and the directors of nonprofits who have labored in the stadium neighborhoods for decades are the forces the future fund needs to marshal, Dugas said.

“We have to earn respect so that people come to us,” Dugas said.

The group must grow into its role, he said, while delivering short-term wins in public safety, education and jobs to buy the time needed with residents to plan for longer term programs.

Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development with the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, said part of his mission, will be to supplement and support groups already doing work here. The Blank foundation has committed nearly $7 million of the $15 million Blank earmarked as part of a community benefits agreement.

Westside Works, one of the foundation’s largest investments, has helped train 306 community residents. Nearly 200 are in construction, with 87 finding work at the stadium site. Other investments have been made in long-term health services, public safety and education.

Beckham, the English Avenue pastor who decried the lack of trust in city officials, now works in partnership with Westside Works to help recruit job applicants through the nonprofit, Integrity Community Development Corporation.

He said he’s “pleasantly surprised” that the community is already seeing positive changes — the types of things residents asked for during the stadium deal.

“There are still some people that have some doubts, because they aren’t as involved as I am and can’t see it from the inside,” he said this week. “But if you look around at what’s going on, there are so many different initiatives.”

More to be done

Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Young, the representative for District 3 who lives in Vine City, said he once was one of the biggest skeptics of the future fund. But, he said, the attention focused on the Westside is unprecedented.

He notes a plan by Atlanta Public Schools to turn the closed Kennedy Middle School into k-8 school focused on science, technology, engineering and math. Major developers specializing in quality low income housing are scouting the Westside, he said.

The Beltline’s western extension — a $43 million extension of the planned 22-mile loop of trails, parks and transit — will run from University Avenue in Adair Park north to Lena Avenue at Washington Park. The new Lindsay Street Park, an oasis in a corridor of boarded up homes, features a playground and is designed to control thorny stormwater issues.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said homes for 20 to 25 for officers and their families will be built in the Westside by 2020. The first five will be built by PulteGroup on a stretch of James P. Brawley Drive and another by Habitat for Humanity will come this year.

A new youth diversion center, designed to keep kids out of jail, is also in the police department’s plans.

In the months ahead, Westside Future Fund will unveil a “land use action plan” — an amalgamation of some 18 planning exercises done by groups such as churches, the Atlanta University Center and Georgia Tech over the past decade or so.

The plan will cover a broader 24 square miles and feature parks, mixed-income housing, future zoning needs and offer guidance for connecting the area’s disjointed network of streets for neighborhoods largely cut off from jobs centers like downtown and Midtown.

Beyond the Beltline, the city has some 200 acres of property over which it can influence development, including the Morris Brown College campus, Mayor Reed said. Those properties could serve as anchors to encourage private investment, he said.

Speculators already are making bets in the area, buying up land and boarded up homes. But many remain in disrepair. The city, though attempting to crack down on code violations, hasn’t held enough accountable for junky properties, many neighbors said.

The speculation also has another side-effect: rising real estate values and landlords overcharging of rents for substandard housing.

“I’ve not heard concretely how you have this level of development without displacement,” said Sheri Davis-Faulkner, director of the Westside Communities Alliance, which operates a community newsletter, computer lab and an online dashboard of community demographics data.

The goal of attracting investment and development without displacement is “easier said than done,” said Fernandez, with the Blank foundation.

The Blank foundation is working with the Home Depot Foundation and Invest Atlanta on a program to help longtime owners fix up homes, he said. Land banking — that is putting land ownership into a trust to keep the cost of purchasing a home low — is another tactic that could follow.

Last year, the city won a $30 million federal grant to redevelop aging public housing as mixed income communities.

“We don’t have a gentrification problem right now,” Fernandez said. “We might have it — and if you doing revitalization you probably should have it — but you have to be able to address it.”

To de-concentrate poverty, that effort will require a mixed-income approach, said Ahmann, adding a plan to protect longtime residents is in the works.

Still, Brown, the owner of a video production business who has been welcomed by Ahmann to tape each future fund meeting, said she is hopeful, but remains skeptical.

Brown said she needs to hear more about how the groups plan to confront problems like addiction and helping people with criminal records get jobs. She's also at-risk of being displaced.

Brown fixed up a home in English Avenue that was donated to her by a nonprofit she volunteered for for three years. She slept in the driveway during renovations to keep it from being vandalized.

Brown said at a meeting Friday that unbeknownst to her, the property had some $16,000 in tax liens against it before she took it over. She could be evicted by an investor who bought the liens.

Brown said her plight is a common one in a place where title issues and limited incomes can mean few options. Ahmann said the fund is working to keep Brown in her home.

“We hope to have an answer in two weeks,” he said.

Reporter Angela Tuck contributed to this article.