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APS to force sale of properties for new northwest Atlanta school project

Using its power of eminent domain, the Atlanta school board intends to force the sale of nine properties to make room for a new school in a northwest Atlanta neighborhood facing gentrification

The Atlanta Board of Education voted 7-1 Monday to begin the condemnation and purchase process of the residential properties. The appraised value of all the sites combined exceeds $320,000, according to numbers from the Fulton County Assessors Office. 

Atlanta Public Schools wants the properties, located on Francis Place N.W. and Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway N.W., for the construction of a new school to house Woodson Park Academy. 

The project has pitted the district, which plans to hire a charter school network to run the school, against a handful of property owners, some of whom say they’ve been low-balled on the purchase offers. 

“We understand that the law permits this board to acquire property through eminent domain where the property is needed for public use; however, a request to proceed with condemnation is not one that we take lightly,” said school board chairman Jason Esteves, at the board meeting. 

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Officials said they have been working to purchase needed properties for more than a year but haven’t been able to convince all the owners to sell. 

“These properties are being stolen from right beneath us,” said Van Thomas, a New Jersey truck driver who said he bought his property to build affordable housing. 

Prices in the neighborhood have doubled and even tripled in the past year and a half, said Keith Sharp, a salesman with Keller Williams Realty in Buckhead who spoke on behalf of several owners. 

“The school system seems to be on a path of forcing the owners to sell for a low price or else to have to expend legal fees…,” he said. “The properties in question can be acquired without the use of condemnation or eminent domain. They just want a fair price for their property.” 

The school board in February approved spending

$83,200 to buy one of the properties, at 698 Francis Place N.W., that is now included in the eminent domain proceedings. The Fulton County Assessors Office lists that property’s appraised value at $28,900.

In a separate vote Monday, the school board agreed to spend $83,500 for nearby property at 674 Francis Place N.W. that is not on the district’s eminent domain list. The county’s appraised value for that property is $42,100.

Woodson Park is a kindergarten through 8th grade school created by the merger of the Woodson Elementary and Grove Park Intermediate, where it is currently located. 

Next school year, the district will turn over the school’s operation to KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools, a nonprofit group of public charter schools. Woodson Park will become the sixth and final APS school to be run by outside management. The transfer is part of a bigger APS strategy to turn around troubled schools

The new building is scheduled to open in 2020, using the former Woodson Elementary site and surrounding land. The school is estimated to cost roughly $34 million. APS will pay $18.5 million, and the Grove Park Foundation plans to raise the rest of the money. 

There’s also plans for a YMCA and health clinic on the site. Officials want to create a community-focused school that helps revitalize and support the neighborhood. The effort already has attracted corporate philanthropy; Bank of America announced in April it would give $1 million to help build the school. 

Debra Edelson, the foundation’s executive director, described the owners who have thus far refused to sell as property “investors.” She said many of the houses are boarded up and in “bad shape.” She said she’s never seen tenants living in the homes. 

“We were very careful and very thoughtful in how we identified these properties, making sure we were not displacing anyone for these neighborhoods,” she said. “They have all owned property adjacent to the school for many years and have not been good neighbors in keeping up their properties.” 

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen told the board members that the district will continue to “work with” the property owners. She said a fact-finder, or “special master,” will be tasked with determining a fair purchase price by looking at numbers presented by the district, owners and the county assessor’s office. 

Board member Byron Amos cast the lone no vote. Leslie Grant was not present for the vote.

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