Blackhall Studios expansion plan includes DeKalb park land swap

Joe Peery started out biking on the trails at Intrenchment Creek Park, and now he is part of a group of advocates who lead tours and push for conservation of the park as a natural greenspace. He worries about how the proposed land swap with Blackhall Studios will affect the tranquility of the remaining areas of the park. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

Joe Peery started out biking on the trails at Intrenchment Creek Park, and now he is part of a group of advocates who lead tours and push for conservation of the park as a natural greenspace. He worries about how the proposed land swap with Blackhall Studios will affect the tranquility of the remaining areas of the park. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

Joe Peery was in search of rugged terrain where he could ride his mountain bike when friends introduced him to a little-known green space a few miles south of his East Atlanta home.

For seven years now, he’s enjoyed regular excursions into the forested areas of DeKalb County-owned Intrenchment Creek Park. But he worries that this hidden gem soon could be gone if DeKalb officials give the go-ahead to an unusual land swap with one of Atlanta’s largest movie studios.

As part of its expansion plans, Blackhall Studios, located on the other side of Constitution Road, has eyed 55 acres of the park land abutting its property. That's nearly half of the park's green space. In exchange, the movie studio would give the county three parcels of land north of the park that is roughly the same size.

“This park is pretty much going to be gone,” Peery said, standing along the banks of the creek that runs along its border. “It won’t be the same.”

Intrenchment Creek Park was created in 2004 using county funds and a grant from the Arthur Blank Family Foundation, and it is part of a network of 112 parks totaling 6,770 acres.

The plan calls for Blackhall to shoulder all costs for relocating a model plane airfield that's in the park, rerouting a paved multi-use trail and building two new trailheads for parking and access.

If his company can reach a deal with county officials, Blackhall’s chairman and CEO Ryan Millsap said he will do all he can to make the park better than it is now.

His promises include constructing bigger, more modern runway for the Atlanta Radio Control Club; increasing access to the park, particularly for people living in subdivisions to the north; and increasing connectivity with Constitution Lakes park to the south and Gresham Park to the east.

The deal would also keep Blackhall operations confined to industrial areas along Constitution Road and away from residential neighborhoods off Bouldercrest Road, Millsap said.

“The end result is going to be, I think, really, really good for the area,” he said. “It just works out better from a business standpoint, from a truck standpoint and from an accessibility to the park and the size of the park standpoint.”

County officials declined a request to discuss what has been offered. The county would not say when the required appraisals, legal evaluations and environmental studies will be complete.

Real estate deals are shielded from public record laws, but some of the plans have been shared with park advocates. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond will ultimately decide whether to recommend the land swap to the DeKalb Board of Commissioners, whose members have final say.

But the plans don’t sit well with many of the park’s users.

Some worry that a land swap could leave DeKalb citizens with less than they started with, though clearly green space is important to many residents. Since 2001, DeKalb voters have approved two bond referendums authorizing $248 million in spending for acquisition and development of park land.

If Blackhall is able to build on the park’s highest grounds, they say, the sound stages likely would ruin the views of what remains and make the experience noisier and less serene.

Among the first to sound the alarm was Scott Petersen. He and other residents who want to create contiguous green space have been pushing for a park to be fashioned out of land that was once an old prison farm and is located next door to Intrenchment Creek Park. He posted about the proposal on the "Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm" website. Intrenchment Creek separates farm property, owned by the city of Atlanta, from the park.

Petersen worries that DeKalb officials will be so eager to please a high-profile business that they will give up too much without consulting residents or asking for public input.

“The community of DeKalb County voted to raise taxes on their homes and businesses to acquire more green space,” Petersen said. “Now, the government is trying to let these people buy government land without a fair process.”

That’s a shame, said Peery.

“People sit in traffic for three hours to go up to the North Georgia mountains, and they could just come right here,” Peery said while giving a recent tour.

Still, Millsap is hoping that the county moves quickly. The existing studio facilities have been open less than two years and are already at capacity, and he needs more sound stages to keep up with demand.

The Spider-man spinoff movie “Venom” was filmed at Blackhall, and so was the “Jumanji” remake starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart.

“They’re bringing fantastic business into the area and a lot of jobs,” Millsap said. “And so, they’re begging me to expand because they love this facility and they want to be in this location, and we just don’t have enough space left.”

One of the parcels Blackhall wants to donate was cleared for use as a back lot, but more recently has become a dumping ground of old tires and furniture. The other two parcels on the other side of Bouldercrest Road already flank portions of the mixed-use trail.

Leaders of Park Pride and The Nature Conservancy have started to pay attention, noting the unusual nature of Blackhall's proposal. Neither organization has taken a public stance on how the county should proceed, but both say DeKalb officials need to make sure the swap leaves the county better off than it is now.

Ayanna Williams, Healthy Cities director for The Nature Conservancy, said her organization plans to scrutinize any agreement.

“Some land may have greater conservation value than others, so you would want to mitigate that,” she said. “You want to have a net gain for Dekalb County, an ecological gain.”

The two county commissioners whose district includes Intrenchment Creek Park said they are moving forward cautiously. Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she, too, wants to make sure the county gets more than it is giving. For example, she doesn’t want to allow Blackhall to develop on high, dry property leaving behind less desirable flood plains.

“I’m sure there are people in the county that are pushing this very hard, and I’m not exactly sure why,” she said. “I think we need to do it right if we’re going to do it at all.”

Commissioner Larry Johnson said he is waiting to see what Thurmond recommends, but he wants any deal to make sense for businesses and residents in the Gresham Park neighborhoods.

“This could be a win-win for all of us,” he said, “to put the commercial and industrial closer to Blackhall but will give us that green space and keep it green space on our side.”

The president of Decide DeKalb, the county's economic development arm, said he supports the land deal and trusts Blackhall will get it right. Ray Gilley sees it as an opportunity to reconfigure park space in a way that benefits residents while also encouraging business expansion in an under-served area.

“I think about the kind of additional amenities that could be added there, the trails and trail connectivity as well,” Gilley said. “So, I think it could be perhaps made into a better situation than what we have right now.”

Why it matters

Blackhall Studios’ proposal to develop 55 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park in South DeKalb in exchange for three nearby parcels of land is highly unusual, conservation groups say. County officials are reviewing the land swap idea and have so far made no recommendations. But conservationists worry county officials, in their eagerness to help a high-profile company, may approve a deal that is less beneficial to residents who use and live near the park.