A movie studio, a DeKalb park and a neighborhood’s struggle to be heard

Ingrid Buxbaum, right, stands in a home she is renovating in the Starlight Heights neighborhood in DeKalb County on Jan. 16, 2019, and speaks to neighbor Debbie Joudeh about concerns they have about the park land swap proposed by Blackhall Studios. (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

Ingrid Buxbaum, right, stands in a home she is renovating in the Starlight Heights neighborhood in DeKalb County on Jan. 16, 2019, and speaks to neighbor Debbie Joudeh about concerns they have about the park land swap proposed by Blackhall Studios. (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

When Ingrid Buxbaum started flipping homes in her southwest DeKalb County neighborhood, she painted the dwellings colors like yellow, purple and pink in an effort to breathe life into an area that had long felt neglected and overlooked.

But the neighborhood, Starlight Heights, which sits just south of the drive-in theater that shares its name, finds itself animated these days by more than just bright hues. A neighborhood association that formed years ago to push back against nearby businesses who weren't complying with zoning and code enforcement regulations finds itself in a new fight that could reshape the area for decades.

Buxbaum and her neighbors, along with conservationists and groups in nearby East Atlanta, are pressing for answers about a proposal to allow a local movie studio to redevelop Intrenchment Creek Park, a nearby public greenspace owned by the county. In exchange, Blackhall Studios would give DeKalb land the company owns nearby and pay to create a new park.

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At a recent county commission meeting, Buxbaum, who calls herself the neighborhood's "unofficial, unpaid mayor," attended with several others in yellow shirts in a show of solidarity. They criticized county officials for pushing forward on a proposal with little feedback from taxpayers who own the land and those who would be most impacted.

“The citizens need to be part of that conversation before our greenspace is traded away without our input,” Buxbaum told commissioners during public comment.

She said the lack of transparency has fueled concerns about how the land swap with Blackhall Studios would affect traffic in the neighborhood of about 150 homes and whether the parcels the studio currently owns would amount to a fair trade of county land.

Buxbaum and others have since reached out to Ryan Millsap, Blackhall's chairman and CEO. She said recently that she believes the land swap will eventually be approved, and she is not against the studio's plans to expand. She just wants transparency and inclusion.

“I want the best deal for our neighbors and the best deal for our citizens,” she said.

The person responsible for starting this whole conversation is Jay Scott, a landscape architect who began studying the area as part of a team creating a master plan for the Conley business district. Millsap told that group about his plan to expand on three parcels off Bouldercrest Road.

Scott came up with the idea of Blackhall donating that land to DeKalb in exchange for permission to expand on a portion of Intrenchment Creek Park closer to the studio’s existing facilities on Constitution Road.

Millsap liked the idea and hired Scott as a consultant. Lately, it has been Scott’s job to pitch the plan to community associations concerned about the swap and its impact on neighborhoods.

“The people that are opposed to it, they don’t understand what all is going on, and they have an idea that once land is parkland it’s completely sacred,” Scott said. “But you can switch, and you can move things around so that it will work better in the community.”


Credit: via Starlight Facebook

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Credit: via Starlight Facebook

The Arthur Blank Family Foundation donated money to help purchase land to create the park in 2004. Most of Intrenchment Creek Park today is forested greenspace. But some portions have been cleared for a trailhead area and the Atlanta Radio Control Club’s airfield.

In November, the county sent a letter asking for the foundation's blessing on the land swap. The president and director of the foundation said Thursday that no decision has been made.

“We are in the due diligence process, trying to learn as much as we can about the opportunity," Penelope McPhee said in a statement. "Our goal is to ensure that DeKalb residents have access to high quality parks and green space."

Blackhall is prepared to spend $4 million developing the three parcels into a park, including moving and expanding the multi-use trail and relocating the radio control runway. The studio wants nearby residents to decide what the park will look like beyond that; and if that means planting trees to replace the ones lost in the swap it will happen, Scott said.

Any change would likely require approval by the DeKalb Board of Commissioners. The two people who represent the area appear to have taken different approaches in responding to citizen concerns. Commissioner Kathie Gannon has been skeptical, saying she is waiting for the county to provide information justifying why the swap is necessary.

Commissioner Larry Johnson appears to be more receptive to the studios’ proposal. He has spoken about what he says are the economic development benefits of the Blackhall expansion in an area that currently has few food and shopping options.

Some community associations have already lent support to the proposal, including the Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association that includes many subdivisions near the park. They showed up to the recent county commission meeting in their own shirts, purple in color, speaking about how the Blackhall expansion could be a boon for jobs and new businesses.

“It will bring significant impact to the economy and the development of this area,” said Patricia Culp, the association’s president.