Avondale Estates annexation foes fear: ‘They want to run us out’

Mayor defends city’s quest to claim, clean gritty area

Vi Nguyen’s small voice is growing loud with anger and fear.

The Vietnamese immigrant has spent 13 years building up Decatur Auto Tech in the gritty little commercial district between Avondale Estates and Decatur.

There was a time when much of DeKalb County had pockets like East College Avenue: clusters of used-car lots, auto shops, gas stations — worn at the edges but not run-down. Unlike the rest of the county, though, the 1-square-mile strip is sandwiched between two cities, one that spent the past decade gentrifying and one that wants to spend the next decade doing the same.

Decatur, of course, transformed itself into a quaint walkable town of fancy boutiques and trendy brewpubs. Avondale, often overlooked as Decatur’s smaller, less-improved neighbor, wants to refine its Tudor Village downtown and spiff up the strip that leads into town.

To do that, it would annex most of the East College tract and create a continuous line of prosperity from one city to the other. And that’s what frightens Nguyen.

She fixes carburetors, not lattés.

“They want to run us out. They want condos or offices or restaurants, not mechanic’s shops,” Nyguen says. “But then, where do they get their cars fixed?”

Shops such as Nguyen’s have often been the collateral damage of gentrification. The people who fix cars or install central air find there’s no longer room for them in the coming world of yogurt shops and coffeehouses.

“We love Avondale. We work in some beautiful homes there,” said Lynn West, who co-owns Ace & A Heating and Air Conditioning in the annexation zone. “But annexation is just theft by taking. It gives me more expenses and makes it harder and harder for me to run my business.”

Talking since 2008

The two cities have been talking since 2008 about a joint extension of their borders, to meet at Sams Crossing.

Nearly 80 percent of property owners object but have little official recourse. Voters have the right to decide on a residential annexation, but a commercial annexation, like this one, requires no such vote. It is decided by the state Legislature.

For Decatur, the annexation would cover 10 lots that would square the city’s border and little else. The driving force has been Avondale’s ambitions for the 23 parcels between Sams Crossing and Avondale’s current border on Maple Street. The city has tried three times to persuade the Legislature to let it absorb the property.

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield briefly had enough local delegation votes last month to move the issue to the state Senate, but one lawmaker withdrew her support. The proposal now languishes in legislative limbo, but that hasn’t cooled the debate out on East College.

Avondale Mayor Ed Rieker says the city wants to clean up what it considers a blighted area — riddled with broken glass, fast-food wrappers, random shopping carts — and plan for development at a key intersection that could become the gateway to Avondale.

Avondale plans to hire an economic development director in July to help the city realize its dream of luring the sorts of small shops and high-end housing that have taken off in Decatur.

“As time goes on, everyone is pretty certain that corridor will be developed for different uses than are there now,” Rieker said. “The idea is, over time we would help property owners maximize the value of their property.”

Feeling threatened

The small-business owners hear that and feel threatened. They see a future in which their low-end but comfortable enclave makes way for yuppie favorites like townhouses and dog parks and yoga studios.

But the largest property owner in the area doesn’t agree with Avondale’s upscale vision. Joe Gargiulo has assembled 10 properties since 1998, leasing his buildings to everything from tire stores to antique shops.

In his office in nearby Scottdale, he thumps down packets from firms that responded to his search for a developer to buy parts of his property and says the down economy is the only thing standing between him and a sale.

Being annexed by Avondale could kill any deal, he said, because the city would permit far less development than the county.

“You are drastically devaluing my property when I’m the one who rolled the dice and bought here when no one else wanted it,” Gargiulo said.

County records show that Gargiulo is delinquent on more than $71,000 in property taxes from 2009. His own records show he has begun paying down the bill in installments — proof, he said, that the slow economy is hurting his bottom line.

Annexation, he said, would just add to that cost.

Gargiulo is quick to say that he never went to college and feels kinship with the small-business tenants in his buildings. He turned down one deal to buy some of his property a year or so ago, he said, because the developer wanted all of his tenants out immediately.

“These are honest, hardworking people,” he said. “I’m not ruthless. I don’t want those people out the next day after a deal is signed.”

Critics of the annexation effort also note that Avondale’s Tudor Village includes three large empty storefronts: a former cinema and a prime corner spot on Clarendon Avenue and a newly renovated, but empty, building.

“The city should worry about its own vacancies and failures,” said Charles Blalock, who owns three properties in the annexation zone.

Other big plans stalled

A two-story steel skeleton at Maple Street is a reminder that a proposed Publix and condo complex in Avondale, more than three years in the making, is stalled.

The developer, Century Retail, has told city leaders it remains committed to the project but must secure additional funding. The firm has spent $13 million already and needs another $2 million to finish the steel frame.

When it does, Finders Keepers consignment shop will move in. Owner Bonnie Kallenberg, who plans to live on the second floor of the new building, sees even the frame as progress.

The new building will fit more with her dreams for the area, where she currently runs the Finders Keepers furniture store in a renovated body shop. She prefers more restaurants and shops that entice people to linger, not pass through.

At her boutique shop in the Emory area, Kallenberg said, she was stunned to hear that some customers viewed the East College corridor as menacing and wouldn’t go to her furniture store.

“I couldn’t believe the number of people who told me they don’t feel safe over here,” Kallenberg said. “There are some things I wouldn’t mind seeing leave, that’s true. The appearance is scaring people away.”

That same look is what drew Vi Nguyen when she started her auto shop. The garage is within walking distance to the Avondale MARTA station, so customers can drop off their cars and then ride the train to work.

Nguyen moved her family from Forest Park to Decatur a decade ago, to be closer to her garage. She is familiar with the bustle of downtown Decatur, the hum of eateries, bars and businesses that draw people from all over the region.

But that is a world away from the grease and grit in her shop.

“I can understand the city’s concern, because there is nothing here on the weekends,” she said. “But we are busy all week long. There has to be room for us, or that will be a dead end for me.”

Annexation aspirations

The cities of Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, Johns Creek, Milton and Sandy Springs effectively annexed themselves into new municipalities, based on discontent with county government in Fulton or DeKalb. Existing cities, too, often look at extending their borders by annexation:

● Spearheaded by residents of Huntley Hills, a subdivision cut in half between DeKalb and Chamblee, the city expects legislative approval for a referendum on annexation later this year. If approved, the city would grow by a third, to about 13,500.

● Decatur backed away from gobbling up two large neighborhoods and several commercial properties last year. City residents objected, worried the influx of new students would crowd the city’s schools.

● Last year, Lilburn pitched an annexation that would double its population and geographic size. It abandoned the idea after residents balked.

● Woodstock is seeking legislative support to annex I-575 as it runs through the city. Officials say the move would help city police and fire units respond more quickly to accidents there.

● In 1995, a state lawmaker representing Atlanta introduced legislation enabling Atlanta to annex all of north Fulton County. The move backfired, reviving efforts to make Sandy Springs a city and to re-create the Milton County that the area once was. Sandy Springs became a city in 2005. Talk of a Milton County continues to this day.