Committee slows down street name changes

Atlanta City Council members bowed in part to public opposition Thursday by shelving a proposal to rename one downtown street and putting on hold a proposal to rename a second.

The council's utilities committee decided not to honor media pioneer Xernona Clayton by declining to recommend renaming Cone Street for her. It put on hold any recommendation on whether Harris Street should be renamed for architect John Portman, who is responsible for much of the downtown skyline.

Councilman C.T. Martin, an advocate for the street name changes, said the commission, which initially had requested the council rename Cone Street Xernona Clayton Way, was now looking at rechristening part of Simpson Street for the veteran Turner Broadcasting executive. Clayton is credited with promoting racial understanding and is founder of the Trumpet Awards that honors black achievement.

"All we're trying to do is get this cleared up and get back on the right track. That is about as diplomatic as I can be," said Martin, who said he was trying to squelch further heated debate until the commission could come up with an alternative. "I guarantee the more and more we talk about it and debate it, it has potential to get unhealthy."

Martin, who at last year's Trumpet Awards told Clayton a street would be renamed for her, said the timing of the proposed name changing was not tied to the Trumpet Awards gala, which is scheduled for end of this month.

The committee had initially sent both proposals to the city council to be decided at its last meeting. But objections by the downtown neighborhood association and historical preservationists prompted the council to send the issue back to the utilities committee.

Opponents said the council was violating its own 2003 ordinance that was passed to prevent street renaming, a longtime Atlanta tradition, by ramming through name changes to honor the city's power elite.

Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents downtown and is asking for a moratorium on street name changes, said he thinks Martin and other proponents will push street name changes instead of compromising with neighborhood advocates, who prefer the council to honor its esteemed citizens with plaques and memorials.

"We know their strategy is to push Simpson Street," said Hall, who faulted the effort for again not following the ordinance. "It was some knee-jerk response.

"I think they are going to keep pushing and I don't think it is the most important thing we should be doing."

Neighborhood groups say name changes lead to confusion on maps, GPS systems and websites listing directions that haven't been updated. Historical preservationists note that Cone Street is named for one of Atlanta's founders and Harris Street is named for Fulton County's first legislator.

City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said he has been working with the council to come up with a reasonable solution on not only the Portman and Clayton issues, but on how the city honors people in the future. He said he thinks there is room for alternatives but he also rejected the neighborhood association position of opposing all proposed renamings downtown.

“The whole thing is still alive," Mitchell said. "The conversation is not over. We are just trying to find some common ground before bringing it back before council.

“There isn’t a better way that you can honor somebody than naming a street after them.”

City Councilwoman Carla Smith said the council routinely waives the requirements of a 2003 law she spearheaded to make it difficult to rename streets. She said she was guilty of going around the ordinance requirements when she pushed the effort to rename some streets in honor of former Mayor Ivan Allen.

The law requires 75 percent approval from businesses and residents on the street; that the entire street be renamed and not simply sections of it; and that the group wanting to rename the street pay a $2,500 fee up front to cover expenses and post a bond with the Department of Public Works to pay for future maintenance costs involving the name change, such as for new signs.

It also requires input from neighborhood planning units, historical preservation groups and an appearance before the Urban Design Commission.