The giant trees in Grant Park offer relief from the heat during the annual Summer Shade Festival which has live music, food and children’s activities.
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Grant Park residents appeal to save old trees in parking garage’s path

Cardboard signs atop metal stands — the kind often used for demonstrating loyalty in political campaigns — have popped up all over an Atlanta neighborhood in recent weeks. 

But instead of touting a candidate’s name, the message states, in all capital letters: “Save the trees of Grant Park.”

The signs are part of a campaign started by Leigh Finlayson and his wife, Teresa, to oppose the current proposal for a $48 million, 1,000-space parking garage for the park and Zoo Atlanta. The couple has primarily self-funded about 50 signs, giving them out to neighbors to draw attention to the issue.

Plans for the semi-underground Grant Park Gateway, announced by Mayor Kasim Reed in April, include a restaurant, outdoor greenspace and a way to harvest rainfall. But they also require the removal of about 75 healthy trees — which the city says will be replaced — that stand interspersed through the current parking lot on the park’s Boulevard side. 

A Grant Park couple has distributed signs to bring attention to the issue.
Photo: (Save the trees of Grant park Facebook)

Finlayson, a criminal defense attorney who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years, understands some trees will have to go. But, he says, the city has been “inflexible” about adjusting the location or size of the structure to minimize tree loss.

After the city received preliminary approval to remove the trees, the Finlaysons submitted an appeal, co-signed by another pair of neighbors, to the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission — a citizen board appointed by the city to decide appeals of officials’ decisions related to trees. The appeal included a list of the trees marked for removal, such as dogwoods, willow oaks, red maples, and their estimated ages. Teresa Finlayson believes about 25 of them are at least 50 years old, with a couple older than 90.

The city’s efforts to bring a new parking deck to the area are appreciated, the July 11 appeal letter said, but, “we must object and appeal the recent proposal to cut all those trees currently marked for removal.” 

The couple and their daughter set up a table in the park for four hours one Saturday, ultimately collecting about 260 signatures for a petition. They presented it, along with a letter of support from Trees Atlanta, at the Aug. 16 appeal hearing. 

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The commission upheld the Finlayson’s appeal and asked city officials to demonstrate they'd done everything possible to save trees.

The Department of Parks and Recreation “met on numerous occasions” with Finlayson to address his concerns and with the community over a two-year planning period, a city spokeswoman said.  

"One hundred percent of these trees will be replenished, inch-for-inch, back into Grant Park,” the spokeswoman said. “We will make maximum effort to protect our tree canopy while meeting the project’s objectives and commitments.” 

Throughout the appeal, the nonprofit Grant Park Conservancy has remained neutral. 

“GPC continues to collaborate with the city for the best interests of the park and the community, and we have great respect for park neighbors exercising their civil process to advocate for the park,” a newsletter from the GPC said. 

Finlayson said he blames most of the parking deck plan on Zoo Atlanta, as it will be “far more of a benefit to the Zoo" than the park. 

The establishment, which has one of the smallest footprints among major zoos in the United States, is expanding and retrofitting the former Cyclorama building into an events center. The expansion is expected to require additional tree removal. 

Zoo Atlanta has said it supports the city’s project and that it will benefit the entire Grant Park community.

“We are confident that the city of Atlanta and the members of the community can work together toward a solution that will benefit everyone,” a Zoo spokeswoman said.

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April 25, 2017 - Mayor Kasim Reed and Amy Phuong, Commissioner of Department of Parks and Recreation, left, applaud after revealing renderings of the Grant Park Gateway Project during a press conference. The Grant Park Gateway Project aims to alleviate traffic and address a lack of parking. 

The zoo, the mature trees found across the 131-acre park and events such as the long-running Summer Shade Festival and are part of the historic park’s draw. 

Finlayson hasn’t seen the city’s new plans, but doubts they'll be significantly different than the original ones. He will most likely file another appeal before the Friday deadline.

His family has lived directly across the proposed site, and a giant old water oak that Finlayson says could be the “poster child of Grant Park,” since 1998. The couple has already thought about what they’ll do if their efforts to save the trees along Boulevard fail. 

Finlayson will probably climb up a tree in his yard to take pictures and “watch as they go down,” he said. His wife, Teresa, will choose not to watch.

City officials will be at the Grant Park Recreation Center, located at 537 Park Avenue S.E. from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the tree replacement plan and answer questions, according to GPC

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The city is investing $48 million into a new parking garage, but some residents say it could cause problems, including crime.

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