Black History: Auburn Avenue

Torpy at Large: Bitter sting as Atlanta officials sour on Sweet Auburn

Once again, it appears Sweet Auburn is getting shunted aside.

The city of Atlanta has been quietly trying to pull the switcheroo on this historic area by killing off a tax scheme meant to help redevelopment.

City officials have been arguing that a Tax Allocation District (TAD) set up for the area east of downtown has already served its purpose, and that the area near the insanely popular Beltline is doing so well that training wheels are no longer needed.

It’s an argument that defies the eyes, however. Just stroll around Sweet Auburn. Boarded-up and vacant buildings, as well as weedy lots, are routine in the neighborhood that was once the proud hub of early Atlanta’s black middle class.

City officials have said they need the extra tax money being generated by the Eastside TAD to fill holes in the city’s budget.

But some mayoral texts indicate that the TAD money would be shifted to fill a bigger hole — The Gulch.

The Gulch is that cavernous area downtown where they want to stick a bunch of skyscrapers to lure Amazon to the city. Amazon isn’t hurting for cash, but companies now expect truckloads of taxpayer dollars before locating to a region. Governments across the country can’t move fast enough to hand other people’s money to these well-heeled corporations.

A couple of weeks ago, AJC reporter Scott Trubey got his hands on some texts between Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. The mayor was hoping to win over the schools’ chief in swapping tax zones so money could go to lucrative incentives around the Gulch. (Please reader, stay with me and we’ll get past this tax stuff). A TAD is a zone where property tax collections are frozen and any future increases in property values will fund improvements in that area, such as infrastructure.

“I saw the email regarding the City’s request of the APS Board to consent to extend the Board’s participation in the Westside TAD, so that the City can fund the development of the Gulch area,” Carstarphen wrote to Bottoms on May 6.

Carstarphen said Atlanta Public Schools, which loses tax money when these deals are struck, might support helping the Gulch effort if city officials did a few things, including closing the Eastside TAD.

Despite revitalization efforts in the surrounding areas, Auburn Avenue has lagged behind. Photo by Bill Torpy

Council members Amir Farokhi and Natalyn Mosby Archibong, who represent the area covered by the Eastside TAD, have expressed their opposition to such a move. Farokhi told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the city needs to focus on local neighborhoods before chasing the Big Deal.

I dropped in on Sweet Auburn and spoke to some locals. They’re not happy either.

I started with Ricci de Forest, who runs the Madame C.J. Walker Museum on Hilliard Street right off Auburn Avenue. His beauty salon/museum also includes a wall of records and WERD, which is an online revamping of the nation’s first black radio station. De Forest is a hairstylist who created the makeshift dual-purpose museum to honor the African-American beauty pioneer and the historic radio station that trumpeted the civil rights movement.

Ricci de Forest (left), a hairstylist who runs a museum and online radio station, says Auburn Avenue “looks like a giant cavity.” Standing with him is neighboring barber Seaborn Johnson. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Atlanta is ignoring its grandparents,” de Forest said between flipping over a vinyl LP for his radio show. “Here we are in 2018. Look at Auburn Avenue. It looks like a giant cavity. You put a $100 million trolley in, but when you’re on the trolley what do you look at on Auburn? Abandoned buildings.”

De Forest was referring to the usually empty streetcar that loops through downtown and Sweet Auburn. The streetcar was meant to be a spark for the area. And taverns and restaurants are, indeed, popping up on Edgewood Avenue, a block to the south. But much of Auburn Avenue remains forlorn.

According to Invest Atlanta, the Eastside TAD, started in 2003, has spent $83 million in redirected property tax money around the tax zone, an area that stretches from North Avenue south to Memorial Drive, from the Beltline’s eastern loop to Underground Atlanta on the west. Spending $83 million over more than a decade sounds pretty good until you figure that not a lot has really gone to boosting the real Sweet Auburn. About $15 million of that TAD money has been spent on what is loosely the historic Sweet Auburn district. Loosely.

About $13.2 million of that has been spent on helping developers build three big residential projects: $4 million toward Renaissance Walk, which is in the Georgia State University area; $6 million for a complex on the King Memorial MARTA parking lot; and $3.2 million for the Tribute Lofts near Freedom Parkway.

“None of those support the historical preservation of the historic fabric of Sweet Auburn,” said Mtamanika Youngblood, who chairs the nonprofit Sweet Auburn Works.

About $1 million has gone to improving the facades of 13 buildings there. More than $27 million has been spent on developments with addresses carrying Peachtree in the name.

LeJuano Varnell, the executive director of Sweet Auburn Works, called the TAD “the last tool we have” for economic development and historic preservation. “It would be almost criminal to get rid of it,” he said. “It would be irresponsible.”

Varnell noted that about 50 percent of the land in the Sweet Auburn district is owned by nonprofits and churches.

The Rev. Bobby Lee Graham Jr., pastor of the National Divine Spiritual Church, says affordable housing is a huge problem around Sweet Auburn. Photo by Bill Torpy

The Rev. Bobby Lee Graham Jr. is the third-generation pastor of the National Divine Spiritual Church right off Edgewood. He has spent a good portion of his time trying to deal with crime in the area and tending to the poor who still manage to hang on in the changing neighborhood.

“Affordable housing is a big concern,” he said.

The three residential developments noted above will provide 159 “affordable” units — a drop in the bucket. I put affordable in quote marks because the development near the MARTA station has 2-bedroom “workforce” units for $1,255 a month.

When I asked Graham what he’d tell city officials, he said, “Finish what you started.”

“People bought into this. Why should I have faith in the city when they did not finish what they started?”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.