In Peoplestown, proposal to fix flooding leads to displacement

A group of Peoplestown residents are protesting a plan under consideration at City Hall to buy out their homes near a flood zone and convert the land into a reservoir and park.

Roughly two dozen families affected by flooding in this neighborhood near Turner Field will be asked to sell their properties to the city as part of a remediation effort. But some residents who say their homes have never flooded question the proposal that calls for them to leave.

Tanya Washington, a Georgia State University law professor who moved to Peoplestown a few years ago, said she wants the city to find an alternative that leaves her home intact. The proposal, dubbed the Southeast Atlanta Green Infrastructure Initiative, calls for a park and retention ponds that would be located over her property on the corner of Atlanta Avenue.

“I haven’t been victimized by flooding, but I am being victimized by this plan that is going to result in me being moved from this neighborhood,” she said at a recent council committee meeting.

She challenges the city’s description of its solution as an “amenity” to residents. “It’s not an amenity if you’re being displaced. It’s displacement.”

But leaders with the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management say they’ve exhausted other solutions after years of unsuccessful attempts to resolve rampant flooding in Peoplestown, Mechanicsville and parts of Grant Park.

They say they need Washington’s property, as well as several others, in order to build retention ponds in this low-lying part of town. The end-result — scheduled to be completed in 2016 — will both address the stormwater problem while providing an attractive park with water features for the community, according to city leaders.

The Atlanta City Council is set to vote on legislation Monday that would authorize the city to begin negotiating with the impacted residents and set aside funds for the project. The city has already purchased a number of homes damaged by wild water.

Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina met with Peoplestown residents last month to present the department’s proposal. The commissioner explained that flooding occurs because as the city developed, it essentially under-planned and overbuilt this part of town, where two streams converge underground.

Now, more than 60 percent of Peoplestown and Mechanicsville is covered by impervious surfaces which results in runoff and flooding, she said. A typical residential area has about 20 percent impervious land, which is paved surface that does not absorb water.

Watershed has tried to fix the issue in a variety of ways, including installing a nearly $20 million vault to store runoff near Turner Field and roughly $15 million in permeable pavers to redirect stormwater that falls on roadways. In addition, Watershed has built bioswales, which helps direct stormwater, and rain gardens in the community.

But Macrina says that isn’t enough: “No matter what we do, we cannot stop this area from flooding … And it’s because the topography in this area is the low point. It’s like a bowl.”

All told, Watershed plans to spend an estimated $66 million to address the problem. The department and District 1 Councilwoman Carla Smith, whose district includes the affected neighborhoods, will meet with residents on Tuesday to continue discussions.

Edwin El Baker, who lives on Ormond Street, has seen his home flood four times during his 17 years in the neighborhood. And he was among a handful of residents who sued the city several years ago to force them to address the problem, he said.

But he’s not thrilled with the solution, which calls for him and his neighbors to leave. Many are worried they won’t get fair-market value for their homes. With the rebounding housing market, they also fear they won’t find an affordable alternative in a new neighborhood.

And they’re losing something else, too, he said: a close community.

“Our block was a great block,” he said.

Baker is conflicted. He’s frustrated with the process, but also eager to start anew.

“I am tired of being flooded … I am up to here with it,” he said. “But who wants to move their whole family?”

District 3 Councilman Ivory Young said he supports the legislation. He called for special care in giving homeowners not just fair-market value for their property, but replacement value.

“There’s no greater trauma you’ll have in this world than to be forced out of your home,” he said.

Washington said she’s determined to stay in the house she spent tens of thousands of dollars to renovate.

“I want to stay in my house, in my neighborhood. There’s no amount of money they could give me to make me move,” she said. “This is my home. We are the people of Peoplestown.”