OPINION: Atlanta’s street blockages, the quiet new norm

The hulking remains of a burned 284-unit apartment complex has caused the closure of Lavista Road since Nov. 10, 2023. Atlanta officials have been largely mum about the situation.

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

The hulking remains of a burned 284-unit apartment complex has caused the closure of Lavista Road since Nov. 10, 2023. Atlanta officials have been largely mum about the situation.

For three months, Cheshire Bridge Road has been closed to the nearly 20,000 drivers each day who used to traverse that passageway. A bridge was torched by a (yet another) fire started in a homeless encampment underneath.

In early January, Atlanta officials made a good news/bad news announcement.

The good news: The structure needed repairs, not replacement. (An earlier fire down the street caused a 15-month closure.)

The bad news: Repairs, officials estimated, would take 10 weeks.

For veteran Atlanta watchers, that 10-week estimate seemed either wildly optimistic or absolutely fantastical. It was both.

Two weeks ago, as the 10-week mark arrived, Councilman Alex Wan told constituents, “we are still aiming to open up one or two lanes in April, and construction will continue until the remaining lanes are completed.”

On Thursday, the city told me they are shooting for mid-May.

Half mile north, at the intersection of Cheshire Bridge and Lavista roads, is another major thoroughfare that’s been shut down. Two blocks of Lavista Road have been closed to traffic since Nov. 10 because of a massive fire that destroyed an apartment complex there.

November 13, 2023 Atlanta: Fire crews remained on the scene Monday, Nov. 13, 2023 as roads around a northeast Atlanta apartment complex remain closed Monday after a massive blaze destroyed much of the building Friday night. Two people were arrested after countless residents were forced to evacuate the Reserve at LaVista Walk apartments on Lavista Road around 10:35 p.m. Friday. Firefighters encountered heavy smoke and fire on the roof of the four-story building. All residents were able to evacuate in time, but 17 people were treated for smoke inhalation and various minor injuries, fire officials said. The blaze required more than 80 firefighters and burned for much of the day Saturday. “Incident Command upgraded the response to a second alarm and, ultimately, a third alarm for additional resources,” Atlanta police said. The investigation revealed that the fire may have started due to fireworks being ignited from the roof, police said. Robert Stokes, 42, and Charnelle Gunn, 24, were detained at the scene and booked into the Fulton County Jail on Saturday, according to officials. They are facing charges of first-degree criminal damage to property and reckless conduct. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

icon to expand image

Credit: John Spink

Today, the hulking ruins of the 284-unit Reserve at LaVista Walk resembles, as one firefighter told me, Berlin in 1945.

And because four stories of wall totters, city officials have fenced off the road. This has caused the 18,000 drivers who once traversed that vital east-west corridor to cut through the adjoining shopping center’s parking lot (in front of and behind the Tara Theatre.) Or they meander through the nearby neighborhood, driving residents crazy.

“There’s a lot of people cutting through; it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Kyle Torres, who was walking her newborn son in a stroller as perhaps a dozen cars queued up at a nearby stop sign. There are no sidewalks.

“People aren’t paying attention; people are angry and they’re driving fast,” she said. “You know, Atlanta traffic.”

Residents there in the Lavista Park neighborhood, which is now part of the ever-expanding city of Brookhaven, feel no one’s listening to them. There’s a growing feeling Atlanta hasn’t pushed to reopen the road because most of those inconvenienced are not Atlanta city voters.

“People feel that they’re not paying attention to us,” said Marsha Hanus, a neighborhood association leader. “At the end of the day, people want Atlanta to talk directly to them.”

Atlanta is not saying much to anybody about a major road being closed going on five months.

Brookhaven Councilman John Funny has called Atlanta officials weekly for answers. There have been few, and he’s frustrated. “This is taking too long,” he said. “It’s taking too long.”

Vehicles trying to traverse Lavista Road, which is closed because of an apartment fire Nov. 10, must now drive through a shopping mall's parking lot or a nearby neighborhood.

Credit: Bill Torpy

icon to expand image

Credit: Bill Torpy

The word going around is there’s a hitch with the city getting the owners to provide a demolition plan. The lack of information from Atlanta brings lots of conjecture: It’s an insurance issue. Or lawsuits. Or permitting snags. Or red tape.

Residents of the complex have sued the owners and management company, which are based in New Jersey: Avenium Group, Silverpoint Management and an alphabet soup of associated real estate corporations.

The lawsuit carries a laundry list of allegations, including that the buildings had faulty fire suppression systems and management knew it. The owners’ attorney did not respond for comment. The defendants want the judge to quickly toss some of the complaints, saying the residents’ attorneys are loading up the suit to smear them.

So, the question remains: Why is a busy thoroughfare closed ad nauseum and the city remains doggedly tight-lipped about it?

In February, Wan, in his newsletter said: “We are still waiting for the Lavista Walk property owners to complete the design approval process to stabilize the burned building so that we can fully open the Cheshire – Lavista/Lindbergh intersection. ... Surprisingly, there is nothing legally that we can do to compel them to move more quickly, but I understand that Georgia DOT is also nudging from their side.”

Aside from nudging, cajoling or asking nicely, can’t the city claim this is an emergency and force the owners to tear down the building (or at least the front of it) and open up the once-busy road?

I posed this question to anyone I could in the city, and here’s the best they could deliver:

“The City has been working with the developer from the onset of the incident to reopen the thoroughfare,” said Mayor Andre Dickens’ spokesman. “The ‘fall zone’ of the structure extends across Lavista Road and would pose a potential hazard for those traveling on that stretch of the road. The developer has yet to submit a plan or request for a demolition permit.

“We are closely monitoring the actions of the developer and continue to demand an expeditious resolution to reopen the road while ensuring the safety of the surrounding community.”

Monitoring and demanding hasn’t worked. How about employing some whup ass?