OPINION: Battle of the Peace Park continues for Atlanta scion

A rendering of Rodney Cook Sr. Park looks to the southwest towards the Atlanta University Center in the distance. The Georgia Peace Column rises in the near distance. (National Monuments Foundation)

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A rendering of Rodney Cook Sr. Park looks to the southwest towards the Atlanta University Center in the distance. The Georgia Peace Column rises in the near distance. (National Monuments Foundation)

Vine City’s newest feature, the 16-acre Rodney Cook Sr. Park, finally opened to the public and was an immediate hit.

On a recent late morning visit, kids frolicked on the playground and danced in the water jets. Groups of teens and young men played pickup basketball. And picnickers with guitars and baskets of food lounged under a huge shade tree.

The park was dedicated a month ago and is an impressive mix of water engineering to prevent chronic flooding in the area, as well as bringing a park to an urban area long lacking such amenities.

I spent a few hours in the midday sun with Rodney Mims Cook Jr., the son of the man for whom the park is named and whose grandiose plan for the greenspace caught on with city officials a decade ago. He envisioned a space connected with the theme of “peace” with a massive column, a pantheon, an elongated bridge and lots of statuary sprinkled throughout the grounds because, well, because Rodney Mims Cook Jr. doesn’t dream small.

“Someone said you should write a book: The War to Build a Peace Park,’” he said of the struggle to get to this point.

And the battle is not over yet.

His original plans for the park called for 15 to 18 bronze statues of civil rights leaders capped off with a 20-foot sculpture of Tomochichi, the 1700s’ chief of the Yamacraw tribe who fostered peace relations with English settlers where Savannah is. Not only would there be a gigantic statue. It would stand atop a 115-foot “peace column” that would have an elevator and a building at the base housing the library of the late civil rights leader C.T. Vivian. It would be a $10 million edifice.

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John Dargle, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Nikema Williams, and Andrew Young pose for a photo at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

John Dargle, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Nikema Williams, and Andrew Young pose for a photo at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

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John Dargle, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Nikema Williams, and Andrew Young pose for a photo at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Then there would be a pantheon on the park’s south end — sort of a Jefferson Memorial with a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — that would sit on a hill overlooking the basketball courts with office space underneath. Another $10 million initiative. Again, no small plans for Cook.

Currently, the only statue erected so far is of the late John Lewis, the civil rights icon and congressman, which stands in the middle of the grounds.

Cook said he has $10 million in funding and is ready to start adding some statues to the park and begin construction on the massive column. (His statement on funding is borne out by financial records filed by his nonprofit, The National Monument Foundation.)

But there’s a hitch. Cook’s foundation, which built the Arc de Triomphe-like monolith at Atlantic Station, is trying to work out a legal leasing arrangement to locate all those fancy additions on city park property.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who grew up around the corner, expressed frustration with the process. “I’ve never seen a situation like this where the law department is stalling,” said Bond. “I’ll be blunt, it’s like they’re looking for reasons for it not to happen.”

A statue of Bond’s father, Julian, is planned for the park.

According to the city, it’s not as simple as Bond believes it should be. “The Law Department could not recommend using public land as security by a private entity — as was requested — because it is not allowed under state law,” a city spokesman said in a statement. Also, building those edifices with their hefty foundations might affect the water flow and underground infrastructure, he said.

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The Rodney Cook Sr. Park in historic Vine City in Atlanta, as it looked near completion. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The Rodney Cook Sr. Park in historic Vine City in Atlanta, as it looked near completion. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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The Rodney Cook Sr. Park in historic Vine City in Atlanta, as it looked near completion. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The city spent $35 million at the park to capture 10 million gallons of water that can come from a gulley washer. Architects and engineers fancied all that up with waterfalls, bridges and ponds that draw dragonflies.

Cook said his team is performing a survey to show that the structures will not mess with the water functions and is working on another leasing arrangement.

In 2011, the Atlanta City Council laid out a plan for Cook’s foundation to create a park with the statues and buildings, a possible $55 million project. He was to come up with half the funding by July 2013 and the first phase was to be done by 2014. It was all to be finished by 2017.

That obviously didn’t happen.

The Trust for Public Land was called in at the end of 2015 and it raised $13.7 million in a couple of years to get the park part of the project done.

Cook has long had doubters in the Atlanta philanthropic community who believe his financial wherewithal cannot keep up with his lofty plans. In 2019, Frank Fernandez, an exec with Arthur Blank’s foundation, told the City Council he didn’t think Cook could raise the kind of money needed for the project. So they gave $2.7 million to the Trust for Public Land.

In an interview this week, Cook said the scope of the underlying project to capture floodwater “grew to be enormous.” He said the project was carved up between the city’s water department, the Trust for Public Land and his foundation.

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A visitor takes of photo of the new John Lewis statue at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

A visitor takes of photo of the new John Lewis statue at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

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A visitor takes of photo of the new John Lewis statue at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City in Atlanta on June 7, 2021. (Photo/ Jenn Finch for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

He said the Tomochichi statue is finished and he’s going to set it up by his arch at Atlantic Station in the meantime so the drivers of thousands of cars whirring by each day can see it. He said statues of King and his wife Coretta Scott King are being sculpted, as is a statue of former congressman, U.S. ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, a big supporter of the plan.

Controversy and infighting often accompany Cook. In a letter to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, an architect once referred to his “amateur architectural megalomania.”

Before the Olympics, Cook proposed a massive Beaux-Arts plaza in Piedmont Park. (I had to look up Beaux-Arts. It has French neoclassic, Gothic and Renaissance features.) He had an anonymous donor and the City Council, which generally likes free stuff, OK’d it. The Urban Design Commission, however, sunk it.

Undeterred, Cook then built a Prince of Wales monument in Midtown, dedicated to his friend, the guy who was married to Diana. (Yes, Cook really is friends with Prince Charles, who’s also a designing buff.)

In 2016, I walked the weedy grounds of the future park with Cook as a civic dustup ensued. Cook, a member of a wealthy old Atlanta family, wanted to call it Mims Park, after former Mayor Livingston Mims, a relative. Around the turn of the last century, Mims had donated land nearby and the original Mims Park was built. It was later replaced by a school.

But history was not on Cook’s side because Mims had earlier been a Confederate. And naming streets and buildings after Rebs in predominantly Black areas just isn’t popular.

I asked what if they removed Mims’ name. Cook called it a “deal breaker,” adding, “If that happens, I am not interested anymore.”

However, Councilman Ivory Young, apparently feeling the idea of a “peace park,” soon stepped in with a compromise: Why not name it after Cook’s old man, Rodney Mims Cook Sr.? He was a progressive Republican councilman and legislator in the 1960s who stood up on the right side of the civil rights movement.

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Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (right) becomes emotional while speaking during a special service to honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader C.T. Vivian at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta on July 22, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (right) becomes emotional while speaking during a special service to honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader C.T. Vivian at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta on July 22, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (right) becomes emotional while speaking during a special service to honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader C.T. Vivian at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta on July 22, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

During the recent visit, as I stood with Cook near the park’s pond, we were greeted by Milton Williams, a local resident. The man said he was a fisherman and wanted to know if we were connected with the park. I told him that this was Rodney Cook Jr. and the park was named for his dad.

“Well, put some fish in the lake,” Williams said before walking away.

Well, how about a pantheon, sir?