OPINION: City of Buckhead | A bad idea born from real grievance

Police are investigating a shooting at Lenox Square on Monday.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Police are investigating a shooting at Lenox Square on Monday.

It’s an awful and divisive notion that comes from genuine anger and frustration: That Buckhead should break away from Atlanta and form its own city.

The idea is not new by any means. It pops up every few years “like the plague,” says Sam Massell, the former Atlanta mayor and Mr. Buckhead himself. He opposes the idea.

The effort is again with us, this time being carried by a nascent and opaque group called the Buckhead Exploratory Committee. Before, this kind of venture was simply daydreaming. But this time, the potential secessionists have a road map created in 2018 by Republican legislators when they allowed the prosperous side of Stockbridge a chance to de-annex from that city and form its own fiefdom, the city of Eagles Landing.

And even though the legislation was written for those who wanted to create their own city (the Stockbridge residents getting left behind had no vote), voters in the hoped-for Eagles Landing still turned it down.

But the template has been set. The Haves of any city can now envision taking their tax base and leaving behind the Have Nots. It’s kind of like the cityhood movement that has gone on in metro Atlanta is on steroids, becoming a mean-spirited, thumb-in-the-eye municipal cannibalization.

According to Jim Durrett, head of the Buckhead Coalition, Massell’s old org, Buckhead has 21% of the city of Atlanta’s population and contributes 47% of its property tax revenue. In all, 38% of Atlanta’s revenue comes from Buckhead, said Durrett, who opposes the plan.

Such a loss of revenue would be devastating.

“This could decapitate the city,” said Michael Koblentz, chair of the Northwest Community Alliance, which touches Buckhead’s southern boundary.

Toss in the fact that Buckhead is majority white and Atlanta isn’t and this whole episode could get real ugly real fast.

“It would appear that it goes against everything Atlanta stands for — being a modern, diverse, successful and progressive city,“ Koblentz said. “To have a majority white city spin off goes against this. This would set Atlanta back generations.”

Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor who founded the Buckhead Coalition in 1988 and is known as "Mr. Buckhead." He opposes the push for Buckhead to break from Atlanta and become its own city. CONTRIBUTED

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The Buckhead enterprise popped up last summer after violent crime, especially shootings, increased dramatically across the city. (Atlanta officials keep saying reported crime is down overall, and it is, although that drop is driven by decreases in thefts and burglaries.)

News reports of brazen, sensational crimes — such as carjackings on Buckhead streets and shootings at Buckhead’s Lenox Square mall — have driven worried discussions in the wealthy district and have spread through online groups like Nextdoor.

Fear, anger and discontent are now the norm in Buckhead, and there’s a feeling that city officials, especially Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, are not heeding their complaints. Just about everybody, even those opposed to the cityhood movement, say the problems are real and must be faced.

Sam Lenaeus, a Buckhead Realtor, is president of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee cityhood group.

The group answered some questions by email over the weekend, saying that a group of “moms, teachers, grandparents … people with actual jobs” have met for about a year after deciding “that complaining was not doing much for us.” They say they are “diverse” and “politically agnostic.”

The group said they have been “overwhelmed by support” and are polling residents to gauge the appetite for becoming a city. “Ultimately, the polling study will determine the level of support in Buckhead for the various paths forward,” they wrote.

On an online forum last week, a fellow named Sam (presumably Lenaeus) talked about rampant crime, potholes, “neglected sidewalks” and “minimal return on tax dollars,” later adding, “They continue to invest in south and east (Atlanta) but not Buckhead.”

Attorney Wright Mitchell, former president of the Buckhead Heritage Society, is not a member of the cityhood group but understands residents’ worries. He said people are concerned about trips to the grocery store or the gas station.

“I think what you’re seeing is a microcosm of the great frustration that Buckhead residents and Atlanta residents are having with rampant crime and lawlessness, the feeling that the powers that be aren’t doing anything about it,” Mitchell said. “Anyone who suggests that this (the lawlessness) is not a clear and present danger to the vitality of Buckhead is kidding themselves.”

Aerial view of Buckhead Skyline in 2017. The downtown skyline is visible in the background. (BOB ANDRES  / BANDRES@AJC.COM)

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

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Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Atlanta Police Zone 2, which is roughly Buckhead, had a 31% increase in aggravated assaults in 2020 versus the previous year and a 32% bump in auto thefts. In comparison, aggravated assaults were up 15% citywide and car thefts up 4%.

But everything is relative. Atlanta had a horrific year in murders in 2020 — 157, up from 99 the previous year. There were nine homicides in Zone 2. That means the other five zones shared 148. I’ve talked with the people in Zones 3 and 4, which saw half of last year’s murders. They want something done, too.

Nancy Bliwise, a Buckhead resident who heads Neighborhood Planning Unit B, is not in favor of creating a new city but senses the communal dissatisfaction is more intense this time around.

“This feels different; it feels more urgent,” she said. “The people leading the conversation have done more work. We’re in the realm of possibility, rather than it being just a wish. There are elements in place that make it more of a possibility.”

All of those who know how the game is played think it’s a steep climb to Buckhead cityhood. I talked with Buckhead’s two councilmen, Howard Shook and J.P. Matzigkeit, as well as state Sen. Jen Jordan and state Rep. Betsy Holland, both Democrats who represent the area.

Kenyonn Wallace, security with the mall, inspects a bag after a metal detector alarmed at Lenox Square on December 29, 2020. Lenox Square, in the heart of Buckhead, was the site of numerous shooting incidents that year. The Atlanta Police Department has a mini-precinct inside the mall, which has increased security in recent months.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Shook, who last month blasted the mayor for a lack of leadership in addressing crime, is doubtful of cityhood happening, telling me, “People smarter than me need to show me the roadmap to success on this. I’ve not seen it. Talk about threading a lot of needles in a hurricane.”

Shook, who is approaching 20 years on the council, added, “Sectional friction is at a level unsurpassed since I came in.”

Imagine how it’ll get if this effort gains momentum.

(By the way, my first thought upon hearing about the cityhood movement was that this was an effort to get Mary Norwood, who twice lost bids to be mayor of Atlanta, a mayoral job somewhere … anywhere. Norwood, who now heads the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, representing 44 communities, insists she has no opinion on the matter.)

Rep. Holland noted that something like this usually would have to be generated by local legislators, and none of those who represent Atlanta, all Democrats, will have anything to do with this. Still, Republicans have been working to take the airport from Atlanta against the wishes of locals and they certainly could follow that path on this, she said.

Sen. Jordan thinks this will not happen because the nasty battle over Eagles Landing “left scars on both sides.”

“I think this is pie-in-the-sky; this is the city of Atlanta,” she said. “There are so many political lines and economic considerations. There’s pensions; there are legacy costs. This is incredibly complicated stuff. Big business would be like, ‘What are you doing?!?’”

Add to that the racial component, she said, “and this is bad on all levels.”

A bad idea that should be smothered before it creeps out of the nest.