Some East Lake residents seeing red over Blackhall land swap proposalThis image shows the current Blackhall Studios-owned properties outlined in red. The county-owned property at Intrenchment Creek is outlined in blue. The proposed deal would swap the three red parcels to the north of the county owned property for a section of the creek property at the corner of Bouldercreast Road. Credit: Joe Peery, Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm.[/caption]
By Cathi Harris, contributor
A proposal by Blackhall Studios to swap three pieces of property it owns along Bouldercrest Road for a portion of DeKalb County-owned greenspace along Constitution Road is raising red flags for a group of nearby residents.
“The biggest concern is the [potential] loss of beautiful woods and trails that were thought to have been protected forever,” said Joe Peery, an animation director who lives near the site and heads the community group, Save the Old Atlanta Prison Farm. “This has been our example to demonstrate to our community what we hoped to save directly across Intrenchment Creek at the Prison Farm.”
The film studio, which operates nine sound stages as well as office and warehouse space for production companies at its main campus at 1415 Constitution Road in south DeKalb County, also provides additional production facilities at nearby Blackhall East on International Boulevard.
Now, the company would like to swap three parcels of land it has acquired along Bouldercrest Road just to the north of the park land at Intrenchment Creek for a portion of land inside the park but closer to Blackhall’s main campus.
According to a zoning and land use proposal presented to county commissioners and dated July 18, Blackhall would pay to relocate the portion of the existing PATH South River Trail that runs through the part of the property it hopes to acquire, would fund a new trailhead along Bouldercrest Road closer to existing residential neighborhoods, and would pay to relocate the airfield used by the Atlanta Radio Control Club, also on the property, as well as fund the development of a park master plan in conjunction with the community.
The proposal also notes that the deal would involve an “acre-for-acre” land swap that would allow the county to consolidate its greenspace in the area, since the Blackhall properties to be swapped are sandwiched between the Intrenchment Creek property and nearby Gresham Park. Doing so would also help confine the traffic and commercial development associated with the studio’s expansion farther south on Bouldercrest toward Constitution.
The problem is that while the land mass to be exchanged may be equal, the current condition of the two properties is not, Peery said.
One of the parcels that Blackhall wants to trade is the site of a failed mixed-use development that was supposed to contain a mixture of single-family homes, townhomes and commercial space. The land has already been clear cut and partially developed, unlike the undeveloped and forested land that Blackhall wants to acquire, Peery added.
He has contacted Blackhall in the past concerning tires and debris that have been dumped at the Bouldercrest site, he said. “They responded that they were hiring someone to clean up the tires, but the tires are still there and there have been several other things dumped there since then.”
No one at Blackhall Studios responded to requests for an interview about the proposal and DeKalb Commissioner Larry Johnson, whose district includes this area, did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.
A page on Blackhall Studios’ website that describes their various available studios and back lots describes a new back lot development as “coming in 2018” and containing “a total of 35 acres, with 25 acres cleared and leveled and 10 acres of forest.”
Commissioner Kathie Gannon, who represents county super District 6, which includes district 3, confirmed to Decaturish that she had seen the initial information contained in the proposal, but had been unable to learn more about it from either Blackhall or DeKalb County Chief Operations Officer Zach Williams who, she said, was discussing the project with the studio.
“We have seen the same drawings that you have, but you know about as much about it as we do,” she said. “My position is that any kind of swap would have to be a significant – and I want to emphasize the word significant – improvement for the county. Not just an acre-for-acre swap and replacing what is already there.”
The stated community benefits listed on the initial document are not enough to warrant her lapproval at this time, she said.
Gannon has been a supporter of the county acquiring the Atlanta Prison Farm property that adjoins the Intrenchment Creek park space as well as further development of the PATH’s South River Trail. She is also concerned that a swap would hurt the current PATH connectivity.
“In addition to a new trailhead, I would want to see some extension of the path through the property that would enhance a connection with the other parts of the PATH.”
The current portion of the PATH at the Intrenchment Creek site runs east-west from the trailhead at constitution and dead ends into the airfield. If the airfield is relocated and trail moved, a new trail running more north and south through the new property would better connect to other planned segments of the South River Trail.
The Arthur Blank Foundation acquired the property containing the current nature trail and donated it to the county with the stipulation that it be preserved as greenspace, she added. They would have to grant permission for that land to be used in any other way.
Since Peery learned of the proposed land deal in November, he has been trying to rally East Lake residents, users of the trail and supporters of the plan to make the Atlanta Prison Farm a public park, to contact Blackhall and county commissioners to make their concerns known.
“One walk through these woods is all it takes to realize what a treasure we have,” he said. “We really need the community to speak up and demand accountability and a bigger discussion for this proposal.”