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Decatur City Commission declines to reopen planning process for affordable housing at Legacy Park

Avondale Estates Business Decatur

Decatur City Commission declines to reopen planning process for affordable housing at Legacy Park

The Administration Building at Legacy Park on South Columbia Drive in the city of Decatur on August 12, 2020. The park occupies the former site of the United Methodist Children’s Home. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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This article has been updated.

Decatur, GA —Tuesday evening’s City Commission meeting saw almost 90 attendees and lasted four hours as residents of Decatur voiced their opinions about constructing affordable housing at Legacy Park.

In December, the Decatur City Commission publicly and unanimously approved an addition to the Legacy Park master plan.

That addition — which further guides the development of affordable housing on the property and proposes up to 175 units with the goal of making as many of those units affordable as possible — has received renewed scrutiny in recent weeks. Mayor Patti Garrett said the actual number of affordable units hasn’t been decided yet.

“My hope would be that it could be something like an 80/20 split or a 90/10 split with the lower numbers representing market rate,” she said, adding it would depend on the market conditions at the time.

The meeting ended with the City Commission declining to reopen the process. They noted that any development on the property will be subject to hearings and reviews. There are currently no plans to develop anything on the property at this time.

The issue gained traction after a group calling itself Decatur Legacy Park Voice, led by Lynn Gathercole, distributed a petition throughout several neighborhood Facebook groups that garnered more than 1,000 signatures. The petition asks the city to reopen the planning process for additional input. The group has argued that the planning process for this addition wasn’t well-publicized and that it removes eight acres of parkland that the taxpayers paid for. But affordable housing advocates, including the Coalition for a Diverse Decatur, are countering that the petitioners are spreading misinformation in an attempt to block the development of affordable housing on the property. Legacy Park Voice contends that “we are not against finding solutions for affordable housing.”

Commissioner George Dusenbury, who has voiced concerns about the Legacy Park master plan in the past, again encouraged the rest of the commission to “be willing to revisit the master plan …  in terms of how we’re allocating the land and whether we should be allocating more for greenspace and recreation purposes.” He also said that “It is essential that we address head-on the need for affordability and equity.” He said much of the concern with the supporters of the Decatur Legacy Park Voice was that they felt that their voices as residents of Decatur were not being heard by the Commission.

Mayor Patti Garrett said she appreciated the number of people who showed up and “participated in civil discourse.”

Commissioner Lesa Mayer said that creating a master plan for a park is “planning for an entire community,” and that “sometimes the people with the greatest need in future planning are the least able to participate.”

Commissioner Kelly Walsh mentioned that she went for a run in Legacy Park yesterday morning, and didn’t feel that building affordable housing would prohibit people from enjoying the park.

“I want people to say ‘I support affordable housing and…‘ instead of ‘I support affordable housing but…‘,” Walsh said, noting that many of the participants who did not support the master plan tried to highlight that they had no problem with affordable housing.

Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers talked about the Urban Homesteading Demonstration of the 1970s that led to a Dollar House program in Decatur, and said that his mother is one of the owners of one of those dollar houses.

“Without that program, I would not be here giving back to my city,” said Powers. “It’s not just about affordable housing, it’s about people, it’s about lives. … I am here because someone thought enough of a city to make a program that would allow a single mother to become part of a community. That next person could be waiting to become part of our community.”

He said approving more affordable housing for Decatur is “the right thing to do.”

Participants in the Zoom meeting who advocated against the Legacy Park master plan included Lynn Gathercole and Todd Poole. Gathercole is behind the Decatur Legacy Park Voice petition requesting that the master plan be revised.

After the meeting, Gathercole said the group was undeterred and would attend the meeting on Sept. 21.

“We are not a group to submit the petition, be ignored, and be OK with it,” she said in the Legacy Park Voice Facebook group. “Please put on your calendar for the September 21 commission meeting. We will either be an agenda item or we’re going to be in the petitions again.”

Todd Poole claimed that the city increased the number of housing units planned for Legacy Park without the Decatur community’s approval, and alleged that the public has not had fair involvement in the master plan.

 

Gathercole, who also met privately over Zoom with Mayor Garrett prior to the meeting for more than an hour, expressed interest in having a dialogue with commissioners, although she recognized that commissioners don’t respond directly to public comments during a City Commission meeting.

Gathercole said the proposed housing would significantly impact traffic and parking within the area. She said she wants to “come up with a plan that will work with everyone.”

Sonali Saindane, another resident who criticized the housing addendum, said that supporters of Gathercole’s petition “would like the [commission’s] information to be transparent and complete,” but they are not anti-affordable housing.

“We bought this land for 40 million dollars, and it is being donated to a builder,” said Saindane.

Another participant who identified herself as M. Parsell noted that the intersection of Talley Street and South Columbia Drive is already “horrendous,” and asked, “What happens when we add another five to six hundred individuals to Legacy Park?” Parsell felt that the traffic impact had not been adequately addressed.

The number of residents affordable housing would add to the park is uncertain. In an email to constituents, Garrett said it’s impossible to predict that number with any certainty at this time.

“Numbers that indicate 600-700 residents are difficult to substantiate since size limitations on types of housing planned will more likely result in more studio and one-bedrooms than any other size,” she wrote. “In addition, any housing development at Legacy will require partnerships and will come to the City Commission for consideration and will include public comment opportunities.”

A resident named Cynthia Osborn, who criticized the process behind the addition to the master plan, said, “I’m 100% for affordable housing, I think it’s unfair to set this conversation up as those who are for affordable housing versus those who are not. I think it’s been very clear through all of the folks that have already spoken tonight, we all want affordable housing — that is not the issue. The issue is how much? Where? What is that process going to be? … It seems to me that developers rule the roost in so many things that happen in this city.”

Many residents who spoke out against the master plan were concerned about green space and recreation areas being developed into more housing in what they see is a city dominated by developers.

Supporters of the master plan highlighted the reality of Decatur’s need for affordable housing.

“Legacy Park is the biggest piece of developable land in Decatur and we on the Affordable Housing Task Force believe it’s critical for the development of affordable housing over the next 10 years,” said Elke Davidson, a chair of the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force.

Many participants who supported affordable housing in Legacy Park noted the property as being one of the last pieces of developable land in Decatur for affordable housing.

Kristin Allin, a 2019-2020 planning intern of urban planning at the City of Decatur, said that affordable housing in Legacy Park would “enable people who work in Decatur to live in Decatur.”

Alex Thibadeau, an executive real estate assistant in Decatur, said that many housing advocates believe Legacy Park is “our last remaining option” for affordable housing. She also said that the majority of people she grew up with have been priced out of Decatur.

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