Turner Field Neighbors Divided Over Community Benefits Agreement

May 12, 2017

As Georgia State University and its development partners move forward on redeveloping downtown Atlanta’s Turner Field, neighbors of the former Atlanta Braves stadium are locked in a bitter struggle over how to secure things like affordable housing, green space, jobs and connectivity.

While community members largely agree on what features they want to see in the new project, they disagree on how to secure them. In conversations with community members, objectives like a grocery store, after-school activities, flood prevention, walkability and jobs come up consistently. 

“I personally would love to see Summerhill reach its former potential,” said John Colabelli, President of the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill. “It used to be a center, a hub of activity. The corners of Georgia [Avenue] and Hank Aaron [Drive] had a butcher shop, bakery, groceries, a theater. There were jobs. There was really a community, a living breathing community.”

Current plans call for transforming the 68-acre site into a college baseball and football stadium complex surrounded by private dorms, retail stores, restaurants and office space. Residents welcome the promise of new amenities, infrastructure and liveability but want assurances that rising property values won’t price out low-income residents.

Rendering of what Turner Field and its environs could look like after redevelopment by Georgia State University and Carter & Associates
Credit Perkins + Will

“Affordable housing is a tricky word,” said Summerhill resident Sharise Brown. “You need to define it because what you call affordable may not be affordable.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates affordability by Area Median Income (AMI). In Fiscal Year 2015, Atlanta’s AMI was $68,300 which includes what people make in the city’s northern suburbs. Brown says it’s unfair to measure herself and her neighbors alongside high-wage earners in Sandy Springs and Marietta. “When you break it down to our communities, we are making $17,000 to $20,000 a year which is real low income. If you pay more than 30 percent of your income it is a cost burden.”

The newly-renamed Georgia State Stadium site sits in the Summerhill neighborhood just south of the Georgia State Capitol building in Neighborhood Planning Unit-V. NPU-V includes the neighborhoods of Peoplestown, Adair Park, Mechanicsville, Pittsburg, Capitol Gateway, and Summerhill, some of Atlanta’s most low-income neighborhoods.

One group of stakeholders says a legally-binding Community Benefits Agreement guarantees the new project benefits people in the five communities around the former stadium. The primary goal of the Turner Field Coalition is to ensure housing that’s affordable to the lowest-income renters and homeowners. TFC has staged multiple protests, including a Tent City at the stadium site along Hank Aaron Drive.  

Community Benefits Agreements are an increasingly common tool among big-city community groups facing massive urban redevelopment projects in their neighborhoods. Los Angeles city leaders baked a Community Benefits Agreements into the deal for its downtown Staples Center when it opened in 1999.  Other such deals have been struck in cities across the country. 

In Georgia, however, there is no precedent for a Community Benefits Agreement. In fact, no urban development project in the South has had a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement. Just three miles north of Turner Field, construction of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is subsidized by a portion of Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax. Stadium owner Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons have no binding agreement with their nearest neighbors in Vine City or English Avenue.

Other neighbors of Turner Field say it isn’t needed. Last month, a collective of community organizations, including the Organized Neighbors of Summerhill and Mechanicsville Civic Association, secured written promises from Carter and GSU that the groups say nullify the need for a legal Community Benefits Agreement. The deal includes items such as GSU’s commitment to hiring women and minority contractors, improving public safety and after-school programs. Carter & Associates agreed to keep 10 percent of rental and for-sale housing units affordable to households earning 80 percent of HUD’s Area Median Income.

Georgia State University President Mark Becker and Carter & Associates say they are satisfied that they are meeting the community’s needs through their work with the neighborhood organizations. 

“Georgia State believes the redevelopment of the Turner Field site will be transformational for all parties involved,” said Georgia State President Mark Becker, “including the neighborhoods, the university and the city of Atlanta. We embrace our relationship with Summerhill, Peoplestown, Mechanicsville and Grant Park and look forward to continuing our work together.”

Becker has formed a Stadium Neighborhood Engagement Committee to continue conversations with the community groups participating in the agreement.

Below are excerpts of interviews with eight neighbors of Turner Field. 

Name: Douglas Dean, retired after 20 years of service in the Georgia State Legislature and 25 years with the Summerhill Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Neighborhood: Pittsburg  

Douglas Dean: We've got to do something about affordability because the homeless rate in Atlanta is so high and it’s going to get worse as real estate goes up in the community. There’s not an affordable component. You're just going to create more homeless individuals in this community. That's not right.

We are just asking the city to partner with us to be sure that developers like Georgia State, like Carter and Associates build some affordable houses here. This is not for somebody to get rich off of development. I believe in the housing strategy -- affordable, moderate and upper-income housing. I think you've got to have all of that to make a community work.

Douglas Dean stands before a map of downtown Atlanta's NPU-V where Turner Field will be redeveloped.

Part of it is classism. You've got one community fighting another community because they think that low-income housing hurts the community.

I think the mayor has tried. City Council and the mayor need to take a deep breath. You always get pushback because even community folk don't understand the pushback on affordable housing and there's no need for that. You can make it work. But you've got to develop a strategy because you have to scatter affordable housing throughout the neighborhood.

I think that people need to know what they're getting. We've trusted the private sector and government for years and it just doesn't work.

I really can't understand why anyone would have a problem in helping create a community benefit agreement. It's healthy for the private sector. They don't have to play politics with folks in the community. They know exactly what the community wants. And things that they don't want to do or can't do they will be able to come to the table and sit down and work with the community. They know what they can do and what they can't do. It ought to be a win-win situation for all of us.

Name: Sharise Brown

Neighborhood: Summerhill resident for 25 years

Rickey Bevington: Dream a little bit for me. What would you love to see?

Sharise Brown: I love to see a “beloved community” that has what they need and walkability. I would like to see affordable housing, green space, great school systems, grocery stores, entertainment. To keep our tax dollars in our community. That urbanism, you just walk down the street and go to the drugstore and go to the bank and you don't have to worry about flooding and you don’t see people homeless walking around on the outside looking in. We want things down there that are affordable.

We know that it has to be something for everybody. I don't want to see it just for the elite that's coming into our community. We need to have things for everybody. If you have high end stores, there are some that medium-income or low-income people can enjoy as well. Besides that, we will just be strangers in our own neighborhood just passing by looking over there at a pretty picture but we can't go in because we can't afford it.

Summerhill resident Sharise Brown points to her home on a map of downtown Atlanta's NPU-V where Turner Field will be redeveloped.

When I moved in it was a little better than what it is now. Back in the '60s when [there were] theaters and grocery stores and bakeries and walkability. Before the interstates and the stadium destroyed and displaced thousands of people and businesses.

It's about income. When you break it down to our communities we are making like $17,000 to $20,000 a year which is real low income. The new development … what they call affordable housing is workforce housing. If you pay more than 30 percent of your income it is a cost burden. Affordable housing is a tricky word. You need to define it because what you call affordable may not be affordable.

Bevington: Where would you go if you couldn't afford to stay?

Brown: Either I would have to go home to New Orleans where there's a family house and some people already live there. Or I will be pushed further out into Clayton County where if you don't drive you're stranded. You’re cut off from opportunities.

Atlanta, Georgia needs to get on board with community benefit agreements. There should be legislation or ordinance stating to developers when you come to Atlanta and build and disrupt communities that you need to sit down and have a conversation and value the community input.

We're proud of our neighborhood. We’ve stood up and we fought for things. It's not the first time we're not backing down. We're still going to try to get benefits for our community. And we know it has to come from more than one entity not just Georgia State not just Carter. The city has a responsibility in this too because we wouldn't be in this predicament if they had sold off the land without waiting to hear the needs or wants of the community. That makes a happy community. And I think that they should be good neighbors and do that.

Name: Allison Johnson

Neighborhood: Peoplestown

Allison Johnson: The community benefits agreement is a revolving document. It's going to consistently change as things change with the developers and with the land and with the people. One particular piece that I'm working is the component of affordable housing. We talk a lot about “workforce housing” but we also want to make sure that people who earn a certified nursing practitioners certificate, people who are working minimum wage jobs, people who are daycare workers, that they are also considered as workforce housing. That’s been heavily disregarded. 

Peoplestown resident Allison Johnson points to her home on a map of downtown Atlanta's NPU-V where Turner Field will be redeveloped.

By having such a document, which we've worked on as a community benefits agreement, it's the best way for both parties. Not only does it provide protection for a community resident it also lends itself some protection to the developer as well. It's just a way to let everyone in the community have some type of ownership to what's happening in their lives. It will also create boundaries where the tenants or the residents are not overstepping their lane as well. And once you have those mechanisms set up it's the easier path for both parties to be able to create a great relationship with one another.

Rickey Bevington: Is it too late for that at this point?

Johnson: Oh absolutely not. It's never too late. It's only too late when you intentionally or unintentionally disregard the process that people in the community have worked for for so long and so hard and you continue to develop without the people in the community. A development that is led by the people should be for the people because people know what's best for them and what they need.

Name: Deborah Arnold

Neighborhood: Mechanicsville resident for 40 years

Deborah Arnold: I remember as a little girl going to grocery stores that had fresh vegetables. I remember a drug store. I remember a candy store. A cleaners. I remember there were lots of families -- husband, wife families -- that were there. Now there’s a food desert. We would have to travel far to get fresh vegetables and fruits. Back in the day when I was younger we just go a block or two and just buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Rickey Bevington: What specifically would new development bring into Mechanicsville?

Mechanicsville resident Deborah Arnold points to her home on a map of downtown Atlanta's NPU-V where Turner Field will be redeveloped.

Arnold: Hopefully amenities such as grocery stores and a little something for the youth to get involved in. I've had more exposure up north in the city of Atlanta. We can bring some of that to the south.

Bevington: Do you own your home or do you rent your home?

Arnold: I'm renting.

Bevington: Are you concerned about being priced out or your rent going up too much?

Arnold: That could possibly happen. That could be a definite concern.

Bevington: Do you know what’s the current plan and how that might impact Mechanicsville, the area itself?

Anold: The area itself -- it's an uplift. There’s nothing negative to see, 'Oh my gosh, walking out of the house, there’s an abandoned a house here.' There's negativity all around. But with the new development is more positivity. One day I could own a house and even better.

Bevington: So you think the new development could help improve things?

Arnold: I do. I really do.

Name: Gladys Freeman

Neighborhood: Summerhill resident for 10 years

Gladys Freeman: We expected a whole lot of things to be done when the old stadium was torn down. And it wasn't done. And now the new one's going to be torn down. Or not torn down but it's going to be renovated. And there's nothing going to be done for us either.

We need a grocery store real bad over here. The elderly people cannot get to the store. The little stores that they have they don't sell meat and the prices are ridiculous. I keep looking at all the buildings going up thinking 'Maybe this time it's going to be a grocery store and all it is is housing.'

I would like to have something for the young people to go it. We don't have a YMCA in this community. We need something for young people in this area to do. We need jobs. We need something for the elderly to do. If it's just one building for the elderly to go to -- a senior building -- so that we can have something to go to during the day. I'm retired and it's very boring. I have my little garden. It's not producing anything. Maybe it's my attitude. I can't even grow a tomato. It's sad. (laughs) I'm going to try again this year and see what I can do.

Summerhill resident Gladys Freeman points to her home on a map of downtown Atlanta's NPU-V where Turner Field will be redeveloped.

Bevington: Do you own your home or do you rent your home?

Freeman: I rent a home. I stay at Martin Street Plaza. It's owned by the Atlanta Housing Authority. The neighborhood is okay. My neighbors are okay. It's just that we're not organized. They don't mind getting on the bus to go to the grocery store. Older people do. And we need help. Atlanta Housing Authority pays most of our rent. We pay 30 percent.

Bevington: So how much is that for you?

Freeman: For me it's $173. They haven't told us anything. The only thing that I have heard is that if we do not like what's going on then we need to find another place to stay.

Bevington: Would that be an easy thing for you to do?

Freeman: No it would not because it would be hard for me to find a place with my income. I would end up having to go and live with one of my children. I don't want to stay with them. Plus, when I'm with them I do more work than when I'm in my own apartment. I clean, I cook for them. I would rather be at home where I can relax.   

Name: Suzanne Mitchell

Neighborhood: Summerhill resident for 15 years

Name: John Colabelli

Neighborhood: Summerhill resident for 11 years

Name: Geoffrey Heard, has been associated with Summerhill for three decades. 

Neighborhood: Southwest Atlanta

Geoffrey Heard: I would feel that the new development should include activities that would allow the community to live, work and play. Housing that's affordable for some. Shops where the neighbors can walk to, restaurants, and a good grocery school would be a plus for our community.

John Colabelli: I personally would love to see Summerhill reach its former potential. It used to be a center, a hub of activity. The corners of Georgia [Avenue] and Hank Aaron [Drive] had a butcher shop, bakery, groceries, a theater. There were jobs. There was really a community, a living breathing community. I would love to see it restored and come back to some of its former glory but also become a new center for not only the South Side but for the whole city. And I believe that potential is now there.

Susanne Mitchell: To sum it up is to really honor the past but look to the future. Summerhill was a community that was founded in 1865. It's the first neighborhood to be formed in the city. It was a settlement for African-Americans and Jews. Your first synagogue in Atlanta was in Summerhill. The first Piedmont Hospital was in Summerhill. And so there's a tremendous amount of legacy and history that rests in Summerhill.

A rendering of what the Turner Field property could look like after it's developed by Georgia State University and Carter & Associates. Neighbors agree that they want a place where people can live, work and play in one neighborhood.
Credit Perkins + Will

In Atlanta, sometimes, we take things down and then we start fresh and we forget. And I think there are a group of residents in Summerhill who are really committed to honoring the legacy and really uplifting the importance. It was a bustling neighborhood and it was a bustling enclave for African-Americans as well as Jewish families. But then [Interstates] 75 and 85 came through the community and really tore it apart. And then Fulton County Stadium and then the Olympic Stadium and then Turner Field. Very little had been done to preserve the fabric of the community and for the residents of the community.

You know, this isn't rocket science. We want what every community wants which is walkability, safety, cleanliness and the opportunity to live, work and play.

Heard: In terms of people, it would look like a very diverse community. A diverse community in terms of all of the resources that a healthy community would have.

Mitchell: The development will anchor actually potentially all of Southeast Atlanta. It will be the catalyst for growth. It really is about enhancing what Dr. King talked about. With the King Center really just down the road, we are one of the only communities in the city where you have the level of diversity. Young and old. All different socioeconomics. Gay and straight. Black and white. We really do have everyone and we live together cohesively.

Colabelli: I very much hope that Summerhill continues to look like it does when I am at an Organized Neighbors of Summerhill meeting. I look out, I see young. I see old. I see couples. I see single people. I see white. I see African-American. I see Asian. I see gay, straight. It's such an interesting diverse group of people that have come together.

Mitchell: Traditionally, when you have seen traditional community benefits agreements or binding agreements -- for example over on the West Side with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new Falcons stadium -- there are public dollars that are associated with the deal. Georgia State and Carter are purchasing the land with no public dollars. The Georgia State Foundation purchased the land and then Carter has gone out and raised the money to purchase the land. So, in a traditional sense, it's very hard to align apples and oranges.

From there we're kind of starting at what I would call a unique place, not a disadvantage. The interesting part is that Georgia State and Carter, because they're going to be making long-term commitments in the neighborhood, are vested to create something that is lasting and benefits their customer. In Georgia State's case, students and their families. And then in Carter's, the residents that will come into their buildings and any retail and commercial that they own.

Initially, it became an us-versus-them. I think it was how it was all approached originally. But very quickly it became neighbors sitting down and figuring out how we fix the issues that have plagued the communities in and around Turner Field for 60 years. I mean the issues haven't changed. And they're not going to change unless there are serious people ready to do serious work.

Colabelli: Community benefits agreements have a lot of traction in different areas of the country. The one key thing is that those state and local and city entities make those a part of development. They require that a community benefits agreement be worked out and they support it. In the South, that is not the case.

To me, in order for a community benefits agreement to truly have strength and to be implemented correctly it needs the support of city state and local … it needs to be part of their policies and procedures. I don't think it's up to GSU or Carter to be the one to solve issues that are, structurally, part of our history and our economy. Do I think Carter and GSU, as a developer and an educational institution, can be a part of the solution? Absolutely. But they are not the solution.

Heard: The city has been involved from the beginning with the LCI [Livable Communities Initiative]. And helping to fund the LCR and with the zoning and with the tax credit that helped the community to begin to rebuild. So, yes, it is a partnership.

Mitchell: But you know “affordable” is a really interesting conversation particularly in neighborhoods that are socio-economically diverse. I think there's been a lot of confusion because there are really two types of affordable. There are affordable residents who are at or under the poverty level who, in most cases, are in some form of subsidized housing. They're renters for the most part. You have some seniors who are in affordable homes that they've owned for decades. You have young people, civil servants, who are making incomes that are above poverty. But it's very difficult to find a home in Atlanta at $60,000 a year that is affordable. They all get mushed together in this discussion about there is no affordable or there is affordable.

I think the first thing that has to be done is [to look] at what type of affordable [housing] we have in Summerhill right now, what can we do to protect it and where's the opportunity to create more affordable [housing]. Currently in Summerhill about 53 percent of our housing stock today would be classified as affordable housing. [That’s] partly because we have an Atlanta Housing Authority complex called Martin Street Plaza and we have a number of rentals that are part of Atlanta Housing Authority. Martin Street Plaza isn't going anywhere to our knowledge. That core group that are in important fabric of our community won't be leaving.

What we are lacking is housing for families that are in that $50,000 to $100,000 or $30,000 to $100,000 range where they can find housing. As part of the development, one of the things that the [Fulton County] Recreation Authority asked for was affordable housing and development that focused on workforce housing.

Could there be some long-term displacement in Summerhill? Possibly. But we're going to use Georgia State to look at that. We don't know. We have 30 acres, 40 acres, 50 acres of parking lots so we're not displacing anybody with that. We're actually bringing residents in.

Green space is a common wish-list item among neighbors of Turner Field. This is a rendering of what it could look like after redevelopment.
Credit Perkins + Will

Colabelli: There's anecdotal theories about what can happen. [For example] there's going to be displacement and people are going to lose their houses, rents are going to go to high. What we are going to seek to do is to create a snapshot, to monitor this, and find out who is concerned about potentially being priced out.

As of the last census in 2010, which was a very different time period for us economically, there was about a 50-50 split between homeowners and renters. There's already a lot of information out there that we can pull together, find out what the situation is for the neighborhood, and then act of of that. If you don't have facts you can't really tell a story or come up with strategic and tactical plans of what to do and how to help your neighbors.

Heard: I really don't feel that Turner Field was good for the neighborhood. If you look at all of those parking lots, people were living there. And partly because of the expressway, all of these people are gone. Where are they? Then as a result of the people leaving there was nobody there to support the businesses. So the businesses left.

There were promises made that there would be economic development opportunities in the community. Did they happen? No. I would have to say Turner Field was the worst thing that ever happened to Summerhill.

And before Turner Field, Fulton County Stadium, the Olympics, the expressways that displaced a lot of folks. If you look at a map in 1949, when I spent my first night in Summerhill with my aunt and uncle, there were businesses, there were houses up Frazier Street, Fulton Street. In those days the transportation in that community was better. When I went to college, I caught the bus in Summerhill and transferred downtown to go to Morehouse College. So I don't see a possibility of this development being as detrimental to the community as Turner Field.

If you look at the development, you're looking at housing, you’re looking at bringing people to the community, you’re looking at a transportation grid that makes it accessible. If you look at a community and look at the things that make a community healthy you will see all of those things as part of the proposed development of Summerhill.

Colabelli: The current developer Carter, who purchase a significant number of buildings and lots along Georgia Avenue, they are redeveloping all of those empty storefronts. They’re going to be viable businesses. Those buildings and that street has looked that way for 50 years.

Summerhill: But that's very much in the rearview mirror for us. We've really moved past that. The neighborhood associations -- those are the organizations that are formed by community members and are for the community -- those folks don't feel disenfranchised. We actually feel empowered because we have created partnerships with Carter and GSU because they've got skin in the game. The future is incredibly bright for Summerhill, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown and Grant Park as this development takes off.

Colabelli: GSU and Carter have stepped up and said we want to help you do that. We want to help you fulfill the goals of your residents. So far they've been great neighbors. They have been transparent with us. They've been engaged and they've been talking with us. They’re even coming into our meetings and being a part of the neighborhood because they are neighbors now they own property in the neighborhood. And what's good for them is also good for the neighborhood. In my opinion.

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