Plans continue for new Atlanta Police and Fire Training Center amid protests
With the project given the green light, the conversation around the planned $90 million training facility is decidedly different than it was before the vote. More than 17 hours of public comment were convened during a virtual council meeting last September, and several neighborhood organizations and environmental groups in Southeast Atlanta spoke out against the proposal.
But the encampment is a sign that some opposition has persisted, though police foundation officials intend to move the project forward with city support. As crews begin construction, anyone entering the site will be arrested, police foundation president and CEO Dave Wilkinson said.
“We will build it. … The momentum continues to build and it’s a game-changer,” Wilkinson said, adding that he thinks the training center sends a “message that tells everyone that public safety is a big deal.”
The group has already had at least one run-in with authorities, a Jan. 28 incident in which DeKalb County police responded to a few dozen “noisy and noisy” protesters chanting and waving banners as “several workers from the building were hired by the Atlanta Police Foundation”. [were] work with heavy machinery,” according to a police report. Wilkinson said crews were taking soil samples.
A 28-year-old Atlanta man was charged that day with trespassing and obstruction after he waved a banner in the face of a police sergeant and attempted to flee, according to a police report. Three protesters were also arrested for trespassing.
The group said this week that it plans to stay put for as long as necessary. He declined to make anyone available for an interview, but said in an email that the move was aimed at preventing the destruction of “valuable habitat for life in order to build a facility that will be used to further aggravate the problems of police brutality in Atlanta.”
Their plans include “direct physical resistance to construction,” the group said.
Wilkinson estimated that members of the group caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to utility equipment, adding that a fence will eventually be erected around the entire site when construction begins, “and anyone on the site will be arrested”.
“As we move forward,” Wilkinson said, “enforcement will get stricter and stricter.”
Other groups, including Community Movement Builders and the Black Alliance for Peace, continued to hold rallies and canvass nearby neighborhoods in hopes of stopping projects or lobbying private funders.
As the police foundation moves forward with development plans, it has the backing of political and business players in the city, including new mayor Andre Dickens, who voted in favor of the project as a councilor city last year.
A new city council took office in January, including several new progressive members whose opposition to the proposal has formed a large part of their campaigns. But there doesn’t seem to be an appetite among the council to overturn last year’s vote that gave the center the go-ahead.
At the same time, a committee of community stakeholders was tasked with reviewing plans for the training center and making site plan recommendations. The committee leader – Alison Clark, who is also president of the Edgett’s Boulder Walk Subdivision Homeowners Association – said she hoped to make the project as pleasant as possible for nearby residents.
Wilkinson said planners adopted a dozen recommendations from the 18-member stakeholder committee to improve the site plan. They include reducing a firing range and moving it to an area further away from residential neighborhoods; remove a bomb detonation practice area from the site map; the addition of a second entrance on Constitution Road; and construction of sidewalks along Key Road.
Once the designs are complete, Wilkinson said, the police foundation plans to move into the licensing phase with DeKalb County, with construction on the first phase of the project expected to begin this fall. The development is expected to include classrooms, a fictional village, an emergency vehicle driving course, stables for police horses and a ‘burn building’ for firefighters to practice putting out fires.
The police foundation also hopes to build separate museums on the police, fire and labor prison site that once stood there.
The first phase of the project has an estimated cost of $90 million, with the city paying $30 million. The police foundation and private donors should cover the rest.
Deron Davis, the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, initially opposed the prison farm site as the location of the training center. Given environmental justice issues in Atlanta and DeKalb County, the group envisions a connected network “South River Forest” in the zone.
Now Davis said his organization is focusing on the 265 acres around the training center site that should be preserved as green space. The Nature Conservancy hopes to help improve the water quality of the South River and the surrounding forest, which it considers the least protected and most threatened in the city.
“Our view is that the city council has made up its mind about how they want this land to be used,” said Davis, who serves on the mayor’s recently created Greenspace Advisory Council. “They made big promises when they made this decision that has everything to do with green spaces.”
Meanwhile, in the stakeholder committee, a member openly criticized the project. Lily Ponitz, who has a background in environmental engineering, was appointed to the community committee by DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry.
While Wilkinson said environmental testing was done in accordance with local and national standards, Ponitz called for more in-depth field studies.
“I’m still hopeful that the project will be shut down somehow,” Ponitz said. “There are so many people against it and there are so many good reasons for it to be stopped.”
Clark, the head of the committee, has been supportive of the training center from the start, but assumes her own neighborhood remains divided on the issue as well.
She acknowledges that many residents, especially those in DeKalb, were taken aback by the proposal when it was publicly announced last year. But Clark said the committee she leads doesn’t “make decisions about whether or not the development exists.”
“Even the committee members who initially opposed the project really understood,” she said, “knowing that they have the ability to turn it into something that could work for their communities.”