More than a hundred MARTA-riding tourists got a taste of Buford Highway’s famed multicultural restaurants—seasoned with expert takes on the corridor’s safety and gentrification challenges—on an April 27 “bus crawl” staged by We Love BuHi and the MARTA Army.

The bus tour and similar programs by We Love BuHi are exposing strong tensions about the highly diverse immigrant community’s future, and stirring some big ideas for supporting it.

Bus crawl” attendees dig in at Plaza Fiesta on April 27. The crawl, staged by We Love BuHi and the MARTA Army, gave patrons a chance to explore the Buford Highway corridor and hear about redevelopment plans. (Photo John Ruch)

The property manager of the Latino mall Plaza Fiesta, a bus tour stop, in an interview after the tour, blasted Brookhaven for “driving out families” with “million-dollar townhomes.”

Meanwhile, Brookhaven City Council member Joe Gebbia revealed that he wants the city to buy Buford Highway property to ensure redevelopment includes affordable housing and local businesses. City-owned redevelopments, Gebbia said, may be the only way “to serve the community and not just maximize the profit.”

Similar food for thought was served alongside food for the belly on the bus tour. While noshing on sample plates, attendees heard from such officials as MARTA planner Amanda Rhein, who set up an easel at the Plaza Fiesta mall and explained the agency’s proposed transit-oriented redevelopment around the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe station.

The bus crawl ended at Brookhaven’s Royal Lounge nightclub with keynote speaker Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who dreamed up Atlanta’s BeltLine park/transit ring.

Ryan Gravel, left, signs his book for Cross Keys High School teacher Rebekah Morris at Brookhaven’s Royal Lounge. (Photo John Ruch)

“There’s certainly the challenge of change and displacing the thing that makes [Buford Highway] special,” Gravel said in an interview at the lounge about the corridor’s immigrant culture. “Nowhere else has that sense of identity, that sense of place…There’s nothing else like it” in metro Atlanta or most other suburban corridors nationwide, he said. “What happens to it is really important.”

Without a new kind of culture-focused planning, Gravel told the crowd, Buford’s main asset will be displaced for another generic strip-mall suburb. He suggested turning two lanes of the roadway into bus-rapid-transit lanes. And instead of pumping money into standard redevelopments, he called for investing in affordable housing or “a venture capital fund for immigrant businesses.”

Gentrification tensions
Bringing busloads of mostly white, non-Hispanic cultural tourists to Buford Highway was a tricky part of the bus crawl’s own displacement discussions, and sparked some local curiosity. As one group walked through the Plaza Fiesta parking lot, a passerby cracked, “Did y’all’s bus break down? That’s a lot of white people.”

Julio Penaranda, the property manager at Plaza Fiesta, said that Brookhaven city policies are displacing the mall’s Latino customer base, even as it adapts to serve a new, upper-middle-class “white Anglo” demographic.

“Brookhaven has been, hands-down, anti-low-income, anti-Latino, anti-immigrants since Day One,” said Penaranda, pointing to the city’s approval of luxury housing in place of apartments, and its licensing crackdowns on local restaurants and nightclubs. He contrasted Brookhaven with the city of Chamblee, which he characterized as more supportive.

Penaranda said Plaza Fiesta’s mall has changed with local demographics over the years, starting as a Woolworth’s department store in the 1950s, shifting to Asian businesses in the 1970s, and then a Latino mall in 1998. Now Plaza Fiesta is making sure its retailers welcome the new demographic by accepting credit cards, using bilingual signage and showing “that it’s not scary to come into a place that is mostly Hispanic.”

MARTA Army founder Simon Berrebi said bus crawl organizers tried to not present Buford as exotic, but instead to highlight the good and the challenging. “That’s how people who live and work here live it every day,” he reminded the nightclub crowd.

“It’s not just, ‘Let’s go eat.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go eat and learn,’” said We Love BuHi founder Marian Liou about the bus crawl’s intent.

Why they love BuHi
Many attendees did just that, enjoying exploring Buford and trying out MARTA’s 39 bus. Katie Lambert of Atlanta and Linda Niederhausen of Marietta teamed up to join one of several groups led from stop to stop by volunteer guides.

“This is one of the few parts of town [where] I haven’t gone to every restaurant,” said Lambert, while Niederhausen was impressed with MARTA’s service. “It was clean. That’s one of the myths—that the bus is dirty,” she said.

Chamblee residents Katja and Joerg Lauterbach said they’ve been on We Love BuHi’s previous Buford bike tours.

“We just love Buford Highway…We are adventurers, but [we attend] to be more adventurous,” Katja Lauterbach said, adding that as immigrants themselves—from Berlin, Germany—they appreciate the corridor and its people. “I really support the mission [Liou’s] taking on to celebrate Buford…

We know how it is to be having certain language barriers.”

At Yen Jing, a Chinese restaurant in Doraville, a dumpling-munching crowd heard about the work of the Center for Pan Asian Community Services from its vice president, Victoria Huynh. Sally Flocks of the Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group PEDS explained Buford Highway’s traffic dangers outside the Bangladeshi market and café Bismillah, where there’s a dirt path instead of a sidewalk.

The star of the tour was Gravel, who grew up in Chamblee and whose 1999 grad student project of turning old railroad beds into the BeltLine is transforming Atlanta—currently as a multiuse path, but with a strong push for his original light-rail public transit vision. (Gravel said he’s “super-excited” about a transit-funding tax that goes before Atlanta voters this fall.)

Grassroots challenges
Gravel signed a copy of his new book, “Where We Want to Live,” for Rebekah Morris, a teacher at Brookhaven’s Cross Keys High, while she told him about her students’ project to design their own Buford Highway visions. That student project is partly a response to a lack of Buford community input in local plans, partly due to language or cultural barriers.

Grassroots input is a big theme of Gravel’s book, he said in an interview. For the BeltLine plan, he said, Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system was crucial for getting quick and easy community input from everywhere in the city. He said he is not an expert in Buford-area local governments, but that they appear not to have anything like NPUs.

Brookhaven created a plan for its section of Buford Highway in 2014 that is controversial, Liou and others say, for suggesting a renaming to “Buford Boulevard” and only lightly addressing diversity with such ideas as a globe sculpture. The published plan included public comments from only nine people.

Local input from the diverse community is “an uphill climb for everybody,” said David Schaefer, the director of policy and advocacy at the Latin American Association, which is based on Brookhaven’s stretch of Buford Highway.

Language barriers, meetings not accessible by public transit, immigrants from places without traditions of public input, the daily struggles of poverty—all of those and more are among the obstacles, Schaefer said. And with immigrants from dozens of countries, the Buford corridor’s community is not a “monolith” with an easy representative to contact, he said.

“I think there’s deeper relationship-building that both sides need to engage in,” Schaefer said of city-community relations. He added that Brookhaven is generally responsive, but “sometimes market forces are bigger than any of us.” State-level affordable housing policy may be the real solution, he said.

“There’s also the culture of thinking about it,” he said. “Sometimes the law follows the culture.”

Rethinking redevelopment
Gravel made a similar point about broadening the definition of urban planning. With metro Atlanta’s population booming and local governments doing cleanup projects like the Peachtree Creek Greenway and shutting down strip clubs, change is coming to Buford Highway, Gravel said. With a “thoughtful” approach, it can change in ways that build wealth for the existing community, he said. And with new priorities driving the planning, it could suddenly “be very easy to take [some of] those lanes away from cars and give them to people.”

“Buford Highway has to be a corridor not just for moving people in cars along,” but also for community development, health and the arts, Gravel said. “All of those things are part of what its job is.”

Gebbia, the Brookhaven City Council member who represents the area, praised Liou and Morris as leaders raising some of those new ways of thinking. He said it has helped inspire him to work for more formal, regional planning with Chamblee and Doraville on public transit advocacy and such marketing efforts as a possible “international festival” on the entire corridor.

Gebbia’s biggest idea is using a potential new city agency—a Downtown Development Authority—to “take control of [a] project…assemble the land…then dictate the outcome to bidders.” One or more city-developed projects could retain Buford Highway’s workforce housing and multicultural businesses, he said, adding that the idea is under city internal review.

But time may not be on the side of new-fangled development ideas. Gebbia said he has talked with the Latin American Association about a “contingency plan” in case a major apartment complex was bought out and its hundreds of residents are suddenly displaced.

“Right now, there is no answer,” Gebbia said. “They’re all just ideas right now.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

6 replies on “Bus tour moves Buford Highway ideas forward”

  1. Wow, Julio, what a big mentiroso and vendido you are. DeKalb had mostly abandoned the Buford Hwy corridor. The City of Brookhaven came in and (1) hired Latino and Spanish speaking officers in numbers never seen in the area, ever before, (2) while engaging in code enforcement, it did so with state and federal funding to fix buildings so that no families were displaced, (3) for the protection of the Latino families in the area, yes, it has cracked down on alcohol and noise violations of the trashy, ruthless and inconsiderate clubs you are defending, (4) Brookhaven is working hard towards creating a linear park so that the Latino community in BuHi has a place to congregate and recreate safely, (5) the city’s police force has engaged in a strong outreach campaign to get immigrants to report crimes, unlike before, because they were afraid of immigration enforcement and the violence that some of the criminals in the area could incite. What, Julio, what has Chamblee done? Where is Chamblee in the Latino community? Has it developed a plan in order to protect low-income housing like Brookhaven? How diverse is the Chamblee city government? Can you point to ONE piece of evidence that Brookhaven has been anti-Latino? What Latino, low-income interests is Chamblee serving with its approval of the high-end Whole Foods development? What Latino interests are they serving with their speed-straps? How many times have they published the invitations to their events in Spanish, at Plaza Fiesta or elsewhere? When was it that they organized a creek or park cleanup near BuHi like Brookhaven has bene doing recently? How many times have anyone from Chamblee attended an event of the LAA? Of the Latin Chamber? In fact, when has Chamblee done absolutely anything at all for our community? I hope people research the facts for themselves instead of relying in dirty business people like you.

  2. Hey Julio, and what part of Chamblee’s Olmstead development is pro-low-income or pro-Latino? What part of the new MARTA development in Chamblee is pro-Latino or pro-low-income? How many of the townhomes on Hillcrest are low-income? Our Latino community does NOT need people like you supporting strip clubs and clubs serving alcohol to minors. Stop pretending to speak on our behalf. You are a disgrace to our community. All you care about is your own self-interests. Good luck with your marriage to Chamblee, a city that has never reached out to our community, let’s see how soon they discard you. Good-riddance.

  3. Ms. Toro, I would like to clarify that I was never speaking out for the Latino community in the Buford Hwy, my comments, reflected on this article, stemmed from a conversation with John Ruch regarding my personal views and beliefs in regards to the current scene in the area. You are correct; Dekalb county did abandon Buford Highway and many other parts of our neighborhoods. In regards to my comments how Brookhaven is pushing out the Latino community you may ask the 4 apartment complex owners who had to sell the properties as Brookhaven code enforcement was throwing the entire zoning book at them and who decided it was cheaper to sell than to do all the unnecessary upgrades. I’m not defending every single apartment complex because there are some slumlords that are in keep their complex in deplorable shape, but there are others that with some love and care could continue to serve as housing for the hundreds of families that had to relocate as they were displaced. And I’m not dreaming this up, this has been first-hand accounts from several of the apartment dwellers, a community property manager that’s a friend of mine AND Dekalb County Fire Marshall officials. This is all based on “The city is currently completing an analysis of its apartment stock to ensure safe living environment that meets Life Safety Code” It sounds fine and dandy, and I’m all for making sure slumlords who do not maintain their property comply with laws, but when other fire officials tell you that the Life Safety Code the city of Brookhaven enacted is far too strict and that they are enforcing EVERY SINGLE LINE of a newly enacted law book.
    I met Mayor John Ernst when he was running for mayor and

  4. I met Mayor John Ernst when he was running for mayor and I asked him if he was going to look into the zoning officials methods and he said he was going to look into the practices being employed. I have high regards that he will fix the mess Brookhaven’s initial government body created and the fruits of his labors are starting to shine, the replacement of the city manager is an example. I am very confident that he can make a major impact on the city’s tarnished image and guide the city on the right tracks. Brookhaven has definitely increased pedestrian accessibility as well as pedestrian safety and curb appeal with all the improvements done on Buford Hwy, something I’m clamoring Chamblee officials to do on their side of BuHi as well. The city of Brookhaven’s Comprehensive Plan 2034/ Comprehensive Transportation Plan states Page 8 “Ensuring a safe supply of accessible and affordable housing should be considered in the City’s long term plan.” As well as states in section 5.2 – “Preserve safe and affordable housing in the community…We can’t just be a rich community. That’s not a good thing.” I hope that the residents of Brookhaven keep their city government accountable to these statements.

    You have also asked to provide proof of my opinions; I would ask that you read city of Brookhaven’s Buford Highway Improvement Plan and Economic Development Strategy Published on August 12, 2014 and unanimously adopted by the city council on October 14, 2014 (I read it cover to cover twice in 2014 when it came out to see what was in store for Buford Highway) or directly from the city’s site at I would direct your attention to PDF Page 17 section 3.3 where the initial proposed change is to update the identity of Buford Highway by changing the name from Buford Highway to Buford Boulevard as “The point is a new name with major improvements has the potential to be an agent of community change.” Community change are the key words here, Brookhaven initiatives were very clear since the inception of the cityhood talks, the folks behind the cityhood talks were looking to change the community in Brookhaven and by looking at who was behind all these discussions, it does not take a rocket scientist to see that in the term “change” means tear down the old, build new. This is one of the reasons I decided to distance ourselves with the city initiative, from the early days of city hood talks, way before Brookhaven was born.

    I would also like to call your attention to PDF page 75, the report is calling for “A coordinated set of public policies addressing code enforcement and property redevelopment will be necessary in preserving the quality and long-term affordability of these apartment complexes” which unfortunately the apartment complexes have only experienced everything BUT the affordability portion of this directive. With the amount of unnecessary code enforcement issues they have had to update, several have had to increase their rents in order to minimize the staggering amounts of money put into the units to “bring them up to code.” You can see my previous comments regarding the 4 apartment complexes

    Please turn to Page 30 where the properties being studied are ”poorly-maintained older commercial properties, especially ones in highly-visible locations whose condition undermines the positive appearance of the Brookhaven community” this is government language at its best, open verbiage that can be viewed in MANY different ways depending on the eye of the beholder, in this case, city officials.

    I’d also call for your attention to PDF pages 30-32 where all of these pages give perfect examples of which complexes to tear down and replace with luxury apartments also mentioning the fact that only 30% the new units built can be designated as low income housing (but ONLY if the new developer wants to) so what happens to the 70% of the remaining residents IF the new owner does decide to designate 30% of the new apartments low income?

    The report also shows how many of the city’s initiatives are contradictive, again drawing attention to page 75 the report clearly states that “there is a strong market for rental homes (apartments) of varying rent levels in the market study area” clearly stating that all levels of income rental housing demands are currently being met, the next paragraph discusses how “that newly built apartments along Buford Highway with one-, two-, and three- bedroom units can command rents from $900 to $1,700 per month….These rents assume that…the complex offers luxury amenities…” I don’t know how much clearer you want it stated. The city’s plans are to aggressively go against low income older apartment complexes in order to force the property owner to sell the properties to developers who will flourish by tearing down and building new luxury apartment complexes. By building luxury apartment complexes, the majority of the Latino residents are forced to move to another older apartment complex as they cannot afford to rent in the luxury apartments, the fact of the matter is that slowly the city of Brookhaven’s initiatives are changing the landscape of the future residents of the area.

    It’s interesting how the report shows (Table 12 on PDF page 69) that Latino’s make up 50% of Brookhaven’s residents, but yet, if you look at the people involved in the study as part of the Steering Committee (page 3) only one is of Latino background; Ms. Glianny Fagundo, a wonderful attorney whom I’ve met when the city was in its infancy stage, we both discussed and shared the same mixed feelings towards the direction cityhood initiatives were taking at the time. I strongly believe that ONE out of 9 individuals in any committee, or anywhere as a matter of fact, is not indicative of an equal representation for half of the population. (1/9 = 50% ?) Oh and one final note on who are the actual people benefiting from these findings, turn to page 100 and read Ms. Lontz comments following Comprehensive Planning mtg on May 29th which state “While I understand it may be the politically correct (or however you want to say it) thing to say that the City needs to be mindful not to push the existing residents of Buford Highway out of that corridor; however, to be frank, I am tired of hearing that. If the City wants to improve that corridor and not have it be a sore bringing the City down then there need to be SERIOUS changes along that corridor.” It is an unfortunate reality that several (note I did not use the word ALL) of the people that live not only in Brookhaven, but Chamblee as well, share this train of thought, and even worse it is people who DO NOT LIVE ON Buford Hwy that are looking to place their will on the actual residents of Buford Highway.

    Your comment that I am married with Chamblee is partly true, the property I manage resides within the city of Chamblee’s borders, I have to live and breathe within the city’s laws and regulations. I do not condone of several things Chamblee has done, but I can attest to the progress they are doing in order to work with ALL residents of the city. The city’s bi-monthly newsletter has a section in Spanish; park cleanups happen all the time in Chamblee, I’d suggest you get on the Facebook group for Keep Chamblee Beautiful, or the Chamblee Chamber of Commerce or at a bare minimum you can keep up with local highlights posted on who also cover Chamblee related news; the Chamblee app is multilingual; the office staff has access to translators in order to assist residents or business owners who do not speak English; the assistant chief of Police, Mike Beller, was born in Mexico and speaks perfect Spanish; and many of their officers, such as Captain Ernesto Ford, Detective Loc Tran among others, speak not only Spanish but Vietnamese, Cantonese among several other languages, I’m not trying to undermine Officer Niño and all the Spanish speaking officers work in Brookhaven, he is a fantastic officer and did you know that there is at least 1 officer working that speaks Spanish at every shift within Brookhaven PD? I thought that was an amazing accomplishment for such a young police force – but you brought up the fact Chamblee PD does not do anything for the latino community; code enforcement officers have worked with ALL apartment complexes and provide ample timeframes to repair and bring up to code items which have significant impact in life safety. Unlike Brookhaven’s code enforcement, city of Chamblee is working with property owners in order to maintain their low rents and not loose residents due to costly un-needed repairs to meet unwarranted code requirements. When I talk praises about the city of Chamblee it is because I have seen with my own eyes their efforts.

    Your final question regarding the developments Chamblee has enacted well, money talks and unless someone can see a value in ground up building for low income housing, it’s not gonna happen, that’s economics 101. Low income housing happens with old properties, not with new developments, and the fact that all these high income developments are occurring on the south side of Chamblee nearest the border with Brookhaven is a testament to the fact that Brookhaven is doing a fine job catering to high income individuals and these developers are looking to get a leg up on the high land value assessments and to be honest, lack of available land within Brookhaven’s borders, the only place left are the neighboring cities such as Chamblee or Dunwoody. Frankly there are very few places where a large development like Wholefoods can go in Brookhaven unless…. you tear down …… an existing ….. old …… property….

    I know you are still going to protest my sources and explanations, and that’s fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion, that’s the beauty of this country, freedom of speech. What I would like from YOU are YOUR SOURCES for your accusation that 1) I am supporting strip clubs or serving alcohol to minors? And 2) Where is your proof that “ (2) while engaging in code enforcement, it did so with state and federal funding to fix buildings so that no families were displaced” ? As far as I know, when private property has a zoning violation it is the property owner’s responsibility to bring the property up to code, not the city, state or federal government.

    I do hope to hear from you on those two points; on the rest, you have your opinion, and I have mine which was all that was conveyed to John Ruch during our conversation, MY PERSONAL OPINION, nothing more, nothing less. I would like to invite you to a lovely Cuban coffee, my treat, and discuss how we can work together to make sure our Latino community is not marginalized as progress continues to evolve within our beautiful two neighboring cities, we should all be working together and not separate for the same cause. You can find my phone number on our website, or send me a message via the website, I get every single message. I’d rather not place my email on this public forum for fear of more SPAM invading my already crowded inbox.
    Thank you for your time in reading this long response.

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