Residents living around the Brookhaven park where a controversial “comfort women” memorial is set to be unveiled June 30 are telling the city to find another location or face legal action.
The Reserve at Brookleigh Community Association, representing 95 homeowners along Blair Circle, pays for Blackburn Park II’s maintenance, but had no input into the monument’s location, said board member Brad Sapir. Residents are concerned the statue affects the park’s use and brings a political controversy to the neighborhood, Sapir said.
“For them to just make this decision without speaking with us is extremely unfair and at this point we don’t know if it is legal,” said Sapir. “For the city to come in and plop this down in the center of the park really changes the environment and atmosphere around this park.”
Sapir said he and other residents are considering filing for a court injunction forcing the memorial’s relocation unless the city does so voluntarily.
The memorial, a statue of a girl sitting next to an empty chair, honors the sex-trafficking victims of the Japanese military during World War II. It is one of several identical statues created as part of a campaign that has generated controversy between the governments of Japan and South Korea. The Consulate-General of Japan in Atlanta is asking the city to reject the statue, and City Council members have received more than 200 emails from people opposed to the statue, most from people living in Japan.
Earlier this year, the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta decided to reject an offer to host the memorial. The Brookhaven City Council voted May 23 to accept the memorial from the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force.
City Manager Christian Sigman said at that council meeting that a location for the statue had not yet been determined.
However, Sapir said that on May 18 he noticed city parks employees building the concrete slab for the memorial in the middle of the park. When he asked what was being placed there, “The employee told me it was a secret,” Sapir said.
Sapir said he and other residents immediately began seeking a meeting with city officials and met with Sigman on June 16. Sapir said Sigman told him a City Council vote would be required to move the memorial.
The city does not have a formal policy for accepting public art or memorials, according to city spokesperson Burke Brennan. Brennan said the current plan remains to unveil the statue on June 30. The next City Council meeting is slated for June 29.
Brennan said the decision to locate the statue in the city-owned park on Blair Circle was a staff decision that included input from himself, Sigman and Parks and Recreation Director Brian Borden. He said the park was selected because it is an existing passive green space without any other possible development use and because it is located in a quiet residential area, “which is compatible with the theme and imagery of the memorial.”
In a June 14 email from Mayor John Ernst to Sapir, the mayor said the decision to locate the memorial in the park “was largely driven by the number of seniors living in the immediate area, the limited park amenities at Blackburn Park II, and relative flat topography of the park.”
“We did consider other city parks, but Backburn Park II was the clear choice,” Ernst wrote. “As to the location of the statue in the park proper, the statue and associated landscaping are generally in an area closest to the sidewalk entering the park from the senior apartments and on-street parking for seniors. The city’s parks, as with most parks, do a great job of providing amenities and programming for active adults and children, but too often seniors are not considered.”
Ernst added in the email that the city is willing to pay for the relocation of the memorial if a new location can be agreed upon by the Parks and Recreation Department.
The 3-acre park is known to the city as Blackburn Park II, but nearby residents call it Brookleigh Central Park. It is near, but not adjacent to, the larger and better known Blackburn Park on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
Sapir said the Brookleigh Master Association – which includes the homeowners association along with representatives of other organizations in the mixed-use Brookleigh development — pays more than $20,000 a year for the park’s upkeep, while the city covers no maintenance costs
“It seems like the city had no idea it was not paying for the maintenance of the park,” Sapir said.
When Ashton Woods built the Reserve at Brookleigh as part of the 56-acre mixed-use development near the intersection of Johnson Ferry and Ashford-Dunwoody roads about five years ago, it included the park as part of the residential section. That park was later deeded to DeKalb County before it was then transferred to the city of Brookhaven about two years ago.
“There is a development and maintenance agreement in place with DeKalb County that gives the [Brookleigh] Master Association the responsibility for all maintenance in the park,” Sapir said.
“The residents and homeowners of Brookleigh pay approximately $20,000 annually to maintain and improve the park, in addition to the thousands of dollars we pay annually to maintain the associated retention ponds, replace trees, repair irrigation and maintain pet waste stations,” he said.
While the park is owned by the city, the city has not been paying for its maintenance, confirmed Brennan. What kind of agreement DeKalb County had with the homeowners association had is also not yet known by the city, Brennan said.