Brookhaven city leaders have long said they want to preserve the multicultural diversity of Buford Highway. But their secret decision to pitch the corridor as the place for the new Amazon headquarters just magnifies the struggle taking place on how to handle its gentrification.
“No matter what I do, the buildings are going to go,” a visibly frustrated Mayor John Ernst said at a Sept. 14 panel discussion about ways to save Buford Highway that was held at the Latin American Association. The discussion was part of the Living Walls and We Love BuHi public art event to raise awareness about a corridor known throughout the country for its multicultural population and restaurants.
“As a local official, this is something I constantly struggle with,” he told the packed room after he listened in on more than an hour of discussion.
Ernst’s comments at that panel came one week after Amazon announced via its website it was seeking a new home for Amazon HQ2, a $5 billion new headquarters that promises 50,000 new jobs. The announcement sent cities across the country scrambling to make pitches. In Georgia, the state Economic Development Department submitted its bid proposals to Seattle on Oct. 19, the deadline set by Amazon.
Brookhaven’s idea of pitching the 41.5-acre Northeast Plaza strip center property as the new Amazon home was not among the state’s bids, Ernst said. Deciding to put a massive new corporate headquarters in the middle of Buford Highway does not appear to be a way to preserve the corridor’s roots and raised some eyebrows.
“That was one of our selling points,” Ernst said in response during a recent interview. “The diversity and the fact it is international … we were celebrating the corridor as a selling point for that.”
While the pitch eventually fell through, Ernst said it was not a total loss.
“It was a great exercise with the Economic Development Department to come up with a plan in such a short amount of time,” he said. “We knew it was an extreme long shot of getting it.”
City officials reached out to the owners of Northeast Plaza to seek a partnership to make the bid proposal to the state. The property owners declined, however, saying they have their own long-term redevelopment plans.
Gentrification and redevelopment, which can lead to the displacement of the many immigrants who work and live in the corridor, are threatening Buford Highway’s regional attraction as a multi-cultural corridor. Ongoing debates have led to numerous studies about how to maintain the cultural diversity of Buford Highway as new development comes in.
On the question of transparency and not seeking community input for trying to bring such a massive headquarters to Brookhaven, Ernst stated simply, “No economic development has much transparency … Because real estate deals can’t be talked about.”
While city officials have stated they want to be sensitive to gentrification coming to Buford Highway, Ernst said he and the council are facing an “extremely difficult scenario.”
“Gentrification is already occurring,” he said. “We’re trying to come up with a solution. We formed the Affordable Housing Task Force, we will probably do some kind of [zoning] overlay there. But the goal I have is how do we replace buildings and keep the people? It’s an extremely difficult scenario.”
At that Sept. 14 panel discussion, Ernst stepped forward to voice the difficult decisions and choices he, as a city elected official, has to make.
“I’ve lost 457 apartment units in the last three-and-a-half years,” he said. “The complexes … they’re going for $125,000 a door. In the last three years … Park Towne North [apartments], which probably had the lowest rent, has gone from $600 a month to $1,000 a month.”
The promise of a new Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven may spur even more gentrification, he said. The current Cross Keys High, which is vastly overcrowded and suffers from many maintenance issues, is set to become a middle school. A new high school is needed, but it will attract outsiders, he noted. No final site for the new high school has been officially decided.
“Do I support that or rail against that?” he said. “Do I [choose] to keep kids in horrendous conditions or advocate for money being spent for them?”
Affordability and preservation studies
The city last year formed an Affordable Housing Task Force to try to deal with, in part, the gentrification of Buford Highway as apartment complexes are torn down to make way for luxury townhomes.
“I very strongly believe in the preservation … of the city’s assets of Buford Highway and would not want its cultural diversity destroyed – that was one of the major issues on my mind when I proposed the Task Force,” said City Councilmember Linley Jones.
In July, the Task Force made its recommendations. To date, the city has made some small changes, including: translating zoning signs posted near Hispanic communities into Spanish; forwarding zoning information to Hispanic activists and organizations; holding meetings with city Community Development management, apartment tenants and community leaders to address specific concerns to apartments and zoning; and officially being named a “Welcoming City” to let people know the city is accepting of immigrants.
A lot of the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Task Force are part of, or depend on, the rewriting of the zoning ordinance, said city spokesperson Burke Brennan. “That process is underway and recommendations are being researched and incorporated as appropriate per council direction,” he said. “Similarly, the Zoning Rewrite and the Overlay District rewrite are both still underway and provide opportunities for integration of Affordable Housing recommendations.”
Jones declined to comment on the Amazon bid, as did Councilmember Joe Gebbia.
Jones did note the city has also partnered with a group of Georgia Tech graduate students currently working to come up with ways to ensure Buford Highway’s diversity survives. The creator of the Atlanta BeltLine, Ryan Gravel, also is teaching a studio class on Buford Highway at Georgia Tech in collaboration with We Love BuHi and its founder Marian Liou.
The Georgia Tech students hosted their first public meeting last month to garner input. Dale Boone, who is challenging Gebbia for the District 4 seat that includes Buford Highway, said in an interview his suggestions includes changing the name of Buford Highway in Brookhaven, perhaps to Brookhaven Boulevard. That way developers won’t be afraid of the “stigma” of Buford Highway, he said.
At the Sept. 14 panel discussion, Ernst was asked about the city changing Buford Highway’s name. He said that was not something he supported. The idea was part of a 2014 city-commissioned study of Buford Highway, but has not gained much public traction among council members.
Ernst did say a request by Pulte Homes to build a road through Briarwood Park to avoid a Buford Highway address for a proposed new neighborhood where the Terraces at Brookhaven and Northeast Plaza Apartments are currently located was rejected outright by the city.
“We denied it,” he said.
Ernst said developers approach him “all the time” about wanting to build on Buford Highway. He said “massive turnover and ownership” of the apartment complexes along Buford Highway mean that at some point owners are going to make a decision based solely on money and profit.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said. “No matter what decision I make, there will be change. Some will be positive, some will be negative.”