Five years ago this month, the new city of Brookhaven began a journey down its own path. It’s been a sometimes rocky road, but marked with major milestones, and as former mayors look ahead, they see success on the horizon.
During its first five years, the new city has paved roads, improved parks and set up a police force, and also has begun efforts to create affordable housing, to update zoning codes to deal with rapid development and to take the first steps toward establishing the long-dreamed-about Peachtree Creek Greenway trail and park system.
“We’re on our way to becoming a model city for others to look to,” Mayor John Ernst said. “We’re finding ways to be innovative and showing the region ways to do things better.”
The battle for cityhood began in 2010, with the formation of a group called Citizens for North DeKalb. Then the group “Brookhaven Yes” was formed to lobby their state representatives, notably former state Rep. Mike Jacobs, over their desire to have a local government to take over some services from DeKalb County. The county government, they argued, did not adequately represent them or provide services commensurate with the taxes the community paid.
“I was initially opposed to [cityhood],” said J. Max Davis, the city’s first mayor and the chair of the Brookhaven Yes movement. “My inclination was to not be in favor for what I thought would be more government.”
But when he realized that he and other residents were willing to pay for private security to provide protection in their neighborhoods, he had an epiphany that tax money could be used to fund a city police force.
“We weren’t getting the coverage from DeKalb police we wanted. The higher-ups were not assigning officers to patrol our area,” he said.
When a police lieutenant told him that DeKalb police probably would not be able to provide the coverage he wanted, Davis felt he had no choice but to support the creation of the city of Brookhaven, he said. “I think that was the real impetus to support cityhood for many people — having real security,” he said.
A cityhood vote
Creating Brookhaven wasn’t an easy sale, however. In 2012, after state legislators approved a vote on the new city, residents split roughly 55 percent to 45 percent in the vote to create Brookhaven. The new city came into existence in December of 2012.
The city covered some 12 square miles from I-85 to I-285, where it bordered Dunwoody, another new city set to celebrate 10 years of existence in 2018. (After an annexation, Brookhaven now extends south of I-85 into an area where Executive Park and the North Druid Hills campus of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are located.)
During the debate over whether to create a city of Brookhaven, heated “Brookhaven Yes” and “Brookhaven No” campaigns formed. One of Ernst’s main campaign promises when he took office in 2016 was to find ways to unite the two.
“When I got elected, there was no ‘Yes Brookhaven’ or ‘No Brookhaven,’” Ernst said. “We are just Brookhaven. We’ve moved on from that and are running a city now.”
There may be a little bitterness left behind. “There’s still one person on Osborne Road with a ‘Brookhaven No’ sign,” Davis said with a chuckle.
“People of both sides of the cityhood issues came together really well,” Davis said. “In the beginning there was still some of that suspicion … and there are still some negative nellies out there. But I’ve noticed after about a year, especially with the police, that rancor dying down.”
For Rebecca Chase Williams, the city’s second mayor, the first five years “have gone by so fast.”
“I look back and see so many accomplishments and have this overwhelming sense of pride,” she said.
“We’ve lowered taxes, we’ve paved roads, our parks are vastly improved, zoning and planning is done closer to home,” she said. “All the promises we made, we’ve kept.”
Williams became mayor in 2015 after Davis resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for the seat representing District 80 in the state House of Representatives.
“Part of our challenge is that Brookhaven is already a popular and wonderful place to live and lots of people and developers are coming in,” she added. “We don’t want to infringe on the great quality of life … and so there is work to be done in finding that balance of growth and quality of life.”
The city’s first five years include some rocky moments. Davis was accused of sexual harassment for allegedly spraying aerosol at a female colleague.
The city attorney was dismissed after some city officials said he tried to help cover up the accusation against Davis.
Residents have packed City Hall in red shirts demanding city officials prohibit certain kinds of new development, including the proposed Brookhaven-Oglethorpe MARTA transit-oriented development (the city did agree to pause that) as well as planned mixed-used developments along thriving Dresden Drive (the council has approved one and denied another; both are currently locked in litigation.)
When Ernst took over as mayor in 2016, one of his and the council’s first tasks was to dismiss former city manager Marie Garrett over a contract dispute. Garrett had been with the city since it was founded.
“The whole thing with J. Max was a sad episode,” Williams said. “And I was sorry to see how all that ended with Marie. She was a great city manager for a start-up city.”
But, Ernst said, he and the council don’t look back and only look forward to keeping the promises that were the foundation of forming the city.
Police, parks and paving are the “three Ps” many cities and municipalities promise to spend their residents’ tax dollars on, and Brookhaven’s government continues to make those areas a priority, Ernst said. “Our paving schedule is aggressive. We have some of the best-paved roads in the region,” Ernst said.
A green future
The new Peachtree Creek Greenway, a linear park that is expected to connect Brookhaven to Chamblee and Doraville as well as PATH400 on Buckhead and eventually to the Atlanta BeltLine, is set to break ground early next year.
The police department has bumped up the number of its officers from a beginning of 54 to 74 now, and a new citizens’ patrol is in the works.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta selected Brookhaven as the home for its new massive hospital complex at the I-85 and North Druid Hills Road interchange, and promises to invest millions of its own money on traffic improvements in the area.
City officials also praise the “halo effect” CHOA will bring to the surrounding area, especially along Buford Highway, where it is expected new medical-related businesses will pop up. Across the street from CHOA is Executive Park, recently purchased by Emory University. Although Emory hasn’t revealed its plans for Executive Park, city officials expect it to complement the CHOA medical complex. The area also includes a brand new, state-of the-art Atlanta Hawks practice facility that’s a partnership with Emory Healthcare.
City Hall is currently located in a leased building on Peachtree Road. Ernst said that finding a permanent City Hall building is not a main priority of his current term, but there are plans to use some $15 million in new Special Local Option Sales Tax funds to pay for a new police department and municipal court, perhaps to remain located on Buford Highway.
Williams said she expects the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe MARTA station redevelopment to come back before the City Council in the next five years, if not sooner. “And I hope we go forward in a way in which both sides benefit,” she said.
All three mayors agree the first five years included a great deal of planning: a parks master plan; a bike and pedestrian master plan; determining a fair way to pave roads; funding the Peachtree Creek Greenway; coming up with an affordable housing task force; a character-area study for residents to discuss how they want to see their neighborhoods preserved; and a citywide zoning rewrite designed to better handle the rapid development of one of the hottest cites in metro Atlanta.
“I think the next five years are going to be terribly exciting,” Williams said. “We have wonderful master plans, which was a long process. The real challenge is paying for them all and setting priorities.”
Davis said when Brookhaven was started, there was no guidebook and a lot of lessons had to be learned. He hopes the city continues to work to have its own school system and admits disappointment that the state charter school known as Brookhaven Innovation Academy decided this year to make its permanent home in Chamblee after not finding a location within Brookhaven.
“We have to keep trying,” he said. “Economic development is inherently tied to quality education. We didn’t seize on [the new school], but I hope in the future we can.”
Rather than its charter school, Brookhaven will be the home of the new John Lewis Elementary School, now going up where Skyland Park was once located. A new, smaller Skyland Park is being built adjacent to the school using the money the DeKalb County School District paid for the property.
“We got a brand-new park and an extra $1.7 million that we’ve leveraged to buy more green space,” Ernst said. That includes 33 acres of former DeKalb-Peachtree Airport land expected to open in January as a city park including walking trails.
“I think a lot of good planning was done in the first few years and now we are in the building stages and moving forward to keep those promises,” Ernst said. “We are getting the job done on what we set out to do.”