Quality of life was a major theme in Buckhead in 2019, from such perennial issues as ever-increasing commuter traffic and crime to such unusual situations as a “party mansion.” Also in the news were the interconnected issues of Atlanta Public Schools leadership and tax breaks for luxury real estate projects. 2020 will be the year some of those issues shake out and new policies may emerge.

Atlanta Public Schools leadership

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. (Special)

Controversy erupted in September when the Atlanta Board of Education confirmed it would not renew Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract. At various community meetings, Carstarphen drew support from Buckhead residents and made it clear she’d like to keep the job – at one point saying she was “called here by God” – while not ruling out a run for elected office. With Carstarphen’s contract expiring June 30, whether the board will find a way to keep her or bring in a new superintendent will be one of the big local decisions in 2020.

Tax breaks in the spotlight

State Sen. Jen Jordan, center, discusses property tax reform at the Nov. 14 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting where the new Taxes/TADs Task Force debuted its work. Looking on, from left, are BCN Chair Mary Norwood, Atlanta City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland and Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris. (John Ruch)

Buckhead help to put a critical spotlight on tax incentives for high-end real estate developments as part of a citywide push by activists and elected officials. The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods formed a “task force” to study and make policy recommendations about tax breaks and commercial collections, which will continue into the new year. The Development Authority of Fulton County, which hands out some of the tax breaks and now has Buckhead resident Tom Tidwell as a board member, said no to a major project on East Paces Ferry Road. And various local officials say they will propose legislation that may change the authority to make tax breaks and shift more of the revenue burden onto commercial property owners.

The ‘Battle of Atlanta’ Cyclorama painting is unveiled

Visitors view information about the “Battle of Atlanta” painting on a touch-screen at the ground level of the display.

The Atlanta History Center’s historic Cyclorama painting of the Civil War’s “Battle of Atlanta” went on display in a new wing following a two-year restoration. The unveiling drew national media attention and widespread acclaim for the surrounding exbibit about the war’s myths and realities. In 2020, the center will debut another major presentation: a remade version of its exhibit about the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.

The return of Mary Norwood

Mary Norwood, left, explains the Atlanta City Council structure and process to a resident after the Jan. 10 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting. (John Ruch)

After losing the bruising 2017 mayoral election, Mary Norwood cemented her political comeback in 2019 by winning the position of chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations. She ran the organization much like a city council, producing policy “resolutions” on such issues as transportation and crime. Norwood secured reelection to the position, ensuring she can keep a public profile into 2020.

Holy Spirit’s campus plan draws fire

A crowd gathered at Holy Spirit to hear about the expansion plan and weigh in. (John Ruch)

A controversy that began in late 2018 over Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School’s campus expansion plan from Buckhead into Sandy Springs boiled over in 2019. At a tense community meeting in April, some residents said they might sue over an old legal agreement that might ban the project, while Holy Spirit revealed it had considered libel lawsuits against neighbors who put up yard signs opposing them. By mid-year, the proposal had dropped out of the city review process, but may yet return.

Sidewalk safety gets attention

The tour on Peachtree Road, where those joining including, at center rear, City Council President Felicia Moore. (John Ruch)

The safety of pedestrians and wheelchair-users on local sidewalks got official attention, though not always immediate solutions. The Georgia Department of Transportation’s decision to move some power poles into the sidewalk on Peachtree Road drew debate and highlighted jurisdictional disputes, as did new negotiations over a five-year-long streetlight outage on Sidney Marcus Boulevard at Buford Highway. In October, a group of Atlanta City Council members, state traffic engineers and other officials took a mile-long wheelchair ride on Peachtree Road to see hazards of existing conditions and of motorized scooters.

Growing green space

Part of the new PATH400 section.

Green spaces grew in Buckhead, with the opening of a new PATH400 multiuse trail segment in October and the formation of a friends group for the new Loridans Greenspace park on Loridans Drive. Coming soon is the addition of a trail to another community park, Mountain Way Common.

Traffic and transit

A Via-operated on-demand shuttle van in Arlington, Texas, as shown in a promotional video.

Ever-increasing commuter traffic sparked many local discussions, including a new effort to replace the “buc” shuttle in the business area with an Uber-style, on-demand van that would serve anyone. Livable Buckhead issued a study that proposed improving and stabilizing affordable housing as a way to cut commuter traffic by letting Buckhead employees live closer to work. An effort to bring an experimental self-driving shuttle to Lenox Square mall, however, was brushed aside by skeptical business leaders.

Party mansion opens, and shuts, again

The 4499 Garmon Road mansion and estate as it appears in an aerial photo from Fulton County property records.

Massive parties at a palatial mansion on Garmon Road, once home to music star Kenny Rogers, drew major controversy in 2018 until a zoning citation appeared to end the noise and traffic complaints. But this summer, the parties were back under a new operator. This time, the city went nuclear with the response, getting a court order banning commercial events there and hitting the operator with citations that resulted in a $7,500 fine and a 30-day jail sentence. The city is now working on legislation to further crack down on “party houses,” which may emerge next year.

Finger-pointing on crime

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

Concerns about Buckhead crime – largely involving car break-ins and residential burglaries – caused finger-pointing among local officials. At Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ crowded town hall in Buckhead in February, Police Chief Erika Shields blamed prosecutors and courts for letting criminals off the hook. Prosecutors and courts said most of the criticisms weren’t true. The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods backed such local efforts as an “adopt-a-judge” program to press for tougher sentences. Meanwhile, the former police commander said residents could help reduce car breaks by not leaving guns and other valuables in their vehicles. A new commander for Buckhead’s Zone 2 precinct, Maj. Andrew Senzer, took over in November and promised a “zero-tolerance” approach to crime hotspots.

John Ruch

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