In a virtual speech in Buckhead April 12, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressed crime concerns that have drawn challengers for her reelection and sparked legislation to turn the neighborhood into its own separate city. Bottoms blasted Buckhead cityhood as a non-solution to crime while acknowledging she is delaying a search for a permanent police chief in part to avoid election-year “political fodder.”
“In creating a new city, you’re not building a wall around the city,” Bottoms said in a virtual appearance before the Buckhead Rotary Club. “You’re not locking residents in and keeping everyone out. It doesn’t address crime. The way that we address crime is to continue to work together as we have done for decades, as a city, as one city.”
Speaking in her first Buckhead Rotary appearance in three years, Bottoms also shed light on some other hot local issues. She took a step back on controversial policy proposals to allow more accessory dwelling units in areas zoned for single-family residences, suggesting the idea could be rejected by individual neighborhoods. And she indicated that part of the problem behind a confusing pandemic-related change in recycling pickup is employees who refuse to take COVID-19 vaccinations.
Of the accessory dwelling unit issue, Bottoms said, “I’m not sure it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all around Atlanta,” but rather could be a chance “to do some tweaking… [in] neighborhoods that are amenable and appropriate” for the expansion of such housing.
Crime and cityhood
Bottoms’ responses to two of last year’s national phenomena — a rise in violent crime and protests about racism and police brutality — have been controversial locally. The cityhood movement and a “Buckhead Security Plan” developed by private business organizations and the Atlanta Police Foundation are among the results.
Bottoms placed Buckhead and Atlanta crime in the national context and attributed it to mental and social pressures of the pandemic.
“We are experiencing what I call a COVID crime wave,” she said. “… I’ve heard some say it’s an excuse when you say it’s happening everywhere. It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact.”
Citing her own crime-fighting plan, Bottoms said she has spoken directly with President Biden about crime and that he agrees about the pandemic being a factor. She said she expects the city to receive about $178 million in money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and that the Biden administration will allow it to be spent with “flexibility,” including on public safety.
Political flashpoints in last year’s crime and policing controversies were Bottoms’ responses to two incidents where Atlanta Police Department officers used force that hurt or killed civilians. One was an incident where officers broke into a car and used Tasers on two college students alleged to be violating a curfew; Bottoms ordered the firing of the officers. And Bottoms’ quick condemnation of the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown led to the resignation of locally popular Police Chief Erika Shields and involved a temporary tolerance of armed protesters near the shooting site. That tolerance ended with the shooting death of a child in a passing vehicle.
Bottoms briefly addressed some of those controversies, saying APD ranks had shrunken and added that “on top of that, I made a decision to fire officers that I felt needed to be fired. My understanding is that really was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, that the straw was the indictment of the officers. This is all anecdotal. Everyone has their own opinion.”
Shields’ temporary replacement as chief is Rodney Bryant, a recently retired APD commander who came back at Bottoms’ request. Questioned by a concerned resident, Bottoms acknowledged that she is delaying a search for a permanent chief, while pushing back on the effect on policing and crime.
“The short answer is no. I cannot say when a new police chief will be named,” Bottoms said when asked whether a search process is underway. One reason for the delay, she said, is that many cities nationwide are searching for chiefs, so recruitment is more difficult than usual. “And secondly, this is an election year…. I don’t want it to become political fodder,” Bottoms added of the search process.
She said she is “very pleased” with Bryant’s work and that he has agreed to remain in the job as long as she wants, including the possibility of being the permanent chief. “Let me be clear, Rodney Bryant serving as the interim police chief is not the reason we are having an uptick in crime in the city,” Bottoms said.
Bottoms acknowledged the effect of crime concerns, as well as pandemic-related pressures, in spawning the effort to make Buckhead its own city. “It has caused us in many ways to be very uncomfortable as a city because we’ve endured many challenges as a city. But I can tell you that the solution to this is not to create a city of Buckhead,” she said, adding that such an effort is a “very expensive proposition” with such questions as the establishment of a new school system.
“I can tell you that the city of Atlanta very much values Buckhead,” Bottoms said. “We very much consider Buckhead a part of the city of Atlanta, and an important part of the city of Atlanta. And it has never been any intention from me personally or from our administration not to provide Buckhead with the services and the protection that it needs, just as we do across the city of Atlanta.”
Buckhead has been a hot spot of public criticism of “Atlanta City Design Housing,” a zoning-reform policy document that calls for increasing the supply and affordability of housing to handle growth and to address historic segregation, of which Buckhead offers several key examples. Among other items, it calls for allowing small apartment buildings in neighborhoods near transit stations, and additional or accessory dwelling units — like basement apartments or rear-yard houses — in all single-family zones.
Bottoms acknowledged the criticism and suggested that public input would determine how the policy translates into ordinances in specific neighborhoods. “I live in a planned subdivision that didn’t contemplate multifamily housing, so it is part of the public process that we’ll look at [regarding] what can be done to make Atlanta more affordable,” said Bottoms. “How can we do it without compromising the integrity and expectations of some neighborhoods?”
Kevin Glass, the head of Buckhead’s Atlanta International School, told Bottoms that “the lack of affordable housing Buckhead is certainly an issue for us,” as many AIS employees can’t afford to live there. AIS has been involved in a recent controversy over a proposed luxury townhome development across the street from its Garden Hills site.
Bottoms acknowledged the city is well behind on its goal of preserving or creating 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026, with about 6,000 at this point. But, she said, various policies and programs underway are inching ahead, including an affordable housing trust fund established as part of the agreement for the redevelopment of the Gulch area downtown.
Pandemic and All-Star Game debate
Another pandemic effect has been a staggered schedule for recycling and yard-waste pickup, established in February, that has confused and irritated many residents. City officials previously said the change was because the city Public Works Department was struggling with staff levels due to employees out sick with COVID-19 or quarantined due to exposure. Questioned at the Rotary meeting, Bottoms said those factors remain, but also that “we’re having challenges with some of our employees accepting vaccinations.”
She said one reason she chose to get her first vaccination in public recently was to encourage city employees to follow suit. She said the city had considered using a private contractor to conduct the recycling and yard-waste pickup, but did not explain why that option has not been used.
On another hot-button topic, Bottoms restated her position on Major League Baseball’s withdrawal of the All-Star Game and draft from metro Atlanta due to controversy over a package of voting reforms recently passed by the General Assembly’s Republican majority and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp. MLB agreed with critics who call it oriented toward voter suppression and fueled by former President Trump’s conspiracy theories about the presidential election. Bottoms called the withdrawal “unfortunate because we know that economic recovery is needed in our state” and that it is hopefully not “the first of many things that we will lose in our state.” She said she hopes the legislature and Kemp will consider reviewing the law.