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Proposed Atlanta United training facility site has controversial history with gentrification

Atlanta United left Dekalb County for Marietta, adding itself to the story of "redevelopment" on Franklin Road.

Some people will tell you Franklin Road was a bad neighborhood.

The city of Marietta will definitely tell you that Franklin Road was a bad neighborhood. It was also home to 14,000 residents in a one mile stretch of local highway, near I-75.

Like many urban areas, it was crowded and a lack of investment had allowed it to fall on hard times. It was also home to a population of mostly African-American and Hispanic-American minorities.

Despite trying for close to two decades to renew the area in the Franklin Road corridor, eventually the voters of Marietta passed a bond measure giving $68 million in taxpayer money to the city for the purpose of "redeveloping" the corridor. With some of that money, the city purchased three apartment complexes [a total of 1,300 units] on Franklin Road for the purpose of demolishing them. In order to do so residents were relocated, without monetary assistance, by the city, although they could stay until their leases ended.

The bond measure was divisive, and remains so to this day. The vote at the time was 2,740 in favor of the measure, with 2,307 against.

City officials that spoke to Dirty South Soccer still believe the citizens voting for the deal was the right move, while opponents say that history has shown their fears to be true, especially regarding the relocation of low-income family, many of whom were minorities.

Calls to the Marietta mayor's office and city council officials were not returned for this story.

Now, Atlanta United is hurrying to finalize a deal that will see a new training facility on land cleared from two of the aging apartment complexes. The Marietta City Council will vote tonight, Nov. 11, on the deal, less than one week after a deal for a site in Dekalb County fell apart. According to reports about the deal, Atlanta United will pay a nominal lease for the land and use their own money to develop the property.

Atlanta United would not comment on the Franklin Road site until the vote by the Marietta City Council was finalized.

"The Marietta City Council will be presented with the vote to approve the MOU for the Atlanta United training complex on Wednesday," Darren Eales, Atlanta United President, said in a statement provided to DSS.

"Until that time we will respect the city’s approval process and look forward to the outcome of the vote."

After winning the bond measure vote in 2013, Marietta Mayor Steve "Thunder" Tumlin said that the city had been trying to redevelop the Franklin Road Corridor "for over 25 years." He applauded the measure passed by his constituents and told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "the potential in that area is unbelievable."

Originally, Franklin Road was an area in unincorporated Cobb County populated by the titular Franklin family. The clan had lived the area since 1880, and despite starting to sell land to developers in the 1940s, maintained a presence on the corridor until the 1980s. Around that time the city of Marietta, attempting to capture tax revenue from the bustling corridor, annexed the area

Like many urban areas, it was crowded and a lack of investment had allowed it to fall on hard times. It was also home to a population of mostly African-American and Hispanic-American minorities.-

By the 1970s, the area of Marietta would be described as "the place to be," for those moving into the city. The area boasted investment with high-end apartments and strip malls and other businesses in the area. It was a suburban rejuvenation for Franklin Road.

Two and half decades later, the corridor began to slip. By the end of the 1990s, the area was known to be overcrowded, with aging infrastructure, and little investment to go with it. Perception of the neighborhood began to change, and media coverage tended to focus on crimes in the area while lamenting a neighborhood in decline.

"Franklin Road's decline is typical of aging apartment complexes around metro Atlanta," Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said to the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2000.

"People move in and tell their friends about it. That's how it works. And the character of a neighborhood can change pretty quickly. Transitional neighborhoods tend to have higher crime areas. People don't know each other. No one knows you. It's easier to get away with stuff."

As crime began to be reported, one murder stood out. Debbi Merrill-Dunn was a 27-year-old exotic dancer living on Franklin Road in 2000. A gunman, looking for someone else, came in and shot her door 11 times, killing Dunn. The killing was profiled in the local newspaper, bringing more attention to the area.

It is no surprise that in 2001, the Marietta City Council seat in Ward 7, which contained Franklin Road, was contested for the first time in two decades. Philip Goldstein, the incumbent, staved off the challenger, but Franklin Road had been brought to the attention of the city council and citizens were paying attention.

Goldstein's challenger Brian Waugh ran on a platform that included redeveloping Franklin Road, saying the city needed fresh blood on the council.

"Franklin Road has a lot of issues that have been left unaddressed," Waugh told the AJC.

"I just feel like it's time for a change."

By 2003, then Marietta mayor Bill Dunaway, began discussing potential bond measures to use in the area to spur redevelopment. One plan included taking ideas from students in Southern Polytechnic State University to help the city think "outside the box."

The next redevelopment plan the Marietta City Council and Cobb County officials put into action was to create a Tax Allocation District to help the city. This plan was rejected by the school board.

In 2006, local resident Angela Smith helped the Franklin Corridor win a "Weed & Seed" grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. This would mark as the beginning of federal and local grant money trickling into Franklin Road to help make the community safer. These investments were thought to attract businesses to the area and revitalize it.

The initial grant poured $175,000 into the area, and an additional $200,000 came the following year. Smith ran an apartment complex on the corridor and was seen as a safe-haven in area. Smith started a Boys & Girls club there and turned two old tennis courts into a soccer field.

After the federal grant came in, Dunaway announced a potential deal with a developer  fix four properties in the area in January 2007. By May 2007 the deal had fallen apart.

The area saw a large uptick in police presence, paid for in a large part by the Federal Weed & Seed money. Tough on crime tactics led to a number of arrests. For many residents, it was a welcome relief to the area, and started to help get things back on track to normal community life.

"It is a totally amazing change," Angela Smith told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

"It is a whole lot safer. I like to walk, and now I feel safe, even when I walk at night."

On top of having an increased policing presence, the community worked with law enforcement to begin a Police Athletic League in soccer to help reach local children. The PLA was also funded in part by Federal Weed & Seed money. Practices took place on the new soccer field at the Las Colinas apartment complex. Over the next few years, a marked reduction in crime was noticed by residents and police officers alike, and the over $800,000 poured into the Weed & Seed fund seemed to be working.

In 2009, the City of Marietta approved a $25 million bond to develop parks in the city. $2.7 million of that money was used to demolish the Preston Chase Apartment complex on Franklin Road in the hopes to build a park in the corridor.

This would mark as the beginning of federal and local grant money trickling into Franklin Road to help make the community safer. -

For the first time in about a decade, the city was bullish on Franklin Road and positive about a redevelopment. The PAL had grown to include other sports such as swimming and martial arts, and include other activities such as ballet and tutoring.

Even Mayor Dunaway, who was looking for developers to purchase apartment complexes in the ara, could not deny that the Weed & Seed grant was making real, tangible progress.

"It has been a real godsend for the people that live on Franklin Road," Dunaway told the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 2010

"It has really improved the whole area and I think more importantly it has improved the mood of the people there."

That would change in the next few years.

The momentum gained from 2007-2010 would only last for another year. The Weed & Seed grant lasted for five years meaning the money eventually stopped coming in, which could have led to an end to much of the progress made in the Franklin Road area. The Franklin Road Community Association attempted to keep up programs funded by the federal grant. The faltering Franklin Road Business Association provided no assistance.

Steve "Thunder" Tumlin was elected in 2010 as mayor, and by 2012 the city was looking at new solutions for the area.

By 2013, the city proposed the infamous bond measure, which would be used to tear down three apartment complexes, seen as almost a "last resort" by the city.

In April 2013, Tumlin told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that, "as is, Franklin Road is undervalued and underused."

"To come from the ashes, you have to get it down to the ashes. With revitalization, you have to retrench first and then go forward. It is an investment," Tumlin said.

The bond was estimated to raise $35 million, but an increase in property values caused the property-tax backed bonds to swell to $68 million at the time of the city-wide referendum.

The Cobb County Taxpayers Association campaigned vigorously in opposition to the deal, saying the city of Marietta should not use taxpayer money to bet on real estate developments. The proposed developments could result in shortfalls that would leave taxpayers on the hook for the bill.

DSS caught up with Lance Lamberton, one of the leaders of the CCTA, to get his perspective on how the project-bore out and whether he felt it was worth it.

"I think that history has shown our predictions and concerns [to be right] because the amount of land that was purchased with the money is far less than what was promised, and they still have a long way to go," Lamberton told DSS.

"You were disrupting the lives of people that live there that haven’t done anything wrong other than the fact that they just happen to live on Franklin road.

"I just don’t like the way that poor people were pushed aside for economic development which may or may not pan out."

After securing the $68 million in bonds, the City of Marietta demolished three apartment buildings for the sake of redevelopment, and to reduce the number of available apartment units in the area. Two of the apartment buildings were demolished in 2014, with the city purchasing the third this year. The land from apartments demolished in 2014 could become the training facility for Atlanta United. If a deal does not go through the land will remain unused until the city of Marietta can find a developer.

City and county officials believe that despite the lack of progress in redeveloping the torn-down apartments, the "halo effect" of the whole area, which now includes a 200,000 square foot Technology Center owned by Home Depot, the company Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank helped found, and the renovation of numerous hotels.

"I think if the Atlanta United soccer deal goes through it will bring back retail to the corridor not only for new people and for existing people that live there that don’t have a lot of options."-Beth Sessoms

Cobb County Commissioner from District 2 Bob Ott has helped advise the city of Marietta on the Franklin Road redevelopment project, and tells DSS that everything that has happened in the past two years is "an improvement over what was there." Ott would not go into detail whether or not he supported the current Atlanta United deal because of how quickly the situation has changed.

I know the city has been working real hard, and as the district commissioner of that general area I’ve tried to work with them on you know trying to improve the areas," Ott said.

"I don't know the particulars of [the Atlanta United deal], but replacing some of the aging apartments that they did with new development and things that will bring people into the area, and get some restaurants in there, I think all of that is a positive."

Beth Sessoms, the Economic Development Manager from Marietta, told DSS that the "50% reduction in crime" shown in the area speaks for itself, despite the challenges the demolition of apartment complexes faced.

The City of Marietta was not able to provide exact statistics on the relocation of citizens from the three apartment complexes due to time constraints, but said that all residents were able to stay past their leases so that they could find new housing, and that "ample time" was given to all residents despite neither financial help nor direct assistance provided from the city.

Sessoms said that data was available for only around 50% of the residents of the apartments, as many left in the middle of the night or declined to share where they were moving to the Marietta Housing Authority. She added that many of the ones who did report moved to other apartments on Franklin Road, or moved somewhere else in Marietta. Some residents did move out of the city and state entirely.

"I think if the Atlanta United soccer deal goes through it will bring back retail to the corridor not only for new people and for existing people that live there that don’t have a lot of options," Sessoms told DSS.

"We’ve lost a lot a lot of jobs because of the crime issue, companies have left that area and now they are starting to come back. It is going to take time to further improve the area, but its definitely headed in the right direction."

Lamberton, for all the talk put out by the city, remains unconvinced that leasing Atlanta United some of the land bought from the city using taxpayer money will help the corridor.

If you're saying the soccer complex is leased at a nominal price then who is going to make up the difference," Lamberton said.

"How much was the land sold for to the city, and then you look at the differential between the two then who’s holding the bag?"

Sessoms believes that the resources the city of Marietta is pouring into Franklin Road, combined with the projects that have already taken hold, will bring long-term stability to the region, even if not all the money is made back from the bonds.

"The leaders recognized that they are not going to make back what they have invested in [Franklin Road], but the halo effect of making people feel safer in the area and providing jobs, and companies will move back in, will make Franklin Road a safe place for residents," Sessoms said.

"The city felt like Franklin Road has been a challenge for years, and yes, they felt like they had to do something even if it may not be the perfect answer.

"You have seen that by the reduction in crime, and yes, we still have crime over there but it is definitely getting better. Like anything when you’ve got a problem you have to address it, and that’s what the citizens of Marietta voted to do and they passed the bond."

So now, the city council will vote on the Atlanta United training facility, and "redevelopment" will continue along Franklin Road. An idea that began in the late 1990s is finally under the city's control, and another chapter gets added to the proposed revitalization of Franklin Road.