My family moved to Decatur in 2013 because it is a wonderful place to live. Great schools, good restaurants, a MARTA station and a grocery store all within walking distance. We enjoy the Arts Festival, the Book Festival and the other events that liven up the town. And having Decatur High School within a 5- to 10-minute walk through the Square definitely was a plus.
Walking was how I became active in Decatur civic life, through frequent strolls from our home in the Artisan Condominiums to the Little Kroger. At the time, the scenery consisted of empty surface parking lots, some challenging sidewalks and a few intersections that were not very welcoming to pedestrians (and still aren’t).
But I was inspired by the words of George Bernard Shaw, frequently quoted by my former employer, Congressman John Lewis. “Some people see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were, and say ‘Why not?’” Instead of seeing asphalt, I began dreaming a park.
I also knew about the development that was coming. Within three years Downtown Decatur would have 600 new apartments and a new hotel. I appreciate the need to have enough downtown residents to support retail and promote vibrant and safe street life. But I know from twenty-five years of experience in promoting smart growth that density alone is not a solution. You need to consider transportation, pedestrian safety, stormwater and public spaces. 600 apartments is 600 families without yards – residents who need a place to walk their dog, take their kids or simply relax under the shade of a tree. Ideally, they could walk there – downtown traffic already is challenging enough.
I began advocating for a Downtown Park on the land south of Commerce between Clairmont and Church. And to help move this vision forward, I helped found the Downtown Decatur Neighbors. We rallied residents, made a presentation before the City Commission, but the park remains a dream.
Along the way, we realized that Downtown Decatur needs a plan. Parks and greenspace are only part of the solution. We need to integrate transportation, crosswalks, parking and parks while revisiting the amount of density we want in Decatur. Existing zoning allows 80’ tall buildings on nearly all of the land inside Commerce Drive, as well as the West Ponce Corridor extending to the First Christian Church and the Church Street Corridor extending past the Bell Street entrance to the cemetery.
With more than 700 new apartments currently under construction in Decatur, and more than 200 slated to be built on the land where we once advocated for a park, it is time for Decatur to put a pause on new multi-family development. It is time to pause and plan. And we should plan not just what we want Decatur to look like, but we can explore ways to incorporate affordable housing solutions into any new development – and take steps to make that happen.
As Commissioner, this will be my top priority.