Photo credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
*This article is part of a 2-part series addressing the complexities and challenges of the recent decision of the DeKalb County School District to purchase the Shallowford Gardens apartment complex in order to relieve overcrowding in the Cross Keys cluster.
This first post covers the selection process for the new Cross Keys North Elementary School. The second post covers how DeKalb County School’s choice affects the community and their relationship with it. The second post also includes some ideas for moving forward and doing better next time.
I recently talked with DCSD officials about their search for property for the new elementary school I wrote about in my last post, and my understanding is that they were looking for a property that met the following criteria:
- Located in Chamblee or Doraville
- Single parcel of approximately 10 acres
- Sufficient land outside of floodplains
- Willing seller (strong preference for no eminent domain)
- Not in the flight path for Peachtree DeKalb (PDK) Airport
From what I have understood through conversations with district officials, DCSD looked at a number of properties. When they heard Shallowford Gardens was for sale, the school system quickly focused in on it.
I asked for written materials on these criteria and the property search, and I will update this post based on what I receive. I’ve also looked for current information on PDK’s flight paths, but I’ve only found dated information. If you have any information on DCSD’s search or their criteria, I would love to hear from you.
In this post I want to explore how DCSD’s property search may have yielded different results if they had engaged in a more comprehensive search process and been willing to assemble parcels and use eminent domain. I recognize that there are many factors that DCSD should consider when evaluating a property for a new school, especially when using commercial and industrial properties.
My ultimate argument is not that other properties would have certainly worked, that I know all the answers about which properties are best or that the alternatives below would be better than DCSD’s choice of the Shallowford Garden Apartments.
Instead, my argument is that their search appears to have been too narrow in scope and that too few options were seriously and thoroughly evaluated. There was also no public involvement in the site selection process, which I find troubling. (I know we had several meetings over the course of the past 2 years to address overcrowding, but I’m talking about a meeting that is explicitly dedicated to the site selection.)
Before deciding to knock down your students’ homes after promising those same students and their families new facilities to address long-term neglect of the Cross Keys Cluster, I think DCSD should have involved the public in the process, exhaustively explored other options and been able to provide clear, written and thorough explanations as to why alternative properties were not feasible.
For a great example of what I am envisioning, see a link to this site selection report from the Public Schools of Brookline, MA – https://www.brookline.k12.ma.us/cms/lib/MA01907509/Centricity/Domain/722/9th_School_Site%20Selection%20Study%20Report.pdf
I’ve done some very basic research on some site alternatives that could have been more thoroughly explored as part of a public process. I am flagging these for illustrative purposes, and I am sure there are many more sites DCSD staff and real estate professionals could have included on their list.
Alternative 1: Old Church Property
The main parcel pictured below is located at 5200 Buford Highway, and it is approximately 3.5 acres. According to tax records, this property is owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Advent. I don’t know how large the congregation is that meets here, but this should be part of the due diligence. Together with the neighboring parcels I’ve highlighted, which include some old and underutilized office buildings and an unused backlot of the Legacy North Apartments, there is about 9 acres of land. These parcels are across Shallowford Road from the apartments DCSD just purchased.
Alternative 2: Former Church Property
The main parcel below is located at 2605 Chamblee Tucker Rd. and is approximately 6.5 acres. This location is on Chamblee Tucker between Shallowford Rd. and I-85. The main parcel along with the two smaller parcels to the north are owned by a single developer who knocked down an old church and town homes to build new townhomes.
After the church was torn down, the land has remained vacant for some time now. I know these details because this was my old church, so it’s also only fair I include this property since I proposed tearing down another church property above. I’ve also included two single-family homes to the south for a total of 10+ acres. (I figure if DCSD can tear down 100 apartments, they could at least consider purchasing two single-family homes.)
Alternative 3: Abandoned Office Buildings
The main two parcels below are abandoned office buildings located at 5455 Buford Highway and 3678 Stewart Road near Buford Highway and I-285, and each of the properties south of Jesse Norman Way are +/- 2 acres.
To get enough space on this site, DCSD would need to obtain all of the parcels I’ve outlined and eliminate Jesse Norman Way. Doraville has some plans to rework the intersections in this area, including Clearview Ave, so part of the due diligence for this property would be determining whether DCSD’s plans for a new school and the city’s would complement one another.
There have also been some stormwater challenges at these properties that would have to be explored and mitigated. The blue line on the map is the headwaters of a creek that is currently piped under this site. If additional stormwater retention is needed, DCSD could consider buying the Waffle House and the other commercial property at the corner of Jesse Norman Way and Buford Highway.
Alternative 4: Everything But Halal Guys
The main parcel below is 4949 Buford Hwy, which is currently a Family Dollar near the intersection of Chamblee Tucker and Buford Highway; this parcel is approximately 4.5 acres. There are several other businesses in this area, many of which are vacant or have had a hard time attracting businesses with staying power. Together these parcels are more than 10 acres.
I’ve halfway jokingly proposed carving out the Halal Guys because even teachers have to eat, right? This school campus would be much like Chamblee High in that it’s surrounded on one side by commercial businesses and it’s near some busy intersections. I know this area is the focus of the draft BuHi LCI Plan dated June 2017, so some thought should be given to how using this property as a school may work into that plan.
I, of course, don’t know everything about these properties and others, but I can’t help but think that neither does DCSD — because it doesn’t seem like they exhausted the other options. I’ll probably still believe this until the district releases documents with their due diligence.
DeKalb Schools jumped at the Shallowford Gardens opportunity, but before tearing down students’ homes, a better process should have been conducted.
My next blog post in this series will discuss the special relationship and the trust that should exist between a community and its school district. It will also explore how — even with the massive redevelopment occurring along the Buford Highway corridor (and in many other places in Metro Atlanta and other cities across the country) — a school district should not be a part of the displacement of families within their system.
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