As the city goes into an “active listening” phase, as Mayor John Ernst calls it, amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality that came to Brookhaven last month, it continues with redevelopment plans along Buford Highway, where input from the renowned immigrant community is a longstanding challenge.

The risk of displacing that community with skyscrapers and other higher-end uses is one of the city’s biggest policy puzzles — and, experts say, part of a pattern of metro Atlanta’s systemic racism.

Some activists said the inclusionary efforts by the city have improved in the past couple years, citing more pamphlets available in English and Spanish and the hiring of a Spanish-speakig community liaison. But they question the effect on meaningful input and final plans.

Ernst said the city does systematic outreach to “meet residents where they’re at” to include diverse voices in planning. However, he has struggled for years to balance gentrification and redevelopment with the needs of the Buford Highway’s diverse immigrant community.

A development concept for highrise buildings at Buford Highway and North Druid Hills Road from a recently approved city conceptual study. (Special)

The city is considering a multiuse complex on Buford Highway near North Druid Hills Road to complement the already underway construction of multibillion-dollar Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory Executive Park healthcare complexes. The concept plans, presented during the May 26 council meeting, show skyscrapers built where a popular Cuban cafe, the Havana Sandwich Shop, now serves customers.

Ernst said the plan is based on an affordable housing zoning rewrite and the 2014 Buford Highway Improvement Plan, both of which were driven by resident input. Brookhaven’s population is 27% Latino, according to city statistics, with much of that community living on Buford Highway.

Marco Palma, the president of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, a nonprofit advocating for tenant rights, said he appreciates Brookhaven’s inclusionary efforts but doesn’t think it’s enough.

Marco Palma, president of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway. (File)

“As new development happens, a lot of the working class people here won’t be able to afford the rent,” said Palma, who worries about residents who don’t get input in development plans.

Efforts for affordable housing Brookhaven pioneered a citywide inclusionary zoning ordinance to make affordable housing a requirement. The zoning code, adopted in November 2018, requires any approved special land use permit or rezoning for a multi-unit residential housing project to make 10% of the residential units priced at “workforce housing” rates.

That solution was decided on after the Affordable Housing Task Force studied the issue for several months. However, Palma said he hasn’t noticed any benefits from the task force or the new zoning.

For the zoning ordinance, the city used federal income data collected in the Census to determine the area’s median income. Ernst said the city used the median income from the Census block, which are small geographical areas used to understand a population’s demographics, instead of using the median income for the entire city or metro Atlanta area. Ernst said that allows the city to more accurately portray the income levels.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

“You put in policies now that affect the next 20 or 30 years,” said Ernst, who said the city hasn’t seen many people coming or up-zoning in the last couple years. “These things aren’t immediate.”

Palma said the median income number does not accurately portray the income of a lot of Buford Highway residents because people in the area do not fill out the Census, either because they are undocumented immigrants, there is a language barrier, or there is no outreach. Therefore, Palma said, the city’s evaluation of the median income of the area is much higher than what residents actually make.

The city could work on being more specific in where it allocates its resources and asking residents what they need or want, Palma said. For example, he said it would be helpful to have a Spanish-speaking code enforcement officer so people can complain more easily if their landlords do not do upkeep on the complex. He also said addressing or facilitating apartment maintenance would help residents.

However, Palma said, the city has not done active outreach to listen to Buford Highway residents and could include their voices from the beginning of city planning projects.

Getting diverse input

When the Peachtree Creek Greenway, which just opened its first mile in late 2019, was still in its planning phases in 2015, there were no Spanish-language materials about the multiuse trail, despite its position along Buford Highway. The city hired a bilingual communications specialist in 2017 as part of more systematic outreach to residents to include more voices in city planning.

Ernst said the city actively reaches out to residents by hosting meetings at popup locations and now always provides multilingual information.

“There are 365 days of community days of listening to the residents,” Ernst said.

Activists worry the addition of the greenway, compared often to Atlanta’s Beltline, will gentrify the area and push out residents and do not feel planning conversations have included the community affected most. Palma, who works with people living near the greenway, said the city has not come to his organization to get resident input on the path. Palma also said he hasn’t seen announcements of community meetings or information in Spanish regarding the greenway and feels like Spanish pamphlets come out after decisions about developments have already been made.

After the trail opening, We Love BuHi executive director Lily Pabian said, she hopes it helps small business owners by bringing foot traffic to their doors but the concern about displacing people looms beneath the new concrete. We Love BuHi is a nonprofit that advocates for the immigrant community along the corridor through arts and activism.

The “model mile” is currently open to the public and located between North Druid Hills and Briarwood roads. Betsy Eggers, the founder of Peachtree Creek Greenway, which advocates for the trail, said she’s loved seeing the diversity of people exercising on the trail. Eggers said the greenway helps raise the standard of living for residents of Brookhaven’s District 4, which includes Buford Highway. The area previously didn’t have any parks.

Betsy Eggers of Peachtree Creek Greenway, Inc.

“It’s really wonderful to now see that such a diverse group of people are using the Peachtree Creek Greenway,” Eggers said. When asked whether greenway planning included these people, Eggers said it was a “big obstacle.”

“People who are working two jobs and making ends meet don’t have the luxury of attending board meetings and being involved in civic activity,” Eggers said. She said they were able to get input from a study conducted by Cross Keys High School students about what the students and their families would like to see as amenities at the park, which she said was a way to get around the language barrier with their parents.

There’s a fine line between gentrification and raising the quality of life, Pabian said, but she thinks the city should be able to improve infrastructure without displacing people.

Development ahead

Despite continued concerns about gentrification, new developments are planned for Buford Highway, including two multibillion-dollar hospital complexes, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University, which plan to connect to the greenway.

City officials also hosted Brookhaven’s inaugural “Developer’s Day” in September 2019, which was a sales pitch of the city to potential developers and business owners. Ernst said it was a day for developers to learn about potential projects the community already said it would accept.

Palma said he never heard about a similar community meeting.

“Generally speaking, if an event was made like that, I think that would be very good for city morale and the morale of people here,” Palma said. “People want to be included in city affairs.”

Lily Pabian, executive director of We Love BuHi.

The diversity of Brookhaven was a “selling point” when the city bid to be the new home for the Amazon headquarters, Ernst said in 2017 during a discussion about gentrification. Though it lost the bid, architectural drawings of the potential headquarters revealed the city planned a much larger campus than was shown to the public. It also encompassed Northeast Plaza on Buford Highway, which the owners declined for the city to use in the proposal.

Palma said the bid created a lot of anxiety with residents, who felt like the city wasn’t acting in their best interest.

Both Palma and Pabian would like to see more effort to include residents from the beginning of city planning projects.

“And any sort of communication plan or strategy, what does your ‘at the gate’ look like?” Pabian said. Is it inclusive at the very beginning when you’re rolling out, or is it inclusive later? Is it an afterthought?”