With Brookhaven’s plans to increase parking spaces in Murphey Candler Park, a neighborhood association has revitalized to fight the reopening of the “loop road” to cars because of safety and environmental concerns.

Murphey Candler Neighborhood Association President Zane Douglass said survey results show the neighborhood “overwhelmingly opposed” opening the loop road, which is off of Candler Lake East Drive between the playground and east side of Murphey Candler Lake.

The gate that shuttered the loop road before the city removed it on July 30 amid controversy over both its permanent opening and pre-design testing. (Erin Schilling)

“The MCNA will ask that the City Council pause existing plans for the loop road so that the residents’ concerns can be appropriately addressed,” Douglass wrote in a MCNA statement.

Since voters approved a $40 million parks bond in a 2018 referendum, the city has been moving forward with improvements to its public parks. As Murphey Candler Park renovations move into the next phase, residents don’t feel their representatives are hearing the complaints.

The loop road was originally gated to cars in the late 1970s because of crime concerns, residents and city officials said, and residents think cars along the road will ruin the natural environment of the area and create problems for pedestrians.

Amid controversy about the unfinalized loop road design, the city opened the gate at the end of July to “prepare for construction and to establish a baseline for traffic and police patrol need,” the Brookhaven Parks and Recreation Department posted in the neighborhood’s private Facebook group. Someone kept closing the gate, the city said, which prompted the city to remove the gate completely on July 30 and triggered more outrage from the neighborhood.

“I think in their enthusiasm to push forward, there have been times when I wish that they would slow down and get more input,” Murphey Candler resident Rudy Fernandez said. “I think that’s the ire that you hear.”

The city points to years of input and community meetings about the parks bond, dating back to 2014, as its explanation for the origin of the designs.

Residents say the city could stop the loop road renovation, similar to the way it dropped a plan to add a “lazy river” water feature to Lynwood Park last year. In 2018, Mayor John Ernst and City Councilmember Linley Jones worked behind the scenes to add the lazy river to the bond referendum.

Jones hosted a virtual community meeting on July 21 to clarify some of the “misinformation” and “dramatization” that she said she was hearing about the plans. She and Mayor John Ernst said the city would close the gates of the loop road each night and make sure the parking is configured to preserve trees.

The meeting ended after an hour and 15 minutes despite unanswered resident questions. For Fernandez and other residents, the meeting only highlighted their frustration because, they said, it seemed city officials were moving forward with plans without taking their opinions into consideration.

Proposed improvements

Murphey Candler Park is located on West Nancy Creek Drive off Ashford Dunwoody Road and has baseball fields, nature trails and a lake.

The $8.9 million park bond improvements include trail renovations, a boardwalk, additional parking, a new playground, an amphitheater and a community center, according to estimates for the projects approved in the referendum.

The city is finishing up the design phases of loop road parking and will start bids for construction later this year, according to the city’s website. The City Council approved a contract for a new playground on July 28 to replace the existing one near the loop road.

The playground will be a “natural play area” because of its emphasis to not overdevelop or draw attention away from the nature of the park, and the loop road parking spaces will be gravel and in between trees.

Jones said the city will have security cameras, and they could close the gate again if there’s problems. The purpose of opening the loop road to cars is for additional parking, Jones said, so cars do not park in the neighborhood streets in front of residents’ houses.

A family walks to the Murphy Candler Park playground July 28 using the loop road that the city proposes to reopen. (Erin Schilling)

“My question is, what’s the difference from today?” said Ernst, who doesn’t think adding some parking would change the natural aspect of the area. “Right now it’s a concrete path that was designed for parking with green space pull-offs. This is just reimagining that space as it was supposed to be.”

Jones said without more parking, any new amenities to Murphey Candler will be overshadowed by lack of access. The city already reduced the amount of proposed parking in response to public input, she said.

Some residents said they didn’t know about the proposed improvements until recently. City officials said these plans were in the park bond plans. The Parks Bond Oversight Committee approved design concept plans for the parking on the loop road in May 2019. Horseshoe playground and parking, which is the loop road area, is listed in July 2018 project estimates along with a new community building.

Continued public input process

Fernandez said it is the elected officials’ jobs to make sure the public knows about things, and he felt like Jones and Ernst blamed residents for not knowing rather than constructively asking about better ways to get information across to them.

The city has started its public input process for a new community center, which is set to take the place of the old caretaker’s house near the baseball fields.

The city lent out virtual public input tool kits in July to get feedback on community center amenities, but Fernandez and other residents said the kits didn’t have the option to not have a community center. Residents are worried the community center or proposed amphitheater on the community green will increase traffic in their neighborhood and overdevelop the park’s green spaces.

The loop road as seen from its playground. (Erin Schilling)

“It’s just a neighborhood park and people access it through neighborhood streets, and you’re trying to make it a big destination park when that’s what Blackburn Park is off Ashford Dunwoody Road,” resident Elizabeth Deck said.

Ernst said some of the bigger suggestions for the community center, like an indoor pool and track, were to “have an expansive mind and let all ideas out there” but weren’t serious considerations.

The city has had multiple pop-up meetings, sent out flyers about the park bond improvements and held other public input meetings in the years before and after the park bond vote, according to city records. City officials said the ongoing process for the community center is the same one they do for all public input on park projects.

Deck and other residents said they would have liked to see more outreach in the Murphey Candler neighborhood specifically, since park changes affect them the most.

Jones said she’s glad to see more people participating in the process and encouraged residents to continue to reach out to her.