Atlanta Debates Olympic Impacts

Plan to raze public housing, build games facilities, then reconvert to housing opposed

NEARLY two years after Atlanta was awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics, city leaders and the business community are still euphoric over the prospect of hosting the centennial celebration. While the games are expected to cost more than $1 billion to stage, the 16-day spectacle is expected to inject more than $3.5 billion into the local economy.

Some inner-city residents, however, deplore the impact the building of the Olympic Village will have on two of the city's oldest housing projects, Techwood Homes and Clark Howell Homes.

"We don't want to lose our homes. It's not fair," says Horace Tribble, a resident of Clark Howell Homes.

"There's no reason to tear down perfectly good units," adds Joanne Murphy, another long-time resident of Clark Howell.

Mr. Tribble and Ms. Murphy are members of Tenants United for Fairness (TUFF), a neighborhood group formed to protest the treatment the public housing residents.

The Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) sees the games as a unique opportunity for the redevelopment of Techwood, the nation's first federally funded public housing project, built in 1936.

The rows of red brick buildings occupy 21.6 acres of prize real estate, bordered by Coca-Cola's corporate headquarters, Georgia Tech University, and the central business district.

The AHA hopes to win approval for a plan to transform the crumbling, crime-ridden Techwood project and 35-acre Clark Howell project into a mixed-income community.

The initial $127 million plan, drawn up by a group of Atlanta developers and consultants, generated sharp criticism among community activists working with the city's growing homeless population and project residents, many of whom feel their interests are being overlooked by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) and some of the city's most powerful businesses and academic institutions.

ACOG has offered to pay $7 million for the 4-1/2 acres where 114 Techwood units now stand. The acreage would serve as the site for two dormitories which would house 4,000 athletes and officials during the summer games and college students after the games.

The offer is contingent, though, on a commitment that the land will be available for planning purposes by June 1.

Shirley Franklin, senior vice president for external relations, says, "It's a complicated project and we're racing against the clock. We cannot hold up the construction of the village past this summer."

At a meeting Tuesday evening residents voted 144 to 47 to approve sale of the 4-1/2 acres. Those voting represented only 15 percent of the residents.

AHA director Earl Phillips said, "The vote shows we are working together, we are unified, and we are going to make a difference in this community."

Said Margie Smith, president of the tenant association: "I've seen conditions in the project steadily deteriorate and I know the federal government won't put any more money into the units. This is the best opportunity we'll have to revitalize our neighborhood."

Dennis Goldstein, a legal-aid attorney representing the residents, pointed out that "this is only the first step. We are still considering the plans for the rest of the community and how those plans will affect residents." Additional acreage would be involved.

Vincent Fort, a professor at Morehouse College and the president of the citizens-based Atlanta Planning Advisory Board, said: "Although some people look at this development plan as an Olympic issue, it's more than just two weeks in 1996. We want to consider the impact on inner-city neighborhoods and those least able to protect themselves."

The plan provides for a mixed-income community with public housing and market-rate apartments, a retail area with a grocery, a service center, and a new school.

Techwood Homes, listed on the national register of historic sites, would be renovated. More than 60 percent of the units at Clark Howell Homes would be demolished. Plans for replacement housing are incomplete.

Max Creighton, executive director of the nonprofit Community Design Center of Atlanta, notes, "The plan represents a radical change in the land use. If approved, a large part of the land will go for commercial use and housing for college students, rather than housing for the poor."

Residents concerned over the lack of adequate replacement housing, as well as the process involved in the approval of the initial plan, have filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta Housing Authority.

Legal-aid lawyer Goldstein says: "Residents generally support the Olympics, but not at the loss of their homes. Their concerns are heightened by the city's long history of broken promises and massive displacement of the poor."

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is also critical of the plan because of, among other things, the lack of a specific policy to replace housing units and the heavy reliance on federal funds.

AHA director Phillips admits that "some things were omitted" from the plan. But he says he is optimistic about the meetings and hopes to meet ACOG's June 1 deadline.

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