Rocking Chair Reflections

Response to the Previous Editorial

Response to the Previous Editorial

By Save The Trees of Grant Park

Recently a question was posed: “Why do so many people still have ‘Save the Trees of Grant Park’ signs in their yards?”

Established in 1883, Grant Park is Atlanta’s oldest city park and was given as a gift to the city for use as a park by Colonel Lemuel P. Grant. The park was designed by John Charles Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers firm (sons of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.) who continued their father’s legacy after his retirement. Readers may already know that Olmsted and his sons designed many of Atlanta’s parks, such as Piedmont Park as well as over 500 neighborhood parks throughout the US, including New York’s Central Park. Olmsted himself prophetically warned that a zoo in the park would always seek to expand its boundaries. And so here we are.

In 1996 a Master Plan for the park was created by residents in collaboration with the City of Atlanta to protect its historic design and ensure that encroachment from Zoo Atlanta and other development didn’t threaten its existence. Grant Park Conservancy was created to protect the park and enforce the Master Plan. The residents of the neighborhood and the region have trusted that GPC has and would always act as an advocate of the park and be the voice of that Master Plan. Residents trusted that GPC would act with transparency and integrity when responding to threats to the livelihood of the park and its inherent design.

In the summer of 2017 a small group of neighbors noticed many of Grant Park’s trees near Boulevard had been marked with an orange X for removal. Several concerned neighbors immediately took action and filed a tree appeal when they realized that the organizations responsible for protecting the park had failed to take proper action and failed to alert the region in full transparency. Save the Trees of Grant Park, Inc. was created, to try to salvage what could be saved from the deals made behind closed doors and in closed committees with little to no public input. This project was named and renamed and discussed with only committee members (and sometimes only with committee heads) and not in public forums. It was also never clearly presented to NPU-W for regional approval.

That group of concerned neighbors, along with many others, rallied together to fight for enforcement of the official Master Plan on record with the City of Atlanta. Since we had very short notice and extremely limited information leading up to the tree appeal, Save the Trees of Grant Park formed quickly to assist in the appeal process related to the parking deck and to advocate for the trees in the park.

After much digging and open records requests, we have learned that the Grant Park Conservancy had been in talks with the City of Atlanta (CoA) for a Zoo Atlanta parking deck in Grant Park since at least 2014. Over the course of these years, the Conservancy communicated directly with the CoA and Zoo Atlanta, making little to no effort to discuss or even notify the public of these extensive plans for the park. Instead, the plans are now slowly revealing themselves to a surprised public, as evidenced by the outcry of over 5000 people who signed a petition to stop the eradication of the healthy tree canopy.

We, as a neighborhood, watch as acreage from the public park is transferred to the privatized zoo, an extensive number of trees are destroyed for a zoo pay-parking deck, and a modern restaurant is slated for construction in the middle of this historic Victorian neighborhood. We wonder what else is in the plans? What else do we not know? What is happening behind the closed doors today? We’re told that GPC just made a bad design better and tried to save the park’s identity by redesigning the deck, but we ask, why did they not ask the public for input? Why did they not ask us to all join forces and protest? Why did they not alert anyone to this injustice that they claim the City of Atlanta forced upon them, upon us, upon our park? Shouldn’t we have all had a voice in whether a parking deck belongs in a historic park?

We also hear the argument that the trees are being recompensed in Grant Park thanks to the Conservancy and so Grant Park is benefitting because it’s finally getting much needed tree additions, but again, we ask, why did they have destroy the old growth at all? Why should a park have to kill its mature trees just to get new trees? Our parks should be taken care of with new tree plantings regardless of a deck. Why should we have to put a large concrete structure in the middle of a park to convince the Parks and Recs director to simply do what she’s supposed to do? Aren’t new tree plantings just regular park maintenance? Wasn’t GPC already advocating for just regular maintenance? What about all of the trees destroyed for zoo expansion? Why didn’t we guarantee those coming back to Grant Park? Why were they all placed on the Westside Beltline?

This project is eroding the park and the trust we’ve placed in our institutions to guard it. The majority of the trees which were removed for the Gateway project were mature but not sick or dying (hence the recompense). During the litigation process, an independent arborist determined that most of the trees slated for destruction were actually healthy, contrary to what we have been told. There were many specimen trees that are highly valued and not easily replaced because of their size or species that were cut down for a flat green roof with mostly ornamental trees as replacements (larger tree root systems cannot be supported with the shallow depth of soil on top of the garage.). It will be decades before we see many of the recompense trees even start to reach maturity.

In Fulton County homes in neighborhoods with mature trees sold for nearly $105,000 more than similar homes without the tree cover (University of Georgia, 2002). Aside from monetary value, a mature tree can sequester over 40 lbs of carbon dioxide a year. Together the trees cut down in Grant Park sequestered over 100 tons of carbon dioxide every 6 years. Being on the Boulevard side with heavy traffic (and future parking deck cars idling), this is a significant impact especially for residents and children who walk to school through that path. Not only did GPC and CoA allow the destruction of over 100 healthy trees, but they invited in 1000 plus cars for this new parking structure.

This all omits other items such as increased runoff and potential flooding and damage to developed root structures that mature trees have in the soil…the soil that is now becoming a concrete structure. A concrete structure will not improve water quality through filtration or reduce runoff to the same degree as mature root systems.

According to the EPA, trees and vegetation can be used to reduce heat islands (www.epa.gov/heat-islands/using-trees-and-vegetation-reduce-heat-islands, 8/12/2016). How will a large open green field reduce this effect? This article also explains the further positive effects of tree shade and its ability to slow deterioration of street pavement and reduce noise. How will a 1,000 space parking deck reduce noise?

As previously mentioned, there is an existing Grant Park Master Plan. This plan is based on the original design by Olmsted and it is at the core of Grant Park Conservancy’s existence. The Grant Park Master Plan, developed in collaboration with neighbors, was intentionally ignored for the parking deck project by both the City of Atlanta and the Grant Park Conservancy. Isn’t that the main charge of the GPC and how it advocates for the park? Why did the GPC and the City of Atlanta disregard this Master Plan? Now that it doesn’t fit the vision of a parking deck and expanded zoo, GPC and the City of Atlanta are crying for a new Master Plan. Why do we need a new Master Plan when the existing one took into consideration future growth, including parking issues?

All of this said, we recognize that GPC has a strong base of volunteers. We understand that the core base and believers in the vision of GPC aren’t necessarily the ones behind closed doors making secret deals. We do appreciate the hard work and improvements that GPC and the residents have made in the park. We commend the work of the mulching and the care of the remaining trees and will celebrate the new plantings. But this work is not enough to regain the trust of the community when the Grant Park Master Plan was intentionally ignored, and transparency was non-existent. We want assurance from the Grant Park Conservancy that there will be no further encroachment in the park or any additional destruction of trees. How do we trust them to advocate for the park anymore?

In all of our negotiations with the City of Atlanta, we were promised that care would be taken to save the large Water Oak specimen tree on Boulevard. The city rewarded our trust by taking a chainsaw to it today as we write this piece. The GPC is complicit in the death of the trees they were charged with protecting, especially this beautiful, mature tree that cannot be easily replaced and that was supposed to be saved (per the lawsuit settlement). Along with the GPC we fight to hold all neighborhood representatives accountable. The neighborhood association and our elected officials are just as guilty. The overlap in bad leadership and calculated efforts to keep this quiet are astounding. Should we really have the same people leading the GPC, GPNA, and NPU? Should these bodies not be accountable to each other through a system of checks and balances? When one goes awry, doesn’t that mean they will all go awry and we as neighbors have no voice? How do we stop this? We stop this by continuing to speak up. To point out the problems and to get more involved.

So, in answer of the original stated question, we still have the Save The Trees of Grant Park signs in our yards to remind us all to keep vigilant, to stand united and to protect our park. This is our rallying cry.

Save the Trees of Grant Park is a 501c3 nonprofit. Find us on the web at savethetreesgp.org. You can get your very own yard sign. Join our rallying cry. Let’s stand together united, signage and all.