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Old Fourth Ward's growing pains

A potential new parking lot highlights the hardships of Atlanta's intown revitalization

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Our Lady of Lourdes, the 101-year-old Old Fourth Ward church that sits across the street from the King Center, wants a new sanctuary.

The historic Catholic parish located near the intersection of Edgewood Avenue and Boulevard has outgrown its current space and will soon expand its footprint for the third time. If the religious institution has its way, nearly two acres of land bordered by Boulevard, Edgewood Avenue, and Gartrell and Daniel streets would be converted into surface parking to replace the church's current lot. The church, which has many commuting members, needs a parking solution with alternative transit not yet in place.

"We're not asking for anything new," says Father Jeffery Ott. "As a longtime resident for 100 years, [we hope] to be here from another 100 years. We're simply asking for this to help our growth."

Our Lady of Lourdes' proposed expansion comes at a time when transformative changes are underway not just for the church's approximately 1,500-family parish, but also throughout Old Fourth Ward. But with progress comes conflicting visions about the area's long-term development — and what to do to help Old Fourth Ward bridge the gap between what it needs today and how the neighborhood should grow in the years to come.

The neighborhood is home to extensive segments of the Atlanta Streetcar and Atlanta Beltline, which many think will propel the area's ongoing revitalization. Edgewood Avenue is expected to continue to become more of a vibrant nightlife and dining district. Meanwhile, a streamlined zoning plan along Auburn Avenue could also help spark investment. There's plenty to be excited about in Old Fourth Ward.

But in recent weeks, residents have butted heads over what kinds of development — particularly over the parking lots needed to accommodate Sunday churchgoers — should occur in the neighborhood. The debate is likely to repeat over the coming years as the community grapples with becoming a better neighborhood intent on maintaining its rich history. How this issue plays out will impact other deals that follow.

The church's purchase of the land, which currently includes several abandoned houses and an overgrown field, remains contingent on rezoning. Most of the property under dispute has been vacant for years. Yet some nearby residents, including relative newcomers to the area, have steadfastly opposed the proposal for more surface parking.

With the streetcar and Beltline's potential to make Old Fourth Ward more walkable, dense, and less dependent on automobiles, residents like Matthew Garbett, president of the Fourth Ward Neighbors, see the proposed surface parking lot as "bad urban form" and think such proposals could hinder the community's resurgence.

"A lot of people talk about how we've made it, that's not the case at all," Garbett says. "Auburn Avenue is almost completely vacant still. If you walk down Edgewood [Avenue] and count, it's not at capacity ... This is the entranceway to the Old Fourth Ward for a lot of people and the first thing they would see is a giant asphalt parking lot."

Nearby property owner Cyerra Crumrine also thinks the rezoning sets a bad precedent. She would much rather see the lots become home to retail or residential — anything that doesn't conflict with the community's 2008 master plan that envisions smarter development. What happens with these lots, she says, could help shape the look and feel of Old Fourth Ward for decades to come.

"People are watching this," she says. "It's setting the standard for all the other vacant lots that haven't been developed yet."

Tensions between churchgoers and residents opposing the parking lot recently boiled over at a pair of contentious neighborhood association meetings. David Patton, an Our Lady of Lourdes member and former NPU-M land use chair, says Ott and other longtime residents felt disrespected. He referred to the parking lot opponents as being "very haughty, very high-handed, very insulting and completely dismissive" early on in the process. Some residents were not allowed to vote at a recent association sit-down because they had not met membership criteria.

"Part of the frustration for the people is that this is their community," Ott says. "Longtime residents and parishioners who want to express their concern have not been able to express their concern."

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who represents the vibrant group of neighborhoods set to feel the biggest impact from the streetcar and Beltline, has been trying to mediate between the groups. He says he feels confident that a "win-win-win" resolution can be found for all parties.

For now, in an act of good faith, Our Lady of Lourdes decided to defer its application at this week's Neighborhood Planning Unit-M meeting so the groups — residents, churchgoers, design enthusiasts, developers, and business owners — can discuss additional plans with city planners, officials with Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development agency, and other key figures.

Hall says a compromise could involve better identifying existing parking, creating a shuttle service between MARTA and churches, hiring security patrols, and adding more street lighting. He hopes some private business owners on Edgewood and Auburn avenues will also be open to shared parking as "good neighbors" in the historic district.

"We don't need more parking," Hall says. "We need to be smarter about parking."

Until the streetcar and Beltline transit are fully up and running, however, Hall acknowledges that "growing pains" will test the area's short-term development. He thinks a solution can be found through compromise, for example, with streetfront retail and commercial spaces along Boulevard that could obscure the parking lot and promote walkability.

Moving forward, a slower process will allow for all sides to further hear each other's needs. In a neighborhood comprised of vastly different experiences — including young, energetic leaders and lifelong residents who have paid their dues — cooperation needs to happen for all sides to be happy.

Fiona Sites-Bowen, NPU-M's land use chair, says the community will get a chance to step back and "press pause" on the application. It could take two weeks or two months, but the current discussions will likely define the community's stance on future parking issues. And this kind of conflict will inevitably happen again in a neighborhood that could soon be brimming with mixed-use, dense development, and gentrification issues. How it navigates those waters will be crucial to the area's future vitality.

"It's a blessing and a curse to have a neighborhood on the rise," Hall says.

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