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Showdown in Cabbagetown

Should old school become park or condo?

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In the first year that Donna Webster moved into her house next to the dilapidated Grant School in Cabbagetown, she awoke in the middle of the night to find her yard and the school grounds swarming with police hunting for a car thief.

The cops told her to go back to bed. But later, they came knocking to ask her to move her car out of the driveway so an officer could drive his patrol car out of her back yard, where it was stuck. The police had driven as far as they could before continuing the chase on foot.

That was nine years ago. Since then, most of Cabbagetown has changed for the better. But not Grant School.

Twenty years ago, the school and its 2-and-a-half-acre grounds were alive with students from Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown and Grant Park. But in the past 10 years, its front doors haven't been pushed open by anyone other then prostitutes, drug dealers, crackheads and junkies.

For about three years, Webster and other Cabbagetown residents have tried to convince the Atlanta School Board to demolish the building and let the neighborhood or the Parks Department turn the property into a park or a community center.

But the Cabbagetown Neighborhood Improvement Association couldn't even get the school district to cut the grass. That was before developers took an interest in the school. Faster than you can say gentrification, the mowers and weed whackers arrived. Now that developers are drooling over the property, the school board realizes a bidding war would generate more funds than would a cash-strapped neighborhood association.

Which makes it all the more frustrating for Webster and her neighbors. They asked for it first -- and were told they would get it -- back when it was just an urban eyesore.

"No one wanted it before, and we just feel very frustrated because we've been put off and put off and put off, and the longer we waited, the more the property was worth," Webster says. "We just want some sort of greenspace.

"We've asked repeatedly to be told what requirements we need to meet, to find out what it is they want, but we've never heard a single thing. It was supposed to be on the [school board's] agenda month after month and each month we call to find out it was put off until next month."

Even more painful is that because of the board's glacial bureaucracy, the Cabbagetown contingent missed its chance to spend a $100,000 grant on purchasing or renovating the school property. The money came from a Community Development Building Grant, which expired in October. All that's left is $20,000 Gov. Roy Barnes gave the neighborhood association after the Fulton Cotton Mill lofts fire.

"It's unfortunate that it is through this kind of experience that people learn how the school board works," says Brenda Muhammad, who represents District 1, which includes Cabbagetown, on the board. "I think it's good that a community can rally and come to the school system like this, but they have to understand there is a process like with any other bureaucracy. It doesn't happen overnight and unfortunately their request has gotten caught up in another plan."

That plan is a one-year evaluation of all of the school system's properties. The purpose is to determine which buildings should be renovated, which should be scrapped and rebuilt, and which should be sold to generate cash for the system.

"When the community came along and said, 'We need that space for our community,' it sounded like a good idea," Muhammad says. "Unfortunately though, in the middle of this process we heard from developers. Naturally the developers want every piece of land they can get, and their flags went up when they heard we had that property for sale, especially when you have an area that is as hot as that area is now."

And now Cabbagetown's "hipness" is working against its own residents. The board members who will vote on the school's fate face very different options. They could deed it to the Cabbagetown neighborhood association. They could swap the property for a chunk of land the city owns next to the John Hope Elementary School on Boulevard. That way, the city could operate the old Grant School property as a park, and the John Hope school could expand.

The other option is to sell to one of the eight or nine developers who've expressed interest in the property. No matter what the price, it would still be more money than the school system had before.

"Others find that property attractive as well and it just so happens that the property has significant value," Muhammad says. "It's difficult because I have to keep at the forefront the broader concern of the entire system and then those of my constituents."

She says the school board will vote on the Grant School property in January. Webster says if the board sides with the association, the neighbors will re-apply for the federal grant.

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