Last month, the Reporter invited five people with strong community ties to take part in a conversation about their community’s future.
They gathered at Oglethorpe University for a wide-ranging discussion about Brookhaven, its attributes, its potential and whether it should become a city, as some have proposed.
The five were architect and developer Jack Honderd, who helped develop the Brookhaven Livable Centers Initiative plan; Realtor Debbie Leonard Mayer; Stan Segal, a board member for Citizens for North DeKalb, the nonprofit sponsoring a study of whether Brookhaven should become a city; Realtor Kerry Witt, president of the Pine Hills Homeowners Association; and Oglethorpe University communications director Renee Vary. The discussion was moderated by Reporter Managing Editor Joe Earle.
EARLE: Renee, I will put you on the spot. What’s Oglethorpe’s role in Brookhaven?
VARY: There are several actually. The obvious one is a provider of quality education. We have been around a long, long time. I think the second one would be a leader for the community. I think we offer a lot to the community as far as the arts, with Georgia Shakespeare, through student productions and theater. I also think that we are the only university contained within the Brookhaven area. And I just think we could be a community gathering spot.
EARLE: Do you think, should Oglethorpe be more involved in the neighborhoods and the surrounding areas?
VARY: I would say yes. In fact, just yesterday we had a meeting with some other folks on the campus to talk about how we can go about doing that and connecting with the homeowners associations further. We’ve done some work with the Historic Brookhaven Neighborhood Association and the Silver Lake Association on their centennial projects. We had students volunteering on Silver Lake during orientation in August. We had a group of about 20 that went back and helped with the clean up in preparation for events. But I think that’s just an example of how we could be involved further. We have a Center for Civic Engagement that does volunteer work all around Atlanta. I think there’s an opportunity to do even more closer to home, and we are always looking for projects. I think that’s one way we can be a large part of community.
Our basketball team goes down to the Boys and Girls [Club] center down the road too. So I think that’s a major way we can contribute through the talents of our students and the volunteer service that’s at the core of the education here.
SEGAL: [Oglethorpe] is a fabulous asset for the community. Just think about what we have been talking about here in the last few minutes. We are talking about five parks, a university, a core center for an area. We haven’t even mentioned Marist or St. Martins [in the Fields] or Montgomery Elementary School and Ashford Park Elementary. We haven’t even mentioned what else we have. Oglethorpe is a wonderful asset. It is part of what creates that ‘center of gravity’ here. If it were a mile or two miles from here, it would be hard to link it together. We could have a village center that stretches from Oglethorpe down to the Dresden Village area, surrounded by parks, neighborhoods, lakes.
WITT: Those of us familiar with Oglethorpe understand what it is all about. So many people just pass it on Peachtree Street and don’t have a clue, have never even been inside, yet have been a resident for 20 or 30 years of Brookhaven. They just think of it as “that stone university on Peachtree Street.” And I think that if we had more public events in here…
VARY: I agree.
EARLE: One thing that strikes me an d always has about Brookhaven is that people talk about “little islands” that are sort of walled off from Peachtree. Oglethorpe. Brookhaven Park is another one. There are areas that are sort of closed off. How do you open them up?
HONDERD: I would like to just question the premise a little bit. I agree entirely with Brookhaven Park. Actually, I think Oglethorpe has been exemplary in their participation. Not to take any pressure off you to do more, but with the Brookhaven Peachtree Community Alliance, they provided us with a meeting room from the earliest beginnings. They supplied an Oglethorpe representative at all of the meetings that became part of the work. The LCI studies on the public meetings were held here in an auditorium. As were [Rep.] Mike Jacob’s [city of Brookhaven community meetings].
You have the Shakespeare Festival. You’ve had a Taste of Brookhaven here various times. Then you have your students going out. You had the adult education for a long time.
I know a lot of stories of colleges and universities resented by the neighborhoods they find themselves in because they just seem like they’re a burden to the neighborhood. I think you are quite the opposite so I would compliment you on your involvement in the community from my perspective.
VARY: Thank you.
The economic climate
EARLE: We have talked about a Brookhaven community that has parks, a university and a ‘center of gravity.’ What do you think it is going to be in 10 years, in 25 years? What do you see here?
HONDERD: I think it has more to do with money and economic climate than anything. This is a highly desirable area. It is on the national radar of some very, very big development companies – particularly the MARTA station and that part of Brookhaven. It was named one of the top five development sites in the United States at one point, back in 2007 or 2006, somewhere in there.
That was really one of the things that drove the LCI study. We didn’t want someone to just come in and do it to us. We wanted to try to have a plan in place to guide everybody. And I think that it has worked – as long as people don’t forget about all the planning because our memories are fairly short on these things. So it has a lot more to do with the rate of growth in Atlanta and the national economy than with the local jurisdiction. Certainly, a town of Brookhaven might create more unanimity, more sense of community and focus as we move forward with these efforts. My experience is they’re largely driven by economics. And then people like us get to react. If there isn’t a plan in place or even if there is a plan in place, just like the soccer fields, it requires public interaction.
VARY: From an Oglethorpe perspective, one of the initiatives we have been working on for the past five years or so is increasing the number of students we have. And we have added well over 100 in the past five years or so, which is significant when you are talking about a school of 1,100 students. So, we are looking to increase that even more. We have also instituted a policy that students have to live on campus through their junior year, which is a change for us. We do have quite a few commuters, but we are really trying to encourage more on-campus living [and] really improving campus life. That’s another big initiative going forward in the next few years is to improve campus life and to create an even greater community here. We also have some campus improvements that will be in the works in the next few years, improving some of the buildings, structures. It is almost 100 years old. We need to start thinking about that, sooner than later. So that will be exciting too.
WITT: Everything has slowed down quite a bit. Ask me this question four years ago, I would have said we will be another city like Buckhead. But I don’t see that happening any time soon. I would like to see more developments in the community like we saw on Dresden, but you know Dresden had a lot of rundown houses that needed to be straightened out, fixed up. I am just hoping that we get back to developing again because that’s what has stagnated Brookhaven right now is that we just don’t have the money and resources to move forward with anything. We are seeing a little bit more building in the area, but as Jack alluded to, there were some big people talking about redeveloping Buford Highway for the longest time starting basically at North Druid Hills and working north in front of Northeast Plaza. The economy sank that whole project. That came in front of the Community Council three times and then we never saw those people again.
If you redeveloped everything south from Briarwood down to North Druid Hills and turned that into something like Town Brookhaven, that would be phenomenal for the area.
MAYER: I have kind of a different opinion. I see a lot happening now, with Dresden being under contract in a certain area and then all the way from there up to the church, you know, is under contract as well for more of the live, work, play kind of area, with more retail shops on all of Dresden. They’re building a four-story apartment complex. The Mom and Pop store has sold, and now we have a new urban market there. What I think is going to happen in 10 years, and I hope to see this, is just that: Live, work and play. [Residents will] be able to walk, and to have maybe a sidewalk up Peachtree, to be able to come to Oglethorpe. I just see it all moving around that corridor of Dresden and then down Peachtree to Oglethorpe.
EARLE: So you see the “center of gravity” as Dresden, and not the MARTA Station and the LCI?
MAYER: Well, I see the “center of gravity” being at what I would call Dresden and Peachtree. But what is driving our market in the real estate world is people wanting to be close to the shops and the restaurants and wanting to be able to walk to them. Even in the way the market is now, that’s where everybody is wanting to be. And when you go to one of the restaurants and you talk with people, they’re coming in from all over. They’re coming from Alpharetta. They just want to be closer inside the Perimeter. You hear all of these things about Brookhaven and what’s going on — especially, the young folks.
SEGAL: We are at a crossroads. It is not just the municipal option or not. I think redevelopment of Johnson Ferry East was important. It is unfortunate that retail isn’t going to go in there — and it was the economy as you said, Jack, that stopped it. It was going to be a live-play-work area, but they are redeveloping it. We are going to get private homes; it is not just going to be the senior center. The PATH. I use the PATH.
There’s a lot of good things that are happening. The crossroads is we can either be choked with traffic or we can put something [else] in place. I hope it is an interesting pedestrian area that has a center of gravity along the Peachtree corridor with satellite anchor points at Johnson Ferry East or Johnson Ferry and Ashford-Dunwoody, Dresden and up toward Ashford Park.
EARLE: Other than the economy, what problems do you see?
MAYER: Some of the problems I am having are things that are so simple – trying to get a permit to build. Why would it take so long to get that? It is almost like you have to go and walk it all through, and you submit everything, and it takes forever. Just little things like that. It shouldn’t take that long in this economy.
WITT: We’ve had nothing in front of the Community Council the last two quarters, so Debbie is right. When you show up there, it should be a day process to finish the whole application because there’s nobody in the planning department planning anything right now.
MAYER: I think that not just the permits but other things that people have asked me to help them with in last couple of weeks in getting things done. I feel like, you know, the county should embrace these developers and builders coming into our community and, you know, want to go put back some tax dollars and start generating more money for our county.
I am going back to that because it has been so difficult these last couple of months just to get things done at a rapid pace. I feel like they need to embrace them more. I know that everybody has had cutbacks, and I understand that. But I mean I would be, if I worked at the county, I would be thrilled to see somebody come in to build a home in this economy.
SEGAL: I keep coming back to energy and cohesiveness and identity. Because I look at what’s occurred and this is not me being a proponent of the city or anything, but if you look at it, it doesn’t matter what the government form is, the infrastructure. When you look at Johns Creek and you look at Sandy Springs and you look at Dunwoody, you feel an energy level that I’m afraid we just don’t feel here. And I don’t know whether it was, I mean I have an opinion as I said without data that suggests that it was what happened when they coalesced around an idea. But nonetheless, whatever caused it, there’s an energy level in those locales that we just don’t seem to be able to rise to.
WITT: But I think it has grown. I mean at one time it was lackluster at best. I mean the LCI people, that helped to energize Brookhaven and what we had on Dresden helped a little bit. But at one time, we were just pretty much just Brookhaven and nothing. Jack is nodding his head. We didn’t have any cohesiveness. At least we have a core group of people that think we need to move in a different direction. That’s as a community and not just as individuals because that’s the way we were for many, many years. We were just Brookhaven.
HONDERD: With that live-and-let live attitude you didn’t mess with your neighbors and you didn’t ask any favors.
WITT: And any time anything came up it was not-in-my-backyard mentality. But Stan is right. We are not a Dunwoody.
HONDERD: We are not there in really seeing ourselves as connected.
EARLE: It sounds to me like the main thing we keep going back to is the question of identity. That’s where we started. What is Brookhaven, and what does it need to be to move forward?
WITT: I think the rallying point is going to be the whole issue of whether or not we are going to be a city or not. And when that whole study comes out, everybody is going to draw a line in the sand as to where they want to be on that and I think that will be our rallying cry at that point in time, whether it is good, bad or indifferent. It will still bring the community together and we will meet a lot of our neighbors that we never met before. Now we have something to look at.