The Brookhaven Reporter invited five people with strong community ties to take part in a conversation about their community’s future.
They gathered at Oglethorpe University one morning last month for a wide-ranging discussion about Brookhaven, its attributes, its potential and whether it should become a city, as some have proposed.
The five are 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.
Just where is Brookhaven?
SEGAL: I think there are two answers to that. There is Historic Brookhaven. There’s also a traditional Brookhaven center that forms around that. But you can also look at a larger area, when you look at maps and things, you see a greater Brookhaven, which includes the Silver Lake neighborhoods, which I am part of. And it includes areas [such as] Ashford Park and Brookhaven Fields. It is like any city. You have a core.
WITT: I think the post office describes Brookhaven as the ZIP code of 30319, which takes it further north than most of us would think of Brookhaven being. I have always thought of the center of Brookhaven as where Dresden and Peachtree come together, and Druid Hills. That’s the biggest intersection that has been a part of it. And if you were to draw a radius around that, obviously Pine Hills would be closer to that than Silver Lake would be. But, you know, it is what it is, and I think the larger the area, the better off we are going to be, because I think it is going to define a better area for us to have more people involved in it.
VARY: It is also defined by the lifestyle it offers. It is bordered by Buckhead and it is about the location as well and what it offers by proximity. So it is easy to get to some of these other neighborhoods. It is easy to get downtown. You have the urban and suburban.
HONDERD: Defining a center for Brookhaven is one of the key questions and one of the key things the LCI [Livable Centers Initiative] has addressed, which is to say we need a center of gravity, a clear defining center that is the heart of Brookhaven and it is recognized as the heart of Brookhaven. And then that being the center of gravity, what the surrounding, the planets, so to speak, that gather around it.
That’s a little bit variable — not the definition as to which neighborhoods want to be in, or don’t want to be in. There’s also a whole political question in terms of what is a viable sort of constellation to the proper tax base and so on, if there’s going be a future city of Brookhaven, which we all know is a question that’s currently out there. So I don’t have strong opinions on exactly where everything ends and begins.
But the key, I think, is that, no, it is not just a collection of little villages or local centers. If there’s a Brookhaven, it is a Brookhaven that has a real center of gravity at the MARTA station or right in that neighborhood. And that right now our biggest challenge is a good, strong architectural and planning definition for establishment of that center.
SEGAL: For Citizens in North DeKalb, when we looked at map and said, “What is the center?” It turns out to be very close to Town Brookhaven — somewhere between the MARTA station, Town Brookhaven and Oglethorpe is really the center of gravity. You really do hope that if you have a nice town, if you have a something that you can identify with, something that attracts people, that there is some place, some center of gravity. And I think I agree with you, Jack. It is somewhere in this area, whether it is the intersection of Dresden and Peachtree or the intersection with Hermance. It is somewhere right here. It is somewhere very close by.
VARY: One of the things that draws students — especially out-of-state students — to Oglethorpe is the promise that Oglethorpe offers a small-town feel within an urban setting. So they get the benefits of both. We get a lot of students who will come here because they can have that small liberal arts institution feel and then go down the street and have an internship at Coke or whatever. So I think that’s a big advantage to this neighborhood.
What comes next?
SEGAL: A lot depends on what occurs over the next year to two years. I truly believe that if we remain unincorporated, that it will be continue to be difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to create the necessary level of energy to motivate the businesses, the residents around here to get behind the little community’s initiative and to really put some effort into it. If, on the other hand, a municipality of whatever form is put in place, I think — as we see in Sandy Springs and as we see in places like Chamblee and Dunwoody — the community is much more likely to come together to strengthen this core.
WITT: Well, I like the idea [of creating a city] only because I have dealt with county government and they don’t seem to think that we matter. They like our money, like they like Dunwoody’s money, but when we request something of them they don’t look at us as being, you know …There’s not enough votes here to get them to move forward with something that we would like to see.
To be able to have the revenue is the key to making it the city. And if we can get that revenue, then the city could move forward and move forward, I think, with a better direction.
MAYER: The way I see it now I feel like doing the study and providing the facts and going through this whole process will determine if it is going to be a good thing for Brookhaven or not. I think that, you know, the facts will be the proof in the end.
SEGAL: Which is what I was going to say. I was going to say, you can get 10 people in a room and get 20 opinions about whether there’s enough revenue or not. At this point, we all just have opinions until the Carl Vincent Institute study is finished and put out there so that everybody can look at it. None of us really know. That’s why we have raised money and that’s why we have asked our neighbors to donate money to help us pay for this [study] and to get a professional organization to let us know. And once we do, we will still have debates about whether it is viable or not.
HONDERD: My long-held opinion has been that there are some real economies of scale being part of a larger entity like the county and I have always felt like our voice was heard at the county. We have excellent representatives in Jeff Rader and Kathie Gannon. But, as of the last three or four years, I have had to rethink that somewhat. And I am open to the new information.
From my perspective, the county administration has become less efficient over the last four years. I was on a blue ribbon commission to study county government in 2004. We looked at the various metrics of other counties and so on that actually performed very well overall. My sense is that has deteriorated somewhat since 2004.
So, I am not as convinced about the efficiencies, but certainly there’s a major economic question, whether we have the tax base to support it. I think it is going to be a major factor now as a 4.25 mill [county tax] increase. That’s applied primarily to neighborhoods like ours where the appraisals and assessed value has not gone down much. So it will result in a tax increase for virtually all the properties here. I think that will probably be quite decisive in terms of grass-root feelings about the issue.
Parks, politics and identity
SEGAL: It strikes me that the area is really a jewel in terms of green space and public parks. You have Brookhaven Park. We also have Murphey Candler, Blackburn, Lynwood Park. We have Silver Lake.
MAYER: Ashford Park.
SEGAL: The area that we perceive as [the center of] Brookhaven, when you draw circles around that, there’s a lot of green space. A lot of things could be done, if we can get this energy level, this energy focused.
WITT: You talked about Blackburn Park. That’s another underutilized space. I mean on any given day, you go over there and it is like it is void of people. There’s nobody there, just like Brookhaven Park. I mean it is amazing how much could be done with both of those places. There could be a soccer field or two fields there. The parking is already in place. We just don’t do anything with it. We just have parks that do absolutely nothing.
SEGAL: I was on the committee that helped with the master plan at Blackburn, and again it all comes back to energy. It comes back to energy and community identity. And it is very difficult when someone asks you where you live and you say “unincorporated DeKalb County.” They say, “Where is that?” and you say, “It used to be called North Atlanta and now it is called suburban Brookhaven.” Or maybe it is traditional Brookhaven. I think a lot of the parks discussion, whether it be about Brookhaven Park or Blackburn or Ashford Park, revolves around the lack of energy and focus.
EARLE: How do you get that energy and focus?
SEGAL: Well, we are biased. I mean we are biased in our approach. And if I take just a second I will tell you why I am. I am retired. I have lived here for years. I don’t have a business here. I have just been involved in community. I have been involved for a long, long time.
So, what sparked my interest? Well, part of it was just that question. I was at a meeting, the first meeting that was held about the city of Brookhaven or the municipal options, and for the first time it struck me that I was one of 165,000 constituents of my only representative. Elaine Boyer is a good representative, but I am one of 165,000. If I place a call to Elaine Boyer, I am one of 165,000. If the mayor or the council person from Chamblee or Doraville or Sandy Springs calls, they have a lot more attention.
So you get that energy. I am not saying anything negative about it. It is just the nature of the county and the structure that was put in place. So I think that’s where you get the energy — by getting more constituent government.
WITT: He’s right on that, but it is just hard, like you say when you are, when the two [council] districts overlap each other, then we have one council member thinking one thing and one council member thinking another. Sometimes we will have conflict there.
And of course when you have Kathie Gannon in the Sixth District, she represents a huge constituency. So like you say when you make that phone call to someone like her, she has got probably 300,000 people that are her constituents now. So it would be great if we did have a city of Brookhaven because then we would that central focus that we are looking for and we could move forward because the parks would be within our reach at that point in time.
But until we see the study we are kind of at a loss as to what will happen.