New Buckhead Coalition President Jim Durrett renewed his criticism of the idea of the neighborhood separating into its own city — likening it to a child threatening to take their toys home — in a July 16 address where he also announced the launch of a new security patrol.
In a virtual meeting of the Buckhead Business Association, Durrett gave his first “State of Buckhead” address since taking over as Coalition president from former mayor Sam Massell earlier this month. About 60 people attended, including Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Mary Norwood, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.
“I just believe with all my heart that you’re much off building trust and using those trusting relationships to identify and acknowledge real problems and concerns, and then coming up with a way to address those concerns,” Durrett said when asked about Buckhead cityhood talk. “That’s the best way to do anything rather than saying, “I’m taking my toys and I’m going home.’ No. That’s not the way to do it.”
City Councilmember Howard Shook previously said crime fears are a main driver of cityhood talk, and Durrett addressed that as well. He said that two day earlier, a new security patrol by an off-duty Atlanta Police Department officer began in the central business and shopping district. The long-planned patrol uses a police-style vehicle jointly operated by APD and the Buckhead Community Improvement District, where Durrett does double duty as executive director. The officer is on patrol in the vehicle Tuesday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Durrett said.
He drew pushback on another public safety topic: young men selling bottled water in the street. After touting the arrests of two juveniles in Buckhead in relation to water-selling, Durrett heard from several audience members that entrepreneur programs are a better solution, and he agreed, noting it is a time of recognizing “institutional racism” as well.
A new president
The Coalition is a private, invitation-only, nonprofit community group of 100 members. Massell was its founding president, leading it for more than 30 years until his retirement in June. Under Massell, the group compiled detailed information about Buckhead, provided donations and volunteers to a variety of programs, and hosted an annual lunch known for news-making speakers.
Durrett has spent over 10 years as executive director at the Buckhead CID, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners that funds public safety, transportation and beautification projects in the business district. His new dual role is unprecedented and comes with a merger of the Coalition and CID staffs.
In an often wonkish presentation that delved into the landscaping details of specific road projects and other incremental progress, Durrett’s “State of Buckhead” primarily reviewed CID projects and achievements.
Asked by an audience member about the future of the Coalition and his role, he spoke broadly, saying he and the board are still discussing “what our vision and our mission and our priorities should be going forward.” Part of that, he said, is “coming up with exactly who we need to be for today and tomorrow and not just continuing to do what has been done for the past 32 years.”
Durrett provided some big-picture statistics about Buckhead, including Massell’s favorite: that the neighborhood comprises 20% of the city’s land area and provides 45% of its property tax revenue. However, his data on the COVID-19 pandemic’s local economic impact was thin and apparently sourced from a few CID board members.
He said that Cousins Properties and Highwood Properties, which he said are landlords of more than half of Buckhead’s office space, reported collecting rents at a rate of 95% and having good occupancy, a sign of “high-quality tenants.” Retail data was even thinner, as Durrett said Robin Suggs, the general manager of the Lenox Square and Phipps Plaza malls, reported that federal stimulus payments “seem” to be resulting in purchases there.
Against cityhood ‘balkanization’
The Coalition has a history of opposing Buckhead’s occasional cityhood talk. During the last significant rumblings in 2018, Massell in his “State of Buckhead” speech said the neighborhood needs “one combined effort, not a dream of divisiveness.” Durrett’s first major act as Coalition president was to issue a similar statement on July 14 about the current cityhood talk, which was cosigned by the CID, the BBA and the closely aligned commuting and environmental nonprofit Livable Buckhead.
At the request of Julie Bailey, the BBA’s immediate past president, Durrett elaborated on that stance.
“We need Atlanta to be healthy. We all want the capital city of the state of Georgia to be a healthy city, to be complete, to be vibrant, to have all of the amenities that we want, wherever we live within the city,” Durrett said. “… You pull Buckhead out of the city of Atlanta and it’s a very different city.”
He raised political and practical concerns, noting the “extremely complicated and arduous” path through the Georgia General Assembly for such a proposal, and the potential costs of leasing infrastructure from Atlanta and Fulton County. He said he hopes the “Buckhead Coalition 2.0” will effectively communicate to the city underlying neighborhood concerns about crime, traffic and “the perceived lack or real lack of delivery of municipal services that [residents’] tax dollars should have paid for.”
“So that’s what we need to work on, rather than balkanizing,” he said.
He discussed some CID efforts on those topics, including a joint grant application with Livable Buckhead to “explore” getting express commuter bus service to the neighborhood, which current has none — part of the Council of Neighborhood’s traffic-coping priorities.
Durrett wears yet another hat as treasurer for HUB404, a long-planned park capping Ga. 400 between Lenox and Peachtree roads atop the Buckhead MARTA Station. That project is in “hibernation” due to the pandemic essentially halting its fundraising, Durrett said. He called it an “effort that is not on the back burner, but it’s not on the front burner.”
Crime and ‘water boys’
On other crime issues, Durrett brought up the looting and vandalism that came to Buckhead in May during the first night of largely peaceful George Floyd protests Downtown regarding racism and police brutality. He praised the local volunteer cleanup efforts and said that “multiple arrests have been made” thanks to surveillance video footage.
More contentious was the issue of “water boys,” a term for young people, often people of color, who have taken to re-selling bottled water at major intersections around the city. Their work has been praised as entrepreneurship and criticized as dangerous, leading to disputes and protests about policing. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms previously indicated a policy of tolerance while directing the youths to safer places to do business.
The water-sellers appeared in Buckhead earlier this year on the main thoroughfares of Peachtree, Lenox and Piedmont Roads, and became a topic of discussion on the CID board. Durrett said in his address that their work is a “simple, innocent attempt to earn some income in an entrepreneurial way, but also that it has “evolved into behavior that has been problematic” and has “some really violent behavior associated with it.”
He said he was pleased to announced that police recently arrested two juveniles in connection with water-selling, which he called a sign that the city had heard local concerns and that officers knew it was OK to enforce laws against them. He said juvenile water-sellers often got off due to the inability of officers to find their parents or because the courts would turn them loose.
However, that news did not have a soothing effect on the audience. One attendee said the term “water boys” was “inappropriate” and disrespectful, which Durrett acknowledged. Several attendees said entrepreneurship programs should be made available to the youths. Norwood said it should be a profitable program akin to a “healthy allowance,” not “just going to a park and playing basketball.”
Durrett pivoted to supporting such programs, saying they need to be carefully designed to be successful, and echoed some of the sentiment of a recent CID statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We also want to keep in mind that we are working on this in an environment of a terrible virus and in an environment where people are waking up to the reality that institutional racism has affected millions and millions of people and we need to do something about that,” Durrett said. “So there is absolutely a delicate balance to walk to be effective, to be helpful, to these young men, but also to respect the folks that are being adversely impacted when this behavior becomes dangerous.”