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Inside the condo rebirth of a landmark Druid Hills church 

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Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
The sanctuary of the former Druid Hills United Methodist Church

Photograph by Josh Green

During the Druid Hills Tour of Homes and Gardens last year, the development company that had bought the old, tall church where Briarcliff Road meets Ponce de Leon Avenue flung open its doors to the public, revealing a sanctuary emptied of its pews and a gutted former preschool. Curious, sentimental Atlantans poured in.

Couples recalled being married within Druid Hills United Methodist Church’s three-story sanctuary, standing before a grandiose pipe organ. One lady, the niece of John S. Candler, reminisced about playing on the grounds as a child, back when they housed tennis courts and the judge’s stately home. Others remembered attending preschool there, including my eldest daughter, who used to race me up the easternmost stairwell each morning during drop-off.

But sentimentalism contributes little to bottom lines, and developer Brian Davison, a Minerva USA managing partner, understood that the church and school building, like a lot of adaptive-reuse projects at the outset, was essentially worthless. If not worse than worthless.

“Sometimes it’s worth negative—it’s painful,” says Davison, a homebuilder in Atlanta since the 1990s. “You think you get all this steel and concrete, but the cost of retrofitting everything and running plumbing through it is huge, the same or even more than building brand new. But we got something approved here when no one else could.”

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
Inside the preschool level

Photograph courtesy of Minerva

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
Inside the sanctuary

Photograph courtesy of Minerva

The multi-phase church redevelopment and condo hub that Minerva passed through the Druid Hills Historic District to begin construction in 2019 is expected to start welcoming its first residents in coming weeks. It’s proof, developers say, that a range of buyers are still keen to buy condos and share walls despite a lingering pandemic, so long as the concept, location, and quality is right. A unique backstory doesn’t hurt, either.

The 1200 Ponce project, so named for the church’s address, could be the most high-profile example of Atlanta’s trend toward converting (or demolishing) churches for new purposes, which began in the early aughts with Providence on Ponce, a 22-condo former sanctuary a few blocks west on Ponce, next to Publix. Other holy redoes include Inman Park’s Lizzie Chapel Flats condos, architecture firm Kronberg U+A’s office remake in Reynoldstown, and comedy troupe Dad’s Garage’s overhaul of Atlanta Metropolitan Christian Church in Old Fourth Ward. Elsewhere in recent years, congregations such as Shy Temple CME Church, formerly located on Memorial Drive in Kirkwood, and Second Church of Christ, Scientist, which used to stand among skyrises on Buckhead’s Peachtree Road, have sold houses of worship to developers who wiped the land clean for large-scale ventures.

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
Inside a sample condo

Photograph by Josh Green

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
Davison shows off the arched windows in a 3rd floor bedroom.

Photograph by Josh Green

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
A rendering of what a bedroom will look like

Photograph courtesy of Minerva

Demolition was never in the cards for the Greek Revival-style church, a protected landmark at the southwestern tip of Druid Hills for nearly 70 years. Minerva has experience in adaptive-reuse; they transformed a 1923 warehouse downtown into The Giant Lofts just prior to Atlanta’s Olympics and, a couple of years later, a 1916 Chattanooga factory into the mixed-use Signal Knitting Mill near that city’s riverbanks. For the church project, they wanted to produce an intown condo community—still relatively rare amid Atlanta’s post-recession, apartment-building frenzy—in a place where many big redevelopment ideas had faltered. But puzzling residential units into a former sanctuary is never easy, especially when they’re so cavernous, says project architect Dennis Hertlein, a principal with Surber Barber Choate + Hertlein.

“It’s not like new apartments where you’re dealing with a formulaic layout and just have to plug them in,” says Hertlein. “We did some similar multistory units in gymnasiums at Bass High School [now Little Five Points lofts], and Roosevelt High School [now apartments in Grant Park], but this is a whole different challenge, with three stories instead of two.”

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 PonceA brief history lesson: Famed American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the visionary behind New York City’s Central Park, came to Atlanta in 1890 at the request of Inman Park developer Joel Hurt to create a chain of parks and a surrounding “suburb” from farmland that would become Druid Hills. Olmsted’s blueprints called for the rolling, snaking green space to begin at Ponce and Briarcliff. Today, Olmsted Linear Park remains the neighborhood’s verdant front yard.

What’s thought to be Druid Hill’s first home was built around 1900 by the Candler family, across the street from the park’s entrance, but by the middle of the century it had fallen into disrepair and was razed. This set the stage for what a 1951 fundraising campaign called a gleaming modern sanctuary large enough to host 840 worshippers at once, topped with “a new landmark” tower standing 125 feet that “points each passerby to God, our Maker.”

Druid Hill Methodist Church, a congregation of nearly 3,000 bursting at the seams in nearby Inman Park, had purchased the Candler land for $50,000 in 1946. To help quickly raise $275,000 for the new church’s construction, a “Day of Destiny Banquet” was held in Midtown’s Biltmore Hotel. In what may have been the understatement of that year, campaigners noted of the Druid Hills site: “Careful students of our city’s expansion agree that Atlanta is expanding residentially in this direction and beyond.”

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 PonceThe fundraising “dream” was realized, and construction launched in 1953. It’s the work of architects and developers Ivey & Crook, whose traditionalist designs include churches throughout Atlanta and Decatur, nearly 40 buildings on Emory University’s campus, and stately residences on deep lots throughout Druid Hills, according to an online compendium.

As metro Atlanta’s growth swallowed the eastside of town, the popular Druid Hills United Methodist Church Preschool—colloquially called DHUMP—opened in 1982. But as Davison, the developer, tells it, the church’s congregation in more recent years had dwindled to only about 60 members, reflecting trends of shrinking congregational participation nationwide and what’s been called an “epidemic of empty churches.” Multiple attempts to sell off the church and land ultimately sputtered.

“We’re at this sort of pinnacle corner here,” Davison says of the site, wedged between two high-traffic state highways. “People have tried to rezone this multiple times over the years. It would be an amazing shopping center corner, but Druid Hills kept shooting it down. [Other developers] wanted to do apartments, townhomes, always something different, and [the neighborhood’s] historic board didn’t want it as their front door.”

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 PonceMinerva closed on the property in January 2017, and the church’s remaining congregation merged with Candler Park’s Neighborhood Church (formerly Epworth Methodist), taking the cross atop the steeple with them. The preschool eventually found a larger facility in Inman Park, at the church where Druid Hills’ congregation had branched away from in the 1950s, marking a homecoming of sorts.

Demolition included the removal of the massive church organ and its hundreds of pipes, which Minerva donated to a Tallahassee church under the condition they had to use it for services. The Florida church suggested that Minerva might earn tax credits for the organ’s value, which Davison had figured was very little—until the church’s appraisal came back at $600,000. Oops.

Developers stumbled on the church’s original construction plans in a bin during a yard sale the preschool hosted. Davison says those documents “helped amazingly,” mapping out the building’s steel structure of massive I-beam and walls, floors, and wide hallways of solid concrete. Hertlein’s team designed a third story over the preschool to add density, and decided to fill the sanctuary with six multi-story units, as opposed to stacked flats.

“It’s not cookie-cutter—it’s outside the box,” says the architect. “We love working on old buildings, to make something special out of given conditions.” The former meeting room and outreach kitchen in the church’s basement is being morphed into the amenities area, with a gym, yoga studio, TV lounge, art studio, and boardroom for meetings.

Plans for the overall community of four buildings and 51 condos—which Davison expects to possibly finish in 2023, depending on sales—call for a melding of architectural styles from neighborhoods in each direction. A new, four-condo building that would face Ponce could be mistaken for a Druid Hills estate, with its dormers and hefty scale. Other buildings will take design cues from the traditional, stacked-porch apartments of Virginia-Highland and even the industrial-modern aesthetic of Springdale Park Elementary School next door.

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
Arched windows

Photograph by Josh Green

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce

The first 23-condo piece to open includes the sanctuary, preschool, and a two-story extension toward Ponce, with prices from the mid-$600,000s to well over $1 million. Ceilings are at least 10 feet, and even the smallest one-level homes of 1,625 square feet are meant to live like ranch houses, minimizing unusable space and incorporating large patios. The flipside is one “mega unit” that consumes 4,400 square feet at the front of the sanctuary, engulfing part of the former balcony, with a price tag expected to be around $1.5 million.

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
A rendering of a planned living room and kitchen area

Photograph courtesy of Minerva

Druid Hills United Methodist Church 1200 Ponce
A rendering of a full bath

Photograph courtesy of Minerva

As of late September, eight condos were under contract—a pace that’s surprised Davison, given the virus-walloped economy and project’s raw status. Initial buyers are expected to move in next month. So far, they’ve run the gamut from downsizing retirees to a single, mid-30s remote Facebook employee who’s decamping from New York and choosing to buy in Atlanta.

“Most of the stuff in here is unlike anything else, and there’s all kinds of different buyers,” says Davison. “It seemed, from all levels of logic, that there’s a market for it.”

Biggest development bet on English Avenue in ages, Echo Street West, is officially moving forward

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Echo Street West rendering
A rendering of Echo Street West

Rendering courtesy of Lincoln Property Company

Tony Bartlett says Echo Street West won’t bring a carbon-copy of the pricey apartments, million-dollar townhomes, and chain brands that have snuggled up to the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail in recent years.

Bartlett, Lincoln Property Company executive vice president, foresees the 19-acre mixed-use project becoming the largest investment in the English Avenue neighborhood in generations, an eventual hub of offices, retail, multifamily homes, and hotel rooms with enough space—2.4 million square feet—to eclipse Ponce City Market. That could take five to 10 years to materialize across several phases, he estimates, depending on market conditions. But the near-term objective is more a quick injection of economic activity and greenspace, all straddling a new BeltLine trail segment.

Echo Street West renderingEcho Street West renderingEnglish Avenue “has historically been disconnected from Midtown and other Atlanta neighborhoods, creating a divide in opportunity, resources, and growth for the neighborhood,” Bartlett wrote via email this week. “Echo Street West will spur investment in the area, and we’re dedicated to collaborating with the local community to do this in a way that will benefit both existing residents and future generations.”

But first, the dirty work.

Lincoln, a nearly 9,000-person company with a commercial footprint in 450 U.S. cities, announced this week that preliminary work has begun on Echo Street West, following the project’s unveiling just before the pandemic lockdown. The site’s a few blocks west of Georgia Tech, bordering blocks that have long grappled with blight and crime—and more recent gentrification concerns. With designs meant to echo the area’s industrial and railroad past, various Echo Street buildings are planned to rise over a highly visible intersection bordered by Northside Drive (to the east), Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway (south), Jefferson Street (north), and James P. Brawley Drive NW (west), with local rapper T.I.’s Trap Music Museum just down the street. Atlanta development watchers may recall the site was previously owned by homebuilder Brock Built, whose plans for some 700 apartments, 40 townhomes, and a lot more were met with pushback from neighbors, who lambasted so much density as inappropriate.

Echo Street West map

Echo Street West renderingEcho Street West renderingLincoln appears to be taking a measured approach. The $17-million first step that’s underway now will be mainly infrastructural, replacing outdated utilities, improving stormwater retention, paving miles of roads, meeting environmental standards, and installing what developers described as a “fiber backbone.” The site, for now, is home to a few low-rise buildings. “We’re preserving the most salvageable structures,” says Bartlett, “and we’re drawing inspiration from their history to inform their adaptive-reuse.”

All that will set the stage for years of vertical construction—and a place Lincoln officials say people will want to visit within a few months. By next spring, expect one building to be converted into an artist and makers colony, and another an event venue with live music capabilities. Several buildings along Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway will be redone as an open-air bar with dining from local chefs, outdoor games, and gathering areas. More than 30 percent of the initial phase will be reserved for greenspaces such as passive gathering spots and communities gardens.

Echo Street West renderingEcho Street West renderingEcho Street West rendering“We plan to highlight the character and culture of the surrounding communities by working with local artists, makers, chefs, and entrepreneurs to activate the spaces,” notes Bartlett. “Expansive outdoor community spaces were already a key part of our plan prior to the pandemic, and looking ahead, we understand the value and need for these open-air environments more than ever.”

Lincoln is seeking construction financing now for all vertical pieces of the first phase, as design and permitting work moves ahead on several fronts. Beyond what’s planned to open in the spring, the initial phase calls for 285,000 square feet of offices, 30,000 square feet of retail, and 300 apartments—with 20 percent of those qualifying as “affordable” for households earning 80 percent of the area median income, Bartlett says.

Echo Street West renderingEcho Street West renderingOfficials with Lincoln and DPR Construction, the general contractor, hope to source Westside talent via forthcoming job fairs and to engage minority and veteran-owned businesses by partnering with nonprofit Westside Works. Bartlett says the project’s expected to generate 600 temporary construction jobs, with more than 2,220 permanent employees working at the district when complete, according to an economic impact analysis conducted by an outside advisory group.

Along with Mercedes-Benz Stadium, State Farm Arena, and the closely watched, 70-acre Quarry Yards site recently bought by Microsoft, Lincoln officials cite unbeatable proximity to the Westside Connector Trail—it cuts right through the property—as a selling point.

That spur trail on the former CSX railroad “Kudzu Line,” a team effort by the PATH Foundation and BeltLine, will span about three miles between Centennial Olympic Park and Marietta Boulevard at Huff Road. The trail and first redone section of nearby Westside Park at Bellwood Quarry—planned to eventually be Atlanta’s largest greenspace—are both expected to open before year’s end.

Mailchimp to depart Ponce City Market for massive new Old Fourth Ward project

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Mailchimp moving out of Ponce City Market
Mailchimp’s front desk at Ponce City Market

Photograph courtesy of Mailchimp

Atlanta-based digital marketing company Mailchimp has announced plans to leave Ponce City Market, where it’s swelled in recent years to become the landmark mixed-use project’s largest tenant by far.

For its new 300,000-square-foot headquarters, Mailchimp will uproot just a couple of blocks south to the initial phase of New City Properties’ latest Atlanta BeltLine-adjacent venture, a titanic undertaking called simply “Fourth Ward Project” as a means of better meshing with its neighborhood. Overall, the project is expected to consume 12 acres along the BeltLine’s popular Eastside Trail and cost upwards of $1 billion. Mailchimp’s decision to relocate reflects the company’s growth and presents a challenge to PCM’s owner, Jamestown Properties, as retail and office leasing continues to drag in the COVID-19 era.

Mailchimp expects to vacate PCM—where its headquarters opened with 300 employees in 2015—and begin operating on the other side of Historic Fourth Ward Park by late 2022. The company’s cofounder, Dan Kurzius, says his 1,200 employees have worked from home since March but were previously taxed for space at PCM, most of them spread across four floors with not all offices contiguous. Mailchimp’s lease of about 213,000 square feet ends in fall 2022. According to a Jamestown rep, that footprint is the building’s largest, nearly tripling the size of another large tech marketing company, Cardlytics.

The relocation to New City’s “blank canvas” will give Mailchimp “the opportunity to reimagine our space with this thought of us being a platform business as opposed to just an email business,” says Kurzius, referring to his company’s expanding services. “I use the analogy of not having to change the wheel on a moving bus, to be able to go in and make edits that better suit our strategy,” whether that involves in-office, remote, or hybrid approaches to working after the global pandemic, he says.

Mailchimp moving out of Ponce City Market
The Mailchimp office at Ponce City Market

Photograph courtesy of Mailchimp

New City’s president, Jim Irwin, helped lead the creation of PCM before breaking off to found his company and develop the 725 Ponce office tower next door, which replaced the so-called “Murder Kroger.” Irwin had hit it off with Kurzius during their days under PCM’s historic roof together, and Kurzius reached out to the developer recently after considering leasing space at other forthcoming projects in Atlanta. But no other option had the same BeltLine cachet, or the promise of state-of-the-art HVAC systems and abundant open-air spaces. Maintaining a physical headquarters for collaborations, meetings, and problem-solving, Kurzius says, will be a focus of Mailchimp’s future no matter what changes the novel coronavirus ultimately spurs.

The Old Fourth Ward project “always stood out because of its proximity to our current space,” says Kurzius. “It’s a thoughtful business decision, but culturally, our folks don’t have to change their commutes. They can still frequent their favorite restaurants and retail locations. For me, the Fourth Ward holds a special place in my heart, in that I’ve always found it to have a strong sense of creativity around its community.”

Nationwide, experts have predicted the lingering pandemic will trigger a glut of commercial vacancies, and shops, restaurants, and offices dotting most Atlanta submarkets have bore that out as fewer new businesses sprout. Nonetheless, Jamestown CEO Matt Bronfman struck an upbeat tone when asked about Mailchimp’s forthcoming departure. “We are happy to have helped Mailchimp grow into the company it is today,” Bronfman wrote in a prepared statement, “and equally happy that when more space was needed to further expand, they decided to stay in the neighborhood, reinforcing the Old Fourth Ward as an innovation hub.”

According to Irwin, Mailchimp’s 300,000-square-foot lease will fill the northernmost of three office towers fronting the Eastside Trail. Additional office space will be in “bridge floors” connecting two buildings, set high over a ground-level, waterfalling stairway component that leads deeper into the development. Excavation work for the first two office towers is underway, with construction on the third pending.

Irwin expects the remaining major components—a 158-key hotel and stair-stepped, 358-unit residential building with 10 percent of units reserved as affordable housing—to break ground in 2021.

New City Atlanta BeltLine
An aerial view of what the New City development is expected to look like.

Rendering courtesy of New City

“This is really a story about [Mailchimp] wanting to stay on the Eastside Trail, and we have the perfect opportunity for them to continue to grow their company, because they’re hiring like gangbusters right now,” says Irwin. “Certainly, from a momentum perspective, it’s a fantastic first announcement.”

Mailchimp was founded in 2001 and initially headquartered at a Means Street facility near Georgia Tech, where it still operates a 48,000-square-foot space for support services. It also maintains smaller offices in Oakland, Brooklyn, Vancouver, Santa Monica, Seattle, and London.

“It’s an exciting deal to mention, but we still have a lot of planning to do, two years out,” Kurzius says. “Right now, it’s just the excitement of saying we’re committed to Atlanta, we’re excited about the work we’re doing for our customers, and of course I’m excited to share with our employees that we’ll be able to evolve our space to better suit our place in business.”

Do Georgia teachers worried about in-person learning during a pandemic have any recourse?

With additional reporting by Michele Cohen Marill.

Though school district officials had instructed him not to speak with the media, a Paulding County High School teacher recently felt compelled to explain what the first weeks of face-to-face classes had been like. Unlike North Paulding High School about 15 miles away—the one that attracted national headlines and scorn from Dr. Anthony Fauci when videos of its crowded hallways and unmasked students drew internet infamy, prior to its temporary closure and dozens of positive COVID-19 tests—the Dallas school had weathered the initial days of the semester in relative calm. Unless, as the teacher passionately explains, you had to actually stand before a classroom full of teenagers.

The teacher’s voice rises and quakes in describing how much he’s concerned for teachers and students—and all of their extended families. With the absence of powerful unions in Georgia, he says a walk-out or strike isn’t an option, especially when so many colleagues feel that concerned teachers are just “being very silly.”

“I mean, here’s the thing: I love my job. I love going in and working with those students,” the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Atlanta magazine. He wears a protective mask in class but says many teachers choose not to because there is no mandate. “I know that not everything is being done that needs to be to keep these kids safe. To me, when the guidelines for the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] are no big gatherings indoors, having 30 students in a classroom just flies in the face of that, right off the bat. Things are looking okay so far, at least at my high school, but it just doesn’t seem like it can hold. It just feels like there’s a hammer waiting to drop.”

In his worries about ongoing face-to-face learning—or the prospects of it being required later this school year—the teacher is hardly alone in cities and rural communities across Georgia. As is common in the South, collective-bargaining for public employees—the teeth of unions—is not allowed, following a state Supreme Court ruling years ago that teachers can have only a “memorandum of understanding” at best. It’s a right-to-work state, where laws prohibit union security for teachers, as with other occupations.

Options for recourse in Georgia do exist, however, but those hinge on individual predicaments, and observers say the dilemma some teachers are facing could ultimately impact the quality of education at some schools. It’s a tough situation, educators say, when parents are well within their rights to demand kids are properly educated—and those teaching them fear that pushing back too much could cost them their jobs and health coverage.

The legal team at Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a leading advocacy group that counts nearly 100,000 paying members, has been fielding an unprecedented number of calls from worried teachers in recent weeks—about 100 member calls per day. That’s a 98 percent increase in inquiries over the same time period last summer.

PAGE executive director Craig Harper says the agency has heard from some educators worried they’ll be forbidden from teaching pupils in person, but the vast majority have shared “deep concerns” from the other side of the fence. In general, Georgia districts in metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton, DeKalb, and Cobb counties, are opting for virtual-only learning. With some exceptions, the farther a school is from cities, the more likely it’ll be using a hybrid model or face-to-face learning, though data from state agencies tracking opening plans are lagging, Harper says. The most common worries among educators, per Harper, involve: inadequate safety procedures (including PPE and sanitizing measures); quarantine procedures for anyone exposed to the novel coronavirus (and how that would impact accrued sick leave); the plight of special needs students or those with limited internet access; COVID-19-related contract obligations; and a lack of “district-provided accommodations for educators who have a documented, qualifying high-risk medical condition” or live with family members who are high-risk.

One local educator whose situation checks the latter two boxes is Jack Butler, an eighth-grade ESL teacher at Cobb County’s Garrett Middle School. He takes medication for a preexisting condition that makes him immunocompromised. This past summer, as he worried that his district would require a physical return to classes, he investigated all his options for avoiding that: counting up his sick days, contacting a Buckhead attorney’s office, even reaching out to a former colleague about possible jobs in Douglas County’s all-virtual district next door. (Cobb schools opened in a virtual format August 17, but Butler says teachers were informed schools could reopen later, beginning with elementary classes.)

“I just can’t handle the idea that I can’t tell a 14-year-old to put a mask on. I cannot tolerate that,” says Butler. “If there’s a dress code [making] the masks mandatory, I would go into the building.”

In a letter recently distributed to educators, Richard Woods, Georgia’s State School Superintendent, stressed that local superintendents and boards of education have the authority, via dress codes, to require masks or other face-coverings in schools, though he acknowledged the issue has become politicized. Woods noted the vast majority of the state’s districts are opting for a hybrid model of in-person and online learning, trying to “navigate a landscape none of us have ever encountered or experienced.” A PAGE spokesperson says districts’ approaches to masks have been scattershot, with some changing their plans multiple times per day. At least one metro county that’s hasn’t opted for virtual learning, Hall, is requiring all teachers and students to wear masks. Forsyth County next door, meanwhile, is strongly encouraging face-coverings.

So what can a teacher who’s reached wit’s end in this uncharted landscape do for help?

Anita Bala, an attorney with Atlanta’s Buckley Beal and veteran of school law in several local districts, recommends that educators with specific concerns exhaust all communication with their individual schools before taking legal action. Teachers who resign during the school year and break contracts could be subject to disciplinary actions by the Professional Standards Commission, the state’s certifying agency for teachers, such as a yearlong suspension of their certificate to teach in Georgia. But during the pandemic, it remains to be seen if school districts are going to report teachers who do so, given the proven health risks, Bala says. Agencies like PAGE and the Georgia Association of Educators might lack the collective-bargaining power of unions, but Bala says they “do have some pull with the school districts” and that organizing with other teachers is generally advisable.

PAGE’s Harper notes that both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) contain job protections for educators who qualify during COVID-19. [The agency’s pandemic FAQ webpage is a great resource for more details.] PAGE attorneys are available for one-on-one counsel with members anxious about high-risk conditions or other situations, Harper says. The first step usually involves acquiring letters from healthcare providers documenting medical conditions, related safety concerns, and what action—either an accommodation or a leave—is advisable.

Bala, the attorney, has yet to hear of many teachers breaching contracts and quitting, though older educators are taking retirement sooner than planned in fear of the virus. That was the case with Bala’s daughter’s second-grade teacher in DeKalb County, who suddenly retired two days before school started—replaced, to Bala’s relief, with a regular substitute and experienced co-teacher.

“If they retire, of course there’s no repercussion,” says Bala. “But I think there may be a disproportionate number of more experienced teachers closer to retirement that districts are going to lose because of the concerns.”

Kathy Kelly-George, a music teacher on leave from a private school, started a private Facebook group called Teachers Against Opening School During a Pandemic to give fellow teachers an outlet to vent. So far, it has 4,280 members. Most of them are from Georgia, but some have joined from other states, including Alaska and California—and even as far away as New Zealand. Teachers want policies to be based on the science of transmission and public health, she says. And while teachers also yearn for normalcy and in-person instruction, they don’t want to risk their lives or bring the virus home to vulnerable family members, she says. “A thousand people a day are dying [nationally]. What part of the news aren’t you watching?” she says in response to people who demand schools open with in-person classes. “It’s Russian roulette with the teachers.”

Miranda Wicker, a former English teacher, has become a spokesperson for a different Facebook group called Teachers for Common Sense Safety. They are focused on mask requirements and other protocols that would protect teachers. (One in four teachers in Georgia are 50 or older, and older age is a risk factor for severe illness from COVID.)

Writing cheerful notes on the sidewalk outside the school and lauding teachers as “heroes” is well-meaning, but it won’t keep them safe, says Wicker. “If you want to show teachers you appreciate them, listen to them,” she says. “Hear what they’re saying. Many of them feel scared every day when they walk into the classroom that they’re going to catch coronavirus and bring it home to their loved ones.”

The Airbnb of backyard pools is making a splash in Atlanta

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Swimply pool rental Atlanta
A Swimply rental in Roswell

Photograph by Josh Green

It’s a humid Saturday afternoon at the end of a Roswell cul-de-sac, where towering hardwoods create a quiet cove. Behind an elegant, brick-faced house is a big glistening saltwater pool, a dog-days godsend, an oasis with dual waterfalls pouring from the hot tub, submerged ledges for lounging, strategically placed umbrellas for shade, and boulders that double as diving boards. It’s a child’s eighth birthday, and Quad City DJ’s pumps from a Bluetooth speaker. Three families from the same Kirkwood street—occupants of a small social circle for the past couple of months—comprise the socially distanced group of 12 that has come to celebrate here. And we all have one thing in common: Nobody knows who the hell owns this place.

Welcome to the world of Swimply, a service that acts as an Airbnb of private pools and whose tagline beckons users to “escape locally” in a time of pandemic lockdown.

Launched a little more than a year ago in Long Island by two young entrepreneurs, Swimply’s web platform facilitates hourly rentals of other people’s private pools and now counts hosts in nearly every U.S. state, plus Canada and Australia. Rates average about $40 per hour but can climb as high as $300 for really posh accommodations. The roughly 20 Swimply options around metro Atlanta right now run the rent-a-pool gamut: From $15 per hour for a saltwater pool in Palmetto, to $30 for a smallish option with a slide in Virginia-Highland, up to $150 for both a lakefront spread with beach access elsewhere in Roswell and a College Park offering marketed as the “Love Pool.”

Our four-hour excursion in Roswell cost the parents of the birthday girl about $240 and included access to a large screened porch for lunch and birthday cake and a basement restroom. (Most Swimply hosts offer the latter, but for those who can’t, the company can help provide portable restrooms that they mandate be cleaned regularly, officials say.) Our friendly host, tinkering with a BMW SUV in his garage, simply said, “Welcome” as we meandered up his driveway—the last we saw of anyone but our pals. We’d followed the rules and brought all our own towels and floats, and as our time ran out, the only indication we’d been there was a few splashes on the pool’s stacked stone.

Cofounder Asher Weinberger, 34, who previously founded and scaled up a couple of ecommerce startups, launched a pilot company in 2018 by searching for pools around Long Island via Google Earth, knocking on doors, and asking owners if they’d like to be part of his rudimentary website at the time. Of 80 homeowners approached, 76 of them shut their doors in Weinberger’s face. But within a few weeks, the pools-for-rent company saw thousands of patrons sign up.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced Swimply to furlough virtually all of its staff, but as warmer months arrived and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced findings that pool water showed no evidence of spreading the coronavirus—while still strongly advising social distancing around swimming pools—the business exploded. Swimply has grown 3,300 percent since March, as Weinberger estimated during a phone call in early August. His own backyard pool is listed on the platform, and it netted him $15,000 last month alone, he says.

“We’ve seen unbelievable, meteoric growth that’s allowed us to hire back people we’ve laid off and hire even more,” says Weinberger. “Lots of our hosts lost their jobs, and we’re not just paying for their pool upkeep—we’re paying for their entire mortgage in many cases.”

One local beneficiary is Marcia Clarke, an Ellenwood insurance underwriter who heard about Swimply a year ago at work. She’s hosted about 25 groups of 15 people or less since Memorial Day Weekend, charging $60 per hour for use of her pool, spacious deck, and rented port-o-potty. Her family is careful to give guests their privacy, and between each rental she douses all surfaces with a spray bottle of bleach fastened to her garden hose. It’s been a particular hit, she says, with families whose apartment complex, hotel, and even subdivision pools have been shuttered by COVID-19.

“I think the app is bringing a great selection of people,” Clarke says. “Everybody’s following the rules. I haven’t had any problems. It’s a great opportunity, and I just want people to enjoy themselves.”

For a 15 percent fee from hosts, and 10 percent service charge from swimmers, Swimply handles the payment process, facilitates booking, and provides hosts with waivers and other paperwork. Weinberger says the service has had to change surprisingly little despite the global pandemic, apart from being “hypervigilant” about booting any host off the platform who breaks rules pertaining to large crowds or healthy distancing.

“What we built was a contactless experience in the first place,” he says. “You can’t steal a pool, you can’t break a pool, and the chlorine in the water does 99 percent of the cleanup for you.”

For now, Weinberger says Swimply has the rent-a-pool market cornered in the U.S., though similar services have appeared in European markets. A warm-weather place like Atlanta is on the company’s radar for potential growth, but the around-the-clock availability of pools every day of the week, he notes, means that even 20 listings can service thousands of people.

“We definitely have a nice amount of business going on in the state of Georgia. Around Atlanta, of course, is the epicenter of that,” says Weinberger. “It’s not nearly as big as it will be, but we’re going to develop that this coming year.”

More of your questions answered about COVID-19 unemployment in Georgia: filing glitches, employer responsibility, retroactive payouts, PUA, and more

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How do I file for unemployment in Atlanta Georgia
Confused? You’re not alone.

Photograph by Eblis / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Across the battered landscape of Georgia’s job market right now, as with most states during the COVID-19 pandemic, the statistics are daunting if not terrifying. But there are signs of improvement.

The state’s Department of Labor tallied initial unemployment claims for June alone at 607,851—a staggering 3,200 percent increase over the same month in 2019. The better news? June’s tally this year had dropped by more than 27 percent compared to May’s.

Mark Butler, Georgia’s Department of Labor Commissioner, says the dip in unemployment filings has dramatically accelerated since then. The first week in July, for instance, saw about 140,000 claims come in overall; by early August, that number had been halved. It’s not yet clear exactly why this is happening, but Butler points to steadily dropping unemployment rates in Georgia (7.6 percent, versus 11 percent across the U.S.) and the expiration of federal CARES Act weekly payments of $600 late last month, which Butler says “kind of took some of the steam out” of unemployment insurance filings. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has authorized more federal weekly unemployment benefits of $400, by way of an executive order issued Saturday, after Congress failed to reach an agreement on a second stimulus package last week. But payouts, as CBS News reports, could take weeks to reach the bank accounts of those who would qualify among more than 16 million unemployed Americans. Another sticking point is that Trump’s plan calls for states to pony up $100 of the additional weekly help per unemployed worker—funding that some governors have said is not available.

Despite promising statistical trends and the more than $11 billion the Department of Labor says it has paid out to Georgians in state and federal unemployment benefits since March, some Atlantans are still mired in limbo. They’re awaiting regular state benefits (the maximum weekly payout is $365), or special funding such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) for self-employed and gig workers. We recently solicited reader questions and posed them to Butler, nearly five months after the novel coronavirus pandemic began crippling Georgia’s economy.

The greatest concern and source of frustration, as evidenced by reader questions, was claimants’ inability to reach anyone at the Department of Labor by phone, email, text, or any other means. The agency has increased staff to about 1,300 employees who handle claims on a daily basis. But Butler asserts the workload in recent months would have warranted a staff of 6,000, which he says still wouldn’t alleviate filing hiccups and a gumming of the process cause by problematic or fraudulent claims.

We started by asking: What’s the latest on the state’s unemployment benefits backlog, and what’s being done to get through it?
I think the definition of backlog is maybe getting skewed in our situation. A lot of it has to do with a lot of misinformation, and some of it’s being put out there by elected officials about how unemployment works. Unemployment is not a guaranteed issue. Just because you apply for unemployment doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. You have to qualify for it, you have to have actually worked, to have some kind of income; even on the PUA, you have to show some kind of income.

What we view as backlog, there’s about 21,000 cases right now that are undergoing further review. It’s not that we haven’t processed them—we have. The issues with those claims has to do with determining if the person is who they say they are, issues with ID, or to fight fraud. Or it could be an issue where the employer is appealing the person getting unemployment. For example, we get a lot of complaints from employers who say people just walk off the job and then apply for unemployment. And they’re the ones who actually pay the unemployment taxes, and they have the right to appeal the decision of someone getting unemployment, in which case the payments would stop until there’s a hearing. A hearing is not something that takes five minutes. It’s like a court case. Both sides present their evidence, it’s looked at, case law is applied, and it’s complicated. So obviously those things can get dragged out for a long time. And there’s a whole bunch of levels of appeal.

Also, we’re getting a lot of invalid claims being filled, too, almost half of what we’re seeing come in. A few week ago, we had almost 40,000 claims filed over a weekend in early July; in that number, [many] people had self-reported that they hadn’t worked in over 18 months. The problem is, you still have to [process] every one of those, and chances are, all of them will be denied.

Whether you’re talking about the state or the federal system, you have to have been working at the time the pandemic hit, and/or you have a job acceptance in hand that you can prove. We’ve seen people that worked some in 2019 but had quit their job in, say, January and weren’t even looking, and we had to deny them because they weren’t actually working at the time the pandemic hit.

Now for reader questions: My [now part-time] employer did not file my unemployment, and told me I am still eligible, but [they said I] have to file my own claim now. Is this true? Or should my employer still file for me?
There’s no “have to” on that, no. That’s not true. I’ll give you an example . . . the latest week we’ve got [data for] right now, 65 percent of claims filed were employer-filed claims. So there has not been a stop to the ability of employers to be able to do that. We have not put a moratorium on that.

Matter of fact, I had a local restaurant here in Atlanta that’s very famous, which I won’t name, the owner texted me this morning: Even though the $600 [in federal benefits] is not there, he asked if he could he still do employer-filed claims because some of his folks are working reduced hours. I said, Yeah, just understand the formula: If they make more than $300 plus whatever the weekly benefit amount is from the state, then they won’t get anything. So if they were getting $200 in unemployment, if they made more than $500 a week, then they wouldn’t get anything. Anything under that, they’d get something.

I’m pretty sure I accidentally put “yes” to the question that asks if you have refused work and so because of that I think my claim is locked up in the system, so I’m pretty screwed at this point. [How do I deal] with this situation?
You can actually go back—and it might take a while—but a review official will have to take a statement and interview that person. Because you can’t just willy-nilly flip that back. We need to caution everybody when you’re filling out those forms, to be honest and accurate. We’re well aware that there’s all kinds of stuff on Facebook and everywhere else where people are telling folks how to answer the questions. But you have to be careful about that. You don’t want to answer something dishonestly and have it catch up with you.

How long do I have to wait to be able to start drawing unemployment [after receiving severance pay for a specific amount of weeks]? I am running low and starting to worry about feeding my family and paying rent. I’m looking for work.
Without putting an exact number on it, a review official has to take a look at the severance package that was offered and verify that. Typically, if they were paid for 18 weeks’ worth of pay, then it’s going to be 18 weeks before they can do unemployment. That’s federal law. You cannot receive unemployment during a period that’s covered by severance.

Severance has to be reported; if you don’t, it will catch up with you. Because your employer’s going to report those wages paid in that quarter, and when we do our spot-checks that we do several times a year, if it shows that you made wages from your employer the same time you were collecting unemployment, you’re going to be in an overpayment situation.

I realized I filed a month late for my unemployment benefits, and I am unable to claim the month prior to that date. What should I do? File an appeal or keep calling to get in touch with a representative?
Sounds like what the person did, when they filled out the form, they did not put in the correct date of separation. Yes, you can file an appeal on that, but they need to make sure they have their documentation.

On certain situations, that can be handled by a specialist, depending on the criteria of the situation. They’re still going to need to see something from the claimant that what they’re saying is correct. I strongly caution that you’re not claiming, or attempting to claim, any weeks in which you received any pay. People think, or there’s a rumor going around, that we won’t catch it. It might take a while, and you might not hear about it for months and months, but eventually it will catch up. We’re already having cases like this right now.

When is the GDOL going to release retroactive PUA money? [Related question:] I want to know why the GDOL is not paying approved PUA and FPUC benefits? They are months in the arrears, [and] people are getting desperate.
We are paying. That’s not true. It may be [an issue with] that person. I talked to someone the other day who applied for PUA, and they got their first check in 14 days. We’re not a month behind in getting out payments; we’re getting them out timely, unless there’s an issue with your claim. Your payments may get frozen for a while until it can be investigated, which means a person has to lay eyes on it and see. We’ve even had to stop some payments recently, because once we got to looking at the information people submitted, or did not submit, about the income they supposed made [for PUA applications], we see they have no proof of income, no 1099 [tax forms], no tax returns, nothing.

It may be how they filled out their form. And we’re seeing a lot of people that are trying to get PUA that—when we research them—they provided no income proof, no income has been reported to Georgia Department of Revenue. Obviously, if you can’t prove that you actually made an income and had a job then you’re not going to qualify.

How does partial unemployment work? My salary was reduced but my hours were kept the same. Do I qualify for partial unemployment?
The terminology of partial unemployment gets misconstrued. Partial unemployment—this person, in this situation, it sounds like they are, or could be. It doesn’t mean you’re getting a partial amount of money; it means you’re still connected to your employer.

In their case, they’re saying their pay has been reduced. It’s possible they could be eligible for unemployment. It’d be best if their employer filed for them. It goes back to that formula that we talked about: If they’re making more than $300 plus whatever they would qualify for with unemployment, then there’s no sense in filing, because you won’t get anything. If pay has been significantly cut, it’s possible they could get some help, but you won’t know until you apply and see what your weekly benefit is.

I’ve had plenty of employers that have reduced people’s hours that have filed partials. An individual unemployment filing is not considered a partial; the employer has to do that. If the employer sends it in, we’ll send out determinations. And when the employer files every week for their employees, they put in how much they paid them [gross wages], and if it exceeds that formula, they don’t get anything. If it’s under that, they get something. We do all the math for them—they just have to report the earnings.

I never got my [prepaid debit] card, [and] the phone number for the card company just hangs up on me when I try to call it. I don’t have a card number to give them because I never received my card, but the unemployment office tells me there’s nothing they can do about the missing card.
I don’t know the situation—if it’s an employer-filed claim, or individually filed claim. There’s a lot of different issues that can go wrong. If it’s [the former], you need to ensure the employer is actually filing. I had a case this morning where an individual said they didn’t get their unemployment last week, and I asked if they’d talked to their employer. We went and checked, and actually the employer didn’t; they’d filed for everybody but that person. They needed to call their employer and ask them to send that week back in. If the person is individual-filling, and they have claimed their weeks and told us they need to get paid, then that won’t happen.

The debit card company has supposedly increased their line capabilities. The same company that does it for us does it for six other states. So I’m sure they’re inundated with phone calls from customers from six other states.

How do I get my back payments [going back to my approved eligibility date for unemployment assistance]? Do I certify for myself the weeks [between then and now], or is it automatically retroactive?
Yes, you have to certify. You’re certifying that you were unemployed those weeks. It’s like taking an oath: If you do not tell us you were unemployed those weeks, you will not receive payment.

That’s actually a common question. People apply for unemployment and think the money just starts showing up at your door, and you tell us when to stop. That’s just not how it works. When you certify every week, you’re certifying you did not work the previous week. We’ve had some people try to certify future weeks. How do you know you’re not going to be employed three weeks from now?

Three related questions, among many on this topic:

Why hasn’t my husband heard anything since he received an email that his account was processed? He filed back in April and has claimed eight weeks now but nothing else has been done . . . we have called, texted, emailed for a couple of months now. What can we do to get an answer before we lose everything? 

I want to know why it’s impossible to reach unemployment once you apply. I have three different phone numbers for [DOL]. Can’t reach a live person to save my life. I try emailing from the DOL website. No one responds. I emailed [Governor Brian] Kemp’s office to get a call back saying the DOL would contact me. That was a month ago. 

So, basically there is no way to resolve your issue and get your claim paid. They are clearly short-staffed . . . is there a troubleshooting group we can contact? It has been nine weeks for my claim, and it has not been processed due to a glitch.
It’s sheer volume. Because what we do is so complicated, you can’t hire your way out of this. We’ve heard lots of suggestions from certain people: “You should just create a call center.” [But a] call center can’t answer or solve the problems. They’re just going to put you on a list that we currently have.

From our legislators who are helping us identify troubled individuals, we have about 6,000 [claimants] on that list. We have associations that are helping us. The people that can solve the problems, that’s what they’re doing every single day. We’re continuing to add new tools on a weekly basis. We’ve got some new ones coming in another week or two that are going to add a lot more abilities [so that] people won’t have to email us. They’ll be able to go into their accounts and upload documents and things like that. There’s also going to be some ways to help identify people—if there’s [a delay caused by ID issues]—we’re adding some really neat technologies to be able to do that without having to actually call anybody.

Across Atlanta, BeltLine and PATH trail progress continues despite pandemic  

BeltLine Progress
This Westside BeltLine Connector Trail bridge was installed in May

Photograph by Josh Green

If there’s a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic in the realm of Atlanta’s urban infrastructure (besides the extinction of hellacious traffic jams, for the most part), it could be a renewed interest in multiuse trails as a means of getting out of the house. Or traveling to and from work. Or keeping construction jobs in place, as trails continue to grow across ITP in spite of a hobbled economy and the novel coronavirus’s spread in Georgia.

“It’s very exciting, because with everything going on, there’s such a need for trails right now, and everybody’s looking for opportunities for their mental and physical health,” says Greta deMayo, PATH Foundation’s executive director.

While the pandemic has paused some fundraising efforts at PATH, where donations are the primary source of income, deMayo said the organization has nine trail projects set to begin construction on schedule in the next six months, and several underway or finishing now, across the region. Those include the Westside BeltLine Connector Trail, a team effort with the City of Atlanta and Atlanta BeltLine Inc. that installed a milestone bridge downtown in early May.

“The BeltLine work was deemed to be truly essential, even in the midst of the pandemic [in March]” says BeltLine CEO Clyde Higgs. “Having that activity, and those jobs, still moving is [crucial]. We continue to push forward.”

We checked in with deMayo and Higgs for the latest on funded trail construction—which is consuming old railroad corridors, street lanes, former parking spaces, and a variety of unused or underused properties—for a glimpse at what’s new, and what’s scheduled to come.

WESTSIDE
Late in the spring, installation of a bridge spanning Joseph E. Boone Boulevard near the Georgia World Congress Center marked a tangible sign that one of PATH’s long-held goals—to create a trail linking Centennial Olympic Park downtown to the Silver Comet Trail in Cobb County—was making headway. But first things first.

The bridge is part of a BeltLine spur trail that will span about three miles, beginning at Centennial Olympic Park and traveling former rail line to Marietta Boulevard at Huff Road, due west of Midtown. Two more bridges are pending (at Cameron Madison Alexander and Meldrum Street) before the trail passes through a tunnel at Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway in English Avenue. “We’ve been pouring concrete like crazy over in that area,” says deMayo.

The ADA-accessible connecting trail is on schedule to finish around January. Like all new trails, it’ll be equipped with lighting and security cameras, per BeltLine standards, and a small trailhead for parking at Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard.

The next step, which has been designed and is entering permitting phases, will see a modification of Marietta Boulevard, reducing the five-line corridor to two travel lanes for vehicles, a center turn lane, and a 12-foot-wide multiuse trail buffered from traffic by an arboretum. That one-mile stretch will be considered part of the BeltLine’s “mainline,” or the 22-mile loop planned to encircle the city. “We’ll bring a lot of the elements and innovations of complete streets in making sure that it’s safe,” notes Higgs. That latter section is scheduled to begin construction in early 2021 and wrap up later in the year, with final touches including landscaping finishing by summer 2022.

Pending a couple of unknowns—including a Cobb County SPLOST vote in November for potential trail funding and the fate of CSX train company’s massive, emptied Tilford Yard in northwest Atlanta, both involving required land—deMayo says hoping on a bike in downtown Atlanta and pedaling, via the Silver Comet Trail, to Alabama is a realistic possibility in the next five years.

NORTHSIDE
In Brookhaven, PATH opened what’s called the “model mile” of the Peachtree Creek Greenway last winter, with three trailheads (one conveniently placed at Briarcliff Road) and a monumental steel bridge. Eventually, that project’s planned to run for 12 miles, from Chamblee down to the BeltLine.

Elsewhere in the vicinity, South Fork Conservancy has launched construction on a centerpiece project called the Confluence Bridge near Lindbergh. The name reflects the bridge’s location where the North and South Forks of Peachtree Creeks meet, and also its purpose in eventually tying together two unfinished multiuse trails in the area: the Beltline’s Northeast Trail and PATH400.

Speaking of, a highly anticipated section of PATH400—Buckhead’s award-winning, five-mile answer to the BeltLine, being constructed largely on unused Ga. Highway 400 right-of-way—is still grappling with pandemic-induced delays related to the installation of final security items, including fencing, cameras, and gates. The section in question links other PATH400 portions near Lenox Square and Miami Circle. Major construction finished last fall, but a grand opening remains TBD.

Meanwhile, just south of Lindbergh near Ansley Park, a BeltLine segment stretching for two-thirds of a mile dubbed the “hairpin line” is on track to be completed by October, at latest, Higgs says. The trail, a partnership with Georgia Power, will be accessible via parking lots behind Ansley Mall but won’t yet fully connect southward to nearby Piedmont Park.

“In future funding cycles,” Higgs says, “we’ll be doing bookends for that segment.”

EASTSIDE
Hallelujah—the entirety of the BeltLine’s popular Eastside Trail finally has lighting!

Nearly eight years after its debut, the trail section between Irwin Street in Old Fourth Ward and the cusp of Piedmont Park is no longer dark at night, following a funding partnership with GDOT. The lighting system, which was activated earlier this summer, includes security cameras tied into the Atlanta Police Department’s monitoring system. “We’re excited about that project—been a long time coming,” says Higgs.

BeltLine Progress
Construction underway along Bill Kennedy Way in Glenwood Park

Photograph by Josh Green

Moving southward, work began this month to create a safer BeltLine experience for patrons traveling through Glenwood Park. Along Bill Kennedy Way, crossing over Interstate 20, planters and parking spaces are being removed to expand sidewalks so that users can stay safely out of the street from Memorial Drive, down to where the interim Southside Trail begins at Glenwood Avenue. Expect a construction timeline of between eight to 12 months. “We’re looking at eventually [building] a pedestrian bridge over I-20 there,” says Higgs. “But that’s a long-term fix, and right now we just don’t have the funding in house to make that happen.”

Also on the radar for PATH is what’s called the Eastside Trolley Line Trail, a project that would branch off the existing Eastside Trail in Reynoldstown, snake through Edgewood, and link with an existing PATH segment near Coan Park in Kirkwood. Designs have been finished, funding identified through a combination of T-SPLOST and earmarked city budget dollars, and the plans have been issued to the city for permitting. “I think this time next year, we should be under construction,” says deMayo.

PATH conducted a study in conjunction with Atomic Entertainment, the owners of Kirkwood’s historic Pratt-Pullman Yard, about potentially linking the Trolley Line Trail to the property’s planned redevelopment, but no concrete plans have materialized, deMayo says.

SOUTHSIDE
There’s potentially big news afoot on the BeltLine’s Southside Trail, the loop’s four-mile, smiley-face section, if you will.

Higgs says the organization should know by mid-September if the U.S. Department of Transportation will approve a BUILD grant application to construct a roughly $50 million BeltLine piece, stretching for 1.9 miles from McDaniel Street in Pittsburgh to Boulevard in Grant Park, plus 0.6 miles of protected bike lanes.

“I think the merits of our project really speak to what that funding source is trying to accomplish, so fingers crossed on that application,” he says.

Also in Grant Park, a BeltLine bridge spanning United Avenue had to be removed following decades of being whacked by large trucks—including a severe impact in June that required immediate action. An interim bridge is in the works, with a permanent replacement expected to be in place by early next year. “Removing [the bridge] was the way to go. It was in the timeline anyhow,” says Higgs. “It was one of the fastest moving projects in BeltLine history, getting that removed.”

On the flipside of the southern BeltLine, near Adair Park, work continues on a one-mile section called Southside Trail West. Shoring and erosion control work is underway now on a project that will extend the trail from where the Westside Trail currently ends, over a bridge at Metropolitan Avenue, to a point just south of University Avenue. That’s still scheduled to be finished in early summer 2021, Higgs says.

Lastly, the first PATH Trail in the City of East Point finished construction this month. The 1.4-mile model segment, part of a larger master-planned network, connects Tri-Cities High School to Sumner Park where the popular Dick Lane Velodrome is, linking a number of neighborhoods in the process.

“It’s great,” says deMayo, “that they’ve got their first project under their belt.”

In North Georgia, a mini modern mountain home community like no other takes shape

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The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The Nest’s model home, the Finch, is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom option of just 1,086 square feet.

Photograph by Josh Green

Since girlhood, Paige Thornton has swooned over the modernistic but approachable home designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. And since uprooting from Sandy Springs to become a North Georgia mountains real estate agent in 2004, she’s been awaiting the right opportunity—despite pessimism from her colleagues—to launch a hub of her own modern homes in a bucolic place where few might expect to find them.

“One-hundred percent of the Realtors I know thought I was crazy,” says Thornton, a Union Realty associate broker based in Blairsville. “They said, ‘You’re not going to find anybody that wants this and [who’s] going to be able to pay [for] it.’ But I’m pretty stubborn, and I’ve been waiting for this chance my whole life.”

The connection that set Thornton’s plans in motion came a few years ago when she met Atlanta tiny home advocate Kim Bucciero while both were volunteering with the MicroLife Institute (formerly Tiny House Atlanta). Thornton led Bucciero on tours of her mountainous home turf until, after about six months of searching, they found what seemed an ideal site 15 minutes north of Blairsville: 42 acres with long-range mountain views but no dramatic, difficult cliffs. The property was still owned by a subdivision developer who’d put in roads and other infrastructure just before the foreclosure crisis squashed those plans.

Bucciero, acting as developer, lined up financing and closed on the property in early 2018. The oval of land, flanked by a babbling creek, was re-platted into 37 lots, each spanning between three-quarters and two and a half acres, with privacy and views in mind. Then the real work began on an eco-conscious, solar-augmented project the two say is unlike anything else in the region. But high design in high places, they soon discovered, doesn’t come cheap—and the more attainable price points they’d initially envisioned weren’t quite realistic.

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The view from the living room of the Nest’s model house

Photograph by Josh Green

A few years ago, many builders in Georgia’s mountainous counties began eschewing the log-cabin approach that’s fit for kitschy decor (think: Americana and carved bears) for homes more in the Craftsman vein, Thornton says. A smattering of truly modern dwellings does exist, including a well-known, multi-dwelling complex by esteemed Atlanta architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam that’s currently for sale at $1.85 million. But in terms of a full community of contemporary houses, the only comp Thornton can point to is a rising development by Gnarly Home Crafters in Blue Ridge, albeit with a more rough-hewn, rustic bent.

For what they’ve named The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve, Thornton and Bucciero envisioned a tucked-away respite with design and home efficiency on par with almost anything in Atlanta. To design the model unit, they enlisted Patrick Chopson, of Atlanta-based architecture firm Pattern R+D, whose portfolio includes work on green buildings at Emory University and Georgia Tech. Chopson collaborated with Atlanta designer David Bucciero (Kim’s brother), who sketched the community’s other two floorplans. Each house comes with at least 10 solar panels on the roof that cover most power needs, though they’re connected to the local utility grid for power at night or on cloudy days. Spray-foam in ceilings and floors boosts insulation, and wall-mounted, Mitsubishi mini-split HVAC systems allow for more efficient temperature control in each room.

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The rear deck of the model home

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge ReserveOutside, cement board options for the walls (with cedar shiplap for mountain flair) are designed to be low-maintenance. Annual HOA fees of $400 cover the upkeep of common areas, including a communal fire pit and picnic area, and landscaping that’s meant to be simple, low-hassle, and natural-looking. Thornton takes pride in noting the community will never be gated. “I’ve had a lot of people from Florida and Atlanta ask, but we’re not that,” she says. “We’re all about bringing the outdoors into your living room and no fancy, prudish stuff.”

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The living room, dining room, and kitchen

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
Dining room and kitchen

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
View from the deck

Photograph by Josh Green

Indeed, a recent visit to the model home—a two-bedroom, two-bathroom option of just 1,086 square feet called “The Finch”—lent a sense of being connected with the gorgeous setting from virtually every room. A bounty of windows that frame treetops, ceilings that climb to twice the height of entry doors, so much bright-white paint, and even the direction of the optional white oak flooring (running the length of rooms, to make them feel longer) enhance the illusion of space.

“Using every square inch, and not having needless hallways that waste square footage, it’s just kind of well thought-out,” says Bucciero. Adds Thornton: “You feel like you’re in 3,000 square feet.” The model is joined by three larger homes under construction, with a fourth scheduled to break ground last week. Buyers seeking homes for vacation, as secondary residences, or rentable properties (capped at 30 consecutive days) have come from as far as San Diego. And The Nest’s model design was enough to garner an invite to be featured on the 2020 MA! Architecture Tour as part of Atlanta Design Festival, now rescheduled as a virtual event in September.

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
Master bedroom

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
A second bedroom, used as an office

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
Master bathroom

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
Deck

Photograph by Josh Green

But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, building an architectural anomaly in a remote location proved difficult in numerous ways. Union County’s population of less than 30,000 means the labor pool—which is prone to disappear during hunting season, Thornton says—is small. And a hot building market, combined with aspects such as complex ceiling angles and window arrangements, means construction costs have effectively doubled since The Nest was conceived. Labor and supplies in the mountains, per Thornton, are roughly 20 percent more expensive than metro Atlanta, where costs are already relatively high.

The going rate now for Nest lots themselves is $50,000, or $70,000 for a handful deemed premium. The smallest one-level floorplan, which initially was planned to start from $275,000, now costs $399,000 before upgrades. The next step up is The Wren, a two-bedroom priced at $429,000 for 1,302 square feet and an extra half-bathroom.

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
A mountain view from an Starling floorplan under construction

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The Starling, under construction

Photograph by Josh Green

The Nest at Brannon Ridge Reserve
The Wren floorplan

Photograph by Josh Green

The largest option, The Starling, asks $449,000 for 1,500 square feet and up to three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. (Basements of roughly 900 square feet can be added, for $100,000 and up, Thornton says.)

“For really modern,” says Bucciero, “I think [the pricing is] still really competitive.”

Lingering economic concerns related to COVID-19 have given several prospective buyers cold feet for the time being, Bucciero says, and a wave of expected contracts has yet to materialize. But Thornton is excited by progress thus far, and the feeling that her long-held, somewhat quixotic idea is being validated.

“The market,” she says, “has proven itself like crazy.”

Pandemic or not, plans are optimistic for a massive, mixed-use project on the Eastside BeltLine

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New City Atlanta BeltLine
An aerial view of what the New City development is expected to look like.

Rendering courtesy of New City

A few weeks ago, patrons of the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail probably noticed the addition of tall plywood fencing around a marquee development site, just south of Ponce City Market, where Georgia Power had stored vehicles and materials for half a century. It was tangible evidence that plans for the largest ground-up new development on the BeltLine to date—a 12-acre, mixed-use mini-city expected to eventually cost upwards of $1 billion—hadn’t been scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The site’s owner and developer, New City Properties president Jim Irwin, had planned to commission artists to paint the plywood fencing, but instead, activists against racial injustice turned the fence into a Black Lives Matter mural, with tributes to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, among many others. Irwin was on a bike ride when he saw the graffitists at work.

“It’s amazing,” says Irwin. “What happened was this beautiful, organic moment where the public used [the fence] for something that’s just absolutely, critically necessary.”

 

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As with Irwin, the grassroots BLM artwork raised eyebrows—and triggered conversation—at the Historic District Development Corporation, which is headquartered in South Atlanta, just a couple of blocks from the Wendy’s where Brooks was fatally shot by Atlanta police. (During subsequent protests, 22 windows were broken at the community development group’s building, then boarded up and painted with murals of Black women wearing protective masks.) HDDC board member Donell Woodson said his group initially wondered if the graffiti mural in Old Fourth Ward was being used as a safeguard for the development—akin to a BLM sign staked in a home’s front yard to shield it from potential protest damage. That thought has since triggered an idea, Woodson says: That blurring the lines between for-profit development and the momentum toward equality in urban epicenters right now could spur some good.

“It’s a grand project, in the scope of things, and I want to be cautiously optimistic, but [developers] probably aren’t considering the entire demographic makeup of Old Fourth Ward as their clients,” says Woodson, who’s also the Lupton Center’s lead trainer in community development. “When developments are happening, and they put any signage around it, it’s always about partnership. When you allow BLM for this time period to be put on your fence line, you’re saying something.”

Inside the fence, the site’s activity reflects the nature of development in Atlanta during a global pandemic. Unlike some cities that essentially padlocked construction sites as the novel coronavirus swept the country, Atlanta never paused its growth. But some large-scale development companies have had to pivot, adjust, or reel in expectations for construction timelines they made months ago, amidst the city’s previously roaring economy.

Since New City bought the Old Fourth Ward property for $34 million in 2017, the huge project with no name (more on that later) has been among the city’s most closely watched (and, on occasion, criticized) BeltLine-adjacent ventures, claiming the largest available piece of land left on the popular trail. Demolition and early infrastructure work recently launched, but Irwin balks at saying the project is technically moving forward right now. However, his company’s ambitions for the planned hub of offices, hotel and retail space, and housing (including an affordable housing component) have not changed.

A Buckhead native, Irwin helped lead construction of Ponce City Market before founding New City, where his first major project was the redevelopment of so-called “Murder Kroger” into the 725 Ponce office tower next door. In a wide-ranging phone interview, Irwin discussed that development and the newer venture that would dwarf it, more immediate changes to BeltLine accessibility, and why he’s confident Atlanta will emerge strong from the pandemic’s ongoing malaise.

On next steps for 725 Ponce
With a reimagined, booze-dishing Kroger at its base, the $200-million 725 Ponce building has fully leased all office space across its 12 stories, Irwin says. Tenants include global asset management firm BlackRock and coworking company WeWork, each in various states of building out offices and moving into the building. A large restaurant space atop Kroger, meanwhile, could soon function as a pop-up gallery for the time being.

“We’ve talked to several different operators, who potentially would do sort of short-term retail,” says Irwin. “It’s such an incredible, cool space that’s right there on the BeltLine, with terraced indoor-outdoor space, that instead of feeling urgency to lease it quickly, we feel a lot of pressure to get it perfect. We’ve been in conversations with a handful of ideal operators—James-Beard caliber [restaurants]. Obviously COVID hasn’t done anyone a favor, but it’s hit the [food and beverage] industry pretty hard. Instead of trying to force anything, we’re just being patient.”

A potential second phase of the 725 Ponce project—another large building between Kroger and Green’s package store that would consume surface parking lot space—has been designed but won’t move forward for a while, allowing New City to study traffic patterns and focus on the larger Old Fourth Ward endeavor, Irwin says.

New City Atlanta BeltLine
A rendering of the BeltLine elevator

Rendering courtesy of New City

A glassy BeltLine elevator?
Aside from the plywood walls, the most immediate changes BeltLine dwellers will notice is that access to the snaking Gateway trail that leads to Historic Fourth Ward Park is cut off.

The existing connector trail consumes too much land to jibe with New City’s plans. So, as a replacement, the developer agreed in talks with BeltLine officials to close it but immediately begin construction on a glass elevator with a stairway that includes bike runnels, meant to echo the look of elevators along New York City’s High Line. (The park will remain accessible at points just south of the existing Gateway and at North Avenue.) Irwin expects the elevator and stairs to be finished in eight or nine months.

Preliminary work
Georgia Power fully vacated the site in early 2019, and the utility’s 1980s-era brick office building on site has been demolished. Preparing the site for vertical construction will take almost a year in itself, Irwin says, and he fully expects development to be a 10-year effort before its considered finished.

The project caught flak last year when news emerged it could qualify for $22.5 million in public Invest Atlanta funding—in the center of a booming development zone. Irwin says talks involving that funding as an economic development tool are on the backburner and could resume later.

The breakdown
Pandemic be damned, the mix of planned uses—a whopping 1 million square feet of office space in glassy buildings, 200,000 square feet of retail, a 75-key boutique hotel, and roughly 1,100 residences—hasn’t been modified since last year. At least 10 percent of residential units will be reserved as affordable housing for anyone earning 60 percent of the area’s median income, Irwin says.

There’s no solid ETA for when vertical construction might start, but the BeltLine-facing office component will rise first, with an expected construction timeframe of about two years.

New City has elected to not name the project. Why not?

“What we’re purposefully trying to do is just weave elegant additions into the already beautiful fabric of the Old Fourth Ward,” says Irwin. “To name it one thing would be sort of antithetical to what we’re trying to do. We just call it the Fourth Ward project.”

New City Atlanta BeltLine
A rendering of a glassy office component next to the Eastside Trail

Rendering courtesy of New City

Pandemic’s impact on mixed-use design
“What COVID will do in the long term, I believe—and I’m not trying to be a soothsayer—but one of the implications is that it has renewed the public’s focus on health and wellness, and living and working in environments where that is promoted,” says Irwin. “And what better location in the City of Atlanta than the BeltLine? We are taking steps in the design of the buildings to make sure we’re maximizing indoor air quality and just being prudent in what we do from a design perspective.

“One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, I feel like great cities have great plaza spaces—great public plazas. Atlanta has tremendous parks for people to gather and congregate, but a plaza is more of an active, vibrant node that’s in between dense urban locations. It’s the place you see the old guys smoking cigars and playing chess under the tree, this vibrant coming together of civic friction. That’s what we’re doing here. The Historic Fourth Ward Park is stunning, but [next door] we’re creating this really vibrant public plaza.”

On bullishness for an economic rebound
“I think Atlanta is one of the most well-positioned cities in America to come out of this stronger than ever,” Irwin says. “If you look at what makes our city what it is—it’s an incredibly strong city from a civic perspective, from the connectivity between the business community and the civic community, and it’s an incredibly livable city, too. When I talk to friends who live in beautiful buildings in New York, it’s a completely different scenario, even now. Still in the middle of a pandemic, we can safely move around, and while being responsible, be outside. We’re a city in the trees, able to enjoy nature and the Chattahoochee River. But at the same time, it’s an incredibly sophisticated business community. I feel like, as a city, we’re doing it right, despite the hard things, and we’re very well positioned to come out of it strong. I think the [construction] cranes you see throughout the city, not just in the Fourth Ward, are evidence of that right now.”

What is Georgia’s proposed police protections bill? And why is it controversial?

When Tiffany Roberts caught wind of the language in Georgia House Bill 838, her mind shot back to 2017, the year of Charlottesville violence.

Roberts, a longtime Atlanta civil rights and criminal defense attorney who works for the Southern Center for Human Rights, was reminded of the wave of oft-called Blue Lives Matter legislation in states across the country that year, drafted in response to violence against police. Measures that would help protect law enforcement in a dangerous, often thankless line of work might sound agreeable, but Roberts recalled how Georgia’s version, which didn’t make it into law, seemed structured to increase penalties on protestors and dictate how they behave. And then, last month, 2020’s pandemic-postponed legislative session brought HB 838—a bill which proponents say would offer protection against “targeting” for police officers and other first responders, similar to hate crime laws—amidst a season of historic unrest and nationwide protests rallying against systemic racism and police brutality. Roberts and other civil rights activists encourage people to be more skeptical of what they feel is little more than a tool to punish protestors—and one that’s made it to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk.

“It seems that state legislatures take up this issue every time [police are] protecting the streets,” says Roberts. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It sort of goes hand-in-hand with people who say, ‘Well, these protests make police officers less safe,’ even though all the data suggests police may make protestors less safe, because [protestors are] the ones being shot with rubber bullets. They’re the ones being arrested and thrown to the ground.”

Atlanta police union president Jason Segura reads HB 838 differently. “It doesn’t silence anyone, except those breaking the law and threatening folks, police, and citizens alike. Peaceful protesters are welcome and encouraged,” Segura, head of International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ Atlanta chapter, wrote in an email. “Why are [the bill’s detractors] working so hard to allow violence to occur against police? Violence is bad no matter who the victim, and who the perpetrator.”

How did HB 838 legislation quickly—too hastily, some argue—come to be? A recap:

The bill, originally authored by Public Safety and Homeland Security Chairman Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, began innocuously enough, weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns in America. When filed in January, the bill’s intent was to subtract a single word from the title of the Office of Public Safety Officer Support. That’s an office within the state’s Department of Public Safety that helps police and fellow emergency personnel cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas associated with public safety. Removing the “Officer” from its title, the logic went, would allow the office to provide support services and peer counseling to any entity with public safety personnel that requests it. Then came the February homicide of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, a global pandemic, and the killing of George Floyd.

In response to the fatal shooting of Arbery, a Black unarmed jogger whom three white men are charged with killing, lawmakers crafted the landmark hate crimes legislation HB 426 that included, for the first time in Georgia, protection and legal recognition of LGBTQ communities.

In late June, Senate Republicans tried to add language to HB 426’s protected classes that would have put police and other first responders under the same umbrella—an effort poisonous enough to nearly kill the bill entirely. So references to law enforcement were pulled out by Republicans and inserted as provisions into HB 838, as part of a deal with Democrats, with a goal of boosting protections for police and other first responders, per the authors. This drew the ire of groups like Roberts’ SCHR. She’s aware of similar laws in Kentucky and Louisiana, as two examples, and designated offenses in Georgia code and within certain municipalities designed to specifically protect educators and healthcare workers in hospitals. But nothing, until HB 838, that would make police and first responders a protected class under the law. She wondered why a charge like felony obstruction of law enforcement, with a typical five-year penalty in prison, wasn’t already severe enough for people convicted of violently confronting cops.

Most significantly, the HB 838 additions establish a new offense—“bias motivated intimidation” of police, firefighters, and paramedics—and allow first responders to bring a civil lawsuit against any person or group they feel has accused them of false misconduct. That latter part, as Georgia NAACP leaders insist, could deter people from filing legitimate claims against officers in the wrong. But one champion of the bill, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, has called it a necessary tool to honor “the vast majority of officers in this state [who] serve us honorably and selflessly” and to distinguish them from police who violate the public’s trust.

Segura, of the Atlanta police union, sees the bill as a safeguard, in a sense. “Nationally, police are under attack by organized groups,” Segura says. “These groups of individuals make threats directly to officers’ faces. They make threats to their families, saying, ‘I know where you live and where your daughter goes to school.’ These individuals follow police officers home, they post their addresses and phone numbers online. They call their family members, and their family members’ employers. If that happens to any American, they should absolutely be concerned, and in America they should be defended.”

Others see the bill as a muzzle for peaceful protestors and everyday citizens, in disguise.

“I don’t even know how to interpret some of [the bill’s] language,” says Mawuli Davis, a Decatur civil rights attorney and activist. “What constitutes ‘bias motivated intimidation’? I mean, is it I can’t yell at a police officer during a protest? If I see an officer doing something wrong during a course of his so-called duties, I can’t say something? Would they have attempted to prosecute the people who were recording and yelling at the [Minneapolis police] officers as they, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, laid with their knees on [Floyd’s] body in this way? It’s almost a violation of your First Amendment to even put something like this in writing.”

Despite pushback from civil rights groups and Democrats, HB 838 passed along party lines as the legislative session began to wind down June 23, barely squeaking through in the House. Three days later, with bipartisan support, Kemp signed the hate-crimes legislation, HB 426, into law during a Gold Dome ceremony that drew national headlines.

Noticeably absent from that event was Georgia’s chapter of the NAACP, which released a statement calling HB 838 “dangerous” in that it would “further create a toxic divide in our state.” Also absent was Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who has said she supports all law enforcement but feels “HB 838 is more dangerous to our community than HB 426 is good.” Meanwhile, State Rep. Bee Nguyen, D-Atlanta, lashed out at the bill on Twitter, calling it a means of intimidating and punishing protestors. “We don’t need a bill of rights for the police,” Nguyen wrote, “especially not one that infringes on the rights of the people.”

Governor Kemp has until August 5 to sign HB 838 into law. Its effective date would come next July.

Segura says a scourge of violence in recent weeks that prompted the governor to declare a State of Emergency in Atlanta and deploy as many as 1,000 National Guard troops lends him faith that Kemp will approve the measure and not veto it. “It’s in the best interest of all citizens,” Segura says.

Roberts pointed to a potential sticking point for Kemp, first raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, that the law could actually weaken penalties for anyone convicted of intentionally killing a police officer.

As is, the minimum punishment in Georgia for murdering a first responder is life in prison. The new law, as ACLU leaders told the AJC, would muddy the waters regarding how perpetrators in such cases are charged. HB 838 would set the maximum penalty for “bias motivated intimidation” resulting in the targeted death a cop at five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, max. A legal argument in Georgia called “rule of lenity,” as the ACLU asserted, would require prosecutors to seek charges that are most favorable to defendants, meaning suspected killers could face as little as a single year in prison, with murder charges off the table.

“They’re probably numerous reasons why [Kemp] might be on the fence” in regards to signing HB 838 into law, said Roberts. “We’re hoping to God that he’s on the fence.”

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