Construction for Atlanta PD training center proceeds despite 'forest defenders'

Officials intend to push forward with the project, saying that any trespassers will be arrested


By J.D. Capelouto
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Looking at the wooded swath of land, it may not seem like much is being done to the site that by next year could be home to a massive training center for Atlanta's police officers and firefighters, located just outside the city limits.

On the edge of the property, aged chain link fences line a portion of the road, and "No Cop City" is spray-painted on a concrete barricade, referring to the nickname activists have given the project.

This rendered image shows an aerial view of what may be a new public safety training center in Atlanta.
This rendered image shows an aerial view of what may be a new public safety training center in Atlanta. (Atlanta Police Foundation)

A passing driver, or walker on a nearby trail, wouldn't necessarily know that design work for the 85-acre facility is wrapping up, and that construction permits could be in the pipeline soon. Or that within the forest, a group of entrenched activists have occupied the site in hopes of stopping it from being developed.

Six months after the Atlanta mayor and City Council leased the land to the Atlanta Police Foundation — approving the training center project — a group known as "forest defenders" has set up camp on the site, building barricades and at least one treehouse.

With the project being given the greenlight, the conversation around the planned $90 million training center is decidedly different than it was before the vote. Over 17 hours of public comment were called into one virtual council meeting last September, and several southeast Atlanta neighborhood organizations and environmental groups came out against the proposal.

But the encampment is one sign that some opposition has persisted, though police foundation officials are intent on moving the project forward with the city's backing. As crews begin construction, anyone trespassing on the site will be arrested, police foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson said.

"We are going to build it. ... The momentum continues to build and it's a game-changer," Wilkinson said, adding that he believes the training center sends a "message that tells everybody public safety is a big deal."

The group has already had at least one run-in with authorities, a Jan. 28 incident in which DeKalb County police responded to a few dozen "loud and boisterous" protesters chanting and waving banners as "multiple construction workers contracted by the Atlanta Police Foundation [were] working with heavy machinery," according to a police report. Wilkinson said the crews were taking soil samples.

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A 28-year-old man from Atlanta was charged that day with trespassing and obstruction after waving a banner in a police sergeant's face and trying to run away, a police report said. Three female protesters were also arrested on trespassing charges.

The group said this week that they plan to stay on site as long as needed. It declined to make anyone available for an interview, but said in an email that the movement is aimed at preventing the destruction of a "precious life-sustaining habitat to construct a facility that will be used to further exacerbate issues of police violence in Atlanta."

Their plans include "direct physical resistance to construction," the group said.

Wilkinson estimated group members have done hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to utility equipment, adding that a fence will eventually be put around the entirety of site as construction begins, "and anyone on the site will be arrested."

"As we move forward," Wilkinson said, "the enforcement will become stricter and stricter."

Other groups, including Community Movement Builders and the Black Alliance for Peace, have continued to hold rallies and canvass nearby neighborhoods in the hopes of stopping the projects or putting pressure on private backers.

As the police foundation moves forward with plans for the development, it has the backing of the city's political and corporate power players, including new Mayor Andre Dickens, who voted in favor of the project as a councilman last year.

A new City Council took office in January, including several new, progressive members whose opposition to the proposal was a large part of their campaigns. But there appears to be no appetite among the council to reverse last year's vote that gave the center the greenlight.

At the same time, a community stakeholder committee has been tasked with reviewing plans for the training center and making recommendations to the site plan. The committee's leader — Alison Clark, who is also the homeowner's association president of Edgett's Boulder Walk subdivision — said they hope to make the project as palatable as possible for nearby residents.

Wilkinson said planners have adopted about dozen recommendations from the 18-member stakeholder committee to improve the site plan. They include shrinking a firing range and relocating it to an area further away from residential neighborhoods; removing a bomb detonation training area from the site plan; adding a second entrance off Constitution Road; and building sidewalks along Key Road.

With designs complete, Wilkinson said, the police foundation plans to move into the permitting stage with DeKalb County, with construction on the first phase of the project possibly starting this fall. The development is set to include classrooms, a mock village, an emergency vehicle driving course, stables for police horses, and a "burn building" for firefighters to practice putting out blazes.

The police foundation also hopes to build separate museums on the site dedicated to police officers, firefighters and the labor prison that was once located there.

The first phase of the project has an estimated cost of $90 million, with the city paying $30 million. The police foundation and private donors are set to cover the rest. Cox Enterprises President and CEO Alex Taylor has led the campaign to raise private funds for the project. Cox Enterprises owns the AJC.

Deron Davis, the executive director for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, originally opposed the prison farm site as the location for the training center. Given environmental justice concerns in Atlanta and DeKalb County, the group has a vision for a connected " South River Forest" in the area.

Now, Davis said his organization is focused on the 265 acres around the training center site that are set to be preserved as greenspace. The Nature Conservancy hopes to help improve water quality in the South River and surrounding forest, which it sees as the least protected and most threatened in the city.

"Our view is that the City Council has made its decision about how they want that land used," said Davis, who is part of the mayor's recently created greenspace advisory council. "They made big promises when they made that decision that have everything to do with greenspace."

Meanwhile, on the stakeholder committee, one member has been outwardly critical of the project. Lily Ponitz, who has a background in environmental engineering, was appointed to the community committee by DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry.

While Wilkinson said environmental testing has been done to local and state standards, Ponitz has called for more in-depth studies on the land.

"I still have hope that the project will be stopped one way or another," Ponitz said. "There's just so many people who are against it and so many good reasons for it to be stopped."

Clark, the committee leader, has been supportive of the training center from the get-go, but guesses that her own neighborhood remains evenly split on the issue.

She acknowledges that many residents, especially those in DeKalb, were blindsided by the proposal when it was publicly announced last year. But Clark said the committee she leads doesn't "make decisions on whether or not the development exists."

"Even members of the committee that were opposed to the project upfront have really come around," she said, "in knowing that they have the ability to shape it into something that could work for their communities."

(c)2022 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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