Have you been reading the series of editorials in the AJC about the Botanical Garden's parking-deck? The project has been sold to us as a boon for business, OK for the environment and a help to congested neighborhoods. I'm not convinced. Since I can't get anyone to publish such a long editorial, here it is.
With no-bid contracts, waste and corruption causing all sorts of embarrassment here and around the world (New Orleans, Iraq), a "trust us, you'll see" approach is lame. Enjoy. And stay informed!
The Garden, Parking Deck & Conservancy: Of Two Minds In Midtown
(ATLANTA – 14 September 2007) I’m following the debate over the Botanical Garden’s parking deck, as I hope many city residents are. The work of the Piedmont Park Conservancy has benefited me -- as an investor at Piedmont Crest, a new Park-side condominium development off of 12th street; as an ALTA player out of Piedmont Park Tennis Center; and as a frequent visitor to Park events such as Screen on the Green, the Dogwood Festival and the Dave Matthews Concert.
I am also a paid member of the Conservancy. Their work has, without question, brought this great park of ours forward – and has made it greener, cleaner and more full of life. We are the better for it.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I question the defensive and self-promoting editorial by Debbie McCown, the Conservancy’s Executive Director (“Conservancy openly takes park from blight to bright,” @issue, 22 August). This stuffy piece was the second of the one-two punch I read in the AJC, after a gaggle of attorneys wrote in defense of the Botanical Garden’s independence from city affairs and state Sunshine laws (“Plan will be a boon; Garden has nothing to hide,” Saturday Talk, 25 August 2007). Why are we rehashing this stuff?
Both McCown and Team McBeal are missing the point. We are on a slippery slope when we as a city give ourselves wholly over to the private sector. It’s one thing to source corporate assistance to help create a commercial thoroughfare such as the Midtown Mile; but quite another to give over a natural jewel such as Piedmont Park. Not only have our city planners ceded control of that treasured asset – we are, in many ways, relinquishing the spirit that our residents, our Mayor, our visitors and our city council members have worked so hard to build. As an activist, property owner, journalist and business manager here in Atlanta, I stand firmly behind Mike King’s plainly worded editorial (“Park groups should let sun shine in,” 17 August 2007). It asks, in simple language: Now that the Botanical Garden’s Grecian Army of lawyers has snake-charmed the presiding judge to toss many of the claims brought by Friends of Piedmont Park, just come clean.
Show us how you’ve awarded contracts, to whom, and why; disclose your finances and balance sheets; and give us less lip when we ask you to comply with Georgia’s Sunshine laws. You’re doing the city’s work, the people’s work, even if it’s not coming directly from City Hall. If you’ve given no-bid contracts to friends of the Conservancy, as is rumored, then I want to know about it. And so do a lot of other folks.
Doug Abramson, principal of Friends of Piedmont Park, the advocacy group leading the legal opposition to the parking deck, also says our great gains in beautification have come at a price.
“The Garden and the Conservancy do some good work in the Park, but when questioned about their decisions and their practices they respond that they have raised millions of dollars over the years and somehow that should insulate them from public scrutiny and accountability,” he says. “As stewards of our public park and as representatives of the City, they should act transparently and disclose how and where money is spent, and otherwise conduct their affairs publicly.”
Actually, the current parking arrangement works pretty well. Piedmont Park Tennis Center – one of the last units of the park still managed by the City of Atlanta, run expertly by Sharon Lester and her team – enjoys regular access off Park Drive to the modest yet ultimately convenient parking lot adjacent to Magnolia Hall and, yes, the Botanical Garden. We have managed with this arrangement because the unpretentious parking area provides a small, controllable yet effective resource when these great events happen (including our home tennis matches). My teammates and I use this lot frequently and do not want to see it torn up. Rather, it should be maintained and used as is. What about eco-friendly asphalt? Low-water landscaping? More restricted access? Other creative uses? This area could be a testing ground for new environmentally friendly landscaping products, but all we ever hear about is how this mammoth car deck is going to be our savior, an expansive car heaven that will alleviate Midtown’s parking woes.
Let’s also remember how royally the private sector can fumble the public ball. After mulling this issue, I kept having nightmare reminders of Iraq reconstruction getting handed over to the likes of Halliburton, Parsons Corp. and others -- only to have billions wasted. Do we need such a profound example of alleged no-bid private contracts gone awry? I don’t think so. Privatization, in some weird way, seems to absolve officials from the personal care and obligation that comes with public management. And since secrecy breeds skepticism and mistrust, here we are.
I write this, clearly, of two minds, because again, I know full well the benefits we’ve seen in the Park. I may be a Conservancy member, but remain a dissenting voice, hoping the air around this project is cleared. But this nose-thumbing, redundant, “look what we’ve done for you lately” approach is maddening and makes me want to scream – and it should bring all Atlanta residents to their front porches, too, to do the same. McCown earned nearly $115,000 in annual salary in 2005, which has most certainly increased since then; in that year, the Conservancy, a non-profit, paid more than $100,000 to an external PR firm. Are these needed expenditures or extravagant usage of donors’ generosity? And that’s only the stuff we know about.
Simply singing one’s own praises does not magically immunize you from public speculation – particularly when you have people in the city who enjoy the park set-up as is, and would rather not indulge the Botanical Garden’s desire to give their members in Alpharetta a more convenient place to park in the city. I use the tennis center proudly, along with its parking area, knowing the recently updated clubhouse and courts there are the last bastion of municipal-managerial excellence that the park has.
I am a traditionalist and would prefer to see the park’s car-management system kept the same while still have the park expanded and enhanced. However, if the parking deck is our savior, show us how. If any of our private partners must stand on a pedestal to claim grand success, and continue to move us forward in this great city of ours, let us peek behind your curtain so we’re all on the same page. Without that, it’s a mystery too great to accept. - Will Pollock
Update: Atlanta Business Chronicle reporting that the Botanical Garden and its parking deck project are not subject to Georgia Sunshine Laws. Pending further appeal, it looks like the project will proceed.