Atlanta’s Efforts To Clean Up Proctor Creek

By Molly Samuel/WABE Reporter

Proctor Creek passes by businesses and apartments along Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. (Ali Guillory)

Proctor Creek has caused issues for people who live along it for decades. The troubled waterway flows from downtown through dozens of neighborhoods until it feeds into the Chattahoochee River, near the Perimeter. The creek is polluted; it floods and causes erosion.

It’s not the only waterway in Atlanta with these issues – most of them have similar challenges. But problems with Proctor Creek came to a head in the early 1990s.

“In the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s, the City of Atlanta continued to grow and grow, but failed to invest in its sewer infrastructure,” said Jason Ulseth, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “It got to the point to where the sewer capacity was so limited that every time it rained we had millions of gallons of sewage going into our waterways.”

In 1995, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper sued the City of Atlanta over violations of the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Environmental Protection Division got involved, too. That resulted in a couple agreements where Atlanta promised to clean up its sewer act. The city has spent billions of dollars on sewer capacity and infrastructure upgrades since then.

And it’s largely worked.

“Proctor Creek is much healthier and much safer than it has been in a very long time,” Ulseth said.

Ulseth said he does still sometimes find toilet paper in the creek, but overall, pollution is down.

But there’s another issue that contributes to the problems with Proctor Creek, which gets back to the headwaters in the area in downtown Atlanta known as the Gulch: too much pavement.

The Creek’s Runoff Problem

“As we pave more surfaces, there’s less opportunity for nature to hold water and to handle it,” Scott Jenkins, general manager of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, said. “Water runs off really fast into the storm system, which overcomes the system and then floods low-lying areas.”

Those low-lying areas, in this case, are Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods, like Vine City and English Avenue. And Mercedes-Benz Stadium is being built to help reduce that flooding with a giant underground vault that will collect stormwater, and cistern under Martin Luther King Drive that will allow the stadium to reuse the water.

“It’s like a giant swimming pool,” Jenkins said. “It’s maybe 70 feet wide by a couple hundred feet wide by 20 feet tall. And that’s where the rain water’s going to get held.”

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is being built with a giant underground vault that will collect stormwater. (Al Such/WABE)

Some of the rain that falls around the stadium and on its roof will eventually end up here in this cistern, instead of flooding nearby neighborhoods.

“We’re going to capture it, hold it and reuse it on site for the cooling towers and also for irrigating our landscaping,” Jenkins said.

A Series Of Parks

Another way to handle stormwater is with parks. They’re not paved over, so water can soak into the ground. Plus, they can have things like ponds and special, water-absorbing “rain gardens.”

Several years ago the local nonprofit Park Pride proposed a series of parks and greenspaces for the Westside, to address flooding. A couple of them have been built and more are on the way, with help from the nonprofit Conservation Fund.

“You have the lawn here, rain gardens here,” said Tony Torrence, the founder of the Community Improvement Association and co-chair of the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council, explaining his vision for one of those parks, in the neighborhood of English Avenue.

“The mission is to make sure that our community is whole,” he said. “Sustainable, healthy, affordable.”

Torrence said he sees the future park not just as an opportunity to ease flooding, but also to teach people about the environment – by, perhaps, showing them how to build rain gardens at home – and to create jobs.

“The environmental conscience is what we’re trying to tap into,” he said.

Boone Park West, the park Torrence is involved with, will be connected to another future park, Cook Park, by Boone Boulevard, which is being rebuilt now to incorporate bike lanes and rain gardens.

Mayor Kasim Reed and other city officials and notables attended the official groundbreaking for Cook Park in May.

Cook Park is part of a series of parks the city of Atlanta has planned to help ease flooding along Proctor Creek. (CONCEPTUAL RENDERING BY HDR, INC. COURTESY OF THE TRUST FOR PUBLIC LAND)

“The Rodney Cook Sr. Park is destined to become a signature landmark in the life of our city,” Reed said.

Cook Park is being built in the low-lying area in Vine City where a flood forced people out of their homes 15 years ago. The land has been sitting mostly idle since the houses were torn down. Now, it’s becoming a park that will collect stormwater from all over Vine City. It will have statues of Civil Rights leaders. And it’ll be a big beautiful new spot in an area that’s been short on greenspace. So it addresses flooding, but it brings a lot else to the neighborhood, as well.

“Ultimately, I think it is going to be a centerpiece for the revitalization of this community,” said George Dusenbury, Georgia director for the Trust For Public Land, which designed Cook Park. “You’ll attract more residents, you’ll attract more businesses. You’ll see some investment and economic development.”

Proctor Creek has become a cause for federal agencies, too. The EPA designated it as one of its 19 “urban waters” locations in the country, which paves the way for federal partnerships and funding. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a multi-year study of the creek. The Corps expects to release an initial report this fall.

Westside Revitalization

There is a lot going on right now on Atlanta’s Westside, way beyond just the creek itself. Dozens of businesses and nonprofits are making a big push on health, economic development and education in neighborhoods like Vine City and English Avenue that have weathered decades of disinvestment.

But fixing the creek is fundamental, said Frank Fernandez who is with the Blank Foundation.

“For us to be able to make a difference in terms of neighborhood transformation, an environmental justice aspect to that means that you have to address Proctor Creek,” he said. “From the headwaters downtown all the way to the Chattahoochee.”

And there’s the financial side: To bring back economic investment, the infrastructure has to work. Developers aren’t going to want to build in places that flood, Richard Dugas, chair of the board of the Westside Future Fund, said.

“When you work on revitalizing a community, you either do it fully, or not,” he said. “Our effort is to make sure we’re considering everything.”

Proctor Creek Greenway

One project aims to connect more people to Proctor Creek, and will showcase a nice stretch of the creek that’s not too far from the Bankhead MARTA station.

“We have all these birds out chirping as we’re looking at the barbed wire and the kudzu and the industrial,” said Stephanie Stuckey, chief resilience officer in the city of Atlanta’s mayor’s office, standing just outside the station, looking at a collection of warehouses. “In a year, a lot of this won’t be here.”

This is where the new Proctor Creek Greenway will start. It’s a paved trail that eventually will travel seven miles along Proctor Creek. The city plans to finish the first two miles of the trail in the next year.

Debra Edelson, executive director of the Emerald Corridor Foundation, is advocating for a trail that will run alongside the creek. (Ali Guillory)

“This is the before of the before and after shot,” Stuckey said. “You don’t get much of a sense of place right now, and hopefully, when we get this greenway, you’ll have a sense of place.”

She said it will be sort of like the BeltLine, to which it will connect.

“The BeltLine is not just a trail. It’s where people come together, it builds community,” she said.

The vision for the Proctor Creek Greenway is for it to connect Westside neighborhoods to each other, and to the rest of the city. It will also bring people through forests and to parks, and along parts of Proctor Creek that look like they could be in the North Georgia mountains.

“The trail will start to run alongside the creek and a place you’d want to run or walk with your family along a creek, and in a natural setting,” said Debra Edelson, executive director of the Emerald Corridor Foundation.

Her group has advocated for the trail, and is connected to a group of investors led by former Braves player Mark Texeira that is buying property nearby.

Concerns About Gentrification

This whole side of the city is going to change. And what happens with Proctor Creek is tied up with it. But some residents are worried that the revitalization won’t include them.

“It’s all a whole ball of gentrification. Don’t go and correct Proctor Creek for the developers,” said Mamie Moore, who most people call Mother Moore. “Most of the people living along Proctor Creek now are poor people of color.”

Mother Moore lives next to one of the new parks in English Avenue. She’s worried that as parks are added and the area gets cleaned up, people will get pushed out by rising rents.

Another one of the new parks will be just down the street from the Bankhead MARTA station. Now, it’s empty lot with Proctor Creek running through. It’s overgrown with weeds, and the houses nearby are pretty run down.

The vacant lot near these run down houses with be the site of Proctor Park. (Ali Guillory/WABE)

Once Proctor Park becomes a reality, it’s easy to imagine those houses – across from a park and down the street from MARTA – becoming pretty desirable, and potentially pricey.

“We don’t want this to become a gold coast just because it’s across from a park,” said Edelson with the Emerald Corridor Foundation, standing near the lot that will become Proctor Park. “You shouldn’t have to be rich to live near a park. Everyone should have a park in their neighborhood and be able to afford living there.”

When the BeltLine came through Old Fourth Ward on the other side of downtown, and a big beautiful park got built there, development went gangbusters.

The city said it knows that gentrification is a problem, and it’s working on solutions.

“There have been some lessons learned by the city with Old Fourth Ward,” said Stephanie Stuckey with the mayor’s office. “The city is playing a much more aggressive role on the affordable housing piece, and you’ll see that in how not only this Proctor Creek area is developed but also the BeltLine and the whole Westside.”

Stuckey said the city of Atlanta is considering zoning rules that require a set amount of affordable housing in some places. The City Council recently passed an affordable housing bond. And there’s a new fund, put together by the Westside Future Fund, which helps homeowners with property taxes as values rise.

Still, housing activist Mother Moore is worried that people who have lived here for years won’t be able to enjoy the future of the neighborhoods, with the nice parks and the cleaned up creek.

“The gentrification process is moving very rapidly, people are feeling it,” she said. “But they’re not feeling the retention piece yet.”

Retention, as in, helping the longtime residents stick around.

Mother Moore isn’t actually one of those super-longtime residents, she moved here 10 years ago with her family, but she wants to make sure people like her – poor people of color, can stay.

Inevitable Change

Downstream from Mother Moore, in the neighborhood of Grove Park, another resident who’s been here for 10 years, Chris Thiel, moved to the area for the access to nature. Thiel is a white guy whose dog, Watson, likes to play in the creek near the community garden that Thiel tends. And Thiel helps monitor Proctor Creek for pollution as a volunteer with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

The Proctor Creek Greenway will be built along the creek in the neighborhood of Grove Park. (Ali Guillory/WABE)

He said he knows change is coming to this side of town.

“It’s going to be unrecognizable, for better or worse.”

For his part, he looks forward to a cleaner creek and nice greenspace, though he knows with gentrification, it’s complicated.

“It seems inevitable when you invest a whole lot into a neighborhood, the character, the social fabric, inevitably it changes,” he said. “I think for the most part people are positive about that. A nicer neighborhood is a nicer neighborhood. No one can be upset about that, except for the folks who can no longer afford to live there.”

This story is part two of a series exploring Atlanta’s Proctor Creek. Part one focused on the issues plaguing the creek.


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