Blackhall Studios & DeKalb County land swap deal finalized, hit with legal challenge

The deal was subsequently challenged by environmental groups

Intrenchment Creek Park in Atlanta, Ga. Photo credit: Albert Thrower, 2020.

ATLANTA — On Feb. 11, Blackhall Studios announced that its controversial land swap deal with DeKalb County was finalized. The deal, which dragged on for more than two years, was approved by the county last October, but the Trust for Public Land held up final approval pending deed restrictions. Now that the deal has gone through, DeKalb County has officially exchanged 40 acres of Intrenchment Creek Park (ICP) in Southeast Atlanta for three Blackhall-owned plots, a total of roughly 53 acres.

Activists have long argued that the deal threatens valuable Atlanta tree canopy, undermines runoff protection for the South River, and sets a dangerous legal precedent. Dr. Jackie Echols of the South River Watershed Alliance told me that DeKalb County has never taken the ecological concerns the organization has levied over the past two years seriously. 

One of South River Watershed Alliance’s main concerns is that removing the heart of Intrenchment Creek Forest would create more runoff for Intrenchment Creek, an important tributary of the South River. While there was an ecological assessment done by Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Echols’ view is that the assessment focused too much on the tracts themselves without adequately addressing ripple effects development would have on surrounding ecosystems. The surrounding areas include, all too importantly, those connected to Intrenchment Creek. In short, ecosystems can’t be confined to property lines. 

On Fri., Feb. 12, the South River Watershed Alliance, along with the South River Watershed Coalition and several other parties, filed a legal complaint against DeKalb County and Blackhall Studios. South River Watershed Alliance and the other plaintiffs are asking for the court to declare that the county cannot proceed with this land deal without a public referendum and that it should “hold and maintain Intrenchment Creek Park for the public’s use and benefit”; they are also asking for an injunction prohibiting further “development or land disturbance of Intrenchment Creek Park … for any reason and for any use other than as a public park.” 

When I last spoke to Blackhall representatives, they were not yet prepared to issue a public response to the complaint. 

It’s true that DeKalb County has made seemingly little effort to elicit any kind of broad public support for this project. Only three open meetings have been held over the past two years, only one of which allowed any public input. At a recent Zoom meeting on Jan. 25, the chat feature was disabled and no questions were allowed. After the meeting, I made several attempts to get in touch with Zach Williams, DeKalb COO and lead on this project. I did not receive a response. 

Blackhall, on the other hand, has made significant efforts to win over the surrounding communities. A number of neighborhood associations on the other side of Bouldercrest from the park have publicly come out in strong support of the deal, notably in recent articles published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Blackhall has won this support by promising various community benefits, including a thousand new jobs which they believe will result from their expansion on the former ICP plot. 

While opponents have argued that these jobs are not likely to be local, Blackhall counters this claim by asserting, in a recent press release, that 1,650 members of film and television union International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) live in DeKalb County. Blackhall has also been holding a 12-week class series, with a 40-person enrollment, on how to get jobs in the film industry, according to Amanda Brown Olmstead. Olmstead’s firm handles public relations for Blackhall for the land deal and is the contact listed for The Great Park Connection, an organization founded to bolster support for this deal and which is, according to Olmstead, awaiting its 501c3 status. The Great Park Connection plans to become a park conservancy and start taking memberships.

DeKalb County has heavily touted the one thousand job figure in their public presentations, and has also argued that the deal will result in $3.3 million in increased revenue for DeKalb County over the next 10 years, and $5.4 million over 20 years. While these figures may indeed result from a Blackhall expansion, they are ultimately misleading, as it appears Blackhall did not necessarily need this land swap in order to expand. According to DeKalb County tax records, Blackhall owns a number of properties in Southeast DeKalb in addition to the tracts they traded for the ICP plot as well as their main campus. Blackhall’s PR implies that their decision to not expand on their former plots was purely altruistic. 

“Since the day Jay Scott [an urban planner hired by Blackhall] recommended I exchange my 53 acres along Bouldercrest for a small part of Intrenchment Creek Park, I was convinced it was best for the community,” said Blackhall CEO Ryan Millsap in a recent press release. Their argument is that by sheltering their expansion from the bulk of residential areas nearby, they are practicing better urban planning. 

Another part of the advertised altruism is Blackhall’s $1.5 million investment towards new amenities for the DeKalb park that will be built on former Blackhall land. DeKalb County itself has secured $1.7 million in grant funding to go towards the new amenities, which are significant: the largest ADA-certified playground in metro Atlanta (maybe even the Southeast), well-lit trails, an educational pavilion and outdoor classroom, parking, public art, and a splash pad. 

While AJC’s coverage of the deal has gone full speed ahead with the narrative that this is simply about Blackhall being a good neighbor, questions remain about whether Blackhall could have actually expanded on their former land in the way that they wanted. Activist group Stop the Swap has asserted that the former Blackhall tracts are zoned as MU-5, or mixed-use, which would have presented problems with development. My conversations with other parties, including The Great Park Connection, didn’t support this assertion. 

However, Dr. Echols pointed out that Blackhall’s other tracts are not ideal for the type of expansion they seem to want to do. Each of the tracts have floodplain areas and none of them are quite the right size for the type of large, rectangular studios Blackhall likes to build. Additionally, the ICP plot Blackhall has now acquired is right across the street from their main location. Whatever the case may be, it’s a bit of a mystery why a profit-focused corporation would be willing to pay $1.5 million and lose 15 acres of land just to be a good neighbor, especially when public support for this project has been so mixed from the beginning. 

In pro-swap media and in the DeKalb presentations, there has been much discussion about the deficits of Intrenchment Creek Park. Many articles about this deal, like this recent one published by the AJC, stress that while the trail system at ICP “does get used … there’s an unsafe feel to it … Ne’er-do-wells often leave behind evidence of their activities: condoms, drug paraphernalia and the like.” Whether the park feels unsafe or not is, of course, entirely subjective. In my countless hikes in ICP, I have never noted any danger (in fact, I rarely see other people on the trails there), and the only debris I’ve seen has been the trash floating down Intrenchment Creek after heavy rains. 

Nonetheless, it’s true that the park could be improved, and that DeKalb County has not kept its promises for management of the park thus far. So it’s understandable that local communities and other entities involved, including the Trust for Public Land, would hope that this deal will result in a better, more accessible park. Whether DeKalb County can be trusted to deliver this better, more accessible park, however, is another matter. 

In a 2002 letter to the Blank Foundation, then-DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones expressed plans for ICP to be developed as a “major multi-use sports complex, [with] soccer fields, and possibly, a track and field stadium, football fields, and/or an outdoor adult basketball complex.” At that time, when the deed arrangement between DeKalb County, the Trust for Public Land, and the Blank Foundation was being put in place, ICP was not the dense forest it is now. Most of the park’s trees are quick-growing pines, and many were not yet mature. Therefore, it makes sense why open fields would have been an attractive option. 

DeKalb County has made much of the distinction between “significant” (older, rarer) trees, and pine trees. When I asked Dr. Echols about the “insignificance” of the pine trees, she laughed and said, “They’re doing their job.” In short, they may not be as valuable as the older trees in the park, but they are far from insignificant. They’re storing carbon during a period of rapid, dire climate change; they’re protecting the South River; and they’re providing heat-island mitigation. 

A great example of DeKalb’s willingness to spin this deal to the point of ludicrousness happened when, during the Jan. 25 public presentation, Andrew Baker, Director of Planning and Sustainability for DeKalb County, said the deal would improve heat-island mitigation. This part of the presentation was focused on detailing community benefits from this deal, but instead, it mainly laid out benefits of parks in general. The information completely ignored the fact that there is an existing 40 acres of forested park that will be mostly bulldozed with the Blackhall expansion. To be clear, forests are much better heat-island mitigators than playgrounds or soccer fields. 

That said, it’s worthwhile to note that not all of the 40 acres of the new Blackhall site will be bulldozed. There is a 40-foot setback from the road (though part of that area is already a parking lot) and a 1,000-foot setback from the creek. When I asked Blackhall representatives about how many acres of forest they expect to bulldoze, they couldn’t provide exact acreage. 

Another important caveat is that, according to Baker, “We do have regulations in DeKalb County that would require no additional runoff,” and DeKalb would require Blackhall to build retention ponds. However, he also said that these ponds may fail, and if residents ever have concerns about runoff, they should call DeKalb County and DeKalb will send out an inspector. In other words, there are official safeguards protecting the river from additional runoff resulting from this development, but it’s up to citizens to help enforce them. Whether those safeguards will work, or will work nearly as well as natural forests, and whether DeKalb will adequately implement this protection, given how polluted they have allowed the South River to become already, remains unclear.

In short, in this deal, a variety of community concerns come to a head. On the one hand, Atlanta area residents rightly desire more community spaces, with just exactly the type of amenities this deal promises. Communities work best when they’re planned in a way that brings neighborhoods together, rather than cuts them off from each other through new construction, like huge, gated movie studios. 

Yet, is it really necessary to sacrifice our natural resources to make planning like this possible? Why didn’t DeKalb County make the amendments to ICP they promised 20 years ago, and how can they be trusted to follow through with this new park? These questions are particularly concerning, especially given the fact that DeKalb has been so unwilling to engage the public throughout planning for this land swap. A deal that has this broad of an ecological impact and involves public land deserves to be discussed openly, thoroughly, and transparently.

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