The Atlanta Botanical Garden’s announcement last month it was expanding along Piedmont Avenue with a planned entrance along the Atlanta Beltline was greeted mostly with excitement.
But some Virginia-Highland residents were surprised and disappointed to learn the day before Thanksgiving that the garden’s expansion hinged on the construction of a 5-story self-storage building close to the neighborhood’s busy 10th Street and Monroe Drive intersection where the Atlanta BeltLine and Piedmont Park connect.
Atlanta Botanical Garden explained in an application with the city it needs the land where a Public Storage building now stands at 268 Westminster Drive for its expansion. So the garden struck a deal with the owner of that site to buy nearly two acres on Monroe Drive, between Kanuga Street and Cooledge Avenue, where they would build a new storage building to replace the Westminster Drive building.
The new self-storage building would be built at 1011 Monroe Drive and 597 Cooledge Ave., where the Cantoni furniture store and Illuminations lighting business were located. The garden’s purchase of the Virginia-Highland property was first reported in the Saporta Report.
“This new self storage building would replace the one currently at 268 Westminster Drive (and Piedmont Avenue), enabling ABG to transform up to 7 acres of dilapidated commercial properties into a new, botanical greenspace where the Garden, Piedmont Park and the BeltLine all converge,” says the garden’s application to the city.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to continue to propel Atlanta into its walkable, bikeable future by creating a green gateway to one of our city’s top cultural amenities directly on the BeltLine,” says the application.
The Virginia-Highland Civic Association said the plans seemed a “mundane and disappointing Beltline use” in a Dec. 8 email to members. On Dec. 12, some association members met with garden officials and City Councilmember Alex Wan, who represents the neighborhood, to address concerns such as architectural design of the building and adding a ground-level local business “to bring life to this corner of the neighborhood.”
They also asked garden officials to consider adding a garden-like, green “living wall” to the facility “that will beautify the neighborhood and cement Atlanta Botanical Garden’s legacy as a valuable institution to the city,” according to a recap of the meeting emailed to association members.
“We are sorry that the residents feel they were not adequately informed, but for the longest time, the complexity of the acquisition required that negotiations be kept strictly confidential,” said Mary Pat Matheson, president & CEO of Atlanta Botanical Garden in a written statement.
“As soon as we were able share details, we did so, and we continue to have productive and thoughtful conversations with residents,” she said.
Councilmember Wan said the small, V-shaped property is zoned light industrial, which allows for new storage buildings. The Atlanta Botanical Garden does not need any special zoning conditions for the project, but had to apply for a special administrative permit with the city because the property is within the Beltline Overlay.
Wan said typically the city and Beltline seek to “proactively rezone” properties to match planned future land use. But the 1.67-acre spot purchased by Atlanta Botanical Garden for the land swap has remained light industrial for years.
“There has not been any sort of wholesale, proactive or pre-emptive rezoning where you just basically start changing the land use, changing the zoning to match what the master plan prescribes,” Wan said.
“It’s just one of the things where you get caught in a situation where you did not move fast enough in terms of rezoning and recategorizing the land use,” he said. “And so this is one of the things that happened.”
This area of the Beltline is within what is called Subarea 6. A 2011 Subarea 6 master plan shows this site as zoned light industrial with possible future land use as a small park.
This year, Beltline officials worked with the community on a Subarea 6 master plan update. A draft plan shows recommendations for future land use in the area to include some mixed-use, but also light commercial. The City Council is slated to adopt the plan during the second quarter of 2023.
Chip Mann, a 31-year resident of the neighborhood who walks the Beltline along Piedmont Park regularly, said he hopes neighborhood and Atlanta Botanical Garden can come to an agreement on how to make the best use of the prime real estate.
“If we’re stuck with it, and a storage unit swap to Virginia-Highland is the only way to allow for the garden expansion, then let’s at least get the community involved; let’s try to make the best of of a bad situation” Mann said.
“We’re a little bit at their mercy right now,” he said. “We’re hoping that they’re going to be a good neighbor.”