ATLANTA (CN) — Nearly a year and a half after the Atlanta City Council approved plans to build a controversial new police and firefighter training center in one of the city’s largest forests — and just two weeks after a protester was fatally shot by police at the site — Atlanta officials announced on Tuesday that they have struck an agreement clearing the way for the construction of “Cop City.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said during a press conference Tuesday that an agreement has been reached between the city and the county to issue a construction permit for the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, which has been the subject of a year-long protest movement.
The training center will be built on 85 acres of land in the South River Forest, which is owned by the city of Atlanta but located just outside the city limits in DeKalb County. The plan has faced fierce public opposition since it was announced, including by a group of protesters who lived in tree encampments on the site until the forest was cleared by police earlier this month.
The self-described “forest defenders” say the construction would be a severe blow to Atlanta’s tree canopy and result in irreparable environmental damage.
“They’re trying to harp on the fact that it’s only 85 acres and allegedly the rest will be left for public use,” said Jasmine Burnett, organizing director of the mutual aid group Community Movement Builders. “But that’s 85 acres too much.”
One activist who protested outside City Hall after the press conference said it would be “a tragedy” to lose even a portion of the forest.
“We’re the city in the forest,” Francesca, 18, said, referencing the city’s nickname. “Atlanta’s canopy is a big part of who we are. If we lose that, we lose a part of our city’s identity and we lose a significant part of what lets us breathe every day. It’s ridiculous.”
On Tuesday, Dickens appeared to respond to those concerns by saying that the area contains only invasive species, weeds, softwood trees and rubble from old structures. The mayor pledged that 300 acres of the land parcel not slated for use to build the facility will be preserved as a public greenspace.
“This essentially is a huge park about the size of Atlanta’s largest park and it will be a park that will have a training center on a modest footprint within it,” Dickens said. “This is Atlanta and we know forests. This facility will not be built over a forest.”
A memorandum signed by Dickens and Thurmond agreed to recommendations made by a “community advisory committee” for environmental protections at the site and safety upgrades to a nearby residential neighborhood.
The environmental commitments include a reforestation effort to replace every tree impacted by the construction with 100 hardwood trees and a mandate to implement “double erosion control” to ensure the viability of Intrenchment Creek, the main waterway in the South River Forest Basin.
DeKalb County commissioner Ted Terry appeared skeptical of the plan on Tuesday. Speaking to reporters at City Hall, Terry noted that damage to the creek by construction disruptions might be unavoidable.
“Intrenchment Creek has already maxed out its sediment control permits. It’s one of the most endangered creeks in Georgia. And of course, it flows into the South River, which is another endangered rivershed,” Terry said. “This again speaks to whether this site is the best site for any type of development to take place.”
The environmental protections included in the agreement are also unlikely to appease environmental activists.
One local organizer associated with the Stop Cop City movement called the agreement “bogus on its face.”
“You’re gonna protect the environment by tearing down trees? It’s insulting,” Micah, 26, said. “They’re taking us for fools if they think anyone would believe that tearing down trees and putting cement over it is protecting the environment.”
The news was announced as a group of about two dozen protesters, who were blocked from entering the press conference by police, clustered outside the mayor’s office and shouted calls for his resignation.
“Andre Dickens — blood on your hands!” protesters chanted, referring to the Jan. 18. death of activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation says Teran, 26, opened fire on state troopers, injuring one, and was killed by return fire. The claim by authorities that the troopers fired in self-defense has been disputed by protesters who have noted that there is no body camera footage of the shooting.
Teran’s death sparked protests throughout downtown Atlanta on Jan. 21, culminating in the burning of a police vehicle and fireworks being launched at the building that houses the Atlanta Police Foundation. Six people were arrested and charged with domestic terrorism in connection with the protests.
Officials on Tuesday did not say when construction on the training center will begin.
Although a land disturbance permit has been issued, work on the site cannot commence until after Environmental Protection Agency Best Management Practices are installed and planning inspectors visit the site for an environmental inspection.
The planned facility is slated to include an emergency vehicle obstacle course, a training center for K-9 units, a firing range and a “mock city” to train both police and fire recruits.
After the press conference was over, Commissioner Terry lambasted the claim by local officials that the planning process for the facility’s construction has been transparent, telling reporters that he only learned about the press conference hours before it was scheduled to begin.
“I represent this area of DeKalb County and there’s still a lot of outstanding questions that haven’t been addressed,” Terry said. “I think we’re off to a bad start because transparency and accountability mean everyone should be at the table and that’s not taking place right now.”
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