Community members negotiate park land use of new Virginia Highland Elementary School



The upper playground area is mostly untouched, housing an arbory of old trees.

Sierra Pape

As Virginia Highland Elementary School prepares to open in August, the facilities directors plan to extend the existing fence around the upper playground to increase student safety, causing backlash from surrounding neighbors and community members.
“Atlanta Public Schools intends on adding a fence around the area that is located on the corner of Clemont Drive & Green Cove,” an APS brief said. “The fence will be a wrought iron fence to match the current fencing that surrounds the lower and upper playgrounds. “The fence will allow for extra security. This area provides adequate shade for students and teachers.”
The proposition to gate the previously public amenity has caused upheaval because of the social impact the park has had on the surrounding community in the past decades. It has been widely used as a meeting point for neighborhood functions, and the fence would restrict access of neighborhood homeowners to this property.
“Since 2006, it has been a staple in my life to visit my friends and neighbors at this little community park,” Virginia-Highland (VH) resident Rudy Clemons said. “It is hard to imagine that building a fence around this little part of VH can foster community cohesiveness. Education is a foundation for all our children, but it seems what APS is teaching them is to put up a barrier and cut off socialization.”
Close neighbors have previously used this canopied greenspace for weekly events and dinners, as it stands as one of the only open green spaces in a densely populated neighborhood. Inside the fence lie multiple mature, historic trees in the area, which resident Lee Wilson believes are environmentally important to the community.
“All the intown neighborhoods are seeing increased density with a lot of development along the Beltline, along the Ponce de Leon corridor and North Avenue,” Wilson said. “Rather than taking away green space, it is very important that we add green space to our communities that all can enjoy.”
On May 11, community members held their fourth meeting, where they met with Principal Terry Harness and facilities services senior executive directors, in which they agreed to leave a parcel of the upper area unfenced. Wilson believes this agreement will not benefit community members.
“[The parameters of the fenced area] are still in flux, and we have not seen this revised visual plan outlining the fence borders,” Wilson said. “The land [Harness] is proposing to leave unfenced is a very small parcel next to the house abutting the greenspace on the eastern side. That land is down in a depression and contains a storm sewer drain. It is land that Principal Harness has said is not suitable for use by the school due to safety concerns.”
A compromise that the principal Harness proposed in his April 27 Coffee Talk is to attach a gate to the fence to allow community members after hours and on the weekends. Wilson believes that this is nonsolvent in relation to what community members are asking for in terms of safety concerns.
“My fear is that with a gate, it could be locked at any time, which is why we would really like to see some unfenced green space to remain, so that’s what we’re still working toward,” Wilson said. “Fencing every inch of the greenspace is not necessary to increase security. APS should focus on the areas where fencing will actually help with protecting students, teachers and staff.”
Additionally, advocates for an unfenced greenspace have supported the claim that the fiscal impact of fencing additional land detracts from more important efforts at the school.
“Fencing every inch is an unnecessary expense at a time when the new elementary school has more pressing needs, such as a vestibule to enhance security,” a brief made by community leaders reads. “The school also has programmatic needs such as books for the library; funding for the music program that at present is without stands, equipment or sheet music; and basic learning and operational software. These, and other needs articulated by the PTO should take priority over needless fencing.”
APS and leaders of facilities for Virginia Highland Elementary have announced that final decisions regarding the parameters of the fence will be announced by the end of May.
“There is no valid reason nor an acceptable need to justify spending tax dollars to take away the quiet enjoyment that so many neighbors have raised families around,” Clemons said. “It is my hope that APS will reconsider the impact to this little community now and for years to come. We need to be taking down fences and building bridges. If APS stays the course, they will burn a bridge that many in this community walk on a daily basis, and burn the memories of so many families.”