It is a safe bet that few Decatur, Ga., residents know Cotis Weaver and Atef Mansour. Despite their relative anonymity, both men occupy important places in the city’s land use history. In 2003 Weaver and a handful of residents in the city’s Oakhurst neighborhood fired the first shot in Decatur’s 21st century gentrification wars when they sued the city over a proposed rezoning and subdivision. Mansour, in 2005 and 2006, made headlines when he demolished a 1,450-square-foot one-story Lamont Drive home on the city’s north side and began building a 5,000-square-foot two-story replacement. Both cases illustrate one role race plays in Decatur’s hot real estate market and the different outcomes of opposition to new development.
An Oakhurst Teardown
Weaver and his co-plaintiffs alleged that the Decatur City Commission deprived residents of their due process rights and violated state law when members declined to accept a Planning Commission recommendation against rezoning a South McDonough Street lot with apartments to enable a developer to demolish them for 18 high-end town homes. The City declined to negotiate with the residents and immediately countersued.
The issue in 2003 was whether the rezoning would accelerate gentrification in Oakhurst, harm the environment (tree canopy loss, water runoff), and set a precedent for rezoning and demolishing other lots with multifamily housing. Planning Commission testimony by one woman opposed to the rezoning captured the sentiments of the others who wanted the city to deny the rezoning:
She stated that she had lived in her house for the last ten years and that she initially rented it until she had the opportunity to buy it. She stated that she was opposed to the current proposal and that the current structure was an eyesore and a problem. She stated that the current non-conforming use was being used as the precedent for this application. She stated that she attended the roundtable meetings and that she feels that the city is trying to maintain the quality of life and that it is a community that tries to maintain the quality of the neighborhoods. She stated that the higher density proposed for the site was in conflict with those goals. She stated that there were other properties nearby that also needed to be renovated and that this rezoning could possibly be a precedent for those.
That evening another resident testified,
Our neighborhood is a rich blend of residents that reflects diversity in color, age, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, marital and familial status, and length of residence. We are committed to maintaining diversity. We are concerned about the impact 18 townhomes with an average selling price of $275,000 will have on the ability of certain residents, especially older African-American residents, to afford to stay in their homes through their “golden” years.
After being buried in paper and legal costs, the plaintiffs all evaporated in less than six months and the issue disappeared. The plaintiffs found themselves at war with the City with no funding and no allies in neighborhood groups, advocacy organizations, and few individual supporters in Oakhurst. The town homes — Oakhurst Commons — were built and, as the plaintiffs predicted, other nearby Oakhurst apartments were demolished (119 Lenore Street; between 2011 and 2014 apartment buildings on Olympic Place, Fayetteville Road, and Oakview Road in Oakhurst also were demolished by developers).
In less than a decade, residents forgot about the lawsuit and the 2008 play (Hallelujah Street Blues) it inspired. The suit and the issues it raised spurred no changes in Decatur’s land use laws and regulation and there was no reflection by official Decatur and people on the street about what it meant to the city. A search of newspaper archives failed to locate any coverage of the zoning case or the litigation. The only press the issue received was in 2008 coverage of Hallelujah Street Blues.
The Northside McMansion
The kerfuffle over Atef Mansour’s McMansion stands in stark contrast to Weaver’s lawsuit. Mansour had lived in the Lamont Drive home for nearly two decades. The restaurant industry professional and his wife decided that they had outgrown the older home and they chose to tear it down and rebuild. After construction on the new home began, neighbors began filing complaints with Decatur building officials and police. Anonymous tips to codes enforcement began occurring regularly.
And then the vandalism began. Windows were broken and graffiti was spray painted on the new home’s walls.
Neighbors were outraged that Mansour had decided to exercise his private property rights to build a new home on his lot. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on December 1, 2005:
On Lamont Drive, Atef and Joumana Mansour tore down a 65-year- old, 1,455-square-foot home, and are building one that is almost five times larger. Next-door neighbor Robyn Roberts told commissioners that the height of the Mansours’ home means that her home “completely lost all its privacy.”
Others at the meeting referred to the Mansour home as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” Last week, someone spray-painted “Save Our City” across the front of it, which Atef Mansour reported to police.
The vandalism to Mansour’s home occurred at the same time so-called “infill housing” was being examined by Decatur’s Planning Department and the City Commission. In the fall of 2005 the City Commission appointed an infill housing task force and in January 2007 the group presented its final report. Articles on the infill problem appeared in local newspapers. In one March 2006 Q&A published in the AJC, hardware store owner and task force member Tony Powers said, “the Vidal-Lamont area (of north Decatur.) I call that Dumpster Alley; it seems like every 40 feet or so, you’re dodging a construction Dumpster.”
At the same time Decatur was debating the propriety of Mansour’s new home and “infill” construction, other communities around the nation also were addressing redevelopment pressures. In their 2008 book, The Middle-Class Millionaire: The Rise of The New Rich and How They are Changing America, Russ Prince and Lewis Schiff lumped Decatur into what they described as “Middle-Class Millionaire America” — their counterpart to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of “teardown communities.”
About McMansions, like the one Mansour was building, Prince and Schiff wrote,
… new houses in these older towns are seldom greeted warmly by their neighbors. Disparaging nicknames for the new houses vary by region and include “bash-and-builds,” “bigfoots,” and “plywood palaces.” One such house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, was egged, which prompted the mayor to plead for a little civility in the little town. A new house in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur was vandalized twice in two days. “Save our City” was spray-painted on the garage doors.
The Racial Throughline
Unlike the episode two years earlier with Weaver and his neighbors, Decatur’s laws and land use policies were changed as a result of Mansour’s run-in with his neighbors. Race appears to have been a factor in how both cases were handled. Weaver and several of the other 2003 litigants are African American. Mansour is originally from Lebanon.
In the Oakhurst case, white residents from throughout the neighborhood testified in support of the townhomes. Mansour’s neighbors who opposed his new home were white and some exhibited a clear bias against his ethnicity. Both cases illustrate resistance to change. In Oakhurst, it was resistance by African American neighbors to the proposed demolition of multi-family housing and the precedent-setting rezoning they feared would escalate property values and increase the property tax burden on elderly homeowners. On Lamont Drive the white residents who lived in smaller period revival homes along the street resisted change through acts of vandalism and harassment via specious complaints to city officials.
The cases are part of a pattern of racialized land use decision making in Decatur in which many African American homeowners find their concerns about affordable housing, displacement, and other issues tied to gentrification dismissed. These concerns and their dismissal are best illustrated in an October 2013 City Commission hearing where one Oakhurst resident asked commissioners to enact a temporary moratorium on single-family teardowns:
If we continue with the growth and development as fast as we are going, there will no longer be any diversity in the city of Decatur. It’s already little or none …
Of course when we came to the Decatur neighborhood, it was called the “white flight.” They took off. You all took off and went away. We endured. We stayed. Now it’s time for you all to have our back.
After hearing more testimony, the Decatur City Commission voted 3-2 against enacting the teardown moratorium. Both of Oakhurst’s commissioners, Patti Garrett and Kecia Cunningham, voted against the proposed ordinance. Like the case involving Weaver and his neighbors, the City Commission was swayed by developers and residents with strong property rights beliefs. In the aftermath of the failed moratorium vote, teardowns and McMansion construction accelerated in Oakhurst ahead of proposed changes to Decatur’s zoning code (enacted November 2014).
Over the past several years residents in the Druid Hills neighborhood, an area of unincorporated DeKalb County between Atlanta and Decatur, have been embroiled in litigation over a new residential subdivision called Clifton Ridge. Opposition to the development — which, like the Lamont Drive case is not gentrification but redevelopment — has involved yard signs throughout the neighborhood and vandalism to Clifton Ridge signs.
The Clifton Ridge vandalism was a topic earlier this year on Decatur Metro, a local blog. One anonymous comment author using the screen name “Bulldog” wrote:
Why do our Druid Hills / Clifton neighbors feel the need to spray paint the Clifton Ridge sales sign? We may argue on this message board, but at least we’re not that childish and immature. Those folks need to grow up.
A few weeks later, “Bulldog” again weighed-in on the issue:
Our neighbors in Druid Hills continue to show a lack of class when it comes to the Clifton Ridge development. A large circle with a line through it was painted on the freshly paved driveway into the development overnight. As somebody said on this very topic a few weeks ago, it just proves that money doesn’t buy class.
Right, the good people of Decatur would never vandalize property because they were opposed to new development. They have too much class.
As for Weaver, he sold his one-story ranch home to a developer in the summer of 2014 and within one month it was demolished and a new “historically inspired” house was rising in its place.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein