Dear Decaturish – A brief latter-day history of Decatur

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 31, 2015
File Photo: Jonathan Phillips Diogo Richards hangs out on the barrel of the cannon outside of the historic courthouse during the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, August 30, 2014. The ninth annual event saw tens of thousands of people come out to the downtown Decatur area to meet with world-class authors, illustrators, editors, publishers, booksellers, and artists for a weekend filled with literature, music, food, art, and fun. /File Photo

File Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Diogo Richards hangs out on the barrel of the cannon outside of the historic courthouse during the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, August 30, 2014.

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Dear Decaturish,

In less than half a decade, Decatur’s character has dramatically changed and one can argue, not necessarily for the better – its distinction as the densest city in Georgia is a dubious one at best. The Club for Growth mentality has prevailed without serious consideration of the unintended consequences of unfettered development and its effect on the quality of life of its citizens.  In my fixed opinion, the city fathers have been remiss in their duty to deal with the concerns of a substantial portion of the citizenry and have pursued an ideology of growth and development sans limitation with rabid zeal.

I cannot speak to all of the multi-residential dwelling construction recently and ongoing in Decatur, but with respect to the monstrous tenement nearing completion on Ponce de Leon Place, local neighbors formed a homeowners group during the city approval process to attempt to mitigate the perceived impact on their neighborhood specifically and the city generally. The objections mainly dealt with scale and aesthetics of the project; Decatur school overcrowding and the projected increase in city traffic were serious concerns.

The city’s bureaucrats ingenious plan to deal with expected traffic increase was to construct traffic calming devices – roundabouts and pork chops. Then, at one public meeting, the Planning Commission (a misnomer?) essentially nodded in agreement with a collective “sounds good to us” look as the developer’s representative told them – with a straight face – that the impact on schools would be negligible because they anticipated their renters would be young professionals without children – a statement that carries with it the absurdity of ignoring the magnet effect of Decatur’s excellent school system. At the close of the get together it was difficult to tell if the tears in the homeowners eyes were the result of the hilarity of the developer’s remarks or a foreboding sense of failed representative government.

In the end, it was obvious that the developer had his way with the Decatur City and Planning Commissions, and the small town genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The deciders had decided. A final indignity was the approval for the destruction of the pocket park at 315 W Ponce in order to get some tax revenue-producing retail space. So much for progressive governing.

It’s time now to speculate as to what can be done to complete the transition from “Quaint Village” to “Tenement Row.”  A major influx of young professionals implies an expanded need for entertainment. Perhaps a theme amusement park – a Six Flags over Decatur sort of thing somewhere along West Ponce de Leon Avenue would fit the bill. The city commissions and bureaucrats would love it.

– Terry Donovan

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • Mark Knowles


  • Steve Vogel

    Anyone not satisfied with the way Decatur is being governed is free to offer themselves or one of the two City Commission seats or the two School Board seats that will be decided this November. Qualifying is currently taking place. Step up or sit down.

    • Yvesley

      But although Terry Donovan has identified problems with Decatur’s growth that residents are concerned about, there is nothing in his letter that indicates even a hint of a solution, unless insulting wording is helpful. Why would you suggest that it would be a good idea for him to run for office?

      • Dec30030 Teacher

        I think there is more than a hint of a solution in his letter: a city government that cares about the current parks, neighborhoods, residents and schools. He talks about a community that came together in a great time of concern, and yet, their action was overridden by planners interested in dollars more so than community.

        Like others, I don’t agree that you need to run for office to participate in a call to action. I think doing what he’s doing is worthwhile and valid. He’s sharing a neighborhood’s experience in a public way: outrage can serve as a driver for change.

  • Marty

    Mark and Steve, amen . By the way, what position are you two offering yourselves for?
    One must run for a commissioner or CSD position to have your voice heard? Does that apply to developers and community organization leaders as well? If not, why not?

    • Angela PM

      My thoughts, exactly. Since when do you need to be a commissioner to have a voice in how things are done in YOUR neighborhood? I’ve lived in Decatur 25 years and I’ve seen the same things happening as Terry. Decatur IS becoming one huge tenement. I get claustrophobic when I see the huge apartment buildings around College/Trinity/Howard. It’s too much. While I agree that apartment living is back, big time, after the housing crash, I still wonder if we really need 1000s more people crammed into a few square miles. Just like the walmart going in at Medlock, the commissioners vote from the pockets, not the hearts. 🙁

    • Mark Knowles

      My comment was for Terry Donovan. I agree with him.

  • hydropsyche

    When I saw the headline, I hoped this post was going to be about the sad change from an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse Decatur to one that is strictly for people who can afford million dollar houses or 1/2 million dollar condos and townhomes. Sadly, it seems most Decaturites are just fine with those changes.

    • Shawn Murphy Hitchcock

      I am NOT fine with those changes. I feel powerless and not fine at all.

    • J. Haugaard

      Just not sure why you assert, without any specific support, that “…most Decaturites are just fine with those changes.”

  • Geoff

    This point of view is way off the mark in my opinion. The only way to grow is “up”
    downtown. We can avoid annexation if we allow our downtown core to
    continue to grow “up.” We can alleviate the tax burden on single family
    homeowners if we continue to allow downtown to grow “up.” This HAS been
    the 30 year plan, going back to the early 1980s – a plan done by
    professionals and agreed to time and again by the public. Large numbers
    of small apartments downtown are not a burden on the schools. They put
    millions of dollars onto the tax rolls without requiring school services
    for all but a small handful of units. Growing up downtown allows the
    single family neighborhoods to stay single family neighborhoods. A grown
    up downtown Decatur is good for everyone.

    It’s also worth pointing out here that the crowded schools are not a result of downtown development, the crowded schools are a result of turnover of our single family homes.

    • DecaturDan

      Sorry, but you’re wrong. Large numbers of new apartments aren’t a burden on the schools? What planet are you from and what’s the weather like? I live in a condo community in Decatur and we’ve had 5 units come up for sale, and be immediately sold, in the past 3 months. None of the units had families with children in them previously. How many of those went from “zero children” households to having at least 1? 4 out of 5. This is one community.

      You don’t think the lure of $1500/mo rent in one of the top-rated school districts in the state isn’t going to be a draw? Please… These condos will be chock-full of kids. To argue anything else is the height of ignorance.

      Also, another option to alleviate the tax burden on SFH owners? Decrease costs, or at least keep them pegged to inflation. The city does NOT have to grow exponentially.

      • Geoff

        DecaturDan – You are talking about condos (for sale) – the units currently under construction are for rent. The dynamic is different. But you may not buy that. Fine. The apartments being build are small – one and two bedrooms. Mostly one bedrooms. For $1500 you might MIGHT be able to get 750 sq. feet. Not many people raise a family with children in 750 sq. feet. They don’t. For a larger two bedroom you are going to pay over $2000 a month, or the same as a house payment for many homes in Decatur, or in your condo complex. The fact is the APARTMENTS downtown are not currently chock full of kids. The CONDOS downtown are also not chock full of kids. They are building APARTMENTS downtown. So while you are mocking me it is apparent that you aren’t even aware of what is being built downtown, nor do you have the FACTS. That, to me, would be speaking from ignorance.

        • DecaturDan

          Geoff – again, you’re wrong. I can rent a 2/1.5 1,000 s. ft. condo in the City for $1400/mo – right now. I live in a complex with a few dozen just like it and the one below me went up for rent Saturday. Out of the 9 units in my building, 3 are now rental properties. The other 6 are owner-occupied. Within the past year, 2 out of the 3 have been rented by families with school age children.

          For $2k/mo, you would qualify for a $330,000 mortgage (including taxes and insurance). Please show me where you’d get into a $330k HOUSE in the city for that amount. I won’t wait – because that sort of deal is a unicorn. Instead, you can get into dozens of condos, or – these new apartments – for that sort of money.

          If you have children, you’ll make all sorts of concessions to get them into the best schools. Including “living small”

          • Geoff

            DecaturDan – The discussion is about the new apartments being built downtown. You are dealing with a very small sample size of “MEsearch.” In my responses to you and to others in this string, I have pointed to evidence that shows that historically one and two bedroom units create relatively few numbers of school children. I have also pointed to the fact that the current multifamily (apartment and condo) units in downtown Decatur (not sure where your condo is) currently create very few students for our schools. Those are my broad based facts that I’m using for evidence. I’ll take that over your 9 units of MEsearch. (BTW – per federal regulations your condo complex may be over the allowed number of rental units, although the regulations vary). I do have children and I know what concessions people make. A few will live in downtown apartments. The vast majority of downtown apartments won’t be home to kids that go to Decatur schools. I refer you to Andrew’s comments elsewhere in this thread.

          • DecaturDan

            Federal regs have no “standards” regarding rental-to-owner ratios in a complex. FHA may not write loans in a complex with too many renters, but otherwise, the feds don’t care.

            Back to the subject, the studies that have been done on this subject were done 10-15 years ago – or longer. There have yet to be studies done that center on this topic and how it specifically relates to millennials – a group which is well known for adapting more of a European mindset when it comes to housing, transportation, and politics. In 5 years, the chickens will come home to roost and then we’ll see what we see, won’t we?

            It is rare to come across someone on this website with the sort of 4-chan bully tactics that you employ in conversation.

  • Tommy

    I don’t know the author of this but he is nostalgic…to his detriment, and to the detriment of all around him. He longs for the past, and can’t let it go. I guess he longs for the past surface parking lots, maybe the car dealerships. If he wanted that level of control over the 315 property, why didn’t he buy it and make the whole thing a park? He shows disdain for Decatur’s restaurants and entertainment options. Really? Can we have a conversation that is optimistic about our future, and is actually forward looking, and thinking?

    • Shawn Murphy Hitchcock

      A car dealership on the Callaway property may indeed be better than more apartments and additional retail space. Empty retail already is available. The for lease signs abound. There are MANY apartments available for immediate occupancy. Yes, forward thinking IS appropriate. Nothing will ruin an area faster than over-building, delusions of grandeur, an “if we build it they will come” mentality. More vacant real estate due to the approval of projects by investors with no real interest in a community is not what the City of Decatur needs.

  • Marty

    Hello Geoff, thank you for your comments.
    1)”Large numbers of small apartments downtown are not a burden on the schools. They put millions of dollars onto the tax rolls without requiring school services
    for all but a small handful of units.”
    2) Also, It’s also worth pointing out here that the crowded schools are not a result of downtown development, the crowded schools are a result of turnover of our single family homes.”

    Concerning 1, the apartments are still being built, so how do you come to this conclusion? Concerning the second sentence, is there a source you can reference that provides an actual amount? Should Decaturish readers assume the amount is 1, 5, or how many millions?

    Concerning 2, the turnover of single family homes may result in more crowding, but it also results in more revenue to support the schools. Specifically, the CSD provides a fact sheet. If the bond passes, the homeowner/taxpayer can expect a yearly increase of $202.02, $404.04, $673.40, or $942.75 – depending on the home value assessment. For homes where there is not turnover, for example older individuals on fixed incomes, the taxes will still currently increase if the bond passes.

    What have the planning professionals determined will be economic burden (a dollar figure) for individuals in a single bedroom apartment, 2 bedrooms, or more (if the bond passes)? I haven’t read that data.

    • Andrew

      For one thing, the cost for a 2-bedroom downtown unit will run around $2,300. If you can afford that, you can afford a decent house in any number of decent school zones around the metro. Is Decatur really so full of itself that it thinks the average family would totally forego the house they actually want, near a school that suits their needs, all so they can live in limited space to access CSD? That completely denies the fact that Decatur is not the only decent place in Atlanta in which to get your kids educated. People have options and will only compromise their wish list so much. No matter how special we think we are.

      • DecaturDan

        Andrew, the schools in Decatur are without a doubt a massive draw to the community. I sold a large home on an acre of land in Tucker, and bought a condo in Decatur. I did this specifically to get my girls into the schools. I am far from the only one to have done this.

        There are a few “good” school districts in the area. There is ONE ‘excellent’ school district in the area – Decatur.

      • Marty

        So how much will the average 2 bedroom, $2,300 unit increase per month if the bond passes? What about the single unit cost per month? Individuals with homes in Decatur without children will see an increase in their taxes if the bond passes.

        • Andrew

          I’m not sure I follow. The apartment buildings themselves will be subject to the bond just like everyone else, right? Presumably this increased cost of doing business would be passed along to its residents in the form of increased rental rates but only the building managers themselves could say for sure. I certainly doubt they’d simply eat the cost.

        • Geoff

          I’m not sold on passing this bond. I agree that its negatives probably outweigh its positives. But we need to pay for the schools somehow. Increased development downtown increases the commercial tax digest while not increasing the burden on the rest of us single family homeowners who already pay so much. So my current thinking is that we need to continue to develop downtown in an effort to alleviate the burden on those of us in the neighborhoods.

    • Geoff

      We have apartments downtown – Ice House Lofts. We have multifamily condos downtown – The Artisian, etc. There are few units in any of these developments that put students into CSD seats. Very few. So the evidence is there. More evidence you say? Google: “Center for Urban Policy Research Residential Demographic Multipliers – Georgia” and you will find demographic multipliers from the US Census that show that, historically, 1 and 2 bedroom units produce about .1 – .2 school age child per unit. So for every 1000 apartment units we would end up with less than 200 school age children. Not all of those would end up in our schools. And those that do would be spread out among the various grade levels. So if you have a building downtown worth $10 million (probably VERY conservative) the schools are going to be collecting at least $250K annually off that building. We spend something less than $10K per student. So doing this, admittedly rough, estimate, that one apartment building would need to produce more than 25 CSD students to be a net negative on the schools. That isn’t going to happen. There is much more that would need to go into a true fiscal analysis, but that gets you to where I’m going. It’s true that a single family home at some price point becomes a fiscal “winner” but that wasn’t my point. The point is that single family homes produce kids for our schools. Apartments downtown produce very few. We need to start with that fact before we put the blame for everything on apartment buildings that haven’t even welcomed their first residents yet. This isn’t a knock on single family homes – I own one that contributes CSD students too.

      • Marty

        Actually, that does not get Decatur to where we are going. First, residential demographic multipliers – Georgia is not equivalent to Decatur demographic multipliers – CSD. So that is actually not evidence. Also, it seems Decatur Dan’s anecdotal experience varies significantly from yours.

        I do agree Geoff, there is much that would go into a “true fiscal analysis,” but where is it? That is the issue with long term planning –
        “with their long time frames, complex outcomes, and murky cause and effect-they are conducive to the spread of half-cocked guesses posing as fact. And here’s why: the people making these wild guesses can usually get away with it! By the time things have played out and everyone has realized they didn’t know what they were talking about, the bluffers are long gone.” Or it is too late.

        Again, there has to be some impetus causing the commissioners to express concern about the relationship between the number of apartments and CSD.

        • Geoff

          Why are my assertions “half-cocked” but you can throw out any assertion and think you are right? I’ve offered you evidence – broad based – from “global” sources as well as the evidence of the current facts on the ground in downtown Decatur that says to me that small apartments will house some, but relatively few, school kids. What evidence or facts do you have besides reading the tea leaves from the last commission meeting that you can point to to prove your points?

          • Marty

            I have not written that more apartments are bad for CSD or not bad. Did I make an assertion or ask questions related to the topic? Sometimes folks get agitated when lots of questions start getting asked.

            If the evidence supports that more apartments are good, then Callaway’s changes should be approved. If not, then they should not be approved. However, a true analysis did not take place, so where is the evidence going to come from? Also, I will have to disagree, but I haven’t read global evidence presented that relates specifically to Decatur.

            There is much that would go into a true fiscal analysis as you write. The problem is that it did not occur, and the apartments are being built. Hopefully, the downstream result will be positive for Decatur. It should give every citizen in Decatur a pause that the commissioners did express concern at the commission meeting? One wonders if they are they reading the “tea leaves” or is the broad based evidence from global sources not convincing them.

            Thanks for the forum Dan.

          • Geoff

            Fair enough, Marty. You ask good questions.

      • Shawn Murphy Hitchcock

        I care not what the internet has to say. I am not concerned about the future of Decatur’s schools due to the influx of people. What I do care about is the loss of lifestyle for which I moved to Decatur. No longer can I stroll downtown for a burger and a beer without waiting in lines to pay higher prices. My drive time to work at Emory has doubled. Quick trips to the grocery or drugstore are no longer an option. Crosswalks with pavers installed not long ago are falling apart eyesores that invite people to walk out in front of cars with a sense of entitlement. Garbage cans on the streets are overflowing. Cigarette butts litter the square. Reports of cited issues are treated as if a bother. Property taxes have always been relatively high in the City of Decatur, funding good schools AND good services for its’ citizens. I always told people “you get what you pay for.” Those days are no more.

        • Doc

          Try strolling across the tracks to a place that rebuilt after a fire in the same location it has occupied since 1982 and find no lines, a great burger that is not overpriced (with a side included, imagine that), a great draft beer and drink selection, free parking, and a lot of neighborhood locals having a great time.

      • Peripatetian

        Would you mind listing an address or parcel ID that illustrates your example of building valuation and school tax return and that we can find through a search at

        • Geoff

          Let’s use an older apartment building downtown – Ice House Lofts (105 Sycamore Place) – this is the newest one that was fully operational when the last tax bill came out.

          According to the DeKalb Co. tax site they paid $146K in city taxes in 2014 on a building valued at $8.5 million (again, the new apt. buildings will be worth more because they’re new). Based on information at the link you sent, about 66% of those taxes goes to the schools. So they are paying roughly $100K in school taxes every year. (This all occurs on 1.6 acres of land, mind you; that is using land efficiently!) So if the school spends $10K on each student there would need to be over 10 students in that building for it to be a “net loser.” There are not 10 students in that building. See the city’s response to these questions posted on Decatur Metro today.

          (You have to use the county tax website to see the full picture of how a property’s taxes are collected and distributed. I’m happy to admit that this analysis could be improved if you have ideas).

  • Cities Are Bad

    They are talking about this on the DeKalb strong page and how cities are bad. The county will lose so much money if the new cities form. That translates into so many jobs. DeKalb police will need to rethink its position in the county and how it handles a 20 million dollar loss of money. These cities disrupt our way of life and bring an unwelcome element of different kinds of people into our stable enviroment. We need DeKalb County kept as it is so the large houses will not come and all of the jones families surround us and heaven forbid the wife wants a large house like they have. We just don’t need that crap around here. Vote no against the cities. They don’t do anything good except bring in immigrants and foreigners. Keep DeKalb Strong and contribute on the website. Those that want the cities have more money then we do.

    • Anna Dexter

      “They don’t do anything good except bring in immigrants and foreigners.” Good to know what DeKalb Strong is really all about.

  • Marty

    Also, if large numbers of apartments downtown are not a burden on schools, why did every city commissioner express concern with the increased number of apartments proposed at Callaway?

    • Geoff

      Good question. You’d have to ask them.

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