Sunday, January 31, 2021

2021 DHA Annual Meeting

 Many thanks to past mayor Mike Davis for the surprise Key to the City of Dunwoody after today's DHA annual meeting.

The President's Remarks

When I got up here last year to give the President’s remarks, I wanted to focus on DHA’s 50th anniversary.  I stressed out over whether the activities marking a golden anniversary would be memorable enough to be worthy of the milestone.

Then COVID hit – a pandemic the likes of which had not been seen for 100 years – and we were forced to rethink every process we had.

Take a moment, let that irony wash over you.

Who remembers what was the big controversy gripping Dunwoody in January 2020?
It was elementary school redistricting.  Again.
The fever pitch was higher than ever.  There were secret Facebook groups organizing strategies and operations.  There were campaigns for and against elected officials or even neighborhoods worthy of the CIA.  Uniforms were created and parents assembled in groups and public meetings to support keeping their district boundaries.
The intensity was getting scarey.  There were some people VERY sore at me for shining a light on the growing hostility and how it underemined our very quality of life.   But I wasn’t the only one who noticed.  Rabbi Glusman organized a “Coffee with Clergy” event as a way of getting people talking to each other more calmly.  There was one very successful session in late January with hopes of more in the coming months.
Then in the time it took for the World Health Organization to read a statement at a press conference, the boundary lines everyone was fighting over were rendered irrelevant.  Mother Nature sent us to our corners for a timeout.  Now no one had school.  We had online activities.  And a web of fractured relationships to be re-evaluated and rebuilt at a time when neighbors needed each other the most.

In my time as president I encouraged the board and membership to “think outside the box” when approaching ideas or problems to solve.  But now the box is blown away.  There is no box!  The box is gone!  Like everyone else in the world, DHA had the most challenging year of its existence and everything we did, from meetings, to candidate forums, to all of our signature events, had to be reinvented from the ground up. 

We learned a lot this year.  Yes, we learned how to cope with loss and when not to ask, “Can it get any worse?”  (Spoiler alert, the answer is, yes, it can get worse….)  But we were also forced to pause and re-evaluate perspectives on what constitutes “moving forward” in our city. 

For example, for years the drumbeat of redevelopment has been about “pedestrian friendly”.  Dunwoody is too “auto centric” we’re told, we have to eliminate that and be “pedestrian friendly.”  When business was locked down and everyone was forced to shelter in place, what businesses survived?  The auto centric ones.  The ones that had curbside pickup, the ones that offered delivery.  And of course the dreaded drive-thrus stayed afloat.  Even the farmers market began the season as a drive-thru in Dunwoody Village.  Maybe that “auto centric” focus isn’t as evil as we’ve been led to believe and there’s still room for cars and drivers in our future.

Our school systems, both public and private, reinvented teaching and learning.  The technology has been there for some time but now using it wasn’t a choice, it was a mandate.  Many students are still having a hard time interacting with their classes through a screen.  But on the other side, are children with chronic illnesses or major injuries who can keep up with their regular classwork without resorting to the dreaded “hospital-homebound” process.  Families can travel and still show up for class.  And there is an option for school of some kind during weather or other emergencies.  That means in a bad year like Snowpocalypse or IceJam, the school calendar wouldn’t have to be reorganized after a slew of days off.  Were it not for the COVID emergency and lockdown, that experiment would never have been tried.

People who consider themselves “not technical” learned they had to “get technical” to stay connected to life and the world.  Work continued and the world kept turning and Zoom or one of its competitors made the world turn.  DHA’s first online event was the School Board Candidate Forum.  I was terrified that the multitasking involved would prove too much to manage and the whole process would get fouled up.  Fortunately I was stressed over nothing.  The process was smoother than I had anticipated.  Then I discovered the glories of the “mute” button and all anxiety faded away.

The greatest difficulty was having to plan our events and be ready for them to cancel on a second’s notice.  That was the case with the July 4th Parade and Food Truck Thursdays.  Ever since these traditions began no one imagined a time when they had to be called off.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  In the end, it turned out to be the right call as COVID cases surged in the summer months and putting thousands of people together that are expected at a DHA event was not a prudent move.

Not all was a loss.  Remember that “thinking outside the box” thing earlier?  That’s what saved the Farmers Market.  The Market is DHA’s newest initiative.  The first year was always packed, it was a smash hit between the promotion and special features invented by the original founders.  Then there’s year 2 and if you’re smart, you anticipate the Sophomore Slump.  Year 2 was marked by construction in the park and a moratorium on special events.  Which killed walkover foot traffic.  We were going to bounce back at year 3 and then COVID hit.  Everything was an uphill climb. 

And yet in 2020, The Dunwoody Farmers Market was a “goldilocks zone”.  Not too big, not too small, just right.   DHA’s farmers market was the one spot of continuity for the community during COVID.   First, the disapproval of drive throughs in the Village was suspended for a drive through market where customers could pick up orders placed online.  Our loyal vendors got to keep their businesses going.  New entrepreneurs got a foothold during an impossible time for business.  Then when the market was able to reopen fully at Brook Run, it was the one place where neighbors felt safe venturing out to meet each other.  Then as seasonal artist markets closed, like the Dunwoody Arts Festival and holiday markets at schools and other cities, we held a special-edition artisan market right after Light Up Dunwoody.  There wasn’t anything we could do about the regular festivals but we could provide a venue for the artists who were losing revenue.  The shoppers that week seemed very happy about it too.

Our key sponsors and the market manager are so encouraged by this performance, even during difficult circumstances, that the Dunwoody Farmers Market is opening early.  We don’t have to wait until spring!  First weekend is February 13 with a Valentine-themed artisan market special event.

We may have kept in touch online but nothing compares to being able to commune with others in person.  DHA provided that opportunity to our community when it was rarely possible.

Besides the Farmers Market, DHA kept busy with our core purpose:  to advocate for the needs and rights of homeowners.  The Dunwoody Village updates brought surprises no one anticipated.

To recap for our newer residents, Dunwoody Village was built in the early 1970s as a neighborhood-scale commercial zone to serve the local homeowners.  The DHA made it “the heart of Dunwoody” with an overlay district and a set of design standards that said, “this is our hometown of Dunwoody, that is the Perimeter center, and they are distinct and different.”  The point was to protect the growing neighborhoods and families and homes that built the foundation of what would become the City of Dunwoody.  There were elaborate buffers put in place to make sure that the homes were protected from the new shopping centers and the two existed side by side for over 30 years.

Fast forward to about 2018-ish.  Times and styles have changed and there is a growing call for updates to the design guides of the overlay district as a response to a developer’s request for a modern exterior for a tenant.  That’s OK.  Styles change, there’s no reason why they can’t be reevaluated from time to time.  And then the call to broaden paint colors and roof styles became adding streets.  Then it became adding apartment-style housing.  With no limits on the number of such units defined as of yet, mind you.  Then the new owner of the Shops of Dunwoody center decided they wanted to blow through the undisturbed woodland that protected the homes alongside the village boundaries (that were established as a condition of the original zoning) and build right up on top of the property lines.  Ever wonder why DHA votes to evaluate and discuss any and all changes when proposed?  This is why!  Because without that scrutiny the scope of “updates” and allegedly beneficial improvements explodes without regard for nearby residents.  Then one day these long-time neighborhoods wake up surrounded by several extra stories of offices and high-denisty housing right in their backyards and wonder what the hell happened.

In the case of Shops of Dunwoody, our city council asked city staff to have a “discussion” with homeowners from the Branches and Wynterhall to review their concerns.  A handful of these homeowners were contacted in the evening one day (after regular working hours) and were told to attend a Zoom meeting with a commercial attorney in tow with less than 48 hours notice.  Upon hearing this, the exec board of DHA decided that we were going to fund an attorney to defend the rights of the homeowners by confirming the conditions of zoning and speaking for them at public hearings.  There was no one else to speak up for this community.  Everyone that you would expect to be concerned with homewoners rights abandoned them.  Let’s not forget the irony of “Tree City USA” standing by while acres of urban forest get levelled. 

The solution to the problem by our government was no solution at all – they simply exempted Shops of Dunwoody from their rezoning plans.  Without the required public input.  The Dunwoody Village rezoning and its threat to the local homewoners is far from over.  Rest assured DHA will see the debate through to the end because that’s what homeowners deserve and that is what DHA was made to do.    Since 1970 DHA stands in that gap when no one else will.  Make no mistake, if the homeowners around Dunwoody Village can be threatened in this way, then any neighborhood or subdivision in the city can face the same.

When it comes to revitalization and redevelopment there is one simple concept:  be respectful of the residents and neighborhoods already there.  That’s it.  Everything else is logistics. 

Why are our families so protective of their neighborhoods?  Beyond the financial investment, I mean.  In spite of industry reports claiming that there is greater demand for “urbanized” settings, Dunwoody homes in their 50-year-old subdivisions command premium prices.  Even people advocating for high-denisty housing and “urbanized” commercial nodes themselves live in single family homes in traditional suburban subdivisions.  The answer is:  neighborhoods are the core of the school community.  AS we talked about earlier a lot of effort goes into defending those schools, even though some of the efforts may get out of hand when changes are on the horizon.   In a normal year, when school is in session and there are no worries about redistricting, parents spend countless hours volunteering and contributing to their public schools, making up as much as they can for when the school district falls short.    All efforts benefit all of the children in that school.  That camaraderie reinforces the local community fabric.  IN 2020, with physical schools closed and everyone online, some families were pushed to desperate mesasures.  Many committed and supportive families sold their homes and moved away to other districts whose schools are open.  Volunteers that I worked with, some of my son’s classmates are gone or in the process of moving out.

The one thing more damaging to our school communities and home values than battling over district lines is an exodus of committed families.  We can argue all day long, back and forth, over whether a vehicle in a driveway will lower a home’s value.  But a dip in the quality of the school district is a guaranteed loss in the value of homes and community.  Whenever Dunwoody cluster schools were threatened, an urgent rush to protective changes came about.   A legislative attempt at allowing independent school districts failed.  The rest of the state doesn’t care about DeKalb’s problems.  The number of charter schools with their own internal oversight is shrinking.  Any efforts to alleviate overcrowding from redistricting to new facilities turns Dunwoody against itself.  And now COVID has the schools closed altogether for the better part of a year.  An innovative, “never before seen” solution is more critical than ever. 

DHA has been the center of conversations about school improvement (or lack thereof) for years.  We renewed that focus in the past 2 years with regular reports from community education advocates at every board meeting.  DHA’s exec board was asked to sign off on a statement that advocated for a return to the school house as soon as possible.  I held off though because any discussion of reopening schools leads to a battle that falls largely along racial and partisan political lines.  Along with the stereotypical vitriol about Dunwoody and “North DeKalb”  and no one benefits.  Signing a statement under those conditions just feeds into the conflict without resolving it.  Instead I tried something different.  This past week I took part in an informal conversation – the first in a planned series – with the senior leadership of DeKalb NAACP, the Organization of DeKalb Educators, and Educate Dunwoody.  The goal is to determine if communities across DeKalb can find common ground in building our schools back after COVID.  If we endorse a plan or series of requests that all parts of the county have in common, we can advance the goal of having our schools reopen without the political backlash. 

The most valuable takeaway from our first conversation was a sense of acceptance.  Not of the situation we find in our schools but with each other.  There are various and contradictory political opinions and ideologies in that group.  There is acknowledgement that there are some places we will never be in agreement.  There is also a commitment that on those issues we do agree, we must stand together and not be hindered by philosophical conflict that distracts from the problem at hand.  If a diverse group of community leaders across DeKalb county can build friendships and trust with that understanding, surely residents within the City of Dunwoody can find its way back to the same equilibrium. 

Managing the needs, wants, and rights of a community as diverse in many ways as Dunwoody is a challenge every day.  Election years make it even harder.  Being physically separated out of necessity was the worst of all.  Technology made communication possible, but “togetherness” was more abstract. 

Conflicts are not going away.  In fact, they may be getting more intense.  Minority opinions on any topic are not disappearing and those who hold them are not going to tolerate being silenced.  As we engage in problem solving or conflict resolution, I suggest a greater sense of humility than we have had in recent years.  As we saw in 2020, there are  many variables far outside of our control, far outside even of our imagination.  Any of them can derail what we are fighting for or against (like the elementary school boundaries), and all that is left is the relationships with our neighbors