Partners (Spring 1998)

Photograph by Lisa Bianchi
Public Housing

East Lake Meadows is Becoming a
Beautiful New Golf Community

by John Steinbreder

This article was reprinted with permission from Sky magazine, Pace Communications, Inc., Greensboro, North Carolina.
Photograph by Lisa Bianchi, senior photography student and Coca-Cola Scholar, The Atlanta College of Art © 1996
F or many years, the streets of Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood had a sinister feel to them. Storefronts were boarded up, and burned-out cars rusted in vacant lots. Lawns weren't mowed, and many of the homes that had not been abandoned had bars on their windows and doors. Crack houses abounded, and one of the most notorious sat next to a day-care center. Gunfire broke out so frequently at the East Lake Meadows public housing project that locals dubbed it "Little Vietnam." Someone painted a giant skull and crossbones on one of the buildings there, summing up the fear and hopelessness many residents felt. Appropriately, another bit of graffiti nearby read, "Dead End."

But things in that part of town don't seem so desperate any more. A local real estate developer named Tom Cousins is almost single-handedly changing the face and attitude of East Lake by spearheading a unique renewal project with a pair of golf courses at its center. It's an improbable position for a country club sport, but the concept appears to be working. It is bringing new money into the neighborhood. It is creating jobs. It is providing young people with productive things to do when school is not in session. And it is giving residents a shot at a better life. "It's still golf, but in a way most people have never seen before," Cousins says. "It's golf with a purpose."

Golf started to have a purpose in Atlanta in 1993 when Cousins, 66, bought the historic East Lake Golf Club, just a 3-wood away from the housing project and only three miles from the city's center, and set out to restore it to its former splendor. Founded in 1904, East Lake had been the home club of Bobby Jones, winner of 13 major golf championships and arguably the greatest ever to play the game. In those years, it was a cozy country retreat for the city's well-to-do, including Cousins' family. But, like the neighborhood around it, the club fell on hard times during the 1960s and was on the verge of closing down when Cousins stepped in. A developer and an avid golfer, he initially planned to create a shrine to the great Bobby Jones, and he poured some $25 million into the project, revamping the elegant Tudor clubhouse and the classic Donald Ross designed course.

It became apparent to Cousins that a renewed East Lake could be a catalyst for improving the entire area as well, especially the housing project. Working with the Atlanta Housing Authority and the East Lake Meadows Residents Association, he helped created a development plan that is razing "Little Vietnam" and replacing it with a mixed-income community of 500 housing units, half to be set aside for public housing and the remainder for middle-income families who will pay market rates. The 174-acre site will also include an 18-hole public golf course, a junior golf academy with driving range, a tennis academy with driving range and a 50,000-plus-square-foot YMCA.

Cousins closed down the original golf club in April 1994 and 16 months later reopened an elegant update, a tribute to its most famous member. The first phase of work on the housing development, which consists of 182 units, the golf academy building and the driving range, was still under construction in the fall of 1997, and nine holes of the public golf course are scheduled to open this summer.

The entire project isn't slated for completion until 2000, but already it is having a positive effect on the neighborhood. Most of the crack houses have been torn down, and middle class families are starting to move back into the area, many of them into homes surrounding the golf course. Some 85 children from the housing project are enrolled in summer and after-school programs through the East Lake Junior Golf Academy, and instead of spending their off-hours milling around street corners, they are learning how to chip and putt and getting instruction in a variety of academic disciplines as well. The club has also employed some 300 young men and women as caddies.

"It has been a remarkable undertaking," says Ronald W. Allen, the former chairman, president and chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines. "Every time I go out there, I marvel at all the good that is being done." Adds Eva Davis, a feisty, 62-year-old great-grandmother who has headed the residents association since 1971, "I think this is one of the most beautiful things that could happen to poor people out here."

It has been a while since anything good happened to that area of Atlanta. "East Lake was one of the worst spots imaginable," Cousins says. "Crime was rampant, and violence was a way of life. Of the 650 units at the public housing complex, only 14 of them had male heads of household. And the average age of a grandmother there was 32 years old."

Cousins had been looking for such a place to put some of the money he had made over the years as a commercial real estate developer in Atlanta. He had started the CF Foundation in 1987 - the initials stand for Cousins Family - and through it had given away piles of cash to many different causes.

"It operated pretty much as any other public charitable foundation," says the foundation's executive director, Greg Giornelli. "But there was a sense of frustration that by handing out grants to a number of different entities, we weren't really doing anything that made us feel like we were making a difference at the end of the day. So the board decided to direct all its resources into one big project." When Cousins decided to buy the floundering East Lake Golf Club for $4.5 million and took a serious look at the area around it, he realized the CF Foundation had its cause.

Cousins spared no expense in redoing the golf course. A nine-hole track had originally been built on that site by Scottish architect Tom Bendelow. In 1913, though, the great Donald Ross tore that up and put in a completely new 18 holes, which Bobby Jones later said made East Lake "one of my favorite courses anywhere in the world." The club hosted the prestigious Rider Cup matches in 1963, but not before George Cobb had performed what one periodical described as a "clumsy modernization of the layout" in preparation for that event. Cousins wanted to bring back as much of Ross' original design as possible, and shortly after he bought the club, he brought in the renowned golf course architect Rees Jones to handle the task.

"We didn't have any plans or maps of Ross' work," Cousins says, "but thanks to some old aerial photographs and the memories of a few former members, we were able to get a good sense of what it was like before." Rees Jones did a first-rate job, and Cousins is making sure that the restored masterpiece is kept in tiptop shape.

The PGA Tour likes the revamped layout so much that it is holding this year's season-ending TOUR Championship at East Lake. And in 2001, the club will host the U. S. Amateur Championship.

While Rees Jones was taking care of the golf course, the foundation was redoing the two-story clubhouse. "We wanted to do a historical restoration of that building and create a museum of Bobby Jones' life," says Giornelli. Now the 40,000-square-foot building is beautifully appointed with overstuffed chairs and couches as well as period tables, bookcases and bureaus. Artifacts from Jones' playing career are displayed throughout the clubhouse, including his old double locker, dozens of photographs and replicas of the trophies from all four of his Grand Slam victories in 1930. There is even a Bobby Jones room, plus another room that pays tribute to some of East Lake's other golf greats, like Charlie Yates, who won the 1938 British Amateur Championship and currently serves as club president, and Alexa Stirling, the three-time U. S. Women's Amateur champion who grew up across the street from the club.

Cousins has done the East Lake Golf Club renovation on his own, but for the new housing development and public golf course, he is working in partnership with the Atlanta Housing Authority and the residents association. The costs of the entire project total an estimated $93 million, with $15 million of that amount coming out of a U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant and about $30 million from private financing. The remainder will come from philanthropic sources, including the CF Foundation, and whatever money the club garners in membership fees and operating profits.

It hasn't always been easy for Cousins, the city's housing authority and the tenants' association to work together. With incessant conflict during the planning stages, many times it seemed the triumvirate would break up. After years of broken promises, the poor, African-American residents of East Lake Meadows greatly mistrusted any project proposed by city housing authorities. And they weren't too sure about the motives, or sanity, of a rich white man who was talking about building golf courses in their midst.

"I was skeptical at first, but not any more," says Eva Davis. "I know now that the golf is going to help. If they were just going to rebuild these units with no excitement around them, it would be more of the same nonsense. The golf courses are what makes this project unique. It will draw the market-rate residents here, the middle-class people, and that will straighten out this public housing situation. It will make it a happier place to live, a beautiful place to live. We won't just be with poor people. We'll be living around people we otherwise would have never known. And we'll be living in an area that has a chance to do better, a chance to grow."

Tom Cousins gets just as excited about the future of East Lake as he walks outside the clubhouse and looks down on the practice green, where a handful of third-graders enrolled in the golf academy are putting. He mentions that when people from his foundation first started working at East Lake, they often heard gunshots in the distance. But that hasn't happened in a while.

The neighborhood seems to be coming back slowly, and Cousins is happy to say that friends who once thought his altruistic notions were crazy aren't laughing at him any more. "But we still have so much to do," he declares.

Like what?

"A chain-link fence surrounds this entire course," he says. "And our work here won't be done until we have torn it down." They're not there yet. But they are getting closer.

John Steinbreder is the author of Golf Courses of the U.S. Open (Taylor Publishing) and is a regular Sky contributor.

Financing East Lake Meadows
Phase I Housing
182 units of housing 50% reserved for public housing residents
50% reserved for market rate residents
Sources of Funding

$7.4 million first mortgage loan from Urban Residential Finance Authority

$5.8 million second mortgage from the Atlanta Housing Authority
(such funds designated only towards the construction of the public housing units)

$2.395 million derived from the sale of low income housing tax credits

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