When John Robins and his wife moved to Lithonia in 1969 there was mostly farmland between the city and the interstate.
“It’s a small town,” said Robins, who was the city’s mayor from 1986-88. “When we moved out here, it was a very small town.”
During the 1950s, there was not much city planning in Lithonia.
“So things got done that should not have,” Robins said. The granite railroad depot was torn down. The old Baptist church was demolished, along with several houses.
“Terrible changes were made to buildings,” Robins said. “Things happened that shouldn’t have happened.”
But it is the Lithonia Plaza, located in the heart of the city, that is the symbol of the past planning mistakes and future rebirth of Lithonia.
At one time, before the 1960s, instead of the plaza there was a street grid with several buildings including a fire station, churches and the train depot.
“Apparently the city got some funding for an urban renewal,” said Deborah Jackson, a Lithonia City Council member. “People were very upset about the buildings that were torn down. There are still people in Lithonia who are upset with the changes from the 1960s.”
Now the plaza is home to a Wayfield Foods grocery store and several retail stores. Part of the plaza is owned by the city of Lithonia and contains vacant, rundown buildings.
Established in 1856, Lithonia was a major economic engine in the county due to the large deposits of granite in the area. The city, which contains about 540 acres and is about one-sixth the size of Stone Mountain Park, has a rich and often-overlooked history.
It is the site of the first Black church in DeKalb County–the Antioch Lithonia Baptist Church, which was established in 1869. First housed in a resident’s home, DeKalb’s first public library was set up in Lithonia in 1907. Later it was moved to the Lithonia Women’s Club in 1928. The Bruce Street School in Lithonia was the first school for Blacks in the county.
Now Lithonia, with the aid of the Georgia Conservancy, is undergoing what Robins called the “first serious planning we’ve had in many years.”
Katherine Moore, of the Georgia Conservancy, is the program manager of the Blueprints for Successful Communities program. Her job is to work with communities to “help them tackle some of their development, redevelopment, greenspace and transportation issues.”
The Georgia Conservancy will “dig a little deeper and build on the recommendations” of previous plans while taking into consideration current economic conditions.
The difference between past plans and the Blueprints plan is the “level of specificity and consideration of market conditions,” Moore said.
“What we’re going to do is look at special zoning recommendations and develop renderings that can be a marketing package to get developers in the downtown core,” Moore said.
The Blueprints work is not the first plan for Lithonia in recent years. In 2003, there was a Livable Cities Initiative plan. In 2005, the Arabian Mountain Area management plan addressed some issues in Lithonia. And last year, the city completed the 2010-2026 Comprehensive Plan update which is required by the state’s Department of Community Affairs.
Blueprints is a strategy to implement the comprehensive plan, Jackson said. “The Blueprint gets more specific and focuses on the town core.”
In the first Blueprints meeting, “people mentioned that they don’t want this sitting on a shelf collecting dust,” Robins said.
Blueprints $50,000 price tag was paid by funds from a community development block grant, the Arabia Mountain Heritage Alliance and the city of Lithonia.
The work has already begun behind the scenes. For months, the Georgia Conservancy has been collecting data. A sidewalk inventory is in progress to determine the city’s “connectivity,” and workers are looking at the quality of housing in Lithonia to determine which houses and neighborhoods are in good repair.
There is one central question of the Blueprints process: “How do we recapture the sense of community?” Jackson said.
“The city is one of the cultural gateways to the Arabia National Heritage Area,” Jackson said. “We want the city to realize its goal. We need Lithonia to catch up and get in place.”
Although there is some significant development in the Lithonia area, some of it is unwanted.
“We’ve had our battles,” Robins said, citing the area’s landfills and heavy commercial district. And for several months, Lithonia residents have been protesting a proposed facility that would convert yard waste into renewable natural gas using a process called gasification. Residents say the plant would add to the “environmental racism” the area has been subjected to.
“Finally this part of DeKalb County has gotten developed,” Robins said. “But we’ve got things out there we don’t particularly want.”
The Blueprints plan is a chance for residents to take control of Lithonia’s future.
“I hope people take advantage of having some say in what the future of the town is going to be,” Robins said.