After a $300,000 transformation that took almost a decade to complete, Chapel Hill Park is now a place for everyone to enjoy.
The improvements at the park at 3985 Lehigh Boulevard have transformed a once-neglected, unsafe part of South DeKalb.
And it is largely due to the vision of Linda Cotten-Taylor — a determined resident, community warrior and avid park advocate — and her loyal team of helpers.
On April 19, torrential rain couldn’t dampen her spirit or those of some 40 volunteers, residents, supporters, sponsors, and county officials as they cut the ribbon on the park’s latest addition — a covered fishing pier on Lehigh Lake.
The fishing pier was the final piece of the expansion and renovations that got underway almost 10 years ago with an idea and a lot of fundraising.
Cotten-Taylor said she was determined to see it through.
“When I get my tooth into something I really dig, dig, dig to make sure that it happens,” she said.
Emboldened by their success, Cotten-Taylor is now committed to expanding Chapel Hill Park’s walking trails and pollinator garden, and to raising $10 million for park improvements throughout metro Atlanta.
She said her passion is parks, and that they are going to get that money.
“We’re going to have money that can be seed money for other grants,” she said. “For these small parks, that’s the problem – getting that seed money, getting the matching funds.”
It’s a fight she’s come to know all too well.
In 2010, when Cotten-Taylor started discussing Chapel Hill Park improvements with neighbors, the 35-acre reserve in unincorporated Decatur was overgrown, underused, and attracting vandals.
Neglected playground equipment was falling apart, walking trails were lost under vegetation, and residents were underwhelmed by the area at best, and scared at worst.
Maurice Moore, who has lived about two miles from the park for over 20 years, said she rarely used the amenities.
“I didn’t used to come here because it was unsafe,” he said.
On April 25, days after the ribbon cutting, Moore and her husband Arthur were at the park with their 2-year-old grandsons Joseph Moody and Collin Anderson.
The boys were having a blast on the swings and just frolicking on the playground. They also had a picnic under the gazebo with their grandparents.
Now that the park is safe, clean and full of fun things to do, Moore said they now try to get their grandsons to the park once or twice a week.
“Before the upgrades, I would barely come here – it wasn’t somewhere I was seeking out to go,” she said. “My husband would come down and fish on the lake a little bit, but the park itself was neglected and it didn’t feel safe.”
She said Chapel Hill Park is now the best place for her grandsons to play and she hopes it continues to be maintained.
“You shouldn’t have to travel outside of your community to have a decent area for the kids to play, or to be able to go and sit down and not have to worry about getting cut or stabbed by someone,” she said.
Creating a safe recreation space for her family and her neighbors was Cotten-Taylor’s driving force and what kept her fighting through the many challenges they encountered over the last 10 years.
“Now Chapel Hill has something for everyone,” she said. “It’s a really family-focused park. It’s the only place you can go and have a great time and it doesn’t cost you any money.”
Initial community fundraising, led by Cotten-Taylor, generated about $50,000 for new outdoor exercise equipment, freestanding kiosks, a new playground, picnic pads, and more.
In 2017 the DeKalb County government stepped up and installed new toilets, created parking spaces and cleared the trails.
A pollinator garden was established with money donated by Kaiser Permanente, and the Friends of Chapel Hill Park group – which Cotten-Taylor founded – saw to it that a free library, local school children’s artwork, and an outdoor classroom were added.
The park also boasts a multi-use sports field, an information kiosk, barbecue grills, picnic tables, swing seats, hot coal disposal bins, benches, trashcans, and a paved car park with handicap spaces.
Ropes have been placed on the ground to prevent erosion and soil run-off into the lake, and many types of young trees have been planted.
The 80-foot fishing pier, with full ADA accessibility, and the paving of most of the main walking trail were completed with $55,000 from county government and $100,000 raised by the park friends group.
In all, since 2010, almost $300,000 has gone into the park upgrades, and Cotten-Taylor and the community can take credit for raising about two thirds of it.
Major benefactors include the nonprofit Park Pride, which gave $50,000; WSB-TV/Cox Enterprises, $10,000; and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which gave $10,000.
Many of those grants were highly competitive but Chapel Hill succeeded by making convincing cases.
Other key contributors were the Chapel Hill Neighborhood Association, Hipsters of Atlanta, Hands On Atlanta, The Home Depot, House of Hope Atlanta, Cox Conserves, Friendship Baptist Church, Kroger, Publix, Emory Healthcare, Tracy’s Medicine Center, Community Bucket, and Nature Conservancy.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, DeKalb District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson, who represents the area, praised Cotten-Taylor for her hard work, dedication, and “delicious” teacakes.
He remembered when Chapel Hill had nothing to brag about.
“We had a playground that was falling down, broken down, moving around,” he said. “Linda Cotten-Taylor will leave this earth empty because she has dedicated her life to this area and I appreciate her for what she’s done.”
Johnson promised more resources for the wider community, including a new Flakes Mill library that opened May 6. He said that there are also plans for an intergenerational center.
DeKalb Super District 7 Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, who also represents the area, said she will ensure the intergenerational center becomes a reality.
“It’s very important that we have wonderful environments for our children and our family, so enjoy this,” she said. “This is what dedication looks like, and it’s dedication that changes communities.”
Chuck Ellis, DeKalb’s director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs, praised the “many hours and hard work” the Chapel Hill community put in to transform the neighborhood park.
“This is truly a first-class fishing pier for the community and I’m so thrilled for people to have a safe place to fish, relax and enjoy the park,” he said. “This park will continue to create an environment that is inviting for the citizens of DeKalb County, to motivate them towards a more active lifestyle and which will create memories for them for the rest of their life.”
Michael Halicki, Park Pride executive director, said Chapel Hill is a shining example for other neighborhoods.
“The communities that get what they want are those that when they hear ‘no,’ they hear ‘not yet.’ And this community, the Friends of Chapel Hill Park under the leadership of Linda Cotten-Taylor, have done amazing things here,” he said.
Cotten-Taylor announced that a walking trail extension that links the park to nearby Pepperdine Drive is now open.
She said a small bridge needs to be installed over part of the trail, but it’s walkable when dry.
She said that there is also a possibility that trails could be extended to other nearby parks and even to connect to the Arabia Mountain trail that is eight miles away.
But for now, Cotten-Taylor can relax a little in her own neighborhood park, knowing her initial goal to rejuvenate it has been achieved.
On April 19, DeKalb County’s master gardener Debra Stone — who donated the first $50 for the project – revealed that a Japanese maple tree will be planted in the park in Cotten-Taylor’s honor.
“She is a person who is passionate about the community, her family, and the park, and I love that,” Stone said.