Whether Jimmy Carter's presidential library someday rises from a kudzu patch a couple of miles from downtown Atlanta depends on the ability of the former president and his allies to whip an angry band of urban pioneers fighting a proposed four-lane parkway to the site.
Most residents do not mind Carter parking his "Peanut Papers" on their block, but they have threatened lawsuits, lobbied the city council and marched on City Hall to protest plans for a parkway through their gracious landscape of magnolias and stately Georgian mansions.
If it comes to a choice between having the road or not having the library, most neighborhood activists echo Steve Morgan, 32, a salesman who moved his wife and daughter into a two-bedroom house in Inman Park four years ago. "Carter can just build his library in Plains," he said. "We don't need a four-lane highway."
The battle over 219 acres of scraggly kudzu is not a backyard referendum on the Carter presidency. It is a classic showdown between preservationists and developers.
The preservationists are savvy veterans of past victories, but their enemies are legion and powerful. They include not just the former president, but also downtown business leaders, the governor, the state highway czar, the daily newspaper, Emory University, which dreams of a research center on the site, and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Carter's ex-U.N. ambassador.
Young, who campaigned against the road when he was running for mayor, now wants to make his mark with an ambitious $110 million development plan for the 219 acres known as the Great Park. He has put power and prestige on the line for economic development he regards as crucial to the city's well-being.
A beleaguered city council is expected to count heads Tuesday on the development plan.
The battle drips irony. As governor, Carter helped kill an interstate through the northeast Atlanta neighborhood he sees as the ideal site for his memorabilia. Now he wants an access road from I-75 so tourists can flock to his memoirs. He has said he might park his papers elsewhere, perhaps in another southern state, if plans cannot be worked out.
"I don't want to make a threat," he said in a recent interview, "but I've been invited to go to several universities outside of Georgia. My strong preference is to build the library in Atlanta, but if there is a legal or other impediment, I'll have to look for other alternatives."
Carter lobbied council members recently with personal letters, pledging to do "everything possible" to see that promises to the area are kept. His wife, Rosalynn, has also weighed in, making phone calls to council members.
As a former congressman, Young once arm-twisted federal transportation officials to scuttle a proposed highway through the neighborhood, whose young white professionals had helped send him to Washington.
The 18-member city council, once controlled by downtown business interests, includes many local activists who launched political careers fighting highways through the neighborhood. Even council members such as John Lewis, a Young ally from civil rights days who has been deluged with 400 letters against the road, have parted company with their old friend, the mayor.
"I'd love to see the presidential library, but if we must take the library with the road, something has to give," Lewis said. "We're trying to preserve what people have built up over the years with time, money and sweat."
The vote is too close to call, but its outcome is crucial to Young. The mayor has a distaste for a hard scrap, but with his reputation at stake--along with a plan he views as crucial to the city's future--he has taken off the gloves. In the final days, the fight has taken on a racial tinge: blacks behind Young against predominantly white neighborhood groups.
"There are people all over the country who are watching to see if Andy is in control," said Dan Sweat, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business group. "They want to know if the city is controlled by a bunch of neighborhood groups. And they want to see if Young is willing to use his clout."
Young said he believes the urban design plan for the Great Park, crafted by architect Paul Muldawer, a close friend and former highway foe, will sell itself as a boon to the neighborhood and the city. Muldawer envisions a tranquil, tree-lined presidential parkway snaking 2.3 miles into the park from the gleaming downtown skyline.
Along the route would be the Carter Library, an amphitheater, an Emory University research center, jogging and bike paths, chic "jogger johnnies," picnic tables and fountains. The road would be sunken and hidden from view by shaped earth dikes designed to protect against noise and pollution. Muldawer vows that residents would never see a car.
Moreover, proponents say that the way the deal is structured, it will not cost city taxpayers a cent. The state owns the property because of condemnation proceedings for interstates never built, and state officials have granted the city control over the development's design in exchange for some sort of commuter road through the area.
Young said the project would create 4,000 jobs, and the development plan includes middle-income housing for 700 families financed at below-market rates through revenue bonds. In addition to luring tourists to the Carter library, he said, the plan will boost property values, tax revenues and the city's image.
Some neighborhood leaders privately concede it is the best plan to date but point out that several studies conclude that low traffic congestion hardly justifies another road. Planners project 1 million library visitors annually, but opponents note that the most popular presidential library--John F. Kennedy's in Boston--has only 400,000 visitors a year.
Locals also fear state officials will not keep their promises to build the amenities. It is unclear whether motor tax revenues, which go to build state roads, can be spent on such items as fountains and restroom facilities for joggers.
Highway officials, who have insisted on local government approval before ground-breaking, are optimistic. Locals counter that the highway officials will say anything to get their road.