A nine-story eyesore’s redevelopment into a beacon of relatively attainable housing options is set to include an unmissable homage to a former East Point mayor who left an indelible mark.
National housing developer The Vecino Group and the East Point Housing Authority have partnered on a project to turn the long-vacant Nelms House at 1600 Connally Drive into an 88-unit building called Aya Tower, which will offer exclusively affordable housing.
As construction heads into the home stretch, project officials on Tuesday announced the building will include a seven-story mural honoring former East Point Mayor Patsy Jo Hilliard, who made history in 1993 by being elected East Point’s first female and Black mayor—and the first Black woman to hold that office in Georgia history. She remains East Point’s longest-tenured mayor to date.
Developers have commissioned Atlanta artist Erica Chisolm to hand-paint the towering homage, which will include Adinkra symbols, a portrait of Hilliard, and the former mayor’s favorite saying, “Be True To Thyself.” Living Walls, a local art collective that specializes in large-scale public art with cultural inspirations, is also on board.
Tatiana Bell, a Living Walls spokesperson, tells Urbanize Atlanta the mural will debut this spring on the east façade of the nine-story building—on full display for MARTA riders between the airport and downtown—overlooking Main Street and Tri-Cities High School. It’ll span 51 by 47 feet, or 2,397 square feet, starting above the brick portion of the revitalized building.
The building is located just north of East Point’s historic and transit-connected downtown, about seven miles from downtown Atlanta by car. Formerly used as senior housing and the housing authority’s offices, it had been vacant for more than a decade.
A lifelong educator like her late husband, Asa Hilliard, Mayor Hilliard served in East Point between 1993 and 2006. She’s credited with revitalizing East Point’s public library, fostering growth with civic and business leaders, and lending an enduring, positive sense of unity.
According to city officials, Hilliard was informed of the mural plans last month alongside her daughter, Robi, but she deflected praise to “so many people [who] worked together to accomplish things” while acknowledging she was “just overwhelmed” by the honor.
Named “Aya” for a symbol representing strength and endurance in the ancient Adinkra alphabet of West Africa, the renovated tower will feature 88 new homes (72 one-bedroom and 16 two-bedroom apartments). Rents will be capped at 40 to 60 percent of the area’s average median income, per the development team.
Vecino Group officials say the project, which broke ground in early 2022, is on track to open this summer.
On a broader scale, the Aya Tower redevelopment could continue (or help spark) investment aimed at making downtown East Point more walkable, vibrant, and inclusive.
About two blocks from the tower site, East Point officials unveiled plans in late 2021 for a 9-acre, mixed-use project called The Commons. Current East Point Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham has called that $111-million proposal a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inject “equitable development” into the heart of downtown, but it has yet to break ground.
Directly across the MARTA tracks, on a site linked to downtown via the city’s pedestrian bridge, a Kairos Development Corporation venture called East Atlanta Exchange envisions 21 acres of apartments, greenspaces, and retail meshed with landmark buildings.
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