By David Pendered
What should be the definition of success for Atlanta’s largest urban renewal program?
The answer to that question will be at the center of legislation the Atlanta City Council expects to consider in early 2013. The council is attempting to refocus, for these post-recession times, a city program that uses property taxes to spur development in blighted areas.
The city’s consultant seems to lean toward a definition of success based on progress reached in categories such as crime and poverty. The city’s auditor, whose audit triggered the city’s review, said it’s too early to say if the proposal is appropriate for Atlanta.
“The definition of ‘substantial completion’ needs to be flexible,” Candace Damon, vice chair of HR&A, the New York based consultant, said Wednesday at a joint meeting of the council’s Finance and Community Development committees.
“If we tie it to particular legislation, a council resolution, it may not be extant in 15 years,” Damon said. “It needs to be able to be applied successively. It needs to be quantitative, to get away from opinions.”
Leslie Ward, the city auditor, said she was seeing the proposal for the first time. Ward released an audit in May that called for an array of changes to the governance of the TAD program to ensure Atlanta taxpayers are getting the most value for their investment.
“My initial thought is this moves us in the general direction we [city auditors] were thinking about,” Ward said. “That’s all I can say at this point.”
HR&A has been hired by Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm, to review the city’s program of tax allocation districts. Brian McGowan, Invest Atlanta’s president/CEO, said the city’s TAD program is among his top priorities.
“This has been a very early objective of mine,” McGowan said. “Every year, we are reviewing against original goals and market conditions.”
TADs are geographic areas established by the city, in which property taxes collected on developments built after the TAD was created are spent on amenities intended to attract additional developments.
To use the city’s best known TAD as an example: In the BeltLine TAD, property taxes collected on new developments are invested in parks that aim to spur more development.
The consultants used the Westside TAD. It covers a large segment of downtown, from the central business district through Vine City and English Avenue. The TAD incorporates at least one previous urban renewal program that was formed in 1992 to bolster the area around the former Techwood Homes public housing project.
According to HR&A, the goals of the Westside TAD were ambitious:
- Strengthen struggling neighborhoods by addressing high unemployment, and crime, and a falling population;
- Attracting new investments that would alleviate high vacancy rates and low property value, and limited new developments;
- Overcome phisical challenges such as divides created by railroad tracks, environmental contamination, and aging, obsolete structures.
Twenty years into the first phase of the effort, a lot has been been accomplished and a lot still needs to be done, Damon said.
“It seems to us that neither the TAD as a whole, nor subareas, appear substantially complete,” Damon said.