Atlanta City Council Candidate Q and A: Ivory Lee Young Jr.
Some comments have been edited or condensed for brevity and clarity.
Ivory Lee Young Jr. was first elected to City Council for District 3 in 2001.
Q: What’s your No. 1 concern for District 3 specifically?
A: Balanced growth and development.
Every demographic, every census tract is different. Every neighborhood has different needs. We have initiated a districtwide redevelopment planning effort. It’s a bifurcated approach with the Westside Future Fund. It is the funding of an action plan that is helping the Vine City, English Avenue, Castleberry Hill community.
And then all the other neighborhoods that don’t have plans are being funded through a separate process called “Westside Revive.” Through that, we’re hoping to perfect the land use policies as well as zoning and to help to promote future redevelopment that is balanced. … Atlantic Station’s needs are not Dixie Hills’ needs. And so, balanced growth and redevelopment is probably the No. 1 issue for me.
Q: OK. What you talked about, these planning processes, kind of plays in to my next question. What can you as a City Council member do about that?
A: Well, what we’re doing is we’re using the results of the plans to advocate for the implementation of certain specific projects.
… The information that we’ve developed historically has helped us to strengthen applications for various funding, for various developers, for affordable housing. And it has helped us to do economic development. We have played an integral role in the redevelopment of the West Midtown area.
Most of the properties in and around West Midtown when I took office were industrially zoned, and so parcel-by-parcel we’ve had to individually work with the new developers, like with the M Street Apartments, White Provision, Five Seasons, Gables. Virtually all of the development required a rezoning because it was literally not allowed for the types of mixed-use development that have really made West Midtown a destination.
And so we are using the redevelopment planning to build consensus with existing stakeholders and residents to determine not just what the market says development should be, but what are the priorities of the residents and the stakeholders of individual neighborhoods? So those plans have helped us to reach a middle ground between highest and best use and what are that the priorities of residents and stakeholders within a geographic area.
Q: What is a political accomplishment that you’re proud of over your career?
A: In 2002, there was a sewer flood that displaced 160 families. The transition of what happened with each of 160 families was critical because we had to make those families whole.
So when we say that homeowners had an opportunity to have their houses rebuilt at no additional cost, I count that as a success. When the folks in rental property were provided a subsidy and a stipend of $3,500, when I’m talking 144 households and first and last month’s rent to move anywhere they like, that’s a new beginning for a family that is in poverty.
But more importantly, the two years it took to actually manage that whole transitional process to then, the years following. Back in 2005, we approved the redevelopment plan for that same geography, that same land that flooded. That involved engaging our watershed management [department] and all the other relevant agencies and planning and parts to then perfect that the highest and best use for this low-lying flood-prone area was green space [as Rodney Cook Sr. Park.]
So, we … achieved the funding to actually underwrite the cost of the neighborhood’s first legitimate redevelopment plan. And then from that, it was codified, within that plan approved by Council, that it was the community’s priority that a world-class park be built on that property. So when we transitioned from there, the five years it took for us to identify someone that had an interest in helping us to underwrite the creation of a park, but not just any park, a park that would really provide and commemorate the great legacy of the westside and the great heritage of leadership that comes out of the westside.
And so working with the National Monuments Foundation, we have the commitment to build 18 monuments, a tribute also to Tomochichi and a hundred-foot tall observation tower, and what we call the Peace Column, as well as a permanent home for the archive collections of Rev. C.T. Vivian will also be housed at the park. In addition to having a world-class design perfected by the Trust for Public Land that will fund that.
There’s outdoor active and passive recreational for all ages. Along with, most important, a 10 million-gallon storm water detention system which is actually being converted into a water feature that will really make the park a destination unlike any other in the city.
And the fact that the majority of the funds required to build all of this are coming from philanthropic sources. The Trust for Public Land is using Coxe Curry to raise their funds. The National Monuments Foundation is raising their own funds. And then watershed management is underwriting the cost of all of the stormwater detention and all of the water aspects of the park.
And so, the fact that a smaller percentage of this park is being underwritten by taxpayer dollars. And then the balance by philanthropic [money], all of this takes a commitment.
There are other projects that we can speak about, like the trying to eliminate the food desert with bringing in the WalMart. And what we’re doing now with workforce development … even though dropout rates are reducing, the outcomes are getting better … the school system, the city, all of us have really failed in our obligation to educate everybody. When you look at 50 percent dropout rates for decades, the consequence is an ill-prepared workforce.
We’ve capitalized on the stadium and our partnerships there to bring investments where they historically have not gone. We’ve reopened the Kennedy Middle School supporting [Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent] Dr. Meria Carstarphen and our [APS] board member Byron Amos with the support of these philanthropic dollars coming to the westside.
[The school houses] a STEM program that is being shored up and supported by Georgia Tech and their CEISMC [Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing] program … [it] is actually providing support to strengthen the curriculum for future certification for the STEM program. That’s being donated by Georgia Tech. There are dollars being donated by the philanthropists … we are using Westside Future Fund dollars to create a fund to double the number of teachers at this school. So that instead of one teacher for 26 kids, we have a classroom of … one teacher for every 13 kids. Which should really be the standard across all APS schools. Teachers are having a difficult time educating because the classrooms are overpopulated.
Q: What’s an uncomfortable truth the next Council needs to face?
A: There are so many moving parts to the city. The people have an inherent distrust in government for the lack of transparency. And so, for me personally, there are some ideas that we’re exploring to build on our Westside Revive program, we call the Westside Economic Development Collaborative that will expand the opportunities to build collaborations with community in informing them about the actions of city government. There needs to be more transparency I think.
I don’t believe what I’ve witnessed to be an inherent culture of corruption or of misuse of resources. But we have an obligation to communicate that in a very open and public way so that we can really dispel fear and anxiety of what is not being shared.
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Q: Over the last four to eight years on Council, what’s something this Council has gotten really right?
A: Well I think that there are two answers for that. There’s at my district level and then there’s citywide.
In the time that I’ve been in office, when we had to really contemplate higher sewer bills, I was a part of a vote on City Council that actually voted against the initial rate increase because I didn’t feel that the full burden of the rate increase should rest on the ratepayers.
That vote was vetoed and we overrode the veto. This proved to the state of Georgia that the city really ought to share the responsibility with … people who visit and use our resources and infrastructure.
And so, it really led to the opportunity for us to have the approval of the MOST, the municipal local option sales tax. That penny tax enabled us — no one can argue we have the highest sewer rates and water bills around — but it would have been … 30 percent higher than it is now had it not been for that single vote.
Because if we had voted to support the rates that were being presented to us, the state would have basically accepted that as ‘they [Atlanta] had the capacity to manage this themselves.’ When what we’ve done is we’ve created a commuter tax of sorts because the people who work and play and visit our city, who use our infrastructure, now share in the responsibility of helping to pay for it.
… The back half of that is, there were a lot of investments made to try to transform the westside before I took office. I’m happy to say with the support of Invest Atlanta, we created a hierarchy of oversight and due diligence with every grant and public dollar spent in the transformation of westside neighborhoods, so that we can account for the dollars and the investments made, [they] have produced measured returns.
… We’re making good investments in District 3 on the philanthropic side. We probably have more public dollars … from both private developers and philanthropists, as well as the tax allocation district, than any other district.
I’m proud that we’ve been accountable with the use of those dollars. And you can see evidence of the returns on those investments.
And then the other part is, we’ve got to move these investments west. And [there’s] most recently the gift of Dan Cathy and the Chick-Fil-A Foundation of $5 million, Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola of $1.25 million and another $1.25 million from the city that’s being spent west of Joseph Lowery on real development, predominately to produce affordable housing, mixed-use development in an area where there has not been development there at the intersections of Chappell, Mayson Turner and Boone Boulevard adjacent to the City of Refuge.
We’re going to see a resurgence in that area in the coming months and years. And we are really going against the trends of what had previously happened. And I think it’s just a function of the advocacy where we’re really consistently advocating for Hunter Hills and Dixie Hills, in those neighborhoods west of Joseph Lowery, Washington Park, to benefit like Vine City and English Avenue.
Q: Over the last four to eight years, what’s something this Council has gotten wrong or failed to do?
I said it earlier, I still say, the Council, the administration, government, has not been open and as transparent as we could and should be. We need to do more of that.
I think a lot of the concerns by the public would be addressed if we would do so, because there’s a lot of good work going on. We’re deliberately going to create a process to ensure higher levels of transparency and engaging our constituents in a partnership rather than bringing out just outside sources that come in and fix.
We’re going to engage the stakeholders to be a part of the fix.
Q: Overall, bottom line what’s your pitch to voters? Why should people vote for you?
A: I’m an architect of 30 years. I am a man of God, I’ve been a functioning working deacon in a number of ministries in the westside.
And when I’ve produced projects in the private sector as an architect and a planner, I implemented those projects, and I’ve been doing that as a Council member.
So the real benefit of me is, you have a consultant who goes beyond just the realm of a legislative and a political agenda, that actually has the capacity and the experience to implement the change that many of them would like to seek in their communities.
Now when you have high skyscrapers challenging a neighborhood and the whole viability of a single-family home context is on the verge of total destruction, you have a Council member who is an architect, planner and construction manager, who works with those residents to protect the integrity of what should happen. When you have development that is nonexistent in West Midtown, you have an architect that understands.
But I think … what we’ve done to evolve our process is, we’re doing as much for people now as we are for buildings, and that we’re making significant strides to reverse the trends: not just for sticks and bricks but … investments in people.
You’re seeing change in early learning development, in education and workforce development that is really getting to the heart of concerns of ensuring that existing residents are part of the economic development resurgence.
We’re moving all of our communities to be on track. … The other evidence of those protections are the real effort I made to advocate through the Westside Future Fund for the anti-displacement [property] tax fund. …The fact that this tax plan is now presently being considered as a possibility for all low-income neighborhoods around the BeltLine … it started on the westside because that was a priority day one that we address gentrification.
And so when we could take the issues of displacement off the table because of increased taxes, there’s a lot less anxiety from existing residents and stakeholders about what is proposed.
Rich or poor, every family deserves to be able to conveniently buy groceries and attend good schools and to be able to benefit from quality park systems.
We’re building parks at unprecedented levels, we’re addressing all of those other issues. And so I think you know the old adage, “If it ain’t broke,” what is there to fix?”
I am by no means trying to suggest that I’m perfect. I think with the Westside Economic Development Collaborative that will seek to engage stakeholders, residents, of all District 3 neighborhoods in a part of their transformation process and advocate for what it is they’d like to see happen, I think we’re going to do things in District 3 haven’t been done anywhere in the city, toward building more transparency between government and the people.