Atlanta City Council flexes its muscle – as power shifts at City Hall

By Maria Saporta

It’s a different day at Atlanta’s City Hall.

Although it is still early in her administration, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is emerging as a far different kind of executive than her predecessor – Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The most notable change is attitude. Bottoms is not the bully that Reed was.

Keisha Lance Bottoms thanks her supporters on Tuesday night. Credit: Maria Saporta

Keisha Lance Bottoms thanks her supporters on election night.Dec. 5 as then Mayor Kasim Reed looks over her shoulder (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The ongoing debate circling around whether to approve tax incentives for CIM’s development in the Gulch in downtown Atlanta is the best recent example.

If it had been Reed, he would have appeared before City Council on a Monday morning and insisted that he needed to have immediate approval from that body at their afternoon meeting.

Reed had an uncanny hold over much of the Atlanta City Council – many of whom were scared to do anything that would put them on the wrong side of the mayor. The wrath of Reed was real, and he used that power to make sure he could pass almost anything he wanted with limited or no public debate or discourse.

And several times he insisted that City Council bypass its normal committee process to approve mega-deals in a matter of hours rather than weeks or months.

About the only City Councilwoman who regularly challenged Reed was Felicia Moore, who continually advocated for legislation to go through the normal committee process and with a full public airing of the issues. It was not uncommon for Moore to be the sole councilmember to vote against a Reed-backed initiative.

Today, the dynamics have shifted at Atlanta’s City Hall. It has gone from a strong mayor with a weak council to a low-key mayor with a much more independent Atlanta City Council.

Atlanta City Council

The new Atlanta City Council pose for a photograph at City Hall in January, 2018 Credit: Kelly Jordan

Notably, Moore, the former outsider, is now president of the Atlanta City Council. In that role, she can make sure that due process is followed on major legislation.

Her power coincides with a group of new councilmembers, who are comfortable challenging positions that come from the mayor’s office. The new councilmembers are Matt Westmoreland, Amir Farokhi, Jennifer Ide, J.P. Matzigkeit, Dustin Hills, Andrea Boone and Marci Collier Overstreet. At the same time, several of the veteran councilmembers now are more willing to ask questions – not swallowing the administration’s edicts – without weighing the pros and cons.

Last week, eight council members – a majority of the body – co-sponsored legislation seeking an independent review of CIM’s proposed deal to finance the Gulch development.

This is definitely a new day for an Atlanta City Council that is flexing its legislative muscle – a power that is long overdue.

In the 40 years that I’ve been following City of Atlanta politics, I don’t remember a Council that has been this independent. Long before Reed, Atlanta’s mayors – from Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Bill Campbell to Shirley Franklin – knew how to count at least eight City Council votes and get them vote for their legislation.

the gulch

Our forgotten past disconnects downtown from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

So Bottoms, who is much more soft-spoken than Reed, is still finding her sea-legs as mayor. She doesn’t have an arm-twisting administrative staff that can push councilmembers to vote her way.

Bottoms, either by style or necessity, also is opening up the process to more public input. She has scheduled a public hearing on Wednesday to answer residents’ questions about the Gulch deal.

For those who miss Reed’s heavy-hitting mayoral leadership, get over it.

City Hall is the people’s house, and it is about time we go back to operating the city’s business in a more public and deliberative way.

So many of Reed’s deals raised unanswered questions – including suspicion of who was benefitting from those transactions. But sadly, City Council did not ask those questions. And now we are seeing the fall-out of the former absentee council leadership with a federal corruption investigation focused on the Reed administration.

It is premature to know whether Bottoms will be tainted in that investigation. We do know that Bottoms was Reed’s closest ally on City Council and that he strongly backed her mayoral candidacy. But since she’s been in office, Bottoms has distanced herself from Reed.

Now that we have a more engaged Atlanta City Council and greater public participation in the process, we all have an obligation to become informed about the issues involved in the Gulch deal and all of the city’s business dealings.

Atlanta City Council president candidate Felicia Moore on Tuesday night. Credit: Maggie Lee

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore at her victory party during the 2017 election (Photo by Maggie Lee)

The democratic process only works when people have an open mind and are educated about the merits of a deal. I call that civic literacy. If we are going to have a more active voice in the city’s business, we owe it to ourselves to know what’s at play.

Ideally, the end result will be an improved Gulch deal. Smart councilmembers should stand up for what they would like to see come out of the deal and make their vote contingent on CIM making adjustments to their project.

For starters, it would be refreshing for City Council to insist that CIM preserve the ability to have a multimodal station on the site of the Gulch and minimize the amount of parking that it is planning in its development.

Other sweeteners also could include more housing affordability, more public green spaces and a greater sensitivity to the historical urban fabric that the area has been missing for decades.

The Gulch deal provides a great opportunity for Atlanta to create a balance of power between the public, City Council and the executive branch.

Doing nothing should not be an option. I don’t think anyone wants the Gulch to remain as it is today.

So it is up to all of us to come up with publicly-infused Gulch plan – one that will benefit both CIM and the City of Atlanta.

Atlanta City Council

Members of the 2018 Atlanta City Council (Special: City of Atlanta)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

22 replies
  1. Julian Bene says:

    Maria,

    It is appalling that you are sitll promoting the Boosters’ line that the Gulch deal is merely about negotiating a few more crumbs – ‘sweeteners’ – in return for billions in foregone tax revenue for the city and schools.

    Why don’t you instead highlight the massive public cost and pitifully small public benefit of the most grotesque subsidy of a billionaire developer in this city’s history?

    Why do you think the residents of this city should contribute $5,000 per man woman and child to enriching the Resslers and Norfolk Southern? Because that’s what this thing would cost. (And that’s at 2018 prices, not some inflated number.)

    Why do you think paying for a privately-owned multi-office tower development in the Gulch is the highest priority for the public’s resources – apparently superseding your usual concerns for transit, affordable housing and improving equity? In what election did voters express that preference?

    When on earth did public money pay for some 40% of a development in return for zero public ownership?

    What is the mental block that prevents you from seeing this as the scandalous proposal that it is? Is it the decades in which developers have had their way at the expense of residents – but not nearly on the breathtaking scale of the Gulch giveaway?

    If you need help understanding the numbers, I’ll be happy to take you through them.

    Regards, Julian BeneReport

    Reply
  2. Mandy Lane says:

    Are you going to the meeting tomorrow, Julian? Would be great to have you there since you seem to have the most accurate understanding of the financial impact of the CIM deal.Report

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  3. Chris Johnston says:

    @ Stephanie McGarity
    The Gulch has effectively been on the open market since Terminal Station was demolished in 1970. A few more decades won’t matter.Report

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  4. Ann Walsh says:

    Listen to Juilan Bene! He is the smartest person in the room. This is a BAD DEAL for the taxpayers, and it was negotiated under Reed in violation of the City Charter Article 3, Chapter 1 Section 3-104 which states that “The mayor shall be the chief executive officer of the city and he or she shall have the power and it shall be his or her duty to (10) When authorized by the council, negotiate deeds, bonds, contracts, and other instruments and documents on behalf of the city and execute same after final approval by the council;”. This deal was never authorized by the City Council. This is an egregious abuse of power by the former and current Mayors to try to force the council to rubber stamp this deal. There exists a system of checks and balances for a reason, and this administration and this city council should be on notice.Report

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  5. Westerly says:

    Bene knows beans about this once in a lifetime opportunity for Atlanta! Never once does he inform readers that the city would not put up one damn dime but would receive $5B in new development, and only then repay CIM up to $1.75-$2B dollars! Again, only forgoing or paying once we’ve gotten $5B in NEW development and workforce housing!!! The Gulch has sat empty for forty years, there will be no better deal than what CIM is offering!! City council stop with all the grandstanding!!!!!Report

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  6. jon carlisle says:

    Gulch scenario WAS negotiated under Reed. It reeks, destined to be the next downtown Atlanta crime infested mess (see Underground). And speaking of law enforcement, Bottoms can’t seem to get out of her own way with bone head moves like returning Reed rag doll George Turner back to power at APD.Report

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  7. David Edwards says:

    Julian, you make it sound like every man, woman and child is being asked to cut a check of $5,000 to a developer in order to get this mini-city built. Putting aside whether this particular mini-city is worth developing, I think you know that such a characterization is deeply misleading.

    A more useful way of of thinking about is this: what amount of property taxes have we not collected on the gulch property for the past 30 years (since it was lying fallow and un-developed)? If you take that number and divide it by our population, you could just as easily say that this is what is has cost us on a per-person basis not to incentivize development on the site for all those years. You should just as vigorously be lamenting that loss of money as you are the loss of money that hasn’t been generated yet.

    When you put it in that context, you can ask the question another way: had this mini-city been built 30 years ago, would you willing in retrospect to commit the all property taxes that would have been generated over the past 30 years to incentivize that development? All those property taxes that we didn’t actually collect because the property lay vacant? The answer is clearly yes.

    TADs are always tricky because you have to predict what may or may not be developed in the absence of the incentive. That is impossible to know with complete certainty. If the answer is “nothing”, then the $5000 you are worrying about is actually $0, and we will continue to sport a large hole in the middle of our city.

    In the case of the Gulch, it strikes me that the case to use the TAD to fund the public infrastructure is a pretty good one. I don’t see a scenario where any developer will fund the development platform, street infrastructure, fire house etc for a project of this scale on their dime. Call that $500M.

    The rest of the request I assume is to fill holes in the developer’s pro forma. If I was still at the city, I would see whether the pro forma is realistic and then ask for a partnership in the deal. If the development is wildly successful, then the city can take dollars out of the deal to offset the loss in property taxes. If it is not successful, then your concern about billionaires making millions on the backs of tax payers will not come to fruition, and the city will no longer have a gaping hole in its center.Report

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  8. Julian Bene says:

    The Gulch TAD works so that the property tax on this project would not go to the city and schools but to CIM, for 30 years. A few years in, that will be $90mm a year that would line CIM’s pockets. If those offices are built anywhere else in the city the property taxes would pay for cops, teachers and affordable housing. Residents would receive nothing: the $5bn of office towers etc. would belong to the commercial developer, not to us. We’d just have paid for half of it.Report

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  9. Julian Bene says:

    David, It’s you who are looking at this the wrong way and misleading readers, as the mayor has also been doing. Office towers are going to be built in the city as needed to meet growing employer demand. The only question is where they go. In the Gulch TAD, where they pay no taxes for 30 years – or in the rest of the city where they do pay taxes for 30 years. So the Gulch TAD siphons off $2bn in property taxes for the 12mm sq ft that CIM is planning to build.
    Of course, everyone who’s in the tank for this lousy deal wants to pretend it’s complicated. It ain’t. It’s a giant ripoff that would cripple the city financially.Report

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  10. Chris Johnston says:

    Mayor Reed had dirt on every Council member and was willing to use it to get his way.
    Mayor Bottoms does not have dirt on every Council member and seems unwilling to use what dirt she has. Putting distance between herself and her predecessor is wise now.Report

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  11. Not playin says:

    Anyone that believes Bottoms has distanced herself from Reed, must not have seen how in multiple instances, she has covered Reed’s arse like skin….whether it’s corruption, annexations, “oral reports”, the convenient ransomware attack….

    the list is endless

    Marci and Andrea are hardly an impediment to Bottoms….Boone was groomed by C.T. and Marci occupies Bottoms’ council seat…

    surely they’ll be objective

    Concerning the Gulch….

    is anyone really buy Deal’s slight of hand card that Bottoms’ is all to willing to play…

    the claim that no property is currently be collected from the Gulch area (nevermind the current parking lots that are there) doesn’t give this deal a backhanded greenlight…..what is illuminated is the fact that should the deal go through, with a certainty, for 30 years taxes will not be collected…

    on a 5 billion dollar project….

    I must admit that I’m a little taken aback that the author of this article doesn’t see through the the facade of the new mayor…..Bottoms is considering bringing MORE outside counsel to determine whether Ivory Young Jr can vote while being absent from council….

    not to mention, Bottoms dropped the 680 page proposal on council on the Saturday night before she expected a vote…..by Monday/Tuesday of the following week…

    yeah

    her not no bully

    okay

    wolf(ess) in sheep’s clothing

    fits

    betterReport

    Reply
  12. David Edwards says:

    I am simply pointing out that a significant chunk of these TAD dollars are intended to support the development of the public infrastructure that will clearly be needed if the Gulch is ever to be developed. The balance of the dollars could be used as incentives with claw backs if the project outperforms its pro forma. There doesn’t need to be any “giveaway” if you structure the deal properly. I don’t think any one would object to CIM earning a reasonable rate of return on this investment as long as the city was a partner in any upside.Report

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  13. Julian Bene says:

    David, if Gulch infrastructure were the city’s top priority for using $2bn of school and city taxes it would have been the main plank in the Bottoms election campaign. That would have been a losing campaign, so the Gulch didn’t get a mention. The city has far more pressing needs than locating office towers in a place that has been doing no harm to anyone for as long as we all can remember.
    Anyway, your idealized version of a Gulch scheme where the public shares ownership in the asset is not what Bottoms is pushing on Council. Bottoms wants to hand the billionaires $2bn in property taxes and hundreds of millions more in sales tax, with crumbs in return.
    It’s the ugliest crony capitalism. It’s indefensible.Report

    Reply
  14. David Edwards says:

    Julian, you make it sound as if the city has $2B laying around and that it is choosing to hand it to a developer rather than spend it on schools or other priorities. You know as well as I do that this is simply not the case. Those dollars only exist if development occurs on the site. No development, no $2B.

    The city has a decision to make: is it willing to forgo some portion of the future property taxes derived from a specific set of parcels that currently generate little in the way of property taxes in order to catalyze development in a critical area of downtown that has lain fallow for decades. Certainly, one reasonable answer could be “no”. We have had this hole in the center of downtown for decades so who cares if we have it for another 30 years.

    But if the answer is that we want to close this hole and put it productive use, it is completely reasonable to use TAD dollars to fund the public infrastructure that will needed to develop those parcels. That is really what TADs are for and they have been used locally, regionally and nationally for that purpose very successfully. I would argue that the City should support that type of investment in the Gulch.

    The second question, which is the one we should be collectively focused on, is whether the city should be investing those prospective property tax revenues to support the private development on that site. I am simply pointing out that an investment partnership with the developer would be one way to ensure that this does not become the one-sided give-away that you fear. I understand that this is not the proposal on the table, but it certainly could be.

    I would argue that a good use of the time put aside by the City Council would be to at least explore whether CIM would consider a partnership on this basis. I put the question to you: are there a set of terms along these lines that would attract your support?Report

    Reply
  15. Chris Johnston says:

    I remind you that, some years ago, the City had a list of $1 biilion worth of decayed and decrepit infrastructure to be replaced. Mayor Reed said he could only afford to replace 1/4 of it, and voters passed a bond issue. After Council leached part of the bond proceeds out for pet new construction projects, only $150 million or so is to be spent on decayed infrastructure. More decay has occurred and prices have risen, so the list is now at or above $1 billion.
    That is where money need be spent, not on developer give-aways.Report

    Reply
  16. David Edwards says:

    Chris, this is where the confusion arises. There is not $1B (or $2B) laying around that people are suggesting we give to CIM rather than spend on public infrastructure. The money we are talking about only emerges if the Gulch is actually developed. If the Gulch does not get developed, then there is no money to spend on anything.Report

    Reply
  17. Michael says:

    David – this assumes that those properties would not be built elsewhere in the city. If the only two options for developers were to build in this plot of land or build entirely outside of the city, then yes there would be no money to spend if the gulch did not get developed.

    But that’s not the case. Heavily subsidizing development in this plot of land means crowding out investment elsewhere in the city. It means favoring development downtown over development in Midtown, West End, Buckhead and Summerhill.

    You could make arguments about why that may or may not make sense, but you can’t say that the tax dollars would not exist outside of the Gulch development.Report

    Reply
  18. David Edwards says:

    That is a fair but speculative point. There is no fixed amount of investment that the city will attract such that if it doesn’t go to the Gulch it will simply go somewhere else within the city limits. The city has to compete for that investment (in local, regional and national markets), and very often we lose (see Sun Trust Park and the Battery Atlanta as a case in point).

    In this specific case, it would appear that these private investment dollars are solely interested in the Gulch, and won’t simply shift those dollars to midtown or some other location.

    I still maintain that the city should decide whether the revitalization of the Gulch, with all of its direct and peripheral benefits, is worth the investment of scarce TAD dollars. I am would imagine that for those dollars dedicated to public infrastructure, the answer is likely to be yes. For other TAD dollars – and it isn’t obvious to me how much beyond the $500M for public infrastructure is actually TAD dollars versus state sales tax dollars – the question is whether that is a worthwhile investment and, if it is, can it be clawed back should the development outperform its pro-forma (and thus protect the city against the charge that it is enriching developers).

    The good news is that these are all analyzable and answerable questions should the City Council choose to dig into them.Report

    Reply
  19. A.B.Cooper says:

    Just returned from Rome Italy. Romans use their gulch for trains , some high speed, to other parts of the country. I went to Florence on one.
    Brilliant idea.
    And to be fair, Rome was the 1st super power , and created the idea of roads connecting them to the rest of the world, thousands of years ago.

    But hey,wait a minute, Hey, wasn’t Atlanta founded as a train stop? A Terminus..Shouldn’t we be able to do trains at least as good as other majors cities?
    Every real major city has a train gulch.Except Atlanta. Why not keep ours for future transportation growth. Quick trip to Savannah anyone?

    I remember catching trains in our gulch in the 1950’s.I remember Terminal Station from childhood. Walking to Rich’s via underground connectors and smelling the basement bakery with the cakes just out of the ovens.
    I rode a train to Ohio several times. In the colored section, naturally.But that was the 1950’s.

    In reality,we are but Atlantan’s . We don’t build on the past. We bulldoze it hoping the change works.

    But, still I miss the smell of the diesel that powers those great riding coachs & sound of steel on steel and the quiet rhythmic movement while watching a grand panorama through the windows.
    While in New York, London, Paris, Edinburgh, Rome, I have enjoyed the trains.
    But enough dreaming of history and it’s lessons. Back to I-285 traffic reports.Report

    Reply

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