By Maggie Lee
A tough cross-examination looks likely at Atlanta City Council for a plan to spend up to $20.5 million for about three acres of a proposed expansion of Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Council members who heard the details of the proposed land purchase from Atlanta Parks and Recreation Commissioner Amy Phuong and other staff on Tuesday didn’t turn it down, but the Community Development/Human Services Committee didn’t endorse it either.
After nearly an hour-long hearing, the committee sent it to full Council with a lot of questions and no recommendation.
“I believe it will be a transformational and consequential project for Piedmont Park itself, that serves several neighborhoods across the city,” said Phuong.
But committee Chairwoman Natalyn Archibong and some of her colleagues suggested that city staff gather up and share more information explaining why up to $20.5 million, including sales taxes raised for sewer works, should be spent on one transaction for a single park.
What Phuong and others presented was an idea to spend that money to acquire nearly three acres of land near the south corner of Piedmont Avenue and Monroe Drive. About half the money would come from Atlanta’s transportation sales tax. The rest would come from the BeltLine, parks impact fees and the city’s sewer sales tax.
Though the city wants the entire south corner of the intersection, the transaction on Council’s plate only speaks to acquiring two parcels that underlie most, but not all, of the retail on the corner. The little shopping center that it covers would stay open for the moment, with the city as landlord.
As part of the proposed expansion, the private Atlanta Botanical Garden also wants to expand onto several parcels further southwest on Piedmont Avenue.
In committee on Tuesday, leaders of both the garden and the Piedmont Park Conservancy gave short testimony in favor of the proposed city spend and the expansion in general.
The idea of an expansion of Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden was first announced by then-Mayor Kasim Reed late last year. That expansion would “lift the curtain” on the park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, giving them a “visual stage” that they never had before, Reed said at the time.
He said at the time that the works would cost $100 million and that philanthropies would contribute $80 million. The city would pay the balance, $20 million.
Mary Pat Matheson, president and CEO of the garden, said the expansion would include an opportunity to do a regional butterfly house.
In committee on Tuesday, Council Member Joyce Sheperd said she loves Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden and visits them often.
“But we also have to look at … what’s equity for everybody,” she said, urging a look at making sure there are great destinations all over town so everybody doesn’t have to go to Midtown for events.
She suggested that with less than $20 million, Lakewood Amphitheater in her part of town could get an overhaul that would make it a major destination too.
And indeed, that was one theme of the questioning from several committee members: since money’s not endless, what makes the purchase of commercial land in an expensive part of town a better deal than any one of a number of other projects in other places?
One answer is the philanthropic matching money. Reed said in December that not doing the deal risks leaving $80 million in philanthropic money on the table.
When Reed announced the idea last year, the then-mayor-elect Keisha Lance Bottoms appeared at his side to endorse it, saying that generations of Atlantans would be able to enjoy an expanded park. But she’s also among those who have pointed out that some parts of Atlanta have more parks than others — her own Cascade-area NPU has no parks at all, she said on the campaign trail.
The full Council could take action on the proposed transaction as early as Monday.
A video of the committee hearing is online; the Piedmont and Monroe portion begins after about two hours.