Fort Mac’s inside deal with T.D. Jakes’ firm bypasses the communityLooking at one of the historic buildings at Fort Mac that's part of Tyler Perry Studios – blocked off by an 8-foot-high fence in 2019. The area in front of the fence is part of MILRA-owned land (Photo by Kelly Jordan)
By Maria Saporta
Here we go again.
The board of the Fort McPherson Local Redevelopment Authority is entering into exclusive negotiations with Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Dallas-based real estate firm to sell much of its remaining 132 acres.
Once again, the MILRA board is circumventing a public process to redevelop the former Army base. Instead of seeking proposals from developers around the country, it has decided to spend the next 45 days negotiating a deal with someone who is better known for his super-star appeal than his skills as an urban visionary developer.
It is reminiscent of how former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed circumvented the community master planning process and convinced the MILRA board to cut an exclusive inside deal with media mogul Tyler Perry. Perry ended up acquiring 330 acres of prime land with countless historic treasures for a bargain-basement price of $30 million.
In all fairness to Perry, he has developed a first-class movie studio with tremendous amenities for the film industry – but he has surrounded his property with a fence that keeps people outside on what had been publicly-owned land.
Since then, the authority did go through a public process to seek development proposals. After extensive community input, the board decided to go with developer Stephen Macauley, who over two years put together an ambitious proposal with neighborhood-oriented retail, mixed-income housing, (including affordable workforce housing) and commercial development.
Then Macauley faced several headwinds – including political opposition from the office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and her legal representative, Alvin Kendall. It also became apparent that Perry, who has the right of first offer, did not like Macauley, even though he endorsed the vision of that master plan.
Finally, in October 2019, the MILRA board decided to part ways with Macauley and buy him out (a settlement that ended up costing $3.5 million). At the time, plans were to start a new round of requests for proposals (RFPs) or requests for qualifications (RFQs) from firms interested in developing the remaining 132 acres.
“Ideally…I would like to see 2020 with a shovel in the ground,” MILRA Board Chair Cassius Butts said at the time. “That may be a high expectation, but it is my expectation.”
Now, 18 months later, little has taken place. For whatever reason, the board has not moved forward with another round of RFPs or RFQs.
The Fort Mac LRA “received an unsolicited proposal from T.D. Jakes Real Estate Ventures before beginning the RFQ/RFP process,” according to a spokesman for the authority, who was speaking on behalf of recently-named MILRA executive director – David Burt.
So, instead of opening up the process to developers around the country, the MILRA board decided to proceed with 45 days of exclusive negotiations with T.D. Jakes, who has yet to present the community any plans on what he envisions for the property.
It seems as though the process is all backwards.
Wouldn’t it make sense to ask Jakes and all potential developers to submit a formal proposal that could be vetted by the public, and then let the MILRA board decide (with community input) on the best vision for the property based on the most qualified development team available?
And wouldn’t it make sense for MILRA to urge Jakes or any development team to adopt and implement the Macauley plan – especially since the authority already paid for the work?
Here is my main concern. MILRA could enter into an agreement to sell land to Jakes and lose all its leverage to call the shots on how the property would be developed. In many ways, that would be a repeat of how MILRA (and then-Mayor Reed) let Tyler Perry call the shots on the use of his 330 acres.
In fact, Perry was also able to negotiate a “right of first offer” on any of the land outside his fenced-in 330 acres. That means Perry has tremendous leverage in deciding what MILRA will be able to do and which developer will be involved.
Meanwhile, Perry would like to acquire 31.5 acres of land adjacent to Tyler Perry Studios to develop an entertainment district that would be open to the public and outside the fence. It would include numerous community theaters, restaurants and a visitor’s center that would offer tours of Tyler Perry Studios.
“We haven’t even made an offer, and we haven’t submitted our plans,” Perry said in a telephone interview Thursday after MILRA board met. He also cleared up a misconception that he was working with Jakes on that development.
“We are not in partnership with T.D. Jakes,” Perry said. “But we look forward to seeing what T.D. Jakes is planning to do to see how it will complement our future development.”
MILRA Chairman Butts said the board is relying on the recommendation of its executive director – Burt – when it decided to enter into the 45-day negotiations with Jakes instead of doing an RFP.
“We think it is a step in the right direction, and we are looking forward to the next 45 days to work past the next hurdle,” Butts said in a telephone interview Sunday afternoon. “As you can imagine we are really trying to move forward with what this mission is all about and support southwest Atlanta.”
The deal with Jakes likely would be phased in with Jakes eventually owning the balance of the 132 acres, according to people familiar with the preliminary talks.
When asked why the board didn’t do an RFP, Butts said: “There are several ways to get to our destination. We put a lot of faith in the leadership. David Burt is very capable.”
Then Butts, who was not on the board during the deal with Tyler Perry, said he has sought to be as transparent as possible in his role as MILRA board chair.
“This process is huge on integrity,” Butts said. “I can’t be accountable for what has happened in the past.”
When asked about the similarities with the inside Perry deal, Butts said this is a different situation.
“We as a board feel very comfortable about where we are,” Butts said. “My hope is that people would have faith in this process. This next 45 days will be an integral step of where we want to go. We are going to take every option and do what’s best for the LRA and the community.”
From my perspective, Atlanta is enjoying one of its hottest real estate booms – especially for property inside the city limits next to two MARTA stations and near the Atlanta BeltLine. By comparison, think of Microsoft’s recent purchase of 70 acres on the Westside.
The Fort Mac land is one of the most attractive big parcels of real estate between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and it has much better access than the Microsoft site.
So, entering into exclusive negotiations with T.D. Jakes rather than open up the process to developers – either from Atlanta or outside the state – feels like a missed opportunity.
I can understand why the board would want to take an easy way out and work with an available, unsolicited suitor.
But the land at Fort Mac is too valuable an asset for Atlanta. We should seek the most attractive suitor in the market with robust community participation on selecting who that would be.
If the best option ends up being T.D. Jakes, fine. But we won’t know until we ask.