Fort McPherson – Atlanta’s greatest (missed) opportunity
The second of two columns about the pending sales of 330 acres at Fort McPherson to Tyler Perry Studios: Part two: The redevelopment of Fort McPherson – the (missed) opportunity of our lifetime.
By Maria Saporta
A city stands and falls on the decisions and vision of her leaders.
All too rarely, a city has an opportunity to make a decision that will set its future course for generations to come.
Fort McPherson is such an opportunity for Atlanta.
The now-closed U.S. Army base is a jewel of 488 acres – nearly three times the size of all of Atlantic Station. It has some of the most beautiful historic buildings and tree-lined green spaces that can be found anywhere in Atlanta.
It sits between two MARTA stations strategically located half-way between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The entire property had been appraised in early 2014 as being worth more than $100 million. Yet the U.S. Army has agreed to sell all but 10 acres of the property to the McPherson Implementing Redevelopment Authority (MILRA) for only $26 million.
A forward-thinking city administration would seize the opportunity to control the future of this special property – guaranteeing Atlanta residents that they would get the highest quality redevelopment possible for both the former base and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Such strategic investments have been made before.
Consider the Atlanta BeltLine. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin invested $66 million to buy the 66 acres that is now the Eastside trail. Although one could argue whether the city paid too much for the land, today nobody questions whether it was the right decision for Atlanta’s future.
Mayor Kasim Reed proudly touts the Atlanta BeltLine’s economic and quality of life benefits. But the project never would have happened had the City of Atlanta and former Mayor Franklin not made a strategic investment to secure control of the property.
David Edwards, who served as Franklin’s deputy chief operating officer, pointed to another example.
“Let’s look at City Hall East,” Edwards said. “At the time that we contemplated moving out of that building, no one was lining up to buy that property either. When I first put out feelers on what the market would be for the building, the only interest came from broker representing Walmart. They were interested in the parking lot on North Avenue, not the actual building. We probably could have sold that property for a pretty good price, but we felt that by doing so we would completely undermine our ability to sell the big building. For the sake of the vision for a robust, mixed use development there, we decided to sell the parcels as a package.”
But to implement its vision, the City had to make two major investments – find a solution to the storm water problem that caused flooding in the building’s basement and relocate the city’s departments housed in the old Sears building.
Edwards said the city secured “more than $100 million in public funding to enable the Ponce City Market development – a 16-acre site – to occur.”
Today Ponce City Market has become one of the hottest real estate properties in Atlanta, city residents got a new park with a water feature that doubles as a storm water basin, and the transformation of Poncey-Highlands and Old Fourth Ward is well underway.
“Now look at Fort Mac. What public investment has been identified for this site?” Edwards asked. “None. For a property that has arguably much more potential, and certainly a larger area of impact than City Hall East, the City hasn’t found a dime.
“Somewhere along the line, people got the notion that Fort Mac had to somehow self-finance itself. That never made any sense,” Edwards continued. “The city should have purchased and developed the parkland and green space and used that investment to attract private dollars into the rest of the property. That’s how City Hall East worked; that’s how the Beltline works. It’s how all of these efforts should work.”
Had the City acquired Fort McPherson, worked with a master developer and redeveloped the property strategically, the city easily would have made its money back several times over.
Plus the City would have ended up with a magnificent new event space for mega-festivals like Music Midtown without damaging and disturbing Piedmont Park and the surrounding densely-populated communities.
Fort McPherson is so phenomenal because it is a ready-made community – hungry for living and breathing residents, businesses, neighborhood retail with all the amenities so desired by those living nearby. A movie house, a bowling alley, a former grocery store, a post office, beautiful homes and residences available for people of all income levels to move in.
Fort McPherson can and should be so much more than a fenced-off movie set that locks out everyone around it. Selling 330 acres for a mere $30 million to Tyler Perry is an idea that has been ramrodded by Mayor Kasim Reed, who seems to be working on behalf of a friend rather than the people who elected him.
Decisons matter. Leaders matter. Vision matters.
The Atlanta of 10 years to 20 years from now will rise and fall with the choices we make today.
Please – let us make the right one before it’s too late.
Note to readers: Last week’s column examined why the Fort McPherson – Tyler Perry studio deal was such a bad deal for our city.
At the end of the column, I wrote a note saying I knew these columns would put me on Mayor Reed’s enemy’s list. What he fails to realize is that I’m not at war with him. I am at war with the misguided deal for Fort McPherson that he has been forcing through the system. Rather than discuss the merits or short-comings of decisions facing Atlanta, our mayor attacks people who are brave enough to disagree with him.
After I wrote last week’s note, I was surprised by how many people agreed with me about Fort McPherson and how many people are getting weary of the mayor’s heavy-handed leadership style.
If we really want what’s best for Atlanta, it’s time for people to let the mayor know how they really feel and give him an opportunity to adopt a new leadership style for his last two years in office. Mayor Reed’s legacy depends on it.
And a good place to start is Fort McPherson – the greatest (missed) opportunity of his administration.
Thank you all for your support.