The top four Atlanta mayoral candidates had four distinct answers on what the single most important issue they would face as the city’s next mayor.
But the same four candidates seemed to agree with each other while answering most of the other questions posed at a mayoral forum Thursday evening.
The forum was hosted by the Urban Land Institute — Atlanta District Council, at the 999 Peachtree St. building in Midtown. It was ULI’s 4th annual Mayors Forum kicked off by Jeff DuFresne, the Atlanta District’s executive director.
So what will be the most important issue that the next mayor will need to tackle?
Atlanta City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell said it will be the handling of the city’s finances.
“If you’re not focused on finance, you can’t do anything about public safety, the streets or clean water,” Mitchell said.
For Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, transportation tops the list, especially from the stand-point of sustainability.
“We’ve got to get our transportation house in order,” Norwood said, adding that it needs to be addressed both inside the city and throughout the region.
State Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta) said the key issue will be restoring the city’s finances to pay for police and fire personnel.
“Nothing else matters if you have a city that’s unsafe,” Reed said. If public safety is not addressed, then citizen will move out of the city and visitors will stop coming to Atlanta.
Atlanta attorney Jesse Spikes, a partner with McKenna Long Aldridge, said the most important issue will be management and those who will serve in the next administration.
“You can talk about finances and public safety, when it comes to how we fix that, it really comes down to people,” Spikes said, adding that will take having the best people in place to provide the best services.
Then moderator Otis White of Civic Strategies asked each of the candidates a series of questions on transportation, the Beltline project, the Peachtree corridor, density and urban redevelopment, particularly in struggling areas.
In talking about transportation, Norwood endorsed the city’s first transportation plan — Connect Atlanta.
Reed, who had just come from the legislature, stressed the importance of getting new transportation funding, saying he preferred the Senate’s proposal of a regional one-cent sales tax.
Spikes said that Atlanta’s current transportation problems stem from not having fully implementing MARTA in the 1970s and limiting the service to the city of Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties.
And Mitchell said mobility must begin in neighborhoods by building and repairing sidewalks, which is a responsibility of city government. He also said it was important to seamlessly serve all modes of travel from pedestrians, transit riders to automobile drivers.
All four candidates supported both the Beltline redevelopment as well as the Peachtree Corridor.
Reed, however, said he would like to speed up the timetable for the Beltline rather than having it be a 25-year project. Spikes said needs to upgrade its bond rating so it can better finance these redevelopments. Mitchell said both projects would improve the “connectivity” in Atlanta by offering residents and visitors more transit and housing options. Norwood agreed, especially while talking about the Beltline, but she cautioned that a Peachtree streetcar would be hard to implement particularly in Buckhead and Midtown.
White then asked the candidates whether density was desirable or inevitable.
Spikes said Atlanta must do all it can to preserve its green space, and to do that, the city will need to “tolerate some increased density.”
Mitchell said it really boiled down to having “smart density.” Government benefits when there’s a higher density because there are more taxpayers contributing to the city’s coffers, he said.
Norwood said “density is inevitable,” so it is important for the city to direct new development to under-used commercial corridors and transform those areas into vibrant and walkable communities.
Reed, however, did not view more density as inevitable. If Atlanta doesn’t deal with the issues of public safety and public education, fewer people will want to live in the city.
So what can the next mayor do to guide development towards less desirable communities in the city?
Mitchell praised the use of tax allocation districts (TADs). Norwood said it was important to clean up communities before developers will risk investing in those areas. Reed said the city could create a process that would make it easier for developers to invest in those areas. Lastly, Spikes said developers are willing to take risks building in rougher areas, but the city can create an environment that welcomes the best ideas.
Mitchell did offer one closing suggestion, that developers check out the following city website: www.atlantaemergingmarkets.com to discover new opportunties.
These four candidates currently are viewed as the most serious contenders to succeed Mayor Shirley Franklin.
But that could soon change.
As I report in today’s Atlanta Business Chronicle, Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders is expected to announce next week that she is re-entering the mayor’s race.