By Maria Saporta
For those who feel he is moving too fast or recklessly in selling the city’s real estate assets, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said Tuesday that they should set their minds at ease.
“I’m very confident we have the expertise – my team has the expertise of doing this,” Reed said, listing a number of projects that the city has worked on – Buckhead Atlanta, Ponce City Market and EUE/Screen Gems Studios at Lakewood. “We did all of these things with the help of the private sector and the Atlanta Committee for Progress,”
Later Reed said he wanted “to address any uneasiness” that people may have about the speed of some of the proposed sale of the city’s real estate — Underground Atlanta, the Civic Center, Turner Field and possibly Fort McPherson, which is a unique case because it is still owned by the federal government.
Reed said the city is not moving faster than what it is capable of doing.
“A lot of this stuff should have been done a long time ago,” Reed said. “This stuff should have been done. We’re going to keep doing it and do it quickly. We’re going to do it quickly and do it right.”
At Tuesday’s briefing, the mayor was responding to recommendations that had been presented to him by the Commission on Waste & Efficiency, which included members of City Council, city employees as well as business and civic leaders.
Reed’s goal has been to find ways for the city to save money and generate new revenue so it can support annual payments on a $250 million bond referendum for infrastructure improvements without raising taxes. Reed said those payments would be about $16.5 million a year, and he is looking for savings or revenue totaling about $21 million so he would have a cushion.
The purpose of the those infrastructure bonds has been to improve the city’s quality of life by investing in projects that are above the street (as opposed to sewers that are underground). The mayor said the city is seeking input from communities throughout the city on how those infrastructure bonds should be invested.
The mayor, however, was asked whether there was any way the city could leverage the public assets it was selling to stipulate for quality of life features in the proposed developments, such as wider sidewalks, green space, street-level retail, plazas with attractive public art, bicycle amenities, welcoming urban design?
Or was the city going to just be selling its property to entity willing to give it the most money?
Although the mayor didn’t answer that question directly, he did say that he would listen to ideas from the community and is open to ideas that would create a higher quality of life in the city.
As an example, he mentioned that when former City Council President Cathy Woolard was concerned about the lack of design standards for developments springing up around the BeltLine, Reed listened. Now design standards will become part of the BeltLine process.
The mayor also stepped back from earlier comments he had made in the briefing when he had said the city would explore opportunities of putting up billboards in public spaces as a way to generate income, saying that Chicago had been able to generate about $12 million a year from selling billboard advertising
“The Council is not going to let us do anything around billboards – that’s crazy,” the mayor said, implying that he had meant a much smaller scale advertising program. “We have got to figure out how to pay for this.”
Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson endorsed both the mayor’s policy of selling off real estate assets and the city’s tempo of getting those deals done as soon as possible.
“I think the evidence is over-whelming that the mayor has done a tremendous job of transforming city property,” Anderson said, highlighting the Ponce City Market, which had been a mostly vacant building with broken windows and is now becoming one of the most popular spots in Atlanta.
The same can also be true of Underground and the Civic Center, Anderson said. The city can take property that is underperforming, they can be revitalized and put back on the city’s tax rolls. Those are all positive for the city.
After the Tuesday briefing, Anderson was asked if he felt the city was following a structured process in how it was disposing of its real estate – one that had enough public oversight.
Anderson said that he was comfortable with the process because he said the Atlanta City Council would be providing oversight throughout the process.
Mayor Reed actually mentioned what might be the most important lever throughout this whole phase of the city selling off its assets.
“One thing I’ve learned about politics is that the system only takes so much before it begins to regurgitate,” said Reed, who did not give any indication of when that moment might come.