Murphy Crossing plan heads to public meeting with affordability and transit questions
By John Ruch
The redevelopment concept for Southwest Atlanta’s huge Murphy Crossing site is heading into an Oct. 6 community meeting without previewing such basics as a site plan and budget and amid concerns about housing affordability and transit connections.
The community also has much to learn about the lead developer, Arizona-based Culdesac, Inc., which has slim development experience but connections to several tech companies, such as Lyft, that apparently could benefit from Murphy Crossing partnerships.
The development team said a site plan will be presented at the upcoming meeting, but it appears other aspects will remain low on detail at this preliminary stage. The Oct. 6 meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Create ATL at 900 Murphy Ave.
Culdesac is leading an Atlanta-based team that includes Urban Oasis Development, which is known for affordable housing and whose principal, Joel Dixon, lives in the area. The team was announced last month as the finalist for the 20-acre site at 1050 Murphy Ave. in Oakland City by Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI). ABI acquired the site along the BeltLine’s Westside Trail in part for redevelopment to help meet its affordable housing goals. A prior development proposal fell apart in 2020.
The selection of Culdesac has been met with widespread positivity from such community leaders as J. Lawrence Miller, who heads the neighborhood association Adair Park Today and led the Murphy Crossing Coalition, which pushed ABI on community-focused redevelopment goals.
“Let me start with a word I’ve been told ‘don’t use’ by people who are smarter than me, and I don’t care. I’m excited,” said Miller following a Sept. 26 virtual meeting introducing the team. “I’m not cautiously optimistic, I’m excited. Because of the [local] partnerships they have.”
So far the team has only very broadly outlined its redevelopment concept with low-detail illustrations and rough-draft numbers — around 800 housing units, 180,000 square feet of retail space, and 150,000 square feet of office and light industrial space. Affordable housing and retail spaces are part of the concept.
In last month’s meeting, Dixon pitched the lack of site-plan information and other details as part of the “unique” opportunity for community input to be baked into the project. However, Dixon later told SaportaReport there is a site plan that will be revealed at the October meeting and implied that ABI’s process thus far prevented its revelation. ABI chose the team around July or August and informed selected local leaders, including Miller, while keeping the selection generally secret and carefully rolling it out with an embargoed press release and the meet-the-developers September meeting.
That didn’t sit well with Matthew Garbett, Adair Park Today’s land-use committee chair and co-founder of the ThreadATL urbanism advocacy organization. In a Sept. 28 letter to the developers and officials, it called it “unacceptable” that the public could not review the site plan and other details prior to the October meeting.
“… [H]ow do the neighborhoods of Adair Park, Capitol View and Oakland City prepare our residents for the first community engagement meeting on October 6th with no information?” he asked. “It took the BeltLine an entire year to evaluate the proposals. And yet the people that live here are supposed to judge the proposal on the fly during a meeting and formulate questions?”
Miller said he talked with Garbett about those concerns but that he personally would have been “disappointed” with such details at this stage because the talk would have gone “into weeds” too soon.
On the other hand, Miller is also among those awaiting more details on such issues as deeper housing affordability in the project. The current concept calls for making 30 percent of the housing units affordable, with 25 percent of those permanently discounted and 5 percent locked in for at least 30 years. The rate would be 60 percent to 80 percent of the area median income, essentially meaning middle-income.
In last month’s meeting, Dixon characterized that as “attainable BeltLine living.” He later told SaportaReport that the developers have currently identified only private funding sources and will seek public sources later. As Miller notes, public funding could help to deepen affordability rates.
Another pitch from the developers is that the plan’s intent to provide the possibility of “car-free” living could save enough money for lower-income households to afford the middle-income rates. Culdesac is currently building such a community in Tempe, Ariz., where offerings include a pass for unlimited public transit use, a free specialty membership from the car-hiring service Lyft, on-site electric vehicle rentals, and an electric bicycle repair shop with discounted rates.
Culdesac cited an estimate from the Center for Neighborhood Technology that car-driving costs the average metro Atlanta household around $15,000 a year, and the estimates for the Murphy Crossing area are a few thousand lower. However, Culdesac did not respond when asked if it would actually allow tenants or buyers to subtract transportation costs from their income when leasing or buying Murphy Crossing units. The company also did not answer a question regarding what happens to car-free residents if such partnerships fail or expire.
Public transit uncertainty
A significant related issue is the future of public transit to a site that could have thousands of new residents and many businesses. The BeltLine is intended to have some type of transit service yet to be determined, but there is even less detail on how that might connect to Murphy Crossing. And the Murphy Crossing Coalition pressed for more MARTA connections, such as an infill station.
Miller, the coalition leader, said that “my concern is there is little or nothing in meetings that I’ve been to so far about this transit-oriented development about transit. MARTA has failed us over and over and over again.”
“Our team shares these concerns around access to transit and multi-modal infrastructure with our neighbors as well,” said Dixon. He said the team hopes to spur conversation with MARTA, ABI, the City and the community by “enabling it with a site plan that encourages this investment in multi-modal transportation at Murphy Crossing and the surrounding area.”
MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher responded briefly, only saying that a Murphy Crossing infill station is not on its current program list and that MARTA is increasing its local bus services to pre-pandemic levels.
ABI spokesperson Meghann Gibbons said MARTA was not involved in the Murphy Crossing developer selection but will be invited to join a “Technical Advisory Committee” as the planning continues. She also noted that ABI expects to have a consultant working by January on a study of transit on a large segment of the BeltLine between Bankhead and Lindbergh Center stations that will include the Murphy Crossing area.
“With the Culdesac project now announced, the transit study can consider transit connectivity more specifically at that site,” Gibbons said.
Tech company influence
While Culdesac is generally described as a car-free community developer, its three-member board consists of tech company leaders, including co-founders of Lyft and the food delivery service DoorDash and an executive from the house-buying service Opendoor. The DoorDash co-founder is now a partner at a venture capital firm whose investees include the grocery delivery company Instacart. Several Culdesac executives and managers, including co-founder Ryan Johnson, also worked for those companies, particularly Opendoor.
Culdesac did not directly respond when asked whether it or the Murphy Crossing project were intended to promote or otherwise benefit any of those outside companies but implied they are part of the car-free concept. Culdesac said that its mission is building more walkable neighborhoods and that “our goal is for residents in Culdesac neighborhoods to have access to the best services available.”
Some of those outside companies have been involved in public debates about the tech industry’s impacts on the housing market and the gig economy. Opendoor is a prominent outside investor in local housing markets, including Atlanta, a trend that is part of discussions about gentrification and housing cost inflation. Opendoor in August agreed to a $62 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it misrepresented to home-sellers that the service would make them more money than the traditional market; the company denied the allegations. Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have been targets of various controversies over alleged misclassification or underpayment of workers.
ABI’s mission includes addressing racial and income inequity and housing affordability issues around the BeltLine. Culdesac did not directly respond when asked how the community can be assured, given the influence of those tech businesses, that it has a genuine interest in affordable and equitable development. However, Urban Oasis is involved in such projects locally and is playing that role on the Murphy Crossing team.