Proposed Gulch redo draws questions at first Atlanta City Council review

By Maggie Lee

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms went to Atlanta City Council on Tuesday to make the case that a proposed Gulch rebuild with heavy public incentives is a good deal. A nearly three-hour Council work session revealed some agreement with that, but a lot of skepticism too.

Bottoms and folks from her administration arrived at Council on Tuesday with a presentation. One of the slides shows the hole Downtown known as the Gulch transformed from a below-grade parking lot to something that looks like a smaller Atlantic Station: 40 acres’ worth of new city blocks and buildings. In charge of that transformation would be the CIM group, a developer that’s acquiring parcels in the Gulch.

A proposed rebuild of the Gulch would start with a platform to raise the site to street level. Credit: Kelly Jordan

A proposed rebuild of the Gulch would start with a platform to raise the site to street level. Credit: Kelly Jordan

But big, complex developments like that don’t follow the same procedure as someone building a house or store. There are negotiations. And asks.

CIM has asked for several things, according to the administration’s presentation. The headline one is financial, up to $1.75 billion for the development. That cash today would come from pledging some of tomorrow’s sales and property taxes that would be generated in a built-up Gulch.

The developer needs four pieces of legislation filed earlier this month to pass for the deal to go forward as proposed. Atlanta schools and Fulton County would also need to approve, since they also levy taxes.

The presentation didn’t include details on how various estimates were made. For example, retail and hotel space is “projected” to generate $35 million to $50 million in sales tax revenue annually, but there are no footnotes on what size hotel, what occupancy rate and what room price are assumed to generate that.

And several councilmembers asked if the city can even pledge more property taxes in this way, or if it’s subject to a cap.

Bottoms told Council that they would be given more information as soon as possible.

So with that background, here are some themes that will probably come up as Council considers legislation:


How about a multimodal passenger terminal —  a big station for buses and Amtrak, right there on MARTA, too?

“That is not a consideration in this plan,” said CIM VP Shannon Crowell.


The development idea has its fans.

“I’m excited about the possibility of this development,” said Atlanta City Councilwoman Cleta Winslow. “For the last 30 years this area has been devoid of any type of development,” she said. Which means it’s been worth pretty much nothing in taxes for city, county or school operations.


But foregoing taxes to spur development in special zones across the city (called TADs) has an impact on city finances, said Council President Felicia Moore. It may not be a direct spend, it’s not the same as writing a paycheck to a police officer. But yet a police officer will need to patrol this development. Somebody’s got to pay.

“The city of Atlanta, we need to look at what we’re doing with TADs because our property tax assessments are going up and not down, people are being hit with high tax bills and we continue to roll back our taxes [city rates] because we don’t want to add additional burden to citizens. That’s not going to get any better, that’s only going to get worse,” Moore said.


How big would the development be? More, and maybe many more, Bank of America Plazas-worth of office space; plus retail, residential and hotel space. The presentation suggests four scenarios: four, eight and 12 million square feet for the Gulch. The most variable is office space: 1.8 million to 9.3 million square feet. By way of comparison, the Bank of America Plaza counts 1.3 million square feet.


That would amount to a lot of new space, in a city that has some existing vacancies.

“CIM doesn’t create any demand for office space, retail or anything else. They meet a demand. That demand could be met in taxable parts in the city or in TADs which provide benefits,” said Julian Bene, an outgoing member of the city’s development authority board.  He also said the presentation underestimates the amount of money that will bypass the public purse. He puts the figure at $2 billion.


The administration said it’s negotiating for public benefits. As presented, the development would include 200 “affordable” units (at 80 percent AMI, per administration testimony. That means priced for families that make about $60,000 per year.) The city and developer are looking at a benchmark of 38 percent inclusion of minority and female business enterprises and some targets for hiring Atlanta residents for construction.

The fine print:

Gulch Development Plan Presentation, from the city of Atlanta

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

6 replies
  1. dlw says:

    For this amount of funding, the zero mile post marking the spot where three railroad lines converged in 1847 to create the metropolis of Atlanta can be put back in its original place and open to the public.Report

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Gentry says:

    Are children allowed? I don’t see anything about making Atlanta a better place for families with children. Looks like more of the same from the bird’s eye view. Where is some inspiration? From this I gather that the Peach Drop is more important than a safe, natural place for children to play and teenagers to have a safe place to hang out, get exercise, do their homework in nature….. Inspire me, please.Report

    Reply
  3. atlman says:

    I 100% agree with the lack of things to do in the city for kids. Being family-friendly and kid-friendly has never been a priority for Atlanta, which is one of the reasons why so many relocate to the suburbs, or never choose the city to begin with. Years ago there was this “FanPlex” idea for now-defunct Turner stadium that had a lot of activities for kids, but that venture was a massive failure. A LEGITIMATE criticism of the city and its politics – as opposed to some of the other stuff above – is that it has never made children and families a priority, from real steps to improve education to activities. The city’s politicians and activists have their attention … elsewhere. DeKalb is another thing. They used to emphasize it more and have more offerings, but they have lost interest in such matters also lately it seems.Report

    Reply
  4. V. Thaxton says:

    It seems that Council President Felicia Moore makes a good point. Once this project is up and running and public funds are being used to repay the TAD bonds (maybe for decades), where will money come from to pay for the public services (like police, fire, schools, libraries, roads and transit) that this huge development will need?

    APS already has a huge responsibility or task working to improve and maintain the literacy and test scores of its students, the future citizens of Atlanta. It is important to make sure that unnecessary additional financial burdens are not placed on the system in the future.

    Multimodal transit hub does seem like something worth considering especially in light of the need for the city to reduce its carbon footprint not to mention air pollution and emissions. And what about the sustainability aspect of this project? Should that not also be considered especially if public financing is being requested? Should the city not examine how the developer can make the building more green? Examples are a roof top garden, ways to retain water on the building site, such as cisterns etc. Georgia Tech has an amazing model of how buildings can be built in this way: the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons; not to mention, the Visitor Center at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

    The last question is how much public financing is really needed to get this project up and running? Is $1.75 billion to $2 billion dollars really needed? Is it possible to finance this project at a lower or no cost?

    The Council member made a good point that property taxes and sales taxes are already high or rising rapidly. And if money is being used to repay TAD bonds and therefore can not be used to pay for the city services, this district will need, then who gets stuck with the bill? It could very well be taxpayers outside of this district and that is not fair and what does that do to diversity and inclusion in the city when there is already an underlying inequity and inequality to begin with?

    Which leads to another question, what about living wages, will the workers on this project be guaranteed a living wage and what about the service workers of the future? Will they be given a living wage? It is applauded that affordable housing has been taken into account but wages must also be considered as well.

    To sum up, this project really needs to be thoroughly vetted before the public, and very carefully considered so that the city does not run the risk of making serious mistakes that will affect its future generation of citizens.Report

    Reply

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