Sale of city-owned Civic Center land to AHA raises serious questions

By Maria Saporta

When the City of Atlanta sold the 19-acre Civic Center site to the Atlanta Housing Authority for $31 million, the deal occurred with virtually no public involvement.

It was a deal struck by two public officials – Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Catherine Buell, president and CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

at City Hall on Tuesday, at the announcement of the Civic Center sale closing. Credit: Maggie Lee

(R-L) Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Atlanta Housing Authority President and CEO Catherine Buell and AHA Board Vice Chair James Allen at City Hall on Tuesday, at the announcement of the Civic Center sale closing. (Photo by Maggie Lee)

Doing deals with minimal public participation has been the norm of this administration. Think Fort McPherson, Underground Atlanta and Turner Field. The administration will argue that there was public involvement with Turner Field, but that happened only after the deal was cut with Georgia State University, Carter and Oakwood Development.

The Civic Center deal with AHA – done with less than two months to go in the Reed administration, brings up serious questions regarding the city’s public policy. According to the Reed administration, an important feature of the deal was to increase affordability and workforce housing in the city. About 30 percent of the units in the project are supposed to be affordable for lower-income residents.

But did it make sense for AHA to spend $31 million of its reserves to buy 19 acres of land owned by another public entity?

Consider an alternative scenario.

The city could have put the property back up for bid with the contingency that at least 30 percent of the units had to be affordable. The city could have sold the property for $31 million, gotten the same percentage of affordable units. And AHA would have kept its $31 million, which it could have used to co-develop affordable housing on the 300 acres of land it currently owns.

It is estimated that about 250 affordable housing units could be built for $31 million. And if AHA had leveraged that amount with private development and other governmental entities, it easily could have doubled the number of affordable housing units.

Civic Center

Civic Center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

So was the Civic Center-AHA deal in the best interest of the greater Atlanta community? Has anything actually been accomplished by shifting the project from the City of Atlanta to AHA?

You can draw your own conclusions.

But there are still several other questions that need to be answered – and the community needs to be at the table from here on out.

Should the Civic Center and its adjacent buildings be preserved and incorporated within the new development?

Will this deal keep the property off the city’s tax rolls given that AHA is a public entity?

Will the site be redeveloped to include a park-like water feature to solve the property’s storm water issues?

Should Southface, a treasure when it comes to green building in Atlanta, be allowed to purchase land under and around its headquarters? (Southface is a national model of how a building can operate with a minimum amount of energy and water).

How involved will Southface be in helping make sure the development follows green building practices?

Will the development preserve the trees on the site?

Civic Center

Civic Center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Will the master plan for the site include other urban amenities, such as wide sidewalks and plazas and parking garages hidden from view?

Will the project be barrier free – open to the public to enjoy? Or will it be another gated community?

What kind of design standards will be used to make sure it’s a quality development?

How will the development relate to surrounding properties ­–  improving the communities that surround the Civic Center?

Should there be a design charrette – conducted by a smart growth organization such as the Urban Land Institute?

When will the surrounding neighborhoods be able to weigh in on the design process?

And will the “affordable” units actually be available to lower-income families or just slightly less expensive than the prevailing market rates?

These are questions that should be engrained in our psyche when any development is being proposed in Atlanta. And when property is owned by a public entity, it is even more important for the public to be part of the process.

Civic Center

The Civic Center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

But early indications do not bode well for Atlanta.

On Tuesday, AHA held a specially-called meeting right after the Mayor’s press conference announcing the sale. It appears that the agenda was posted at 5:52 p.m. the day before. It was not on the site at 4 p.m

A lease with Southface was on the agenda, but apparently no one informed Southface of the specially-called AHA meeting where it was on the agenda.

(SaportaReport has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General on the grounds that AHA did not provide adequate open meetings information).

Clearly, this is a deal that should have been left to the next mayor, who could have made it a public process and collaboratively answered all the previously mentioned questions.

Whatever happens going forward, it is my hope our next mayor will have a different approach towards development and public involvement.

The citizens of Atlanta deserve an open, public process on the development of prime properties in the city.

Atlanta and its leaders, including the next mayor, must embrace public engagement and participation so we can be sure developments create a vibrant and equitable city.

Southface

An aerial view of the Southface complex on the edge of the Civic Center property (Special: Southface

 

Civic Center plaque

Plaque commemorating the building of the Civic Center in 1967 (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. JC says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights Maria. I’ll credit the Reed administration with many things, but inclusive community engagement is not going to be one of them. The issues you presented could be summed up as “good urbanism”. This is the overarching issue that drove so many eastside Atlantans to Cathy Woolard’s campaign, and I still don’t think that either Norwood or Lance Bottoms quite get that yet.Report

    Reply
  2. Wormser Hats says:

    1967, huh?

    Wouldn’t that put the mid-century facilities at the age of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places? Has Reed really consigned the city to another monumental historic preservation battle for a performing arts venue?Report

    Reply
  3. John R Naugle says:

    Maria, your social-action example is formidable and an inspiration to many. It should be easy for anyone to deduce that your ‘serious questions’ in this article, and in all your articles, are rooted in promoting what is best for all our citizens — what Dr. King called ‘the Beloved Community.’

    Kudos to you for having the courage and willingness to publicly deliver those hard & serious questions. They are especially pertinent at this time. Your example helps others to be constructively urgent so the health and future of our city is protected. To us, you are proactively observing the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s historic speech: “A Time to Break Silence” (1967-2017) wherein he proclaimed:

    “This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all… Let us love one another… We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.”Report

    Reply
  4. Julian Bene says:

    Yes, this deal should have had much more scrutiny and competitive bidding.

    The overarching issue should be that the city’s residents gain maximum benefit from assets and resources that they have paid for. In this case, first, how much are the 19 acres really worth? Property around there has sold for $5mm per acre since the closing of Peachtree-Pine shelter. Say 2 acres are worthless because of the drainage challenge, leaving 17 acres salable. It’s not impossible that the Civic Center site is worth up to $85mm, which would mean someone is making out like a bandit on this $31mm deal, with a profit of up to $50mm. Without proper competitive bidding we can’t know.

    Second, what subsidy is reasonable for 250 affordable units? The Beltline housing strategy of a couple of years ago calls for a subsidy of $35,000 per unit to achieve affordability. At that rate, 250 units would warrant a $9mm subsidy. That leaves a lot of change from a price that could be $50mm below market.Report

    Reply
  5. Frances Hamilton says:

    The Civic Center could easily be made vibrate again from Atlanta’s pool of incredibly talented historic revitalization architects! Look at Ponce City Market and the West Side, the energy of the past woven into the energy of the future has a wonderful complexity that can not be rivaled and is incredibly profitable!Report

    Reply
  6. shirley says:

    Thanks for your coverage about yet another development the Reed administration has negotiated without much Council oversight or community input. It is true the deals might not be bad but they are not likely nearly as good as they good be for the long term benefit of the taxpayers, residents and businesses of the adjacent neighborhoods or long term planning goals of the city. Sunshine brings light to all the issues and gives creative people a chance to move a good idea to great. I vote for SUNSHINE.Report

    Reply
  7. David Bennett Mcmullin says:

    This is the same kind of shenanigans that resulted in a plan to build a multi million dollar parking garage in grant park, using up ten percent of the acreage of the park and cutting 130 trees. There was no public information or buy-in, no design effort put toward a better solution and the community organization weren’t asked for approval – only told that it was going to happen. I’m sick of this city’s shady dealing.Report

    Reply
  8. Bruce C Gunter says:

    Contrast this approach with the one the City of Decatur is taking in regards to their recently purchased, 77-acre United Methodist Children’s Home site–numerous public meetings are baked into the process at the very beginning. Such a process ensures transparency, valuable input, and eventual use of a public asset by the public.Report

    Reply
  9. Greg Hodges says:

    After reading just the first two sentences of Maria’s report, I was reminded again of the lingering stench from the ‘sale’ of Ft. McPherson.Report

    Reply
  10. Tim Hollis says:

    After having several conversations with the developer, Weingarten and Invest Atlanta regarding the initial proposal, plus a horizontal SAP presentation to the Downtown DRC, the proposal was nixed by Mayor Reed. Reed is/was the chairman of the Invest Atlanta Board of Directors. All of a sudden a deal is announced recently involving the AHA without any conversation with community stakeholders. Shame on you Mayor Reed. Your legacy will be that you are a BULLY!

    …and do not correct my grammar.Report

    Reply
  11. kthixon says:

    The civic center is in terrible condition and will take millions to bring it up to proper standard. It has gone through 20 -30 years of neglect. Well known artists have refused to perform there because of the poor condition and vermin. That being said, there is nothing to stop the housing authority from selling the property or building on it if that’s what they choose to do. I don’t see the controversy here.Report

    Reply
  12. Not playin says:

    For Sale

    Mercedes Benz Stadium

    has a horrible sound system for concerts, vermin (and I’m not talking about he who collects all the receipts from it) and roaches to boot,and it hasn’t gone through 20 or 30 years neglect….

    nevermind

    AHA will buy itReport

    Reply
  13. atlman says:

    I remember when Maria Saporta wrote columns demanding that Hawks GM Danny Ferry be fired, claiming that he had little to do with the Hawks success and that the organization and team were both strong and would do fine without him. How’s that take looking now? It is easy to advocate for things when you have no accountability or responsibility for how they turn out.

    The same goes for here. Saporta has been a longtime critic of the property sales of Reed administration, choosing to side with “neighborhood activists” who had other hopes for the properties. Yes, that was HOPES. The reality: those properties had no other buyers. No one wanted to buy Fort McPherson. No one wanted to buy Underground Atlanta. No one wanted to buy the Turner Field area. No one wanted to buy the Civic Center. The “neighborhood activists” continued to cling to delusions that if they waited long enough, surely someone would come along and hand them the redevelopment plans that they wanted on a silver platter. The Turner Field activists actually stated that they wanted the city, state and feds to spend hundreds of millions of dollars making their area “as nice as Buckhead” – but without the property tax increases that would force them to move.

    So what would have happened as a result of listening to these folks? Fort Mac, Underground Atlanta, the Civic Center and the Turner Field area would have gone unsold and undeveloped. Just as they have been for decades.

    As for the Civic Center and Underground Atlanta, the previous succession of mayors going back to at least Andrew Young didn’t lift a finger on those because they didn’t want to confront the activists. (They let the pensions issue linger and fester, threatening the city’s credit rating and financial future, for the same reason. MARTA and police/public safety issues? More of the same. It took Mary Norwood nearly riding those issues to victory in 2009 and the state threatening to privatize or shut down MARTA around the same time to finally create a political climate where those could be addressed. And we aren’t even going to talk about the issues with the tax assessor’s office OR THE SCHOOL BOARD.) Any of the better, more neighborhood inclusive, more progressive etc. ideas than merely selling them off to developers that will build gentrifying condos and shopping areas could have been done in all that time, they weren’t, so they chose to allow those areas to remain crumbling eyesores and blights that the city still had to pay taxes – and public safety resources – on them.

    As for Fort McPherson, the federal government tried for years to sell the property and didn’t get a single entity willing to bid on it, even for pennies on the dollar and did not attract a single bidder. Then it was transferred to the city, who also did not attract a single bidder for years. Then Tyler Perry agrees to buy it and everyone screams “corruption.” All right, who else was going to buy it? No one. And if no one was going to buy it, what was the city supposed to do with it? How much was it going to cost? And who was going to pay for it?

    Look: imagine if Mary Norwood had won in 2009. Had she tried to unload the Civic Center, Fort Mac, Underground and Turner Field she would have been called a racist. So she wouldn’t have gone near it, just as the succession of prior mayors didn’t. And Reed’s successor would also have sat on them in order to avoid the criticism that Reed has gotten. So he made unloading these properties a key goal of his administration PRECISELY BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE WAS GOING TO DO IT. Either you were going to have left wing activists honestly believing that “the government” was going to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into those areas if they just waited long enough, or conservatives who resent the fact that people who look like Reed get to be mayor in the first place and insist that anything and everything that they do is part of some plot to make money under the table (while completely ignoring or excusing it when the Bush family, Trump family and – in this state – the Deals and Perdues actually do precisely that … the next GOPer to complain about the millions that the Perdues made as a result of decisions made when Sonny Perdue was governor EVEN AS THE STATE ECONOMY WAS IN SHAMBLES will be the first).

    Well hey, people get the government that they deserve. And it certainly looks like the city of Atlanta deserves to have a bunch of areas in it with crumbling infrastructure that are magnets for graffiti and crime, as well as losing sports franchises like the Hawks, because the price of actually doing anything to solve them are higher than certain people would like to pay. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a problem with Norwood winning. But it is only because Reed has already done the heavy lifting of dealing with the pensions issues, making huge progress on the Beltline, helped secure MARTA expansion and an infrastructure bond issue, keeping the Hawks and Falcons from following the Braves and Thrashers into the suburbs or out of the metro area altogether, engineering the hiring of actually competent people police chief, MARTA head and school superintendent, and selling off some of the most problem areas of the city to private developers. That will allow Norwood to sit back and represent her Buckhead constituency while taking credit for a city that is now growing economically, has much better infrastructure, improving schools, a better bond rating/higher reserves/better overall financial picture, big employers moving intown instead of decades moving to the suburbs or locating there from the beginning, a growing population, a much lower crime rate, etc. that was accomplished by her predecessor. But had she or any of the other people who ran in 2009 or ran this year won back then, almost none of that would have been accomplished. The amazing thing is that none of the Reed bashers seem to care because it is almost as if they wanted the city to keep spiraling down to where places like Detroit, Birmingham, D.C. etc are or were until recently (D.C. joined Atlanta in making a comeback in large part by electing mayors similar to Reed beginning with Anthony Williams, and yes Williams and his successor Fenty had a lot of the same attacks aimed at them by the D.C. locals that Reed gets … now everyone takes D.C. being a successful city with moderate pro-business mayors for granted and have forgotten all the tough political and economic battles that Williams and Fenty had to fight and win to turn the city around … before Fenty and Williams, D.C. activists claimed that Congress needed to “invest billions” into the city to turn it around … sound familiar?).

    Not saying that the city can’t and shouldn’t do better than Reed. But my issue is that everyone seemed to like the succession of mayors who were far worse on economic development, financial, public safety, education, infrastructure etc. issues a lot better despite the fact that most of them were really no better on corruption issues either (and in fact some of them were worse).

    But hey, maybe the city will start electing people that will make Saporta and company happy. When that happens, don’t complain when people and companies go back to moving into Cobb, Gwinnett and Forsyth … just like they did from the time Maynard Jackson was elected right until Reed was elected. That is right. Nearly 40 years of declining population, lowering tax base, fleeing businesses, crumbling infrastructure, rising crime and dysfunctional city agencies often unable to so much as deliver basic services, let alone deal with emergencies. If that is the city that you all want to go back to … the way things were from the mid-70s until around the early part of this decade (save for brief boom during the post-Olympics “Hotlanta” era that went bust, leaving the city worse off than it was before) then go ahead. You will deserve it and I hope it will make you happy.Report

    Reply

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