Some cheers, many jeers, greet mayor’s push for high-stakes Gulch deal
By Maggie Lee
By the end of a roughly 90-minute public meeting at Atlanta City Hall on Wednesday night, two things were getting familiar through repetition: the city’s pitch for up to $1.75 billion in tax incentives for a developer pursuing a Gulch re-do; and opponents saying the people of the city ought to get a lot more out of the deal.
Now the question is whether Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms can rally the support the deal needs from a City Council that’s been skeptical that the city needs to give away so much to attract development.
What Bottoms and her allies support is a pitch by the CIM Group, a California-based developer. CIM is looking to buy the land in the Gulch and build it up to something like a small Atlantic Station: 12 to 15 blocks of residential, commercial and office space. Depending how big it’s built, the development cost could come to some $5 billion. But it wouldn’t cost CIM $5 billion. Instead, up to $1.75 billion of taxes that would be collected in a built-up Gulch would go to CIM to offset their costs.
And once CIM’s bills are paid, years down the line, governments would indeed collect full property and sales taxes from the Gulch properties, to work on roads, run schools and more.
But skeptical members of the public say that what the community gets out of the deal is not nearly good enough, compared to what CIM would be getting with a public sign-off.
Bottoms paints it as a win. “These are funds that don’t exist today. There’s nothing being generated,” she said. “If there’s no action taken … it would remain a hole in the ground and there would be no tax money generated and not even an opportunity to consider funding other initiatives, infrastructure needs throughout the city.”
But Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-up, a nonprofit with the mission of promoting economic justice and smart growth, said that other parts of the city need attention. So do other things in the city, like its broken sidewalks, residents who need job training, its schools, and its public transportation.
“The biggest concern,” Scott said ahead of the meeting, “is you’re talking about tax dollars being used for private development deals, which is a bad idea, particularly in an area that’s not really blighted.”
She called the Gulch deal economic apartheid: “It starves out the southwest side, the southeast side, the east side of atlanta that would normally, hopefully get some of this economic development.”
The list of things the city gets from CIM in return includes: $12 million for an economic development fund, $28 million for affordable housing subsidies citywide and some 300 or more below-market rate units of affordable housing mixed with market-rate housing. (Though the details about rents and other numbers leave some unsatisfied.) There’s to be a job training program that the administration says counts some of the top employers in the city, though details aren’t ironed out yet.
Laban King, who ran for Atlanta mayor as a long shot but fiery candidate last year, said that on the surface the Gulch deal looks great.
“But at the same time, it’s forgetting about the average person in Atlanta,” he said, pointing to proposed rents for the below-market-rate units that would be bankrolled by the developer, a measure meant to make sure Atlanta’s affordable for people all over the income ladder.
“When you’re saying that affordable is $1,000 for a studio, that is absurd,” King said after the meeting.
But like Bottoms and her team, the state sees it as a win too; though the state would forego its four-cent sales tax in the Gulch for years.
Atlanta needs office space, said Bert Brantley, chief operating officer for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, speaking to the crowd.
The more space, and the more types of space, the more options there are for companies considering Atlanta, he said afterward.
“In particular, office space with access to two transit stations, centrally located in the city, could be a great addition to our mix of offerings. Which is why the state Legislature approved the Downtown enterprise zone allowing for that sales tax recoupment in a project that is so heavy on infrastructure and fills a currently unproductive property,” Brantley said.
Of some 200 or so people crowded into the old City Council chambers for the meeting, maybe a few dozen wore red, or carried homemade signs for stopping the Gulch deal. Some shouted down the mayor and other presenters, demanding an end to gentrification, demanding more public input, a community benefits agreement and more.
For some, it’s hard to believe that the city will deliver on any affordable housing promise, especially after seeing the BeltLine running very late on its promises.
There also sat perhaps three dozen people in green t-shirts, or with “Greenlight the Gulch” stickers. That coincides the name of an ad campaign put on by CIM and is a phrase the mayor’s office has used. None of the folks wearing green or stickers approached by SR stopped to speak for this story.
But Erin White did want to talk about why she’s supporting it. She said she’s a west side resident, and came to the meeting because she was on the fence about the Gulch and wanted to learn more.
What sealed it for her?
“Right now, it’s giving us zero in tax dollars,” said White. The deal would generate something in taxes — and it would mean some cash for affordable housing.
Brionté McCorkle, an activist, community organizer and former Council candidate, speaking to SR earlier this month, said she thinks it would be better for the city to get ahead of big development projects like this with a to-do list, a checklist of what the city expects in exchange for incentives.
That list could include things like green space, walkablity, bike access, whatever the Council, the mayor and the community decide.
“Then we don’t have to get up in arms every time there is a development project,” said McCorkle, “because we’ve thought about this stuff in advance. The particulars would be worked out in every project, but the point is that we know the city would already have this comprehensive list of things.”
The next official Gulch action could come as soon as Monday, if the mayor asks Council to take action.
The deal would also need the approval of Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County.