Commentary: Underground Atlanta sale is a deal city can’t miss

T. Scott Smith

Developer T. Scott Smith is willing to invest up to $400 million to revitalize Underground Atlanta and its surrounding area. (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Intro: The city of Atlanta’s sale of Underground Atlanta to a developer from South Carolina for $25.75 million was supposed to have closed on Sept. 30. Instead, both parties delayed the closing until Jan. 15 because the complicated real estate deal has run into some hurdles.Mayor Kasim Reed describes them as “solvable.”

Developer T. Scott Smith is willing to invest up to $400 million to revitalize Underground Atlanta and its surrounding area.

And he is anxious to take ownership of the property. Right now his company is managing the Underground retail center for the city but receiving no fees for the work. That’s only one reason he wants the deal to close.

Smith also wants to begin developing high-rise residential towers, a grocery store and other retail on the above ground area while revitalizing the historic storefronts and old city that we know as Underground.

But the state of Georgia owns a parking lot that sits between Underground and Georgia State University ─ a key bridge for the project. The city promised it would acquire the parking lot from the state so it could be incorporated in the overall development.

But securing that parking lot has proven to be more difficult than the mayor originally thought.

Underground is one of several signature projects that Mayor Reed wants to get completed during his term.

It should be the first to get done. The retail and entertainment complex has been a drag on the city’s books for years. And it sits at what is the most significant intersection in Atlanta ─ where MARTA’s two main lines cross. It is the heart of Atlanta.

Because of long-held perceptions by Atlantans against the Five Points MARTA Station and Underground Atlanta, it took an out-of-town developer to see the opportunity of this nexus.

If this deal were to fall through, there’s no telling how long that would set us back as a city or as a downtown.

Mayor Reed does have a lot on his plate, with redevelopment of Turner Field and the Atlanta Civic Center. But the city would be well-served if he focused on solving the problems related to the Underground deal before he moves on to anything else.

This one is too important to let slip away.

Atlanta’s new planning commissioner should be allowed to plan

Tim Keane

Tim Keane

Original story on WABE

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Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced May 28 that he has selected Tim Keane of Charleston, South Carolina, as his new commissioner of planning and community development. The city has been without a permanent commissioner since last September, when James Shelby abruptly resigned. Atlanta has an opportunity with the selection of Keane, who still must be approved by the City Council.

Few American cities are as endearing as Charleston, South Carolina.

Its historic downtown. Its bustling sidewalks. Its active street life. All welcome residents and visitors alike to explore Charleston’s treasures.

Cities like Charleston don’t happen by accident. For nearly 40 years, Mayor Joe Riley has been improving Charleston’s quality of life with planning and community involvement.

A key member of Riley’s cabinet has been Tim Keane, Charleston’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability ─ a planner who has worked for the city off and on since 1999.

Now Keane is coming to Atlanta to serve as the city’s commissioner of planning and community development.

We would be well-served to let Keane do his job.

One of Atlanta’s major shortcomings in recent years has been its lack of visionary planning ─ especially given the major projects underway ─ the Civic Center, Turner Field, Underground Atlanta, Fort McPherson, Westside Atlanta and Sweet Auburn.

The biggest exception is the planning of the Atlanta BeltLine ─ an agency that is independent from the city’s planning department.

Because the mayor’s office is making most of the city’s development decisions, the planning department has become one of the least effective in the city.

The Atlanta Urban Design Commission, which oversees historic preservation and city design issues, is understaffed and underappreciated.

The neighborhood planning process, once a national model under the late Mayor Maynard Jackson, often falls short of true community engagement.

Most planning happens after the fact ─ after a developer has presented his or her plans to the city and after the mayor has decided what he would like to see happen.

Mayor Kasim Reed has often said he would like Atlanta to become a beautiful city ─ like Paris, like Chicago, like Washington, D.C. And yes, let me add, like Charleston.

But those cities didn’t become beautiful by accident. They were carefully planned as livable, walkable, enjoyable places to visit, work, play and live.

Congratulations mayor on hiring Tim Keane ─ a true planning expert ─ to join your team. So now let’s make sure we let him do his job.


toronto streetcar

Atlanta leaders travel to Canada for ideas exchange

toronto streetcar

Streetcars line up behind each other on a downtown Toronto street (Photos by Maria Saporta)

More than 100 Atlanta leaders are in Toronto, Canada this week.

It’s part of the annual LINK exchange – when municipal heads travel to other cities to meet the people who run them.

Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report is in Toronto with the delegation. She told Amy Kiley what Atlanta leaders are learning up North.

Original Story by Maria Saporta on WABE

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Tobacco tax

Tobacco tax hike could raise half the $1 billion needed for transportation: Health care advocates

Six health care organizations are calling for an increase in the tobacco tax to help pay for statewide transportation improvements.
Raising the tax to the national average would bring in about $500 million a year, one lobbyist said. That represents about half of the $1 billion Georgia lawmakers intend to raise through the current proposal to raise money to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure.


Ga. 400 south, approaching I-285

Legislature: Transit funding to be protected despite issues with Georgia Constitution

The author of the proposed $1 billion statewide transportation legislation said Thursday he is committed to ensure that the bill will fund transit, despite issues with the Georgia Constitution.
“In the bill, we talk about dedicating money toward transit,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla). “We realize that you can’t dedicate [funding to transit] without a constitutional amendment…. Unfortunately, within the bill, I can’t put something in for the budget.”

I-20 East, east of I-285

Discord over transportation funding proposal has a familiar ring

Georgia’s continuing debate over transportation funding shows that it may be possible to displease a lot of the people most of the time.

The current proposal, House Bill 170, has triggered so much comment that it’s already grown from eight pages to 14 pages. This much revision in a bill is uncommon, especially in a bill that has only been aired at two subcommittee meetings, most recently on Monday.

New study of Georgia’s school funding questions state’s ability to provide skilled workforce to business

A new report on state funding for K-12 education raises some challenging questions about Georgia’s ability to provide a skilled workforce to businesses – especially in areas beyond metro Atlanta.

School districts are coping with funding cuts through measures including trimming days from the school year and assigning more students to each teacher, according to the report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. School budgets are squeezed by shrinking state support and by the declining local tax base caused by the recession, the report states.

Even as school districts are strapped, the Georgia Department of Economic Development is touting Georgia’s workforce development policies including its support for charter schools, pre-K programs, HOPE scholarships, and strong public technical schools and universities. Georgia has adopted common core standards in math and language arts, and allocates extra funding to districts that provide gifted programs, according to DEcD’s webpage.

Georgia taxes: New report contends “Fair Tax” would hurt hurt – not help – families, businesses, economy

A report released today on Georgia’s tax structure fuels a debate over proposed tax reform that advocates are increasingly pushing for the 2014 session of the state Legislature.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute issued a tax analysis that contends the proposed “Fair Tax” reform would raise taxes on and hurt Georgia’s “families, businesses, communities and the economy.”

The report follows a promise made last month by an advocacy group that said it would help convince Georgia voters to approve a fair tax. The campaign would be similar to the one it waged in favor of 2012 charter school amendment, according to Americans for Prosperity.


Column: City of Atlanta toots its horn in Fortune special section

By Maria Saporta

Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, March 8, 2013

In the current issue of Fortune magazine, Atlanta has a 22-page spread just in front of the “World’s Most Admired Companies” — perhaps one of the most coveted spots in the publication.

To celebrate the promotional placement, Fortune invited top Atlanta CEOs and civic leaders to the Commerce Club on the 49th floor of the 191 Peachtree building on March 4, where they were able to witness how the city has grown over the years.

Atlanta City Council set to grill stadium advocates on why city should help finance it by extending hotel tax

Advocates of a new football stadium are to get a chance Wednesday to try to convince members of the Atlanta City Council that the city should help build a new facility.

The work session, set for 11:30 a.m., will be the first real opportunity for councilmembers to engage the advocates. Councilmembers already have raised questions about how neighborhoods around the stadium could benefit from its construction and operation.

Without the council’s support, Atlanta’s development authority likely won’t be able to borrow enough money to help build the stadium. No funding source other than the city’s hotel/motel tax has been publicly identified to fill the gap between what the NFL and Falcons are willing to pay, and the actual cost of construction.


Plan for big changes at MARTA receives little push-back, except from union; ready for vote at Capitol

The most significant proposal in decades to reform MARTA is sailing through the legislative process at the state Capitol and could be up for a vote in the House as early as next week.

So far, no serious objections to the proposal have been raised in public by MARTA or the three governments that control MARTA – Atlanta, and Fulton and DeKalb counties, though union has voiced concerns. The sponsor said the bill intends to help MARTA serve its current and future riders.

“I hope that the bill is received in the way it is intended – and that is to improve MARTA’S financial conditions so that we can, hopefully, see some future expansion of the system,” said Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), who chairs the MARTA oversight committee.

Comedy or tragedy? Fulton legislative meeting heralds new era in county politics, government, civic theater

The latest act in the civic theater that is Fulton County began Thursday in a crowded room on the fourth floor of Georgia’s Capitol.

Republican lawmakers sat quietly while an hour’s worth of speakers protested Republican proposals to change what has been the natural order of the county – at least, it was the natural order before Republicans took effective control of the county’s legislative delegation this year.

The chorus in this case could do little to relieve tension, but the 75 who gathered certainly helped establish the mood. There were few smiles among the crowd of lawyers and lobbyists, community advocates and union reps, preachers and seniors – many of whom are familiar faces at meetings of the county commission and Atlanta City Council.

The ethics dilemma: How to get doing right, right

It seems to be a matter of widespread agreement that the best thing about this year’s legislative session is the pace at which it’s clicking along. The General Assembly is on track to adjourn on the earliest date in years, which gives citizen legislators more time to make a living and unnecessary, often bad bills less time to sprout and grow.

So how has this beneficial improvement come to pass? It’s hard not to credit it at least in part to one of the most widely deplored deals in years: the arrangement by which former Senate majority leader Chip Rogers left the legislature to take a job with Georgia Public Broadcasting at a salary of $150,000 — more than the yearly salary of the governors of 40 states, including Georgia. A pretty penny, but it was deemed to be the price of removing the logjam in the state Senate, paving the way for the speedy passage of the hospital bed tax and a short session.

Open U.S. Senate seat could have a domino effect on Georgia politics

For a few politicians and political advisors, the past few days have been filled with rapid fire text messages and battery-draining cell phone calls about the biggest news to impact metro Atlanta in quite a while — the 2014 election to replace retiring U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss.

The first — and only to date — polls released jointly by political consulting firms H.E.G. and Apache just hours after the announcement already has Georgia Republicans and Democrats strategizing on how to ensure their party secures the open seat.

Gov. Nathan Deal, State of State, 2015

Gov. Nathan Deal: Would be nice if legislature didn’t have to vote on Falcons stadium-GWCCA bonds

By Maria Saporta

Gov. Nathan Deal confirmed Friday morning that the Atlanta Falcons and the state are exploring options that would not require approval from the state legislature.

But Deal said it is too early to know whether that would be possible.

“We are sort of in a waiting period right now,” Deal said after a press conference announcing a major expansion of AirWatch’s operations in the Atlanta region.

Atlanta audit: Lax records of $128,000 gift card program likely means no sanctions likely

Atlanta city departments have spent at least $128,000 on gift cards for city employees to boost their morale, and record keeping was so lax that there’s no way to tell if there were any wrongdoing, according to a new audit by the city auditor.

The audit – to be presented formally on Tuesday to the Atlanta City Council – makes two recommendations to get a handle on the situation. The responsible parties agree with the recommendations: The COO and commissioner of human resources in one instance; and the COO and chief procurement officer in the other.

The gift card program was intended to raise morale among city employees during an era when they had gone for years without raises, according to comments by city COO Duriya Farooqui that were posted on in October.