By Maria Saporta
Something funky is going on at Fort McPherson – again.
This time it involves the 145 acres under the control of the McPherson Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority.
That is all the property the Fort Mac LRA has left over after selling 330 acres of the historic army post to filmmaker Tyler Perry for only $32 million in June 2015. Perry has since sealed off those 330 acres with an eight-foot high fence.
Speculation now is rampant that Perry is seeking to step in as master developer of the remaining 145 acres. Interestingly enough, five years ago, Perry had wanted to buy the Fort’s entire 488 acres but the authority at the time did not agree.
Since then, the Fort Mac LRA worked to select a master developer for the property it owned. Two years ago, the board selected Atlanta-based Macauley Investments to be the master developer of the 145 acres.
The real estate group has spent the past two years planning and designing the development – lining up relationships – including England’s Prince Charles through the Prince’s Foundation, building ties with the surrounding community, identifying development partners, getting the property rezoned and designing the various pieces of the proposed $760 million development.
On Thursday Feb. 21 of this year, the Fort Mac LRA board unanimously voted to proceed on a Master Project Area Agreement with Macauley. That agreement in principal was to have been hammered out and executed by the next LRA board meeting scheduled for March 7 – a move that would have given the developers a green light to proceed with the project.
But then something funky happened.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Sunday, Feb. 24 reportedly sent a text to Cassius Butts, the chairman of the LRA board, and to Brian Hooker, executive director of the authority, with a simple message: “Stop.”
Since then, the Fort Mac LRA board has not met, and the master agreement is hanging in limbo. Three board meetings that had been scheduled were canceled. A new meeting now is set for Thursday, July 11.
Although there haven’t been official public meetings, there has been a flurry of activity going on behind the scenes.
Most notably, the mayor’s “most trusted advisor” Alvin Kendall has entered the scene. (There are no documents showing Kendall as having an official role with the authority or the city, but clearly he is now playing a role).
Kendall is an Atlanta attorney who is a convicted felon. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1998 for giving his client, who was part of a drug ring, advance warning of up an upcoming legal search and seizure. After being disbarred for 15 years, the Georgia Supreme Court reinstated his ability to practice law in 2015.
Since then, Kendall has been working with the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority. He worked closely with Bottoms when she was the agency’s executive director, and he was deeply involved in the negotiations over the Gulch deal in downtown Atlanta.
Kendall convened a meeting in the Mayor’s office in March that included several key players – Butts, Hooker, Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, attorney Peter Andrews and the mayor’s staff, according to people close to the situation. Neither Macauley nor Bottoms attended that meeting.
That’s when Kendall told everyone he did not want Stephen Macauley to be the master developer – apparently because he is white – a sentiment he had expressed previously. There was initial pushback from Sheperd and Butts, but by the end of the meeting they seemed to acquiesce to Kendall and the mayor’s staff.
Now there’s speculation that Kendall is working on Tyler Perry’s behalf so the filmmaker can replace Macauley as the master developer of the LRA’s 145 acres.
People involved with Macauley’s development proposal said 90 percent of the partners for the development have been identified – and the project has minority participation of 48 percent.
“I’m very excited to be on the team, and I’m very excited that Steve asked us to be the general contractor on a major piece of his development.,” said David Moody, who founded the minority Moody Construction firm. “It’s a beautiful piece of property and his vision is awesome. Steve has put together a very diverse team. I’ve been very pleased with the diversity of the team.”
Bo Young, the son of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, also spoke on Macauley’s behalf. Young has an agreement to develop an aquaponic farm adjacent to the property that would provide fresh fruit, vegetables and fish to the various businesses and residents at the fort as well as the larger community.
When he attended a meeting of the other development partners, Young said most of those present were black and representative of the community.
Former Mayor Andrew Young also went to a couple of presentations. Ina telephone interview, Young said having 48 percent minority participation was impressive.
“The Atlanta Way is to make the pie big enough so everyone can participate,” said Young, who expressed concern about potential racial politics. “I think it’s something the community ought to be very sensitive about. It’s not just Fort Mac. It’s the whole image of Atlanta being a fair, multiracial, progressive city. Everything should be fair and transparent.”
Another development partner, Cecil Phillips, would build affordable housing on the first phase of the project.
“It’s going to be transformational, not only for Fort Mac but for the whole area within a five mile radius,” Phillips said of the Macauley deal. “It is going to be the jewel in the crown.”
The entire Macauley development will include a variety of 2,500 residential units – with 60 percent being affordable and workforce housing – a significant portion in perpetuity. That would make a significant dent in Atlanta’s goal for housing affordability.
“It’s puzzling that we have doing this for two years and nothing has happened,” Phillips said about the lack of progress since February.
On Friday, Councilwoman Sheperd offered her colleagues a tour of the property, including Tyler Perry Studios. During that tour, Hooker showed the councilmembers plans for the property, but he never mentioned Macauley as master developer.
In a statement, Stephen Macauley said:
“I speak for our entire team when I say that, alongside the southwest Atlanta community, we are very proud of the two years of work we have all invested in Fort Mac and the wonderful plan and social programs that support it, The community has had its hopes raised twice before only to see them unfulfilled. I sincerely hope that the delays we are now encountering do not lead to yet another disappointment. I am committed to working with the Fort Mac LRA Board and the city of Atlanta to bring the southside a truly world class development.”
Meanwhile LRA Chairman Butts, reached by phone Sunday afternoon, said a host of issues will be discussed at the July 11 board meeting “regarding the agreement and some of the relationships that have been put in place.”
Butts also added that several developers have expressed interest in the property.
“There is some frustration along the way in how long it’s taken,” Butts said. “I want to make sure this gets done in a proper transparent way. The citizens on the southside deserve to have input, and they deserve to know what’s going on in a very transparent process.”
In some ways, this is dejá-vu all over again.
When Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was in office, an extensive community-based planning process was launched – leading to the selection of a master development team for Fort McPherson – the Integral Group, Cousins Properties and Forest City.
But Franklin’s successor – Mayor Kasim Reed – apparently did not like composition of the team, a selection that had been made through a formal process. The mayor pushed to change the terms of the agreement – arguing that the developers would have to contribute $500,000 a year to cover the administrative costs of the LRA. The development team said that was not part of the bid proposal, so they back out (which likely was what Reed wanted all along).
Plans were still in place for a thoughtful development of the entire site with extensive community involvement. But all those plans were cast aside when Mayor Reed showed the property to Tyler Perry, who embraced the idea of moving his studios to the site – especially with the favorable terms he received.
During those negotiations, Reed put pressure on the LRA board to give Perry what he wanted (rather than looking out for the community’s or the city’s best interests).
That led to the public and the community being entirely fenced out of Tyler Perry Studio’s 330 acres – some of the most treasured land in the city of Atlanta.
So as the Fort Mac LRA board weighs the future of the remaining 145 acres, the question is simple. Is the current administration going to take a page out of Kasim Reed’s playbook or will it do right by the community?
We will find out July 11.
Note to readers:
After the Kasim Reed-Tyler Perry Fort McPherson sweetheart deal in 2015, I avoided writing anything about the project and the remaining 145 acres. It was just too painful thinking about the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” of the missed opportunity. Then, through the grapevine, I began hearing rumblings that history might be repeating itself. I felt I owed it to our readers and to the community to share what I’ve been hearing and to make sure we’re asking the right questions. The community got screwed the last go-round. Now I’m hoping we will have a different storyline the time around.
Here are some links of my previous Fort McPherson stories.
Photos below from Kelly Jordan’s current Seen in Atlanta Column: